Friday, October 21, 2016

My Restless Hartnell (part 3)

The conclusion of my latest Doctor Who three-parter: reflections on the William Hartnell years. You can read my overview of the era here, and my initial countdown of favorite serials -- #13 through #6 -- here. What follows are my top-5 First Doctor serials.

As you'll see (and as you'll probably expect if you've read any of my other blog entries), my top Hartnells don't necessarily include the most acclaimed or seminal serials. Noticeably missing are two celebrated stories, "The Aztecs" and "The Time Meddler"; I simply don't feel the enthusiasm for them that I feel for the others on my list, and for me, they're more worthy for what they represent (the first surviving historical and the first pseudo-historical, respectively) than for what they actually achieve. But as I noted when I began counting down my favorite Hartnells, there are very few First Doctor serials I actively loathe; even the ones of which I'm not especially fond have premises I respect (e.g., "Planet of Giants," "The Smugglers") or individual episodes I enjoy ("The Keys of Marinus," "The Space Museum"). In fact, I think the only Hartnell I can't stand, top to bottom, is "The Celestial Toymaker." (Although it's credited to Brian Hayles, it was heavily revised by Gerry Davis, and I pretty much dislike everything Davis ever touched.) But most of the Hartnell era I consider a joy: sometimes just for the aspiration, but often for the execution as well.

One more thing, before I get to my top five. Once I'd completed these reviews, I realized that, of my top five Hartnells, four were partially or completely missing serials. I've watched them (multiple times) via reconstructions that wed the surviving audio tracks to production photographs and telesnaps, plus any extant video footage. (I synched up the audio-book narration as well, so that I gain a clearer idea of what's happening during silent passages.) But I did have to reflect: if these missing serials were found, might my estimation drop? Was I possibly overrating them, because I couldn't, quite literally, "see" their flaws? I don't think so. Since I started writing about Doctor Who, quite a few missing episodes have been unearthed, and not once has a discovery made me think less of a serial I admired. I would have given "The Web of Fear" a C+ before it was rediscovered; Doug Camfield's direction elevated it to a solid B. "Galaxy 4" went from a promising B- to a pleasing B+. "Enemy of the World" ticked up from an A to an A+. If the telesnaps and production photographs reveal a credible design, if the director's talents are well-established or if the dialogue feels well-played and well-paced (suggesting that the director had a good grip on the material), if the audio is engrossing in its own right, then the reconstructions tell you an awful lot of what you need to know. (The only missing Who serial I've never been able to get a handle on is Troughton's "Fury From the Deep." I can't tell if the Pinteresque pauses are well-filled by Hugh David, or if they're a sign of directorial slackness.) So I stand by these choices. My top five Hartnells, as follows:

written by John Lucarotti
directed by Warin Hussein
It operates on so many levels that its failings don't much matter. "Marco Polo" is about a journey: three of them, in fact. On the surface, it's about the journey that Marco Polo made to the Imperial Court in Peking in 1289: a journey that, however embellished, we're led to believe is historically accurate. Layered over that is the journey that the TARDIS crew makes with him -- turning fact into fiction. And finally, and crucially, it's about the weekly journey we make with the Doctor and his companions. Polo's expedition takes roughly three months, and when the serial first aired, over seven episodes, it seemed almost to take place in "real" time -- viewers were meant to feel the weight of the adventure as much as its participants. But impressive as its scope is, it's the tone that sets it apart. There's a marvelous synergy between Lucarotti's deliberately dispassionate recounting of events and Hussein's oblique framing of them. (Hussein is lent intoxicating support by Tristram Cary's musical score.) As with any long ride, the turning points aren't easily discerned as they fly by; as events unfold, you're frequently left off guard, uncertain whether moments are coming to a head, or whether they'll pass, unremarked upon and undeveloped. So you find yourself paying attention to the small gestures as much as the grand ones -- just as you would on any journey. (Notably, the only underwhelming episode is the fourth, guest-directed by John Crockett, where the set pieces build to more traditional climaxes. It takes Hussein nearly half the following episode to recover the quietly hypnotic tone.) "Marco Polo" celebrates the wonders and the dangers of traveling, and recognizes that the two aren't always distinguishable. Barbara is sidelined a bit, but Ian, the Doctor and Susan are all given strong characters to play opposite, and enjoy superior outings. It's a particularly good story for Susan, who has someone her own age to gossip with, scheme with, and fret about; it's one of the few times that she doesn't seem like the fifth wheel of the original TARDIS foursome, and Carole Ann Ford responds with a suitably radiant performance.

