minority report

Why ‘Days of Our Lives’ axing its gay characters was the worst decision ever

Daytime soap fans are as loyal as The Lord of the Rings’ Samwise Gamgee. If they weren’t, soap operas wouldn’t be be passed along from generation to generation, sometimes remaining on air and in production for more than half a century. When was the last time a primetime drama series did that?

In 2020, Days of Our Lives, the longest-running of the four surviving network soaps after General Hospital, is celebrating its 55th year of love in the afternoon. To commemorate the occasion, the powers that be at Days have jettisoned four of their lead actors, including Emmy winners Chandler Massey and Freddie Smith, who play, respectively, Will Horton and Sonny Kiriakis, aka “WilSon,” daytime’s first gay supercouple. They reportedly will air for the final time on September 18.

The actors say they didn’t find out their characters were heading into the soap sunset until they read it in the sixth script of the season. Although Days has rotated characters in and out for years, and the door will be left open for Will and Sonny to return, the handling of the heave-ho is almost as egregious as the heave-ho itself. Is this any way to treat two fan favorites who portray two of the show’s most popular — and socially significant — characters?

Despite Middle America’s objections to Will and Sonny over the actors’ near-decade on the show, they became one of daytime’s hottest couples (in fan appeal, if not steam appeal). In April 3, 2014, they made TV history as the grooms in daytime’s first-ever legal gay wedding. (At the time, Guy Wilson had taken over the role of Will from Massey, who left the show in 2014 and returned in 2017.)

There have been several others since, but WilSon’s marriage sparked a still-evolving LGBTQ soap scene. Following their ground-breaking “I do” exchange, The Bold and the Beautiful introduced daytime’s first transgender main character (Maya Avant), The Young and the Restless introduced its first lesbian couple (Mariah Copeland and Tessa Porter), and General Hospital introduced its first baby-switch storyline featuring a married gay couple (Lucas Jones and Brad Cooper, the grooms in daytime’s second legal gay wedding, in 2016).

WilSon’s influence extended beyond daytime. They helped smooth the path for TV’s golden age of gays. As antecedents to the current crop of LGBTQ small-screen characters, they’ve never been as sexy as the gays on Eastenders, as amusing as David Rose on Schitt’s Creek, or as spectacularly attired and coiffured as Phillipe I, Duke of Orléans, and Chevalier de Lorraine on Versailles. Will and Sonny represent a sort-of crewnecks and plaid shirts middle-of-the-road Pete Buttigieg gayness, even when one of them is coming back from the dead several years after being strangled by “The Necktie Killer.”

In the early 2010s, Will and Sonny were revolutionary in a way their storylines since then haven’t been, at least by daytime’s outrageous standards. Once Will came out, they faced many of the same trials and tribulations heterosexual soap couples face: parenthood, blackmail, interlopers, infidelity, murder, resurrection, amnesia, divorce, remarriage, and, currently, false imprisonment.

Will and Sonny are like any other star-crossed soap spouses. They just happen to be gay. Why would the powers that be at Sony Pictures Television and Corday Productions, the companies that produces Days, and NBC, the network that has aired it since 1965, undervalue such groundbreaking assets and let them go? If it’s a cost-cutting measure, surely there are far more expendable straight characters on the canvas. Cutting Will and Sonny is like cutting Bo and Hope in the ’80s. Yes, longtime Days viewers, I’m going there.

Hallowed and iconic as Bo and Hope might be, it’s actually a fitting comparison. Shortly after news of the firings broke, fan Chris Bedell of Ridgefield, CT, created a Change.org petition to NBC to bring the actors back, as social media lit up with viewers expressing their outrage and support.

Beyond pissing off fans, Days is jeopardizing a huge part of its legacy. Will and Sonny may not have brought the show back to its ratings heyday of he ’90s, but it gave the soap prominent standing in the LGBTQ community. Between 2012 and 2015, it won four consecutive GLAAD Media Awards for Outstanding Daily Drama.

Days owes it to its own LGBTQ legacy to treat these revolutionary characters and the actors who made them a top soap supercouple with more care. Since the ’80s, it’s been known mostly for its bad boy-good girl pairings (Bo and Hope, Patch and Kayla, Jack and Jennifer, and, recently, Ben and Ciara) and for its literally out-of-this-world storylines, like the one in which Dr. Marlena Evans was possessed by the devil. Until Will and Sonny, though, the soap had been largely lacking in social relevance since the ’70s.

They gave gay men and the people who love them characters they recognized, even when they were faced with the kind of obstacles most of us likely will never encounter. Days is not the house that WilSon built, but over the last decade, they’ve been such a vital part of its foundation. Unlike in primetime, no character is indispensable on a daytime soap. Departures and recasts happen without significant damage to ratings. The show will go on without WilSon. Some viewers won’t even notice they’re gone.

The effect of their absence will be more symbolic. It says when it comes to love in the afternoon, straight is more valuable and viable than gay, that two legacy gay characters who, between them, cover four of the show’s primary families aren’t important enough to keep around. Will and Sonny have stuck with each other through ordeals that would have destroyed most straight soap couples. Fans have been with them all the way. It’s too bad the powers that be at Days aren’t devoted enough to continue telling their story.

Jeremy Helligar is a New York City-based journalist from the U.S. Virgin Islands and the author of the travelogue/memoir Is It True What They Say About Black Men?