The CBS-Sony soap The Young and the Restlessowed Josh Griffith a huge debt of gratitude when he did double duty as exec producer and head writer during the 2007-2008 Writers Guild strike. Not only did the three-time Emmy winning Griffith keep Y&R afloat during that treacherous time, he improved the show drastically. But no good deed goes unpunished in Soapland! When the strike was over, Griffith was pushed out. Now he's back as head writer, working with new exec producer Jill Farren Phelps to get this once-mighty serial back in shape after the devastating reign of Maria Bell. TV Guide Magazine had an exclusive chat with Griffith to discuss his much-anticipated plans for Y&R and, of course, the mass firings that have the suds world buzzing.
TV Guide Magazine: You inherited one sad mess of a show, with several weeks of material already scripted and still needing to be shot before your own work hits the air Oct. 12. Were you tempted to go in and fix the previous regime's stuff rather than just letting it air as is?
Griffith: It was a more interesting challenge to work with what I was left with and tailor my ideas to pick up from there. You don't want to go in and start messing with what is already written and suddenly shift the story 180 degrees. The audience would feel jerked around. It's always a challenge in these transition periods. Sure, we made little tweaks here and there but we made the decision to officially start our work with show number 10,011 and only look forward.
TV Guide Magazine: Let's discuss the bloodbath. In just the past couple of weeks, we've seen the ousters of Genie Francis [Genevieve], Debbi Morgan [Harmony] and Marcy Rylan [Abby]. Word is, Jennifer Landon [Heather] is also on her way out. True?
Griffith: Unfortunately, she's been let go. We are losing her.
TV Guide Magazine: Julia Pace Mitchell [Sofia] has been taken off contract. You've also dropped Lindsay Bushman [Summer] and Kevin Schmidt [Noah] and replaced them with Hunter Haley King and Robert Adamson from Hollywood Heights, the show you and Jill teamed on just before coming to Y&R. Anyone else headed to the chopping block?
Griffith: I think that's it right now.We've put away the ax for a while.
TV Guide Magazine: With maybe the exception of Marcy Rylan — we'll get to that in a second — your firings are spot on. There is a lot of hot commentary on the soap boards about these terminations yet not too many actual complaints. Feeling relieved?
Griffith: I think the audience will be very entertained and excited by what we have planned. One of my goals is to zero in on the core characters and core families and rein in the storytelling so it does not require the kind of widespread canvas Y&R has had over the last few years. You can't get into really meaty, juicy, rich storytelling when you have to cover so much ground and serve so many characters. We also came in with a budgetary mandate from Sony and really had to tighten the belt. We looked at the characters that didn't have long-reaching history and connection to the heart of the show and made the tough call to cut them loose so we can focus on the core.
TV Guide Magazine: The upside of a budget cut?
Griffith: [Laughs] Yes, it does help that we can blame it on Sony!
TV Guide Magazine: Did Sony have specific requests as to who got fired?
Griffith: No. They asked Jill and me where we wanted to go with the show. We told them which characters we felt would give us the most heat and which ones wouldn't, and they were fine with our choices. We were inclined to make even more cast cuts but both Sony and CBS wanted to be careful. They felt too much head-lobbing would not bode well for the way the fans see our tenure.
TV Guide Magazine: Don't get me wrong. I'm no fan of Maria Bell's contributions to Y&R but this massacre does seem like a direct indictment of her work. The people being fired are all her "discoveries." Are you making a statement here?
Griffith: All I can say to that is it's a statement about my gut instincts. I understand the characters on this show. I understand the history. I know who will give us the most bang for our buck. It's my job to figure out what has kept Y&R No. 1 for so many years, and which characters and actors have been responsible for that.
TV Guide Magazine: That brings us to Marcy Rylan. Sure, Maria Bell grew up the character of Abby overnight and launched that crap "Naked Heiress" story, but surely there was value in keeping Rylan, no? She's a real firecracker and she's playing both an Abbott and a Newman!
Griffith: You know what? We did wrestle with that one a lot. It was probably the most difficult choice we had to make, but when we looked at who we needed to tell stories, and looked at a certain bottom-line number we had to get to financially, Marcy had to go. The character wasn't integral.
TV Guide Magazine: The need to replace Bushman and Schmidt suggests there's a big problem with the casting department. Y&R has really lowered the bar lately, allowing young actors in the door who would never have been hired in the show's golden days. Does the arrival of these Hollywood Heights kids mean you and Jill are taking command of the casting process?
Griffith: All I can say about that is to promise you will be thrilled — blown away! — by Robert as Noah and Hunter as Summer. It's really crucial to create the next wave of Abbotts and Newmans. By recasting those roles and finding two young actors who can knock it out of the park, I can take full advantage of the Phyllis-Nick-Summer-Noah relationship.
TV Guide Magazine: A couple more casting things. How did all that diva drama with Christel Khalil [Lily] work itself out?
Griffith: It worked out. She's staying.
TV Guide Magazine: What's the deal on the new African-American character you're looking to cast? Is it true he'll be a son or nephew of Sarge [Darnell Williams]?
Griffith: We're still casting that role and the [familial relationship] is now in flux. We have not settled on which character he'll be related to. We have a really strong star in Kristoff St. John [Neil] and need to bolster that part of the canvas. We're also going to slowly bring in a Latino element.
TV Guide Magazine: Let's talk about specific story plans. There's been much concern about Sharon Case's character, Sharon, who suddenly turned from heroine to psycho slut-nut, that is when she's not channeling Joan Crawford in the Pepsi board room. How do you fix that?