written by Donald Cotton
directed by Michael Leeston-Smith

A delight. Doctor Who, already adept at turning history into stories, now flips the script, as the Doctor turns a story into history. In Episode 1, the TARDIS sets down during the Trojan War; the Doctor is mistaken for Zeus and brought before Agamemnon and Menelaus. It's novel and entertaining, but you feel like it's not quite enough to build a story on. It's not: it's all preamble. In Episode 2, Cotton shifts his attentions to Troy and introduces King Priam, his daughter Cassandra and his son Paris, and this dysfunctional family both grounds and ignites the story. It's Doctor Who as ethnic sitcom, at that spot where insult humor and character comedy intersect. High Priestess Cassandra, with a voice pitched to the mezzanine, warns Paris, "The augeries were bad this morning. I woke full of foreboding," and Paris deadpans to the studio audience, "Never knew her when she didn't." Cotton weaves wonderful variations around The Odyssey and The Aeneid. Cassandra has had a vision of the fabled Trojan Horse: "I dreamed that out on the plain the Greeks had left a gift, and although what it was remained unclear, we brought it into Troy. Then at night, from out its belly, soldiers came and fell upon us as we slept." Except that Paris has found the TARDIS on the plains and brought it into Troy, and everyone presume that's the gift of which she's dreamed. (And indeed there is someone inside: Vicki, who emerges sheepishly.) Back at the Grecian camp, Odysseus has charged the Doctor with helping the Greeks sack Troy; eager to avoid turning the legend of the Trojan Horse into fact, the Doctor improvises madly (Hartnell at his funniest), suggesting a fleet of flying machines that could be catapulted, one man at a time, over the Trojan walls. But when told he'll be making the test run himself, he changes his tune ("I'm afraid we must face up to it, Odysseus: man was never meant to fly") and defaults to a hollow wooden horse. The brilliance of Cotton's conceit -- what makes it so devastating -- is that he doesn't tell the story of the Greeks invading Troy; he tells the story of Troy being invaded. One by one, everyone heads to Troy -- of course they do: that's where all the fun is. And only then, once everyone we care about has arrived, does the slaughter commence.

written by David Whitaker
directed by Christopher Barry

A scared girl calls out for help; the Doctor arrives, saves the day, and invites her to travel with him. No, it's not "The Eleventh Hour," it's "The Rescue": the first -- and still one of the best -- of the new-companion stories. Whitaker opens with Vicki, stranded on an alien planet, awaiting a rescue mission, and in the serial's early scenes, he paints a vivid portrait: of girlish enthusiasm that gives way to confusion and fear; of loneliness; of intelligence tempered by impulsiveness and naiveté. Vicki's certain the signal she's picking up from nearby is the rescue ship she's been awaiting, and when she's assured it's not, she wonders, "Then who's landed on the mountain?" And only then do we cut to the TARDIS crew. "The Rescue" doesn't use the Doctor and his companions to introduce a new setting; it uses Vicki to introduce the Doctor and his companions. (Whitaker delights in upending our expectations about how Who looks and works, both in the way Vicki dominates the opening and in the monster reveal at the end.) "The Rescue" is an intergalactic fairy-tale about a young girl trapped in a rundown home, caring for an infirm adult, cowering from the awful neighbor who bullies her, and finding consolation in the odd pet who's become her only friend -- and into her world come three strangers to cheer her and save her. It's enchanting and dear; even the perils are like something out of a child's imagination: cliffs and secret passages and blades that come out of walls. The story could have used more visual finesse: Christopher Barry's staging is largely perfunctory. But the serial does what it needs to do; because Vicki's predicament is the stuff of childhood nightmares, and because Maureen O'Brien's performance is so winning (and her rapport with Hartnell so convincing), you're fully prepared to welcome her aboard the TARDIS by serial's end. Whitaker even manages to craft a new companion who'll look after the star and the franchise; no doubt seeing Hartnell's memory start to fade, and his authority dwindle as a result, he invents a companion who's utterly devoted to the Doctor -- as much fangirl as foil. As Vicki looks at the Doctor with those adoring eyes, Whitaker ensures that audiences will continue to do so, too.

