The Young and the Viewerless

When I was a kid, I would sometimes spend a week or so in the summer at my grandparents’ house, where my two maiden aunts also lived. Grandpa worked; one of the aunts slept all day; and my grandma and the other aunt watched soap operas from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., starting with “Ryan’s Hope” and ending with “General Hospital.”

Well, one day both ladies were going to be away from the house for some reason (I don’t know how, since neither of them could drive) during “One Life to Live,” so I stayed behind to jot down notes on what they had missed. Whether they asked me to do this or whether I suggested it, I don’t recall. But I remember enjoying the experience of trying to make sense of a show where I had no idea what was going on. It was fun.

I got to thinking about this recently when I read an article about falling soap opera viewership. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, 12 million people were watching “General Hospital” every day, and 30 million tuned in to see rapist Luke marry his victim Laura in 1981. Today, all nine daytime soaps COMBINED garner only about 25 million viewers, with the top-rated show, “The Young and the Restless,” getting only 4 million.

What’s more, viewership is steadily declining. “The Young and the Restless” has been at the top of the heap since 1988, yet has seen its ratings drop 25 percent in that time. One-fourth of its viewers are gone, yet it remains on top! Which means the other shows are faring even worse.

So how can a show attract new viewers? Soap operas require daily attendance. To convince someone to add a time commitment of five hours a week, you’d better be offering something compelling. Are the soaps doing that?

To find out, I watched “The Young and the Restless” last Monday, to see whether I would be hooked, or at least interested enough to tune in the next day. I took notes on the episode, much as I did for my grandma and my aunt, and I present them here as evidence.

* * * *

Sad music plays as an ill-looking woman shakily pours a glass of something then drops the glass, which shatters. She is comforted by a rugged, gray-haired man. He reminds her that she has been through something traumatic, and that such after-effects are to be expected. He does not mention what this event was, but I take his word for it that it was traumatic, if it causes glass-dropping.

A blond woman enters, inquiring as to the whereabouts of Nicholas. She either does not notice or does not care that she has interrupted a moment between Shaky Woman and Rugged Man. Rugged Man figured Nick would be at the courthouse, but Blond Woman says nope, she just came from there, and the verdict is about to be announced! (Apparently the courthouse is next door.)

Cut to an empty courtroom, where another blond woman (a lawyer, we are expected to believe), blandly attractive in appearance, sits at a table and writes things on a yellow legal pad (because she’s a lawyer, you know). Another woman, a brassy, don’t-mess-with-me type, barges in and says, “Christine, why did that coon take my son?” I curse myself for having missed Friday’s episode, wherein a raccoon apparently made off with this woman’s son. Christine replies, without looking up, “Because you wouldn’t stop talking to Daniel, and that’s not allowed.”

Then they talk about the case, whatever it was, and Christine asks Coon Woman if she knows where Sharon went. Coon Woman says that when it became apparent the judge was going to come back with a “not guilty” verdict, Sharon went off to “warn Nicholas.”

Recap: So far, Christine is looking for Sharon and Sharon is looking for Nicholas.

Cut to a man — Nicholas? The raccoon? — in a wooded area (well, a fake wooded area on a Los Angeles sound stage), digging a hole. He appears distressed. He is handsome the way all soap actors are, i.e., in a very soft, half-heartedly gay fashion. He looks like the type of soap actor who could take his shirt off at any moment. Is this Nicholas, digging his own grave, the consequence of the judge’s foretold “not guilty” verdict? That doesn’t make any sense. I contemplate it as the opening credits roll.

Two men in a house. One of them is about 30 and wears glasses; the second, younger, asks whether Glasses actually saw Sheila Carter in the mental facility. Glasses indicates yes, and that Sheila is completely insane, not to mention locked up, and so Lauren (whoever that is) has no need to fear. “Sheila Carter is locked up tighter than Hannibal Lecter,” Glasses says.

“That’s good,” replies Other Guy. “Because Hannibal Lecter escaped.”

This should be a punch line, but the music gets very serious, and Glasses gets a thoughtful look on his face. Apparently this show doesn’t “do” punch lines.

