CBS Daytime’s The Young and the Restless has been dominating the Soap Twitter news cycle these past few weeks. Two hot topics have been the exits of Co-Executive Producer/Head Writer Sally Sussman and Creative Consultant Kay Alden, and that jaw-dropping kiss between Mariah (Camryn Grimes) and Tessa (Cait Fairbanks).
I recently caught up with Sussman for a phone chat (followed by an email Q&A). Below the veteran soap opera writer and acclaimed documentary filmmaker speaks out on her time at Y&R and “Teriah”.
Daytime Confidential: Mariah and Tessa kissed last week on The Young and the Restless. What was the genesis behind telling a story where two seemingly straight women fall in love?
Sally Sussman: When I came into Y&R last September, I had one day's notice to start the job. I had been traveling in France with my feature documentary [Midnight Return: The Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey], and hadn't been watching the show for several years. So, I had nothing prepared and never have started a job like that before. But because of the change happening so fast, I had to jump in with both feet. While starting to write the daily shows, I came up with several stories that I pitched the network; one of which is the love story between Mariah and a new character named Tessa. This is a love story; it's not a gay story. It's about falling in love with a person, not a gender. It is about Mariah and Tessa's self-discovery and it catches them both off guard. People fall in love unexpectedly for all sorts of reasons. Some they understand; some they don't.
DC: Soap fans and TV journalists alike have long been critical of Y&R over its tepid history with LGBT stories. Did you receive any resistance from Sony or CBS after pitching the story?
SS: The executives at CBS who oversee daytime enthusiastically approved this story; I think they saw the value and the freshness in the way it would be told. They did however note that they have a very conservative audience and this story may offend some people. CBS knows their audience very well, which could be the reason Y&R never did a story like this before, except in the early 70's when Bill Bell tried it and it was very negatively received.
DC: It's kind of bittersweet seeing a same sex love story featuring Mariah and Tessa when many fans clamored for a gay saga for fan favorite Kevin Fisher, played by real-life gay icon Greg Rikaart, who was recently let go from the series. Rikaart himself even lobbied for Kevin to come out as gay in interviews; now one of his ex-girlfriends is kissing girls! Did you ever consider going there with Kevin?
SS: When I arrived on the show, I was told that Greg had pitched a story for Kevin coming out some months before. Unfortunately, I never got to read it and the character was then heavily involved with Chloe and going in another direction. I have no doubt that Greg would've done a fabulous job in such a story. But as you'll see he becomes Mariah's sounding board.
DC: Per usual with LGBT stories on daytime, some fans are loudly voicing their disapproval on social media. Did you anticipate this?
SS: Before the kiss actually aired and the audience was starting to sense where the story was going, I was told by CBS that they had been getting a lot of negative comments. Because I had been away from the daytime genre for 10 years, and was aware that many other soaps had done stories featuring LGBT characters — some as long as 20 years ago — I was honestly a little taken aback by the depth of the negativity. It made me quite sad. When I created Generations, my goal was to make the African-American families where you didn't see race. I had hoped with this story people wouldn't just see gender; they'd feel the honest love between the characters. I hope the audience watches as it plays out and doesn't judge too quickly.
DC: In a TV Insider article, Michael Logan reported CBS is allegedly skittish about the storyline, and that the actors are under a gag order. What say you?
SS: This is something I have no knowledge of. Now that I'm not with the show anymore, I have no idea how it will play out in the future.
DC: Y&R fans on social media are questioning the timing of your decision to retire and the launch of the story. Do you regret not being able to stay on and tell the story yourself?
SS: The two events are not related; this storyline was approved last October. The material airing now was written in May because the show is three months ahead of air. I know a lot of fans got upset by the only interview I did while at Y&R, which was last October with Michael Logan. He had been faithfully watching the show throughout all the head writer changes and really wanted answers to the loose ends that were left by my predecessor. What he didn't know is that night I had to fly to Vancouver where my 61-year-old brother just died suddenly and unexpectedly. He was my last surviving family member and it devastated me. Thinking about future stories for Y&R was the furthest thing from my mind, so I just made up a bunch of stuff because I hadn't gotten the chance to write a long-term yet. At that point, I honestly didn't think I could make six months in the job. So I'm thrilled to have made it to one year. My film, Midnight Return, has taken off in ways I didn't expect and I have been approached to make another documentary. That's where my passion and creativity are now.
DC: What about overall? What are you most proud of during your time back at Y&R? What would you do differently if you could?
SS: When you work at this frantic pace writing 250 episodes a year, some things are going to work; others not. When you take this job, you accept that and know you're not going to hit a home run every time. You trust your instincts and experience and hope the audience responds positively. When they respond negatively, I listen to what they're saying and take their criticisms to heart. You can not be a head writer with a thin skin; everyone comes at you, thinks they can do it better. Being a head writer is like a quarterback; everyone says you should've done this or done that...after the fact and usually on Mondays [laughs]. But time is the enemy in daytime, sadly. Obviously, there are things I wish I'd done differently, but unfortunately you only have one day to do each episode, which is very difficult creatively because you don't have the luxury to ruminate and rewrite, etc. Being head writer on a daytime serial is by far the most difficult job in all of scripted entertainment (be it TV, film, online). As difficult as it was to make a feature film, it was nothing compared to the rigors, limitations, juggling that's required to do this job. But I take responsibility for every scene in every episode as it was all done by me. As head writer you can't farm this work out to your writers or anyone else; to do this job properly you need to be in the trenches on every episode and every scene. So if the audience liked what they saw, great. If they hated what they saw, then I feel badly and disappointed but I know it goes with the territory. I adored my writing team, most of whom I'd never worked with before. They were fantastic to work with, but your writers don't make up the shows. They look to you to guide them and tell them what is in each episode. The same goes for the network and Sony. They give notes of course and most of their notes are actually very helpful and thoughtful. I never had any issues with the network or their input; we had great long-term story meetings, lots of good back/forth; lots of laughter. I certainly respected their opinions and have always believed from my days with Bill Bell that it's always about the show; it was never about me or my ego. So naturally, there are things I wish I could've had more time with, or taken a different approach on, or jazzed up this sequence, or created more jeopardy here, but I was very wary of false drama; big events with no payoffs, no real stakes in the end where nothing changed. For example, no one died or was forever altered. I wanted the show (and the genre) to be more topical; to do issues that were really affecting people's lives: example Dina Abbott's struggle with Alzheimer's disease. This was a major reason I pursued the documentary genre because I felt daytime wasn't living up to its potential. I'd felt the genre had been dumbed down and as a 30-year viewer, I lost interest. It wasn't the genre I'd fallen in love with as a kid in the 70's. But the sci-fi stuff, stolen babies, doppelgangers, people returning from the dead, etc. felt very passe to me, so I really hoped to make the show more cutting edge like daytime used to be in 80's and 90's, where the genre broke new ground. What I didn't realize though is that the audience currently watching had really gotten used to this type of storytelling as they had stayed loyal to the show throughout those 10 years (the good and the bad of it). I think that's probably where you see those who like what I did and those who hate what I did intersect because Y&R has such a loyal audience. Some wanted the historic Y&R; others really liked the campier style. Of course there are things I wish I could do over. I wish I could've had proper time to write a long term before I started but that was not possible. But I'm thrilled to move on and pursue my passion in filmmaking. When your first feature has its World Premiere at the Cannes Film Festival (which you never expect in a million years to happen) and you get great reviews, 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, you have to follow that success with something else. I wish everyone at Y&R at least three more years of continuing success. I'm so grateful to Steve Kent for the opportunity but it's time to move on.