written by John Lucarotti & Donald Tosh
directed by Paddy Russell

Forget "Blink." Forget "Ark in Space." Forget "Seeds of Doom" and "Web of Fear" and any of the other umpteen serials designed to scare the daylights out of you. "The Massacre" might not have had children ducking behind their sofas, but it probably was the first serial to give them nightmares afterwards. It's a historical, sure, but it's Doctor Who's first historical horror-story, because it's rooted in the most basic of childhood fears: abandonment. It's the story of a companion, Steven Taylor, who gets stranded in an era -- here, one of the most bloody periods in French history: just days prior to the 1572 Huguenot massacre -- and has to fend for himself before the Doctor returns to take him away. Steven's compassion -- his concern for a frightened girl named Anne Chaplet -- entwines him in the convulsive politics of the era. The machinations of the Huguenots and the Catholics aren't easily digested and absorbed -- nor are they meant to be. They're meant to overwhelm; the events unfolding are too much to take in, and that makes Steven's plight all the more unnerving. Peter Purves commands the spotlight with grace and intelligence, and his verbal evisceration of the Doctor at the climax -- when the Doctor insists they leave Anne behind, to face near-certain doom -- is the most dramatic scene of its kind until the end of "Kill the Moon" nearly a half-century later. The visuals remain missing, but it makes for an exquisite audio listen; given Paddy Russell's (sometimes maddening) attention to detail, it's easily one of the missing Who serials most worthy of rediscovery. Some claim the serial is undercut by the coda, in which the TARDIS lands in 20th-century London and a young woman wanders aboard who, it turns out, might be Anne Chaplet's descendant (suggesting that she survived the massacre and allowing for a reconciliation between the Doctor and Steven). But it doesn't feel contrived, as some maintain; it feels in line with everything we've since come to understand about the Doctor's relationship with his ship. Forty-five years later, in "The Doctor's Wife," the Doctor would admonish the TARDIS, "You didn't always take me where I wanted to go," and she'd reply, simply, calmly, "No, but I always took you where you needed to go." The TARDIS leads the Doctor and Steven to Dodo, to repair their friendship. It's an unexpectedly uplifting epilogue to a grim and gripping tale.

written by David Whitaker
directed by Douglas Camfield

The TARDIS touches down in 12th-century Palestine; within minutes, Barbara is kidnapped, and the Doctor, Ian and Vicki set out to save her. The "chase" aspect of the plot allows Whitaker and Camfield to paint a particularly broad canvas (from the courts of King Richard and Muslim leader Saladin to the bustling marketplaces and barren deserts) and to serve up compassionate yet clear-eyed looks at both monarchs. It also provides a tour-de-force for all four principals -- their characters filled with resolve, wit, resourcefulness and guile -- and the actors rise to the occasion magnificently. (After mucking up seemingly half the lines in the previous adventure, "The Web Planet," Hartnell is spectacularly on form here.) Whitaker channels Shakespeare with the poetry of his dialogue -- some of it in iambic pentameter -- and Doctor Who would hear no finer dialogue for decades. (Richard, to his sister Joanna: "Saladin sends me presents of fruit and snow when I am sick, and now his brother decorates you with his jewels. Yet with our armies do we both lock in deadly combat, watering the land with a rain of blood, and the noise of thunder is drowned in the shouts of dying men.") Douglas Camfield, in his first full Who directorial outing, does splendid work -- but it's the lines that linger. When Saladin implores a captured Barbara, "Please talk. It helps me to consider what I have to do with you," her response, without hesitation, is "Well, I could say that I'm from another world, a world ruled by insects. And before that we were in Rome at the time of Nero. Before that we were in England, far, far into the future..." -- describing three recent adventures. As Saladin interprets it ("Now I understand: you and your friends, you are players, entertainers"), the scene glows with gentle irony and self-awareness: Doctor Who interpreting history, history interpreting Doctor Who. And the showdown between Richard the Lionheart (Julian Glover) and his sister Joanna (Jean Marsh) is as explosive as any exchange in Classic Who. There's really only one thing wrong with "The Crusade": the fact that two of four episodes are missing, and it's particularly unfortunate here. There are some Classic Who writers (Ian Stuart Black, Brian Hayles) and directors (Christopher Barry, Derek Martinus) where missing episodes don't matter as much; they worked in broad strokes, and once you've been able to ascertain the tone and style of a partially extant serial, you can intuit the rest. But Whitaker and Camfield were artists who found the drama in nuance and detail; when you watch the reconstructions, and then flip to an extant episode, you realize just how much you've missed. But even the two lost episodes don't prevent "The Crusade" from being the crowning achievement of the Hartnell era.

