LOS ANGELES — Most storylines in “The Bold and the Beautiful” revolve around a plush Beverly Hills mansion where characters who look like magazine models manipulate and machinate for love and money.
But the soap opera’s formula took an unusual detour recently, trading make-believe luxury for the true-life streets of Skid Row in shows that not only portrayed stories of fictional homeless people but also told the unscripted stories of real ones.
It was a rare intersection of the extremes of glitz and grit in this sprawling city — both the nation’s entertainment Mecca and its homeless capital, and quite a departure in both style and substance for the 24-year-old CBS melodrama.
“We’re what you could call a camp romance novel,” said actress Susan Flannery, whose character experiences an epiphany in the episodes. “We don’t do big social issues.”
The episodes have earned nine Daytime Emmy nominations, including writing, directing, acting and outstanding drama series. The award ceremony will be held June 19 in Las Vegas.
Two of the episodes, which resemble documentaries filmed at a Skid Row park and a shelter, are a particular measure of pride for the cast, crew and executive producer-head writer Bradley Bell.
“It was unlike anything we’d done in 24 years,” Bell said. “We were all transformed by this. We went to bed that night grateful for a pillow under our heads.”
Soap operas have served as soap boxes sporadically through the decades.
“The Bold and the Beautiful,” which is viewed daily by about 2.95 million U.S. viewers, according to Nielsen ratings, and broadcast in 110 countries, has featured storylines involving incest, alcoholism and HIV/AIDS. Other shows have incorporated plotlines such as domestic violence and gay rights.
But stark storylines are now uncommon. Struggling to compete against cable and less expensive court and talk shows, soaps are sticking closely to the tried and true, anxious not to alienate faithful fans who watch to escape through fantasy lives.
“It’s very unusual for any soap to take the chance to do something socially relevant,” said Michael Logan, veteran daytime TV columnist for TV Guide. “It’s not so hip anymore.”
With ABC axing “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” last month and two other stalwarts cancelled last year, “The Bold and the Beautiful” is now just one of four soaps on the air. It’s a far cry from bubblier days in the 1970s when some 18 soaps filled network programming grids, with the top ones attracting 10 million to 14 million viewers daily.
While the precarious climate has caused some producers to hew to cliche, Bell sees it as a time to veer off it.
“If we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down swinging,” said Bell, whose parents created the show. “I’m trying anything new and fresh. I personally can’t tell the same old love triangles. It gets boring for me and I think it’s boring for the audience.”
Close to home
Bell said for years he had wondered about the homeless people he saw as he drove to work every day.
When he had a storyline involving brash fashion-house matron Stephanie Forrester (Flannery) refusing treatment for her advanced lung cancer, he saw a chance to change the grande dame’s selfishness into selflessness.
Forrester follows a young homeless woman Dayzee (Kristolyn Lloyd) into Skid Row to retrieve a lost scarf and, after befriending her, finds a world of despair she barely knew existed, but also discovers hope and inspiration.
A 50 square-block area in downtown Los Angeles, Skid Row is known as the nation’s densest concentration of homeless people where some 5,000 people, many of whom struggle with mental illness and addiction, form a teeming tide of have-not humanity.
“This is my town,” Forrester says in one episode, as she surveys the bedlam. “I live 20 minutes away yet it seems 1,000 miles away. I promised I’d make a difference, yet when I see them I turn away. What is my burden compared to theirs?”
Filmed on location, the production employed some 30 locals as background extras.
Bell said he was so moved by the experience, he continued the homeless theme.
After discovering a newfound purpose in life, Forrester decides to get cancer treatment and launches a Skid Row pay-as-you-can café for Dayzee to run. For the café scenes, Bell hires Skid Row residents in roles as waiters.
But Bell still wanted to give a voice to the homeless. In two special episodes, Flannery, as her fictional character, interviews real people about their homelessness.
“Susan said ‘where’s the script?’ I said ‘I don’t have a script.’ She just ran with it,” Bell said. “We weren’t sure what we were getting into.”
Forrester talks to a family made homeless after a job loss, an Iraq war veteran who turned to drugs and alcohol after a devastating injury, a former foster child whose mother said she didn’t have room for him, among others.
Flannery, who has been on the show since its inception, said the shoots were humbling. “It was very much ‘there but for the grace of God’,” she said. “I was so proud of Brad and of being part of this.”
The episodes end with Flannery urging the audience to help and giving the website address of the Union Rescue Mission, which was featured in the show.
Viewers flooded the show’s Facebook page with support and the mission received more than 800 emails, a stream of volunteers and donations, some as little as $5, said Andy Bales, chief executive. The soap opera also kicked in $25,000 to pay for the mission’s Thanksgiving dinner, which was served by cast and crew.
Skid Row residents involved in the production said they were pleased they were portrayed with dignity, as people getting their lives together instead of being down and out, and that the show has continued relationships with them.
Community activist General Jeff, who appeared on the program, said the crew invited Skid Row residents to its holiday party, sending a bus to pick them up and giving children gifts.
“They weren’t just pushing their fluff story, they’re adding the human element,” he said. “It’s great for our community to be respected as individual human beings, not like we’re homeless and hopeless.”