In 1962, legendary soap scribe Agnes Nixon wrote a uterine cancer storyline involving beloved Bert Bauer (Charita Bauer) on “Guiding Light,” prompting many women to visit their doctors and get Pap smears. There were no Daytime Emmys back then to acknowledge Nixon’s tale, but since 1973, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS) has been handing out gold statuettes to producers, writers, actors and other creative personnel for their outstanding work in social-issue stories similar to Nixon’s.
The late Nixon recounted in her 2017 memoir, “My Life to Live,” that she had to battle network execs to tell Bert’s uterine cancer story, but today’s writers appear to be able to tackle pretty much anything and everything.
Last year, “General Hospital,” for example, told tales of gender identity, cults, #MeToo and Alzheimer’s.
“The stories arise from the characters who are primed to be involved in very contemporary conflicts,” says “General Hospital” head writer Shelly Altman.
When it comes to the #MeToo movement, medical student Lauren “KiKi” Jerome (Hayley Erin) was mentored by an older doctor, David Bensch (James DePaiva), who began harassing her; she took him to court. For the Alzheimer’s storyline, notorious mob kingpin Sonny Corinthos’ father, Mike Corbin (Max Gail), was diagnosed with the condition.
“We were intrigued by the idea of a strong and powerful character like Sonny Corinthos having to deal with the diminishing mental capacity of his once vibrant and vital father,” says Altman. “Life is lived daily, not weekly, and in the case of Alzheimer’s, a patient’s condition can change radically from day to day. Having the ability to explore our stories on a truly day-to-day basis helps the audience experience what the characters are going through in as close to real time as we can get.”
“The Young and the Restless” had Victoria Newman (Amelia Heinle) renewing her connection with ex-husband J.T. Hellstrom (Thad Luckinbill), who slowly began mentally and physically abusing his former wife. By the time, Victoria realized she was in too deep, she didn’t know how to get out.
The show also introduced multiple sclerosis into its storytelling, diagnosing series staple Nikki Newman (Melody Thomas Scott) with the condition.
“We knew Melody would knock it out of the park,” says “Y&R” co-executive producer and head writer Josh Griffith. “The impact is always stronger with a character the audience knows and loves. It’s much richer and more fulfilling for them to take the journey with someone they already consider a friend.”
“Days of Our Lives” shined a light on a person’s legal right to die after heroine Marlena Evans (Deidre Hall) was shot and hovered between life and death. Marlena being on life support pitted family members against one another. Her groom, John Black (Drake Hogestyn), refused to let her go, but their daughter, Belle Black (Martha Madison), an attorney, was charged with enforcing her mom’s do not resuscitate order. The tale touched close to home for Madison.
“My own mother has been living with frontotemporal dementia for 16 years and was diagnosed with MS 20 years before that,” Madison says. “Recurring debilitation and imminent death are issues my sisters and I have always had to consider regarding our mother since childhood.”
Many actors involved in these storylines, including Erin, Hogestyn and Madison, have received pre-nominations for this year’s awards, some for the first time. They’ll find out on March 20 if they advance to the final round. Winners will be announced on May 5 at the 46th annual Daytime Emmy Awards ceremony.
Along with entertaining and educating viewers, Madison says social-issue stories get people talking.
“The feedback was enormous,” she says, noting one viewer wrote to her that their grandmother had put together a living will after seeing the “Days” story.
If these and other social issue storylines do well at the Daytime Emmys, it’ll increase the chance of seeing more of them on daytime dramas.
Bradley Bell, executive producer and head writer of “The Bold and the Beautiful,” who has told successful tales involving a love story involving a transgender character, homelessness and death with dignity, says he’d like to tackle next the topic of mental health.
“It’s significant and far-reaching,” says Bell. “Society and humanity are only as strong as its weakest links. When we have people who are homeless, jobless, depressed and ridden with anxieties, it’s something that we need to deal with. There are good people who fall upon hard times and they have no safety net. We, as a society, need to do more.”