That sound you heard on May 14?
My jaw dropping when The 36th annual Daytime Emmy nominations snubbed daytime’s best soap opera, The Young and the Restless, in the top three categories: drama series, writing and directing.
Like President Barack Obama, Bell inherited a bankrupt universe from the ill-equipped hands of daytime’s George W. Bush, Lynn Marie Latham, who, in less than 12 months, destroyed the soap’s heart and soul, recklessly putting daytime’s crown jewel in an economic and creative crisis that few ever thought Y&R could recover from.
However, within a year, a miracle named Maria Arena Bell resurrected daytime’s No. 1 sudser from the ashes by restoring its creative glory without compromising her cast, characters, storytelling or ethics. The winners? The fans. Who said there were no more happy endings in soaps?
Listening astutely to viewers, her cast, and the new realities of the industry, Bell’s approach has been democratic yet stern. William Bell’s daughter-in-law, and true heir apparent, fixed her show from the inside out — and took her time to organically accomplish this goal. Bell also boasts the unique distinction of soap opera autonomy wielding entire creative control of her show, with help from co-executive producer Paul Rauch, and co-head writers Hogan Sheffer and Scott Hamner, of course.
Everyone knows how TV Guide Canada feels about 2008’s Entertainer of the Year, so we’re going to get right into our third interview with the two-time Soap Opera Spirit Award winner this past year.
Hold on to your seats because La Bell dishes about the Emmys snubbing her show, which show reels she really submitted, Guiding Light's cancellation, Chris Engen's (Adam) controversial decision to quit, whether she wants Melody Thomas Scott (Nikki) to re-sign, Thom Bierdz's surprise comeback as Phillip Chancellor, and why more gay characters are headed to Genoa City!
TVGuide.ca: Thanks for speaking to me again Maria. I know how busy you are doing to what amounts to God’s work helming daytime’s No. 1 — and best — soap opera from all angles. You’ve had the quite the week, huh?
Maria Arena Bell: [Laughs] Yes, I have! Your timing for this interview was impeccable!
TVG: [Joking] The soap gods are on my side! Firstly, let me apologize for the idiocy known as the Daytime Emmy Awards. I can’t believe you’re not nominated. But then again, part of me is happy that you are not lumped in with the worst of daytime TV — which is apparently being honoured by the Academy this year.
MAB: Thank you. TV Guide Canada’s support means a lot to our cast and crew. Honestly, when it comes to the Emmys you can never figure them out, control the results, or even begin to understand why these things happen. What can I say? I’m happy for my brother-in-law, Brad Bell [The Bold and the Beautiful’s head writer and executive producer].
TVG: It looks like it’s finally Brad Bell’s year now that you’re not competing in the best drama or best writing races.
MAB: And he deserves it. It’s been 22 years! For a long time, Brad and I worked together on B&B as writing partners, but we were never nominated for anything. It’s really special that he’s nominated this year — and I am rooting for him to win.
TVG: Two years ago, Brad deserved to win best writing and drama series when he penned Stephanie’s child abuse and the 5000th episode, but he lost. Awards shows are always latent when it comes to awarding people, à la Heath Ledger at the Oscars.
MAB: If you are looking at the entire calendar year, the flip side to all of this is that Y&R didn’t [start firing on all cylinders] until last summer/fall. While I’m very proud of what we accomplished last year, I feel 2009 is our year.
TVG: Were you a judge this year?
|TVG: Can I ask you what you submitted for best writing and drama series contention?
MAB: Let me tell you the interesting thing — and this is the philosophy my father-in-law [William Bell, Y&R/B&B creator] had. We never believed in writing a specific Emmy show. Instead, we believed in writing good soap opera. To be honest, we submitted a really fantastic Friday show — not a stunt episode. [Despite what’s being reported], I didn’t submit the heart of the Paris remote. What I submitted was this really wonderful payoff episode that involved a variety of our stories and cast. It was the Friday show when Katherine and Marge drove off the cliff, and Ashley saw Victor in Paris for the first time. All we saw of Paris was during the tag of the episode. It was a show that featured our strong characters. It also boasted a lot of humour, thanks to the shenanigans of Amber, Gloria and Jeffrey. I wanted to show that Y&R boasts humour, dramatic Friday cliffhangers, and incredible building of storytelling — stories beginning, climaxing and concluding. In my opinion, the episode that we submitted showcased what Y&R does best. And I stand by it.