Want more Doctor Who? I offer up capsule reviews of the Patrick Troughton serials; do an overview of the Jon Pertwee era (including a 10-best list); and take an expansive look at the Peter Davison years. Or if you prefer to relive an assortment of Classic Who stories, I serve up capsule reviews of my twenty-five favorite serials here. And finally, for fans of the current series, I did a Top-50 list in December of 2015 that merges both old and new Who.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

My Restless Hartnell (part 2)

Part 2 of my loving look at the William Hartnell era of Doctor Who. You can read my overview here; what follows are my top thirteen serials. Top thirteen? Yes, as noted earlier, I could not whittle it down to ten. Or at least, I did whittle it down, but felt dissatisfied: there were an additional three that seemed more flawed, but still worthy of mention. So I'll start with a paragraph about those three -- #13 through #11 -- and then move on to my top ten. It's worth noting, though, that even with Hartnell serials I don't particularly care for, there's often an episode or two I genuinely enjoy (e.g., Episode 2 of "The Keys of Marinus," the first two episodes of "The Dalek Invasion of Earth," Episodes 1 & 3 of "The Chase"). There's hardly a serial I wholly dislike. Thus, my proclaiming the Hartnell years one of my favorite eras of Doctor Who.

#13. THE EDGE OF DESTRUCTION: The least of David Whitaker's scripting efforts, yet still better than half of Doctor Who. The first two serials, "An Unearthly Child" and "The Daleks," had left the Doctor at odds with his new companions; Whitaker dreams up a two-parter that forces them to work as a team. He offers up a mystery, and it turns out it's the TARDIS dropping the clues, in order to save the crew from imminent disaster; it's a look at a sentient TARDIS that's years ahead of its time. Where "Edge" falls short is in Richard Martin's direction of Episode 1. (Frank Cox handles the follow-up.) It plays to his worst excesses. Instead of "settling" for coherence, he takes his love of strange camera work to an extreme, sacrificing clarity for cleverness. A by-product is an unusual and unfortunate schism between the way William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill are playing the story and the way William Russell and Carole Ann Ford are. #12. THE ARK: The design of the Monoids is atrocious, with Beatles mop-tops, ill-draping rubber suits, beauty-pageant sashes, flipper feet and ping-pong eyes. But if you can look past the Monoids, there are riches in "The Ark" -- starting with the setting: a spaceship so large it resembles a domed planet, manned by all of mankind, shooting toward a new, inhabitable home. The premise is equally fine (the Doctor and his companions carrying the common cold to a strange world and inadvertently reducing it to ruin), and best of all is a visual leitmotif: a giant statue representing the humans' seven-hundred-year journey to their new home. It comes into play several times during the course of the plot and, at one point, turns the serial on its ear. And Michael Imison's direction triumphs over many of the inadequacies in performance, script and design. The legend of the Hartnell Who is that it's slow; Imison makes "The Ark" run like a racehorse. (I discuss "The Ark" in detail here.) #11. THE TENTH PLANET: The nuts-and-bolts Cyberman design is brilliant; they're all the more terrifying for having features that are recognizably human. And thanks to director Derek Martinus, the suspense never lets up; in fact, he achieves a bit of a miracle at the end of Episode 3, during the countdown to release a bomb that will destroy the planet Mondas (and possibly do irreparable damage to Earth and its inhabitants). The Doctor and his companions have tried to sabotage the launch mechanism, but it's unclear if they've succeeded; although logic tells you the TARDIS team will prevail, Martinus ramps up the tension so thoroughly that you're briefly convinced that whole planets are about to blow. What diffuses "The Tenth Planet" is that the Doctor and his companions are so ill-served. Polly is reduced to pouring coffee; the Doctor, sidelined by Hartnell's illness and the story-line, doesn't do much of anything at all. And by Episode 3, sailor Ben is rendered unrecognizable: he's gained such an instant grasp of futuristic technology that he's barking out instructions to the other scientists. "The Tenth Planet" is a taut adventure yarn, but if you're looking to spend some quality time with the Doctor, Ben and Polly before saying goodbye, look elsewhere.

