‘The Young and the Restless’ Turns 50: Reflecting on the Iconic Soap Opera’s Timeless Appeal

Young and the Restless

The Young and the Restless celebrates its 50th anniversary on March 26. Photo: CBS via Getty Images

The Young and the Restless, one of three daytime soap operas still on the air, celebrated its 50th season in March. The potboiler, known as Y&R, is set in the fictional Genoa City, a place with an unusual number of internationally prominent billionaires, and tells the tales of two feuding families, the Abbotts and the Newmans. The ultimate power couple — Victor and Nikki Newman (played by Eric Braeden and Melody Thomas Scott) — have been married to each other four times since Victor found his love in a strip club. But since weddings are the lifeblood of a soap, these two have walked many aisles since the show debuted in 1973: Nikki has had 11 rings placed on her finger; Victor has worn 14. 

Thomas Scott has some thoughts about why the Nikki-and-Victor love story has endured through the ups and downs and divorce decrees.

“Opposites attracting was probably the first reason, but then the story became multi-layered with the My Fair Lady aspect,” she said in an email from Los Angeles, referring to Nikki’s transformation. “God knows, she was a bit of a mess, uneducated and clueless to the finer things in life. His slowly teaching her, tutoring her, and eventually wooing her became a fascinating process to watch. And then came the most important thing, chemistry.”

The thing about soaps is they provide comfort and continuity. You visit the same homes and see the same characters each day, and are submersed in the cathartic cycles of mundane drama — adultery, friend squabbles, corporate backstabbing — and intense histrionics, from traumatic brain injuries (and amnesia, a plot twist with mucho dramatic possibility) to baby-switching schemes, boffo explosions, disappearances in volcanoes and being buried alive. (This was the plotline that hooked me in high school, circa 1986, involving Lauren Fenmore Williams Grainger Baldwin, played by Tracy E. Bregman, who just celebrated 40 years on the show.)

Time is mutable on soaps: Things move both slowly, as characters chew the scenery in a hypnotic loop, and swiftly. When the shows need fresh faces, babies grow up seemingly overnight in what is known as SORAS, or “soap opera rapid aging syndrome.”

Soaps were always ahead of their time, quietly subversive in introducing once-taboo subjects into the conversation. Y&R has tackled alcoholism, AIDS, sexual harassment, breast cancer, eating disorders and, more recently, cyberbullying on FacePlace — the stand-in for Facebook — but interestingly, there are few laptops, tablets or smartphones to be seen. As the suds keep on flying, it feels like a throwback to a time when we hashed things out in person. 

The genre began on the radio in the 1930s, moving to television in the 1940s. There were once 25 radio soaps and, at the height of TV soapdom in 1970, there were 19 shows on the air. Y&R has returned to its roots, with the audio now available as an Apple podcast. It also had a post-modern crossover when cast member Eileen Davidson (who plays Ashley Abbott) appeared simultaneously on Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills from 2014 to 2017.

Indeed, the Real Housewives franchise has replaced the soap opera — so named because the daytime TV fodder for actual housewives was once sponsored by soap and detergent companies — as the destination for treachery and skulduggery, bad behaviour and yes, catharsis, as we watch egos explode (from a safe distance). Compared to Housewives, Y&R is almost genteel in its approach; even the villains have soft spots to mine. Thomas Scott credits the show’s longevity to its creators and the enduring personalities that sprang from their pens.

“While other daytime serials have gone off the air, Y&R has thrived thanks to the genius of [the late] Bill and Lee Bell. They created strong characters that are still on the show, driving the storyline.”