MAB: Yes. As an Emmy judge this year, I found myself with a few gripes. I didn’t understand what these shows did on a daily basis. I didn’t get a sense of these shows. I watched one gigantic stunt episode after another. Afterwards, I was left asking: What are these shows really about? What’s their production like on any given day? What’s their storyline process? These shows air 52 weeks a year, and almost air five days a week out of the calendar year. As a judge, I wanted to honour the best drama series of the year, not just one special episode. Which is why I stand by my submission because I felt like what we offered was emblematic of what Y&R
delivers each and every day. I wish I had seen more submissions like that because everything I saw was one over-the-top stunt show after another. Yes, I saw superior production values, but they didn’t tell me anything about the show’s [heart and soul]. Or more importantly, their identity. I hope next year the other drama series follow my lead because I want to see strong storytelling, [not bells and whistles].
TVG: NATAS really needs to ask for two episode submissions for best drama and writing. Yes, it takes forever to view all the reels, but in one episode you can’t judge a soap’s quality. And really, in one show, it’s the dialogue that sells best writing, and in the best show category, it’s the budget that dictates who merits the gold.
MAB: You know what, Nelson? I don’t have to time to watch one more reel. We’re all busy — but I think we, as producers and writers, need to choose an appropriate episode that reflects the daily drama viewers watch every day so we can judge a show appropriately and fairly.
TVG: It’s almost impossible to judge long-term storytelling in one episode, let alone two — but it sounds like you tried to do that in your submission.
MAB: That was what I tried to do! [Laughs] You’re exactly right.
TVG: As an Emmy whore, let me tell you what I would have submitted. The problem with airing an excellent show like Y&R is that you have plethora of overwhelming material to choose from because every given day was a blockbuster in terms of quality. Conversely, DAYS and B&B didn’t have that problem. But if I had to choose, I would have submitted Victor and Nikki’s showdown scenes in Mexico for best writing because the dialogue was intensely beautiful and powerful. And then, I’d submit either Katherine’s funeral or Michael’s "It’s A Wonderful Life" episode for best drama.
MAB: I looked at those episodes you mentioned, and I agree they were standouts, but they lacked humour and because our show is funny, I wanted to show the voters that we had lighter side, too. My submission embodied our entire spirit. Daytime boasts a lot of humour, and I wish comedy was honoured and respected more. Soaps can be fun. It’s not all [Sturm and Drang], you know?
TVG: NATAS needs to revamp like, yesterday. It’s embarrassing, really. We’re not curing cancer here, people! A select group of critics, journalists and perhaps some past Emmy winners should nominate, and then the industry can vote for the winners. The Emmys are ridiculous. Which is why no one is tuning into the Emmy Awards anymore because it has lost all integrity, credibility and prestige. For example, why would anyone waste his or her time tuning in to see mediocrity being honoured? I want to see Eric Braeden [Victor] and Trevor St. John [Todd, One Life] do battle for best actor rights — not Peter Reckell [Bo, Days of our Lives] and Daniel Cosgrove [Bill, Guiding Light] vying for Emmy supremacy. Will you attend the ceremony on Aug. 30?
MAB: Oh my God, of course. I will show up and support our nominated actors, crew, the industry, and most important, The Bold and The Beautiful. My father-in-law always wanted B&B to be recognized as best drama series and for best writing, so I want to be there to see Brad honoured. That’s very important to the Bell family.
TVG: I always wanted Tom Pelphrey [Jonathan, GL] to play Adam, but of course the Emmy winner is no longer available. Any comment on Melody Thomas Scott’s [Nikki] contract negotiations?
TVG: You’re a pro. All right — I have to ask about Chris Engen quitting as Adam Newman this past week. Do you want to comment?
MAB: It was Chris’ personal decision to leave the show. We’re sorry he did. But we’re really excited about the actor we hired to replace him. Michael Muhney is an incredibly strong actor with fantastic prime-time TV credits. He’s also theatre-trained, so he’s well equipped. Michael is stepping into an amazing role. I have to tell you that Adam Newman is by far the most interesting and fascinating character I have on the canvas right now. While I won’t comment on Chris’ decision, I will admit I was saddened that we had to recast because Engen was really [gelling] in the role. However, I have no doubt that Michael will make Adam his own.