written by Donald Cotton
directed by Rex Tucker

It's not "Doctor Who does a Western." It's "Doctor Who does a B-Western" -- that one letter makes all the difference. "The Gunfighters" embraces the giddiest clichés of the genre: not the open spaces of a Red River, High Noon or Shane, but the studio look of a Republic programmer from the '30s, like Doomed at Sundown, The Purple Vigilantes, or Wyoming Outlaw, where you knew that if you walked 200 feet in any direction, you wouldn't be on the road out of town; you'd be on the next soundstage. It owes more than a passing nod to 20th Century Fox's Frontier Marshall, with Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp, Cesar Romero as Doc Holliday, and a bloody good showdown at the O.K. Corral. (It was later remade by John Ford as the classic My Darling Clementine.) With "Myth Makers," Cotton went for character comedy; here the humor stems from a fish-out-of-water premise: the Doctor, who abhors violence, touching down in a town where all feuds are settled by gunfire. It's one of Hartnell's best performances: an amusing tug-of-war between the Doctor, who clearly doesn't want to be in Tombstone, and Hartnell, who so clearly does. It also provides terrific showcases for Jackie Lane (who shows unexpected comic chops in her scenes with Anthony Jacobs, as Doc Holliday) and for Peter Purves, who serves up the best double-take in all of Doctor Who. Where "Gunfighters" fails is in the new production team not trusting the material; it was commissioned by producer John Wiles and story editor Donald Tosh, but their successors -- Lloyd Innes and Gerry Davis -- had no affection for historicals, and little interest in stretching the boundaries of the series. And Rex Tucker, the assigned director, admitted to misgivings. When he opens with a shot of tumbleweed rolling down the streets of Tombstone, then pans up to show the town itself, you think he's sending up that hoary film tradition of masking constrictive settings with unusual camera angles. But by about the thirtieth oddball shot, you realize he's doing it because he thinks the script needs salvaging. (He's busy saving something that's not in need of rescue.) The same could be said for the ballad he commissions, which is charming at first, but ends up feeling random and relentless. And is it the famed tug-of-war between Tucker and Lloyd for control of the final edit that results in the serial seeming so scrappily assembled? "The Gunflighters" boasts a pleasurable script and performances to cherish. But the surgery the production team attempts is about as subtle as the extraction the Doctor undergoes in Doc Holliday's dental chair.

#9. GALAXY 4
written by William Emms
directed by Derek Martinus

Sometimes good Who adventures are elevated by a combination of instinct, artistry and luck. "Galaxy 4" is a straightforward adventure that might have been unremarkable if not for several factors. Outgoing producer Verity Lambert, saving one of her best ideas for last, suggested that the antagonists, the Drahvins, be all female, an inspiration that transformed the serial. The icy blonde warrior race (led by Stephanie Bidmead as Maaga, in a chilling performance that at one point all but consumes the small screen) proves so memorable, it's a shame they were never given a follow-up. The stroke of luck, awful as it is to call it that, is that original director Mervyn Pinfield fell ill during initial filming at Ealing, and Derek Martinus -- in his first Who assignment -- was recruited to step in. And thus the artistry: Pinfield was a serviceable old-timer; Martinus, fresh out of the BBC internal directors' training course, was a gifted up-and-comer. By his next serial, he'd blossom into one of Who's best directors, but even here -- working with sets and set-ups that initiated with another -- he reveals a gift of sustaining tension through even the most cumbersome exposition. The Doctor describes the Drahvin ship as primitive and the Rill ship as impressive; the production design doesn't really support that, but no matter -- through Martinus's lens, the Drahvin ship becomes a claustrophobic sweatshop, the Rill ship eerily expansive. He manages to suggest the potential perils lurking in each. The script is nothing special -- a variation on the "never judge a book by its cover" plot that all sci-fi and fantasy series seem to dip into at some point. But Martinus give it weight and shape, and the three principals -- the Doctor, Vicki and Steven -- are well-used. Much has been made about how Emms devised the script when Ian and Barbara were still on board, and then, upon learning of the companion shake-up, transferred Barbara's role to Steven. Purves himself has gone on record as saying the lines felt unnatural, but they don't come off that way; on the contrary, they serve to broaden his character. After a serial of being assertive ("The Chase"), then defensive ("The Time Meddler"), it's nice to see Steven use his brains and his wiles (as Barbara would have). And his inability to defeat Maaga in hand-to-hand combat doesn't make him appear weak -- it only serves to make the Drahvins seem that much more formidable. There's excessive moralizing in "Galaxy 4," and it's paper-thin in spots, but that doesn't keep it from being charming -- or effective.

