Last week I was surprised by the amount of mainstream entertainment press given to the death of actress Jeanne Cooper. She played the role of Katherine Chancellor on the CBS daytime drama The Young & the Restless for nearly all of the show’s 40 year (and counting) run. The coverage mainly was referring to the 84-year-old as the show’s matriarch. For some reason that moniker didn’t sit well with me: Grande Dame? Yes. Longtime veteran? Sure. Reigning Diva? Okay. Something about “matriarch” doesn’t seem like the right fit for the feisty, sometimes spiteful and petty, on-again/off-again alcoholic Kay Chancellor. Then last night while watching my other favorite–Mad Men–I realized why. Unlike other older soap veterans that have passed away over the last decade or so Jeanne Cooper/Kay Chancellor wasn’t part of the older, homemaker, matriarchal figures my cohort remember as the grandmothers when we were watching soaps in the 1980s. Jeanne Cooper/Kay Chancellor was Silent Generation through and through: that oft-ignored generation squeezed in between the bigger, louder Greatest Generation (WWII) and the Baby Boomers.
Let me back up a minute and talk about my relationship with The Young & the Restless, a daytime program roughly the same age as me: a “new soap” of the 1970s created by Bill Bell (as opposed to the earlier generation of soaps–General Hospital, Guiding Light–those that span as far back as the era of the fifteen-minute episode or even radio). Like most soap opera fans, closeted or not, my introduction to the genre was watching episodes with my grandmother one summer in the late 1980s. This is an often-discussed element to this medium: it is usually passed on to someone in childhood or adolescence. I’ve yet to meet someone who decides to just take up a new daytime soap opera at age 35. If you ever watch one it’s going to be that very one you remember being introduced to by your mother, grandmother, or babysitter one summer years and years ago. Home from work sick? If you are going to tune into a soap it’ll be the one passed onto you like a family heirloom.
Anyway, my tastes soon diverged but then a couple years later as a teenager working a summer job with a daycare center I realized all the African-American women I worked with watched Y&R! Jumping back in, I was able to share in the workplace gossip revolving around Cricket, Victor, Paul, Drucilla, Jill and (of course) Kay Chancellor! Throughout university I could pop in now and then depending on my class schedule, there was always a slew of newbies but there would always be the core families to check up on which could get you hooked back in for a time. The Chancellor mansion set (pictured at left circa 1975) was as much a familiar mainstay as the characters of Genoa City. Fittingly, Jeanne Cooper’s last scene as Katherine has her climbing the stairway on that set that has more constancy than any home I’ve lived in.
Soaps can serve as a “safe place” during a breakdown or transitional period in life. That was definitely the case for me during 2010 and so that (to date my latest) brief dip back into Y&R occurred simultaneously with a new, freakish devotion to Mad Men–arguably the best written thing on television right now. Mad Men is living proof that the best elements of daytime soap writing have all migrated to cable and primetime. It’s strange to think only 25 years ago it was extremely rare to have multiple, continuing plots during primetime. Summer re-runs could scramble the order of a drama with little confusion. Hill Street Blues began that primetime evolution to arching, overlapping storylines in the early 1980s. There is so much great analysis of Mad Men out there I have no need to replicate it, but fundamentally I think there is an appeal (to me) because the core characters and conflicts are nearly all Silent Generation focused. Boomers like to claim the Sixties, but only that slice at the end is truly theirs. I really think Matthew Weiner’s creation is an acute exploration of this often sidelined cohort born roughly 1928-1945. The newer, younger characters coming onto the canvas now in Season 6 are just starting to represent the generational shift that was taking place as the decade wound down. Joan Holloway, Betty Draper Francis and, of course, Don epitomize the Silent Generation’s adjustment to the “Boomer-60s” (which I would say is roughly 1967 to 1973) with varying degrees of success.
Back to Kay Chancellor. When she was brought onto the show in its first year she was the ultimate desperate housewife. Wealthy, although not as wealthy as the show later made its core families when (foolishly in my opinion) daytime started aping glossy 1980s primetime soaps like Dynasty and Knot’s Landing, she wanders around her mansion in kaftans and jewels, usually with a drink in her hand. Here’s an early scene when her husband leaves her for Jill (and yes her husband Philip is none other than Battlestar Gallactica’s Doc Cottle, don’t you love when obsessions overlap?). By the 1990s Chancellor Industries had become a big corporation, with Katherine as CEO. In 1984 Cooper wanted to have a face lift so the writers wove it into the plot for Katherine, utilizing footage of the actual surgery. Other soap matriarchs like As the World Turns’ Nancy Hughes or Days of Our Lives’ Alice Brady often were given substantial plotlines in their older years but they mainly stayed in the mold of the kind, mentoring grandmother. Mrs. C, in fact, never had an actual blood grandchild on the show until post 2000 when some very creative retroactive continuity (“retcon”) gave her a couple! One of them the African-American illegitimate son of the illegitimate son she had during an alcohol-induced blackout. Deliciously soapy? Sure. Kindly matriarch? Not so much.