TVG: For the past two weeks, I’ve raved about Chris’ performances. He wasn’t the easiest actor to fall in love with, but I’m finally hooked.
MAB: I know!
MAB: Unfortunately, I can’t comment on contract negotiations.
TVG: But you hope she stays, right?
MAB: Oh my God, of course! Nikki is one of the most important characters on our canvas. And always will be.
TVG: This past winter, you told TV Guide Magazine that your show was exempt from pay cuts and vet dismissals, but a few months later you’re dealing with this issue.
MAB: What I said was that we had been fortunate that we hadn’t had to deal with those economic realities at the time of the interview. Our licencing fee was recently [slashed] so we’re dealing with it the best we can. I think we’re doing a great job in that respect without having to sacrifice quality or our history. We’re also not reacting to these cuts as dramatically as other shows are. Y&R will look and feel the same with, by and large, the same cast. I want all our viewers to know that everything will be OK because I still feel that we’re not at the mercy of these cuts.
TVG: Cool. It must have been hard for you guys to hear about Guiding Light’s cancellation.
MAB: We’re genuinely saddened. Any time a show is cancelled, the entire industry mourns. We don’t want to see our business headed in this direction. The reason why I infuse my heart and soul into my work is because I want to see this industry survive. And to continue airing on the TV airwaves. Soap opera, as an artistic form, is worth saving. I want each and every soap to prosper. I really mean that from the bottom of my heart. And I say that as both a fan and as a professional.
TVG: Is there anyone from the Guiding Light cast that you would like to “steal.” I mean, you already have a full cast…
MAB: As we all know, Guiding Light has some incredible actors on that show. I’m never going to say never, but we’ll just see what happens down the road. Like you, I’m also a big fan on Tom Pelphrey’s, but there hasn’t been a right time for him to come on to the show.
TVG: Recently, my DVR ate over a handful of Y&R episodes. I’m still surprised that Canada didn’t experience an earthquake from my screaming! That’s a testament to the show that you are producing and writing. You must be proud of yourself.
|TVG: Would you ever consider expanding Y&R to 90 minutes? I know your co-executive producer, my hero Paul Rauch, has had experience in the 1970s with soap expansion when he worked on Another World.
MAB: You know, when we heard of Guiding Light’s cancellation, we thought it could be great if B&B expanded to an hour. Or we could even develop a Y&R spinoff. But considering the climate in the industry, soap expansion or creating a spinoff is not realistic for anyone to consider right now. Having said that, if things were different, I would be eager to consider those possibilities — if they were somehow viable.
MAB: You know what? I’m not afraid to say I am. I watch the air shows back-to-back even though I’m writing the show and watching it taped every day. You can’t miss a minute or even a second of our show. Yet, because our storytelling is at a comfortable pace now, if you miss one show by accident, I don’t think the viewers will be left hanging in the wind, either. But you’re right — you will miss something magical.
TVG: Congratulations on keeping Thom Bierdz’s [Phillip] shocking comeback a secret for months! Wow. Did you ever work for the CIA?
MAB: [Laughs] No, but thank you! We’re all amazed we managed to keep it quiet. This storyline was months and months in the making. You know what? Back in the day, we used to black out scripts, tape scenes secretly, and not tell CBS everything we were doing. And I’m talking long before, like the late ‘80s/early ‘90s.
TVG: And before the Internet and weekly soap magazines! I’ve always agreed with Bill Bell that spoilers affected ratings negatively. I spoil casting news, but try to avoid ruining a story for fans.
MAB: Even if it’s practically impossible to accomplish these days, it’s really important to have that incredible element of surprise in daytime TV. I’ll admit keeping Thom’s return a secret involved pretty strategic planning. We knew we’d have a lot of eyeballs on our show that day because it was Cane and Lily’s wedding. Due to our scheduling, we could promote that event without anyone being suspicious that something bigger was happening. I was excited to introduce that twist on that Friday tag.
TVG: I had to break it after the Canadian episode aired here because fans were already clipping the scene on Thursday evening on messageboards.
MAB: You know what? We are so thrilled and proud that we made it that far. This is one of the biggest stories we’ve ever told — and it’s going to great. We’re thrilled to have Thom back.
