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The Homogenizing of the Bell Soaps


The Bell soaps have had many problems in the last decade, but none as glaring as the homogenization of their characters. I used to love these shows precisely because Bill Bell eschewed alien abduction and demonic possession in favor of character delineation and psychological drama. On The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful we were invested in what happened because we cared who they happened to. And in order for us to care about the who, characters had to be well-defined archetypes, controlled by their passions and neuroses on a daily basis. The audience understood their internal motivations, and it fascinated us so much that Y&R and B&B became the ratings champs (and pre-OJ, that appellation actually meant something).


Example #1: Let Sluts Stand Out. In order for Brooke Logan (Katherine Kelly Lang) to be a sexy social climber who genuinely threatens Stephanie’s (Susan Flannery) morally rigid worldview, their behavioral contours need to be properly defined and maintained. B&B still puts Brooke through the ringer of sexual outlandishness, but they’ve ruined her foil by sketching Taylor/Stephanie exactly the same way. Taylor (Hunter Tylo) has now slept with as many men as Brooke (mostly the same men too!), and she’s also slept with her daughter’s boyfriend and ex-husband’s relative (Rick), thereby crossing the two important lines that once defined Brooke. And Stephanie’s past has been absurdly re-written (Ridge (Ronn Moss) is a Maroni!) to include the same paternity-pimping she often accused Brooke of. By turning all the women on this show into sluts, B&B has neutered the drama between Brooke and Taylor/Stephanie, and then has to push Brooke into even more outlandish territory – screwing another daughter’s boyfriend – just to catch up (once a naughty genie in a bottle, Brooke is now firmly oops I did it again). Where’s the shock value when everyone is slutty?

Example #2: Give People Different Jobs. The switching of editors at Restless Style (is there anything sillier than ex-corporate exec Jill with a tape-recorder?), and the switching of CEOs at Jabot and Newman, like they were Brooke Logan’s underwear (or is it Taylor? I forget who the slut du jour is) illustrates an anyone-can-do-this-job attitude that undermines character and context. And look, I’m sorry, but Nikki Newman (Melody Thomas Scott) is not a businesswoman. She’s just not. And that’s not sexist, nor is it a knock on the cosseted heroine. I never bought her trying to save Jabot or run NVP -- not because she’s a woman (the show has always featured women more believable in the workplace: Jill (Jess Walton), Ashley (Eileen Davidson), Olivia (Tonya Lee Williams), Phyllis (Michelle Stafford), Drucilla (Victoria Rowell), Cricket(Lauralee Bell)) – but because it’s not her. Nikki Newman spent years sashaying across the ranch like she had all the time in the world, looking down her nose at guests, arranging flowers, playing the piano (and hiding liquor in it), bossing around Miguel, and all manner of awesome class affectation. But now the show has erased all that, and with it Bill Bell’s carefully crafted character delineation: the domestic sphere vs. the professional sphere. Where’s the corporate intrigue when anyone can be (and has been) CEO?

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Example #3: Let Adam Blow Up the Athletic Club for Good! Look, I know there are budget constraints, but these shows still have enough old sets, and on soaps, sets are characters. The Ranch situated Nikki as a pampered pooch; the Jabot boardroom featured corporate drama, while the offices hosted the fallout (from home and work); Victor’s (Eric Braeden) vampiric CEO office sold him as Dracula etc. Having these characters flit in and out of the same unevocative room at the Athletic Club only diffuses drama. To say nothing of Sharon Newman (Sharon Case) moving from Tack House to Abbott Mansion, to Newman Ranch, to Athletic Club, to Brad’s House, to Phyllis’s apartment….ARGH! The only man Sharon should rut with is Ty Pennington so he can give that hobag a home!

Example #4: Names Matter. Yes, people always married multiple times on soaps, but it’s unsettling for Taylor and Brooke to have the same set of last names. Names used to be indicative of where characters actually belonged. Jill was firmly divorced from John (Jerry Douglas) for years and still referred to as “Jill Abbott” (same with Stephanie Forrester, and Sharon Newman). This is a writer’s conceit: having characters indentified by particular names cements their position within a particular group. The writers on Y&R are so desperately trying to tie Jill to the canvas (almost a Chancellor, maybe a Fenmore?) that they haven’t noticed that Bill Bell already tied her to the canvas years ago. She fought for the Chancellor name that Katherine legally stripped from her, but she was able to get the next best thing by becoming an Abbott. Jill is an Abbott, and she needs to be re-installed in that orbit. Forcing her to be Lauren’s sibling now is just pointless and unnecessary.

There is hope in terms of halting this homogenization. In the past two weeks, we had some nice little moments on Y&R amidst all the jumping out of planes and such. Abby’s (Marcy Rylan) speech to Daniel (Michael Graziadei) (“everyone wants to be noticed”) and Gloria’s (Judith Chapman) speech to Jeffrey (Ted Shackelford) (“I’m tired of no one respecting me”) were surprisingly touching. The plot stopped for a hot minute and allowed the characters to really inhabit a scene, and gave us a glimpse into their pathos and pain. These speeches individualized the characters and gave us a hint of what their internal motivations would be if the writing were character-driven instead of plot-driven. I actually looked at my watch to see if it was 1995!

Everyone cannot and should not be the same. Drama is the offspring of contrast. Otherwise all you have are assembly line characters that answer to different names (and even THAT’S being democratized since everyone marries a Forrester on B&B and becomes a long-lost relative on Y&R).

Maria and Brad: you need to return to character delineation. I’d like to say that your soaps are currently no worse than all the others, but unlike your characters, good taste can’t be homogenized.