written by Bill Strutton
directed by Richard Martin

"I've never experienced anything like this in my life before," the Doctor announces in the serial's opening moments. Audiences in 1965 must have thought much the same thing; viewers today might well agree. "The Web Planet" is a work of such dedicated scope and ambition that the results are truly one-of-a-kind. It offers up the most alien environment in all of Classic Who: a world of giant, warring insects; of atmosphere so thick it shines and distorts; of underground dwellers and invaders from outer space. It's the ideal serial for Richard Martin, an imaginative sprite with no idea how to shape a story, but an eagerness to experiment with camera and design. His serials are full of wonderful touches, but they often feel static -- and typically, he runs out of tricks early on. The planet Vortis is the perfect playground for Martin; the story doesn't build any better than his other serials, but the images keep coming, and every five minutes or so, you're dumbstruck by their beauty. (The first time a Menoptra takes off into the air, effortlessly, as if its wings were truly carrying it aloft, if your heart too doesn't take flight, you should just turn in your Classic Who card.) "The Web Planet" is a serial where you follow the images, and that's fortunate, because you couldn't be asked to follow the dialogue: Hartnell seems to be ad-libbing most of it. It's one of his most unfortunate performances, where whole passages seem to escape his memory -- and it's not a particularly good story for Maureen O'Brien either. There's one early scene with Vicki and Barbara that's charming, but it seems to have been added by Spooner (it refers back to his "Romans"); as for the rest, Strutton seems to have written Vicki's part with Susan in mind, and it shows. (It'll happen to O'Brien again three serials later, in Terry Nation's "The Chase.") But William Russell and Jacqueline Hill sell the serial, and then some. At one point, Ian is on a mountain ledge, lying reflectively on his back, conversing with a Menoptra, as if he were just out enjoying a picnic with an old friend. Russell and Hill have to spend most of the serial talking to giant butterflies, but the actors commit to the story-line so completely that it reflects well on the characters they play. Ian and Barbara seem at their most accepting and compassionate -- and ultimately at their most heroic.

written by Dennis Spooner
directed by Christopher Barry

Doctor Who meets Plautus, by way of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (then enjoying its second year in the West End). "The Romans" is only the third effort by director Christopher Barry, whose Who career would span seventeen seasons, and it may well be his best work. A proficient story-teller who rarely came armed with more than the basics, here he adopts an easy elegance that keeps the script from growing too frantic or foolish. There's only one spot where his guiding hand falters: a series of quick chases and pratfalls down a long hallway that's a mess of mistimings. Otherwise, he seems to step back and look at everything with gentle fascination, much as Fiona Cumming would later do during the Fifth Doctor era. It's lovely work, full of personality. "The Romans" is best remembered as the serial to add humor to the historical, and indeed, at its best, it's a marvel of tomfoolery. But Spooner doesn't just do jokes. He ensures that the humor grows naturally out of the story-line by setting the Doctor and his team on holiday (a Roman holiday) and letting their high spirits dictate the tone. Ian and Barbara see their vacation cut short (the pair are kidnapped and sold into slavery), and their story quickly turns dark. The Doctor and Vicki don't encounter any real threats till the end, and their adventure remains relatively lighthearted. Because Spooner intercuts between the two -- the frivolity of the Doctor and Vicki's story-line and the starkness of Barbara and Ian's -- he's permitted a duality in his realization of Nero: part lecherous buffoon, part cutthroat killer. And that duality only serves to make him more unpredictable and menacing. The same man who pursues Barbara down palace corridors in search of a quick snog is equally capable of stabbing a man in front of her, to assert his dominance. Still, in 1965, on the heels of the series' somber portraits of Marco Polo and the Aztecs, Nero seemed a bit of a lightweight. In 2016, we're more aware that, in the political arena, blustering know-nothings and serial philanderers can be at once laughable yet deeply dangerous. You could say "The Romans" is a serial that sadly has aged well.