TVG: The big news is you’re making Genoa City a lot pinker these days. When we first met on the Emmy red carpet last year, I asked you for my Pink Soap article if it was possible for a soap star to come out of the closet. You said you would completely support anyone who wanted to be honest about his or her sexuality. I believed you. And once the article went live, I received countless emails from closeted actors saying how much your words of encouragement and support meant to them. Many closeted stars never thought being real with the press and fans was even a possibility. A year later, you boast two out-and-proud actors on your soap [Clementine Ford, Mac; and Bierdz], and introduced a gay character, Rafe. You really mean business, don’t you?
MAB: Absolutely! You know what — I would never edit or prevent any actor from talking about their personal life in the press, whether they are gay, straight or whatever. As far as it comes to Y&R, I felt it was important to introduce characters from all walks of life on our show. I disagree that Rafe announcing to his friend that he’s gay was our first gay storyline because it was just a fact of his life. It’s like, “yeah, so what — what do you want for lunch?” But — we do have a gay storyline in the works. Perhaps more than one. And more than one gay character. More importantly, the gay storyline we’re planning on telling will reflect real life. I couldn’t be happier.
||TVG: William Bell tried to tell a lesbian storyline in the late ‘70s with Jeanne Cooper’s Katherine, so in a way you are paying homage to the history of the show. Unfortunately, ratings nosedived prompting Bell to kill the story before it started. What would Bill think of the show right now if he was able to watch?|
MAB: I think he would be really happy. I think he would be proud of me because he loved telling all these great stories with his favourite characters. I hope he approves. But believe me when I say, if he was still around, he would be penning this show, not me. I think of him all the time when I write this show. We used to have these ‘layout’ calls back in the day, and he would dictate Victor Newman’s dialogue in Victor Newman’s voice. He was these characters. In fact, when he passed by the actors in the hall he would only address them as their characters only because they were that real to him. In the past year, I find myself doing that very same thing more and more. I think he’d be pleased with his show, especially considering these modern times. We’ve moved into the 21st century, but Y&R is still a classic.
TVG: I think Bill would be most proud of Katherine’s storyline this past year. As a viewer, when I saw this story begin a year ago with Kay’s senior moments, I never realized the endgame, or rather the genesis of this plot, was to undo the fact that Katherine was Jill’s mother. This story was classically written, modernly told, and had one hell of a payoff! That never happens anymore.
MAB: And it’s still paying off. When one story ends, another begins. Now we have Nina working on a movie about Kay’s life, which will lead to her unravelling more secrets, and propelling the story further. The story should never end.
TVG: Do you watch other soaps? I doubt you even have time to sleep these days…
TVG: To have an octo-diva drive your entire story for over a year is unheard of. I mean, you threw Jeanne Cooper out of cars, off cliffs, had her serving in a diner, married, and thrown in jail! [Laughs]
MAB: [Laughs] I know!
TVG: Do you think you have influenced or inspired other soap writers to utilize their vets more?
MAB: There was a time when we in the business always talked about ageism in Hollywood — whether or not you were in front of or behind the camera. There was a lot of discussion over the fact that at a certain age in this business you were simply washed up. And yet today, I’m leading in this younger demographic — and my front-burner storyline involves an 80-year-old woman!
TVG: And you hit a 4.1 during the start of that story!
MAB: You know what — this proves that telling stories or attracting new viewers through manipulation never works. It was just a good story. It didn’t matter that [the heroine] was 80 years old. I love how it bucked conventional wisdom, and yes, a lot of my friends have responded to the success of this story.
MAB: I really don’t have time. Over the course of my life, I’ve certainly been a soap fan and watched other soaps. But at this point in my life, I live in Genoa City. It’s a 24-hour commitment. My kids laugh at me because I’m always talking about Y&R
and they’re getting sick of it. [Laughs] So as a family we now have a rule that we can’t talk shop at the dinner table. They’re beginning to think my characters are real people!
TVG: [Joking] Your kids are lucky, tell them to be quiet! Let’s talk about your soap origins. How did you meet Bill Bell?
MAB: I know how privileged and lucky I am to have someone of Bill’s calibre and talent as my mentor. He really gave me a chance by taking me under his wing. I was straight out of Northwestern University when he gave me a shot on B&B because I had been working in the fashion industry and they needed that expertise on the show. I didn’t realize until now how much of his advice I retained. I really was taking mental notes back then. For example, yes, I didn’t get nominated for best show or writing, but I know that I submitted an episode he would have submitted. And quite frankly, he hardly won with his submissions. He won very few times for writing and drama — which is odd considering how long he dominated the industry. In the end, I can sleep at night because I know I haven’t [deviated from his style or sensibility].
