Just when I thought significant creative advancement in daytime drama was a thing of the past CBS' The Bold and the Beautiful has suddenly brought a new level of excitement to the genre, all the while reminding me why I started watching soaps in the first place.
The new energy at B&B began a few weeks ago with a storyline in which one of its veteran characters -- fashion industry titan Stephanie Forrester, played with great grit and gusto by multiple Emmy winner Susan Flannery -- was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. The cancer had spread and she was told she likely has only a few months to live, even with aggressive treatment. Nothing new there: Through the decades countless soap characters have been brought to the brink of death from cancer and other diseases, only to survive after a last minute medical treatment, often an experimental one -- a storytelling contrivance, I might note, that rings false and somewhat offensive to those of us who have actually lost loved ones to catastrophic illnesses. But this time it feels new and different -- and realistic. If Stephanie doesn't lose this battle (and Flannery doesn't leave the show), I'm certain that she will be permanently changed by the experience, as cancer survivors often are.
But B&B hasn't stopped there, which is why I feel it is breaking new ground. This may be a show about the rich and the fabulous (and the fabulous-looking), but it is doing something decidedly down to earth with this narrative by layering a second huge story of profound social importance on top of it. After weeks of stubbornly asserting that she would decline treatment in what she perceives as a losing battle and instead do her best to enjoy the time she has left, Stephanie inadvertently came into contact with members of the homeless community in Los Angeles, the city in which B&B is set. She was so moved by the sheer determination of the homeless and the disenfranchised to survive and make better lives for themselves that she was moved to have the tumor in her lung removed and make arrangements for further treatment once she has recovered from the surgery. She now wants to live, not to continue the life she has had, but to be able to devote herself to helping those less fortunate.
I'm told that B&B won't shy away from documenting the challenges that late-stage cancer patients must endure as they fight to survive. Other soaps tend to sanitize such things, but I don't think this one will, if only because I don't believe the formidable Flannery would agree to play it that way. (I may be forgetting something, but I think the last time soap viewers saw a character endure the prolonged difficulties and frequent setbacks that often come with cancer treatment, told in real time over a period of many months, was on General Hospital in 1994-95 with the memorable story of Monica Quartermaine's battle against breast cancer.) Of course, Stephanie's circumstances, as punishing as they may be, will be easier than those faced by millions of Americans, in that she is a fantastically wealthy person who can afford the finest medical care and focus her energies solely on the challenge of getting well, a luxury not available to most of us. Happily, this damning imbalance has been acknowledged by Stephanie in conversation with other characters.
Stephanie's story is being played with such raw honesty and deep integrity that, regardless of her fate, I can't help but believe that the show will keep important concerns about the homeless on its canvas for a long time to come. Consider: In an unprecedented move, B&B two weeks ago found Stephanie prematurely checking out of the hospital after her surgery and returning to the streets (and a shelter) to talk with homeless people about their circumstances and learn all she could about them. (In another strong shot of realism, some of the people she met were living very nicely just a couple of years ago but lost everything to the economic ravages of our ongoing recession.) The show's producers hired dozens of homeless people to either talk about their lives (to the fictional Stephanie) and/or appear as extras during these unforgettable episodes (and others leading up to them).
I'm particularly impressed with the way executive producer Brad Bell and his team integrated these two storylines into their canvas, keeping their other characters and their personal dramas in play while taking so much of the show to places it has never before been. B&B's story structure is in perfect balance, offering as much romance, sex, scandal and superficial fun as ever. The veteran cast members are all in typical fine form (especially Flannery, likely next year to add another Emmy to her shelf), while the uniformly appealing younger players are more than holding their own.
It seems to me that the producers and writers of the other five soaps could learn a lot by watching B&B these days. At a time when so many stories on the remaining daytime dramas have so little to offer, even as entertainment, B&B is singlehandedly proving that soap operas can still have enormous value on many levels. All things considered, that's a minor miracle.