Griffith: In order to rebuild the character of Sharon, we're going to take her to the edge and over it, to a point where she has a total mental breakdown. And then she's going to find salvation in a very surprising — yet inevitable — way. She will cause major damage to the Newman family, damage that's possibly irreparable, specifically to Victor [Eric Braeden], Nick [Joshua Morrow] and Victoria [Amelia Heinle]. And out of that absolute breakdown she's going to be rescued and nurtured back to mental health, so we come out on the other end of the story with a stronger, more together, more evolved Sharon, with a love story at the center of her recuperation. When I first saw what had been done to the character I went, "Whoa!" Then I embraced it and saw it as the opportunity for an even bigger story that will take three to four months — the fall and the resurrection of Sharon.
TV Guide Magazine: How bad is this for the Mustache?
Griffith: There is much at stake for him. He and the Newman family will lose a lot and have to find their way back to reclaiming it. It's going to be a very powerful, very emotional story that — at the risk of sounding pretentious — will be very Shakespearean. Victor finds himself in the position of a King Lear, where he has to put his children to the test to prove he has taught them well. This is all part of the damage Sharon has done, which is physical, professional and emotional.
TV Guide Magazine: And Nikki [Melody Thomas Scott] stays by Victor's side through all this?
Griffith: The love story of Victor and Nikki is ultimate and inevitable. The fact that she would leave Jack the night of their wedding out of concern for Victor pretty much says it all. Now, as we move into the next stage of the Newman story, Victor and Nikki find their bond is stronger than even they imagined. So much will emanate from their reconnection. We also have interesting stuff for Adam [Michael Muhney]. He's tried really hard to make himself into a new man and it's not going to work out for him. The battle lines will be drawn over the next few months, with Victor on one side, Adam on the other.
TV Guide Magazine: Where does all this Newman turmoil leave Jack [Peter Bergman]?
Griffith: There's a big story coming for him. Jack will take full advantage of the Newman fall, as he is wont to do. He'll be right there, zooming in, but once he has everything, once he feels he's master of the universe again, he's going to face a very difficult...uh, affliction, shall we say?
TV Guide Magazine: But he just got over one! The guy just started walking again!
Griffith: But Jack made a mistake. He should have had that bullet removed. And he will. But then there are going to be some ramifications. I'll just say this: What can happen to people after surgery sometimes isn't pretty.
TV Guide Magazine: Yikes, sounds ominous. Will this, as Jill Phelps promised, help shore up the sadly dwindling Abbott clan?
Griffith: We need that family back. I'm really sorry Eileen Davidson [Ashley] is gone. If there's anyone I would bring back immediately if I could, it's Eileen. In fact, if you remember, bringing Ashley back to town was the first thing I did during the writers strike. I hear Eileen is having great success at Days of Our Lives so I don't know if I'll ever have a chance to get her back. But I can hope. So, yes, we will rebuild the family and it'll need to be done via the younger characters. Billy [Billy Miller] is going to be very involved in Jack's story. There will be quite a conflict between them.
TV Guide Magazine: Will that involve a recast? Word is, Billy Miller made the decision to leave the show back while Maria was still in charge.
Griffith: I'm not sure that's 100 percent.
TV Guide Magazine: What's coming for Katherine [Jeanne Cooper]?
Griffith: We are bringing Jess Walton back as Jill, and the reason for that is Katherine, who will make the decision to come out of retirement. She's restless and wants to take control of Chancellor again. Jill will try to talk her out of that, which allows us to get back to that wonderful love-hate dynamic between the two women. Jill is brought back to town by Tucker, who surprisingly cares very deeply for Kay and is worried about the adverse effect a return to work will have on her health. Everyone thinks he's angling, working a position, but he really is concerned. He can't get Kay to listen, so he brings Jill back to help talk some sense into her. And who knows? There may be some interesting sparks between Tucker and Jill as they work together. He's been portrayed as being manipulative and backstabbing and all business. It'll be a nice to see the good side of him.
TV Guide Magazine: Then this is not just a visit for Jess Walton? This could lead to something longterm?
Griffith: I don't know yet, but I do know Jess is very excited about coming back for this. I would love for it to blossom into an ongoing thing. She's fantastic.
TV Guide Magazine: Can you write something for Doug Davidson [Paul] that will finally win him a damn Emmy already?
Griffith: He's been doing wonderful work in the aftermath of Paul killing his son. When we get through the mystery and the murder charge, there's a wonderful opportunity for this man — who must face the fact that his son was a homicidal psychopath — to reevaluate his life and his love and his place in Genoa City. Doug is such a terrific actor that I really want to explore that. I want to take him on a really big, emotional journey as he tries to find his place in the world.
TV Guide Magazine: And our gal Phyllis [Michelle Stafford]?
Griffith: Phyllis and Nick have a major blowup coming out of Phyllis' trial, which will push Phyllis in a new-slash-old direction, where she has to look at her life and try to reclaim some of her strength and dignity. She's going to find an ally in her old friend Jack. When she's down and out, he's going to offer her a hand and bring her back up. Peter and Michelle are so wonderful together. I want to take big advantage of that.
TV Guide Magazine: You got such a bum deal when you were dumped from Y&R after the writers' strike. Does being asked back — now that they need you desperately — feel like sweet revenge?
Griffith: Things didn't play out the way I expected but I've been in the business long enough to know you have to roll with the punches. Let me just say that it is very gratifying to come back. Everyone has been incredibly welcoming and supportive — the cast, crew, staff — and it felt like I was coming home. In fact, within a week, it felt like I had never left!