Cut to a young man named Scott asking someone named Brenda if she’ll go with him to visit his mom. Brenda looks like she could BE Scott’s mom. I don’t like the looks of these two.

Back in the courtroom, Coon Woman wonders aloud how Nicholas will react if — nay, WHEN — her son (the one abducted by raccoons) is found not guilty. Christine’s lawyer friend enters and sits with her. Two more people, a professional-looking black man and an old bejeweled matriarch, enter. They’re waiting for the verdict, too. The old woman is Kay, and she’s pretty sure Daniel is guilty. Daniel’s mom, Coon Woman, is like, “Nu-uh, I don’t think so.” They are interrupted by an officer of the court, who wants to speak to Christine privately. The others stand and pose melodramatically while the conversation takes place in a corner of the room, and we go to a commercial.

When we come back, Coon Woman is reading Christine’s body language to mean that it’s good news. Kay is not so sure, and she tells us, quite irrelevantly, that Daniel’s grandfather was once her husband, though if this old lady is like all the other old ladies on soap operas, she’s had about a dozen husbands. Also, the actress is probably 60 while her character should be about 110. Coon Woman, whose name we learn is Phyllis, points out that Kay is there supporting the Newmans and hence wants Daniel in prison. Evidently the Newmans are known for their pro-prison position where Daniel is concerned. But Daniel is innocent, Phyllis says. He wasn’t driving the car that night!

Everyone keeps talking about waiting to see what the judge says, and I wonder why a jury wasn’t involved in what was obviously a criminal proceeding.

Christine returns from her conversation with the court officer to report that the judge had a family emergency and had to leave. Apparently you can just DO that when you’re a judge. (“No, keep the guy in jail a while longer before I declare him innocent. I’ve got things to do.”) Phyllis is livid. “Did he tell the goon what the verdict is?” (Ah, GOON. Maybe she said “goon” before, too. I swear it sounded like “coon,” though. I even replayed it several times.) Christine says no, he did not tell the goon what the verdict is. “The judge will read it in court when he gets back. That’s how it works.” Actually, I think the way it works is that a jury reads the verdict, but whatever.

During this, the well-dressed black fellow pretends to talk on his cell phone in the background.

Phyllis hurries off, still assured her son is innocent, and Christine and her lawyer friend leave, too. Now elderly Kay and her well-dressed black friend, Neil, are alone in the courtroom. I wonder if he is her lawyer, or perhaps her lover. I cannot really picture these two hanging out in everyday life. She asks him about Lily, specifically, how is she?

Cut to … what? A Mexican cantina, maybe? There are deck chairs on which people in bathing suits sun themselves, and a nearby table where sit two women and a man. One of the women, quiet and forlorn, is Lily. In a dramatic moment, she indicates to the other lady that she does not want any more iced tea.

The man tells Lily to lighten up, and she says she just wants to go to the courthouse to be there with Daniel when the verdict is read. The guy tells her, “They wouldn’t let you through the front door.” Lily must be pretty hardcore, if they wouldn’t even let her enter a public building like a courthouse. Is she banned from the library too? She calls the man Damon, with the emphasis on the second syllable: Da-MON. This is not a real name. Who are these people?

Cut back to Glasses and Other Guy. Glasses, apparently having spent the last several moments mulling the Hannibal Lecter remark, says angrily, “Do me a favor, don’t ever joke about Sheila Carter being out on the loose again!” Other Guy asks what it was like coming face-to-face with the notorious Sheila. Glasses says it was disturbing, being that close to a “monster, someone who tormented someone I love.”

Glasses, whose name is now Mike, says Lauren was so relieved to learn that Sheila is safely locked up that she cried. Oh, and now she wants to go to the nuthouse, too, to see for herself. These seem like contradictory responses to me — “I’m so relieved! Thank goodness this is over!”/”I want to see for myself.” — but whatever. Other Guy doesn’t think it is a good idea, but what does he know? He’s just Mike’s houseboy or something.