TVG: Let’s gossip about casting: Shemar Moore told me he’d come back to Y&R anytime during his Criminal Minds’ hiatuses. Is that door still open despite the fact that you-know-who told Shemar that door was closed?
MAB: Absolutely. He’s incredible. Shemar was introduced when I started working on Y&R, and he’s grown into a really strong actor. I was astonished to read what I read that he wasn’t welcomed back. Note to self: very interesting…
TVG: Can we expect more gay characters in Genoa City?
TVG: Now that Thom is back, will Lauralee Bell [Christine] return soon? Thom told me Lauralee had a punishing crush on him at one point!
MAB: Yeah, they were very close friends, and I think she did have a crush on him. Thom is a very nice and great person. Listen, every few months at the dinner table, I ask: “When are you ready to come back?” She always responds, “Not yet, but one day.” I just can’t say when, but it will happen because I am always needling her! [Laughs]
TVG: [Joking] Who does she think she is, Rachel McAdams? Lauralee is very picky these days — and you know what? I kind of like that!
MAB: I get it. She’s very much about her private life, her children, and business. She’s also working a lot in independent film and prime time. One day over Thanksgiving turkey, I’ll get my way! [Laughs]
MAB: Absolutely. We are going to be telling our gay stories in ways you wouldn’t expect. I don’t want to tell a traditional coming-out story because I feel that has been done to death. Our stories are about relationships — and our gay stories will be no different. You’re going to see gay themes in several different ways on the show. I won’t spoil anything because viewers will really enjoy how it all unfolds. We’re portraying being gay as it is: a part of life.
TVG: Do you think it’s possible for Y&R to hit a 4.5?
MAB: Oh, God — I’m not going to say that’s not possible. Obviously, I wouldn’t be working on Y&R if I didn’t think anything was possible. Weren’t you the one who said we could hit a 4.0 last year?
MAB: And you were right: this past November we earned a 4.1! So we’ll see. Honestly, we have phenomenal story this summer. Everything will hit a crescendo all at once. I think it’s possible to gain viewers. Our numbers have really grown in the past year in all areas, so we’re hopeful.
TVG: Would you ever act on a soap? Let’s face it, most head writers and executives aren’t the easiest to look at but you’re a stunner.
MAB: You’re funny. I’ll tell you something I don’t think anyone knows. When I graduated from Northwestern in writing and art history, I took a job with my stepdad who was a garmento in downtown L.A., à la Sally Spectra. Lee Phillip introduced me to Bill when I inquired about job opportunities at B&B. I told Bill I was a fashion knockoff artist re-imagining Versace gowns for $12.95. I hated the job, but I didn’t know how to make a career as a writer. When I started out with Bill, I wrote for B&B and Y&R, but at the same time I was trying to pay my rent, so I did some extra work on Y&R. When Eileen Davidson [Ashley] left Y&R the first time, at the end of that episode, I was seen as a nurse at the hospital. [Laughs] I remember being so excited because I made $75, and I really needed it! Yes, my acting career ended with the nurse who didn’t speak! And that was perfect for me!
TVG: I’ll be looking for that episode on YouTube now! [Sarcastically] Maybe you’ll have better luck being Emmy-nominated for your acting instead of what you do best.
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Nelson Branco is a Toronto freelance entertainment journalist, who regularly contributes to Hello! Canada, The National Post, The Los Angeles Times' theenvelope.com, TV Guide USA, tvguide.com, Inside Entertainment, OUT, and fab magazine, along with spearheading the soap coverage for TVGuide.ca's popular daytime TV hub. After graduating from Ryerson University in 1997, he moved from Toronto to New York in 1998 to take on the roles as senior news editor at Soap Opera Update. Branco first freelanced for Soap Opera Weekly as an intern in 1994, and after leaving Soap Update to help create and launch Bauer Publishing's In Touch Weekly in 2003, Branco continued to freelance occasionally for its sister publication, Soaps In Depth. Most recently, he helped create and launch Canada's first celebrity magazine, Weekly Scoop in 2005 as its news and entertainment director. Branco is also a contributor to a new TV show titled Planet Soap to air in Canada and America.