(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Todd VanDerWerff watches a week of The Young And The Restless. Next week, Steve Heisler pops in on one of the last episodes this season of the number one new comedy, Mike & Molly.)
It’s strange how pop culture gets attached to specific times and places in our minds. Well, I mean, not really. That’s how memory works, after all. But I’ve always found it intriguing that sometimes you can remember nothing about a movie’s plot or technical merits but everything about how you saw it (I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Chamberlain, S.D., winter of ’98, opulent theater hidden behind a video store, tried to make out with my girlfriend but she was really into what was onscreen for some reason), or how you can’t even hum a song that was once popular but can remember when it used to pop up on the radio (Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” always played by the roommate of a girl I was friendly with who later became my wife). Television, of course, is no different. You can be obsessed with a show and remember none of the particulars. The experience can be more fun than the actual art.
I’d seen several weeks worth of The Young And The Restless before writing about it for this project. I remember nothing about them, beyond the villainous and vile Victor, played by Eric Braeden. Young And The Restless, for me, will always be about the one week I spent every summer with my grandmother up in the “big city” (which had but 10,000 people but seemed effortlessly cosmopolitan to me). She watched it every morning, just before lunch, and it was one of the few television shows she watched. This seemed nuts to me, since she had CABLE and 50 CHANNELS and why wouldn’t she watch EVERYTHING? But she’d park herself in front of Young And The Restless, and she’d watch, and she’d always tell me about how when Victor came on screen, my grandfather (who was no longer with us) would hiss at him, so reprehensible was he. Then we'd boo and hiss, a ghostly connection to a man we both missed. This may be why I remember Victor so well.
To my grandmother, Young And The Restless was utter trash—and she never failed to tell me as much—but it was involving and entertaining for her, even if she wasn’t sure I should be watching it at such an impressionable age. (I’m always reminded of the old woman in the Simpsons episode “Three Men And A Comic Book,” who settles in for her stories and says, “Filthy… but genuinely arousing!”) For me, though, the show was all bound up in long, lazy summer weeks of going to a library filled with more books than I’d seen in one place in my life and swimming in a giant pool and sleeping until 10 a.m. if I wanted to. The show became less about its particulars and more about my grandma, and that meant that I always had a certain fondness for it, even if I never watched it, because I liked my grandma, and she liked it.
Imagine my surprise, then, to find that The Young And The Restless is STILL the number one soap opera on the air, after over a truly amazing 1,000 weeks since 1988! That kind of longevity just doesn’t exist in the TV game anymore, even in the sections of the network schedules that change rarely, like the evening news or even the morning shows. The Young And The Restless dominates the other shows in its particular category, and its fanbase is smaller than, say, the fanbase for NCIS, but it’s absolutely rabid. (When I started Tweeting about watching the last week of the show, they all, seemingly, FOUND me.) But there’s a catch to all of this.
The catch is this: The soap opera, as I’m sure you’ve heard, is dying. ABC recently canceled two of the remaining six soaps, and both All My Children and One Life To Live, with histories stretching to the 1960s, will be leaving the air in September, leaving just General Hospital (ABC), Days Of Our Lives (NBC), The Bold And The Beautiful (CBS), and Young And The Restless (also CBS) running. Which of the big three is the first to abandon the soap opera game altogether is one of those open questions in the business of TV trendspotting, and all of the networks seem to be in an elaborate game of chicken over who will drop either their last remaining soap or their evening newscast first. (For the record, Days Of Our Lives has almost been canceled so many times that it seems unlikely to live that much longer.) Soap operas have a rich, storied tradition stretching back to the days of radio, when they were specifically created to sell products to housewives (hence the “soap”), but that history has been eradicated by the rise of cable, the rise of other daytime programming, and the fact that so few Americans are stay-at-home ANYthings anymore.
Despite any attempts to modernize, then, the daytime soap is essentially very similar to what it was decades ago (or so I’m told; very few classic soaps exist in readily watchable form). But where the audience used to consist largely of bored college students, older people, and, especially, housewives, the third leg of that stool has largely disappeared, and college students have never been reliably counted by the Nielsens. (When I was in college, my group of friends went through a brief thing where we all got together to watch the now-sadly-canceled Passions daily, but I’d wager we never turned up anywhere in the Nielsen data. Ah, Timmy. Those were the days.) This leaves old people. And if there’s an audience modern TV can’t stand, it’s old people. My grandmother died about a year ago, but she’d been watching Young And The Restless SINCE THE BEGINNING. She knew all the ins and outs. She knew who was who and which characters had which histories with which characters. For as much as we talk about the sophisticated character webs modern dramas weave and how little older viewers wish to engage in them, soaps were creating these giant casts of characters and asking viewers to keep up.
Now, I’m overselling this a bit. After watching a week of The Young And The Restless, I’m not entirely sure I followed EVERYthing that happened. (One character, for instance, seemed to meet with her dead lover in a cemetery a couple of times, in a strange, Gothic twist, but in Friday’s “cliffhanger” episode, he picked up a cell phone to call someone else, so clearly something ELSE is going on here, though I have no clue what.) But I caught most of what was going on with a little judicious Googling, Wikipediaing, and soap opera recap reading. (I have no idea how people caught up with the show’s complicated histories before the age of the dedicated soap recap sites.) And in most cases, the show was able to fill in the broad strokes just enough for me to play along even without those sites. I wouldn’t have known all of the relationships between the various characters arguing about which man had fathered a woman’s baby without the Web sites, but the show repeated the phrase “the baby might be Neil’s?!” often enough to let me know that this woman did NOT want to be having Neil’s baby.