Back to Scott and Brenda. If she’ll go with him to “Genoa City” (fake), it will solve everything. He can see his mom, and he and Brenda can get a lot of work done on their novel. Brenda says, modestly, that it’s HIS novel, not theirs. I gather that they have some kind of true-life story waiting to be told, apparently Brenda’s story, with Scott being merely the vessel to put it in writing. He gets her excited about the possibilities of publishing the account. I still don’t like the looks of them. I wish they weren’t on this show.

Cut back to the first scene, where Shaky Woman and Rugged Man are still sitting on the couch and Blond Woman (now known as Sharon) hangs up the phone, having just gotten the news about the judge being called away. She hasn’t seen Nicholas all day. He left court because he couldn’t stand hearing them talk about Cassie.

Cut to Nicholas, now finished digging whatever he was digging, entering his home and gazing longingly at a photo on the mantel. He has flashbacks: him and Sharon talking about adopting the girl in the photo (Cassie?), going to the school’s Daddy-Daughter Dance (where he half-jokingly tells Cassie HE wants to be the daughter, I kid you not), her telling him sometimes she’s afraid she’ll be left all alone. On this last flashback, he says he’ll never leave her: “You have my word on that.” The final sentence echoes as we return to the present.

Did Daniel kill Cassie? Is that what this is all about?

Back to the courtroom, where gaudy old Kay and Neil are talking about Lily. She’s had her troubles with the law, but it could have been worse, Neil says. Mainly he wants her — his daughter, evidently — to stay away from Daniel (who he thinks his guilty). Kay and Neil talk about Lily, and how she’s 17, and they grow up so fast, and so forth.

Back at the cantina/restaurant, Lily frets and still doesn’t want any more iced tea.

Back at Nicholas’ house, he has more flashbacks about Cassie, including some less-happy ones of her teenage rebellion. The flashbacks are like a tour of Nicholas’ facial hair through the years: goatee, jaw-line beard, clean-shaven, and so forth. In the present, he’s got a little chin-beard and mustache that don’t meet.

Phyllis barges into Nicholas’ house without knocking. He asks, not without cause, what the H she’s doing there. She tells him the verdict’s due to come in, and she wants to know, if Daniel is found innocent, will Nicholas be able to deal with that? In response, Nicholas goes to commercial.

Upon our return, Nicholas says there’s no way Daniel will be found not guilty. Phyllis says Daniel wasn’t driving the car, that yes, he might have been drunk, but he wasn’t driving. (Is Daniel underage? Is that why there’s no jury? Is this family court?) Phyllis softens a bit and tells Nicholas that the kind of justice he seeks — where Cassie is alive again — ain’t gonna happen. Plus, she says, she KNOWS Nicholas has evidence that he’s been hiding, evidence that would apparently exonerate Daniel.

Back to Scott and Brenda, blabbing about this story of theirs, and how he wants her to accompany him to Genoa City. She’s reluctant. It occurs to me that this episode is half-over, and these two are never going to leave the apartment they’ve been standing in the whole time.

We cut to Mike and his houseboy, another pair that seems destined to stand around all day. Apparently tired of discussing crazy Sheila Carter, Houseboy tells Mike that he (Mike) should be happy, because with the Sheila thing almost behind her, Lauren can now lighten up, and the wedding’s back on, and Lauren’s son will even be in attendance! Mike tells Houseboy (named Kevin now) that he’s thinking of asking Lauren to move in soon, before the wedding. This means Kevin would have to move out. I don’t know what Kevin and Mike’s relationship has been, but it sounds unsavory. “I’ve enjoyed having you here. I never thought it would work out as well as it has,” Mike says. On a dime, Kevin turns angry and says, “I can’t believe you’re kicking me out!” On that absurd note, we go to commercial.

Neil arrives at the cantina, joining his wife and Lily (his daughter) and DaMON (I don’t know who he is). They discuss the impending verdict, how Daniel either was or wasn’t driving that night, blah blah blah.