So I was more or less able to keep up with what was going on, but I clearly didn’t have any sense of whatever rich history these characters had going on. Victor popped up for a couple of episodes to glower enjoyably, but he didn’t really DO anything, which left me even more at sea. What’s more, the show kept tossing new characters into the mix. In Monday’s episode, I was reasonably involved in the story of the woman possibly carrying Neil’s baby and the story of Kevin, a man who’d been kidnapped by his ex-wife, Jana, and locked up in—I shit you not—an abandoned daycare center. The story of Kevin’s girlfriend and mother searching for him to prove he was innocent of kidnapping a baby and then handing it off to a baby brokerage (at least, I think that’s what happened; there were multiple kidnapping plots, and I may have gotten them confused) was less involving, but what are you gonna do?
Then Tuesday’s episode dawned, and the Kevin plotline basically didn’t appear AT ALL. The Jana and Kevin stuff—the stuff I easily found the most interesting because of how insane it all was—didn’t appear. Instead, we got some boring business with Victor, then some business with a bunch of other characters involving an upcoming wedding involving even more characters I didn’t really have any investment in. Now, obviously, the point of a soap opera is that the series features lengthy, complicated, tangled relationships that play off of each other for weeks or months or years or decades. If my grandma had been there to explain all of what was going on, I might have gotten more out of this. And the Web sites I consulted gave me something of a sense of what was happening. But I had the discombobulating sensation of someone who tunes into The Wire halfway through season four, then watches as the show keeps jumping between separate groups of characters who seemingly have nothing to do with each other, even though they DO, on some level. I got the surface level of what was going on, but I didn’t get anything deeper (if there WAS anything deeper).
This is all, of course, a part of the soap opera design. By its very nature, the soap opera is designed to not break down into episode chunks but into weekly chunks. Thus, the kind of plotting you might see in a single episode of a primetime drama—where the A story (the baby that might be Neil’s) is used most frequently throughout the hour, and the B story (Kevin and Jana) pops up slightly less frequently, and the C story (whatever Victor was up to) doesn’t appear all that often at all. Next episode, Victor might have more to do, and Neil might not appear once. But because the soap opera stretches all of this over a WEEK, setting up the basic premises of the “episode” on Monday and saving the payoffs for Friday, it gives everything a feeling of things being stuck slightly in place. (Young And The Restless, at least, does a better job of moving stuff forward at different times than other soaps I’ve watched. The search for Kevin seemed like it moved five or six steps forward, instead of just one or two.) It’s a familiar structure, but it’s been padded out to nearly five times the normal length.
And, really, this is part of the problem for people like me, who want to do a quick drop-in on a show like this and provide a qualitative assessment of this kind of programming from a week’s worth of shows. Really, this is the problem with this whole project, with my whole profession. It’s easy enough for me to watch the first three episodes of a show or watch one week of a soap opera and say what that show is like all of the time, but unless I’m really invested, I’ll never quite know. Writing about TV is an odd balancing act, one that attempts to get invested enough in a show to be able to truly discern what it is and what it’s trying to do but one that also tries to maintain its distance and provide a little critical detachment. One of the reasons soap operas have always been written off as juvenile and stupid is because when you just drop in on a week of a soap opera, that’s how it SEEMS. There was a plot in Friday’s episode that involved Jana trying to get Kevin to put on a giant beaver head while she wore a clown mask. Why? Well, it was probably to do with the campy, goofy tone of the whole storyline, but I’d struggle to explain if this made sense in any LOGICAL way.
But at the same time, this ridiculousness is a part of the fun. By the end of the week, I was pretty swept up into the story of Jana and Kevin, at least, and my wife and I were having fun rooting for the evil, crazy Jana to get one over on the relatively sedate and uninteresting woman Kevin had started dating post-Jana. (Jana seemed to die at the end of Friday’s episode, but you just know she’ll be back for more.) Sure, it probably plays better for someone who’s watched months, years, or decades of the show, but it’s still fun to watch the show play out its insane plot twists and hope for maximum insanity (while still knowing that eventually, there will have to be a return to the status quo). The Young And The Restless thrives in these moments, these campy moments when Jana wants Kevin to just put on the fucking beaver head, and he says, “If you want me to love you, you have to stop being so scary!" This is when the show becomes the kind of show that I know my grandma loved, the kind of show that shouldn’t work but somehow does. The Young And The Restless is silly and soapy, yes, but those can be good things.
The greatest thing about soap operas is their CONTINUITY. This is something like the same show my grandmother started watching all those years ago, regardless of retools and character changes and recasts. She’s dead now, but by watching it for a week, I can return to a time when she was alive and staying at her house was one of the coolest possible things I could do for a week in the summer. Television can be this kind of connection to our shared pasts at its best and even at its worst. That’s one of its foremost powers as a medium. I’m not sad that the soaps or the evening news or the other network monoliths seem to be dying off. They belong to other eras, eras that it’s fine to be nostalgic for but it’s probably kind of silly to try to forcibly recreate. What I’m sad about is that I’ll outlive The Young And The Restless, and when it's inevitably canceled, that last tie, that tie of summer breezes and booing Victor and warm cookies after lunch, will be severred.