Across the room, Christine and her lawyer friend are eating lunch. Lawyer Friend says Christine did a bang-up job defending Daniel, but what they could have used was some solid evidence that Cassie was driving that night, not Daniel. (Ah-ha! They were together. I’d been assuming Daniel had run Cassie over.) Christine says, “Maybe there was no evidence, or maybe we found all there was to find, or maybe it doesn’t exist,” not realizing that the first and third options mean the same thing. (“Maybe there wasn’t any, or maybe we found it, or maybe there wasn’t any!”)

Back to Phyllis still pestering Nicholas. She mentions how Nicholas’ family threw her out of her house, and how Nicholas once fired her. She handled that, but she will NOT put up with Nicholas harassing Daniel after he’s found not guilty. A gal’s gotta draw the line somewhere.

More Shaky Woman and Rugged Man (named Victor), still sitting there, two more people who aren’t goin’ anywhere today. Sharon couldn’t care less that Shaky Woman is looking more and more ill as time goes on. She rambles about how Nick pulled away when Cassie died, and she doesn’t know how to reach him, and so forth. Maybe Nick pulled away because you talk too stinkin’ much, Sharon.

Commercial. Then, Neil orders a turkey wrap with extra mayo and tells Lily she may NOT go to the courthouse to hear the verdict. Lily appeals to DaMON, now being called DeVON, for help. Her parents won’t budge. Neil goes to make some phone calls, leaving me to wonder what will become of his turkey wrap.

Nicholas broods about the death of Cassie some more, Phyllis urges him to leave her son alone, and then Sharon comes home. She is surprised to see Nicholas there, even though it’s his home, too. Sharon’s presence doesn’t seem to faze her.

Oh! Kevin is Mike’s BROTHER. Turns out Kevin was kidding about being upset, a shameless ploy to create drama where there was none. (I never fell for it, by the way.) He says he’ll move out right away.

Now Brenda is saying she can’t leave for Genoa City after all, which means she and Scott have gone nowhere today, physically or conversationally.

With Sharon finally gone, Victor can get back to addressing Shaky Woman’s shakiness. But before he does, we cut to:

Sharon demanding to know where Nicholas wandered off to earlier. Before he can answer, we cut to:

Lily arguing with her mom. And then we pan over to:

Christine and Lawyer Friend at their table, where Christine realizes something about the case that she has to check out immediately. A clue? A piece of evidence? A raccoon? She dials her cell phone and the show ends.

* * * *

My findings? This show is boring.

No wonder soaps are losing viewers. A whole hour of “Young and the Restless,” and no evil twin, no presumed-dead person returning from the grave, no medical crisis, no sex. No sex! What kind of soap opera is this?

I was able to pick up on the major plot threads, mediocre though they were, but nothing compelled me to tune in the next day to see what happened next. And it wasn’t until I poked around on the Internet that I found out the REALLY interesting parts, like how “Brenda” that Scott was talking to is actually Sheila Carter — the one who’s supposed to be locked up like Hannibal Lecter! Who’s locked up in Sheila’s place, I don’t know. The real Brenda, probably. Now, THAT’S a good story! But you wouldn’t know it from watching this episode, where Scott and not-Brenda just stood around all day talking about nothing.

Not every episode can be a barn-burner, I realize, but on the other hand, how are you going to hook new viewers? Deciding to watch a soap opera is like joining a church. It’s a conscious decision. You think, “I’m missing something in my life. I remember gaining some satisfaction by [attending this church/watching this soap opera] as a young person. Perhaps I should return.” And so you have another look at whichever church/soap you used to frequent. You notice that most of the people are different (though a few old-timers are still there), but that the format and content are more or less the same as you remember them. And if the first time back isn’t especially fulfilling, you keep with it anyway, because hey, this stuff is important.

I’m doing OK without any soap operas in my life. (Church is still useful.) I have TiVo, and I have free time. But five hours a week? And not an evil twin in sight? Forget it, you young, restless people. If I wanted to spend my weekdays being bored, I’d get a job.

You may recall that I watched a Very Special Episode of "Days of Our Lives" for a column in 2002, though the way I dealt with that event was somewhat different from this, a regular run-of-the-mill episode.