written by Ian Stuart Black
directed by Christopher Barry

Hartnell always fared better in the historicals than in the futuristic serials, but the new production team wanted sci-fi, so Black does Hartnell the best turn possible: he writes a historical set in the future. Oh, "The Savages" has its out-of-this-world technology -- the plot turns on a machine that can absorb the life force from one human and plant it in another -- but at its heart, it's about the Doctor and his companions visiting a society whose methods and mores are familiar to the Doctor, and Hartnell doing the sort of deliberating and pontificating at which he excelled. (The planet is inhabited entirely by humans. No Daleks, Monoids or Rills here.) Like Black's later "Macra Terror," "The Savages" imagines a dystopian society disguised as a utopian one; it lacks the intricacies that distinguish the later serial, and at heart (like "Galaxy 4") it's a little light on plot and heavy on message. But its straightforward story-telling is confident and occasionally clever (as when the gift that the Elders give Dodo in Episode 1 allows Steven to save the day in Episode 3), and it's a good match for Christopher Barry's lean, efficient style. Ian Stuart Black was one of those freelancers (like Chris Boucher a decade later) who invariably had a good handle on how best to use the Doctor and his companions -- sometimes better than the script editor himself. Dodo's curiosity and suspicious nature seem to spring from her upbringing and background; you're reminded how nice it is to have someone from modern-day Earth back on the TARDIS. Steven is ingenious, brave, sensible and authoritative; when the time comes for him to say goodbye to the Doctor and Dodo, you believe those qualities will serve him well on his new home. (Black creates the template for all the companions who leave the Doctor upon finding their true calling, from Jo Grant to Romana II to Nyssa.) And Black's handling of the Doctor is nothing short of cunning. Season 3 writers were challenged with devising scripts as original and entertaining as anything that came before them, but also minimizing Hartnell's role so that he could power through. Black solves the problem by having the Doctor drained by the life-force machine at the end of Episode 2, so that he's able to sit out much of Episode 3. But his energy -- and, unexpectedly, his personality -- are transferred to Jano, the leader of the Elders, and that allows Frederick Jaeger, in a bravura performance, to do a spot-on impression of Hartnell's Doctor. It keeps the Doctor's spirit alive while Hartnell gets time off to recharge, but more than that, it asserts that although Hartnell's screen time is dwindling, nothing can suppress the power of his personality. Just four serials away from Hartnell's swan-song, Black writes him an endearing tribute.

Next: my top five Hartnells.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

My Restless Hartnell

I love the William Hartnell era of Doctor Who. It's probably my second favorite era of Classic Who, as my latest rewatch reminded me. It's not that I find the serials themselves consistently strong -- I suspect I like maybe 50% of Classic Who, and the Hartnell era is no exception. (In fact, I don't really like the first season much at all.) And although I'm fond of Hartnell himself, I don't respond to him as an actor the way I do Troughton or Davison. It's the spirit of the Hartnell era that gets to me: it's everything I want Who to be. It's daring. It's unpredictable. It's a show eager to explore its potential and defy its limitations: to challenge itself and its audience's expectations. It never strives or settles for a "formula," except the one that serves as the show's premise: the sheer wonder of traveling through time and space, without ever knowing what your next destination might be.

Some of the complaints I hear lodged at the Hartnell era baffle me. Folks say, "You have to accept it as a product of its time." What don't you have to accept as a product of its time? Technology doesn't merely advance, it accelerates. What was state-of-the-art in 1963 looked antiquated within a decade; nowadays, "cutting edge" becomes "quaint" in about eighteen months. We don't apologize for other beloved series or movies of the 1960's; why do we do so for Doctor Who? Justifications are offered up for the look, for the gaffes that remain on the screen: "It was done on a tight budget and schedule." The tight budget and schedule don't make it cheap -- they make it remarkable. What's tremendous about the Hartnell era is what was invigorating about live TV in the '50s: the understanding that these people were preparing a new show every week, then recording it, in sequence, without pick-ups or reshoots. It's actors, directors and crew working without a net, and impressively, they pull it off week after week, with just a one-month hiatus between seasons to recharge. And the most common criticism leveled at the First Doctor stories: "They're slow." Of course so many shows have picked up the pace dramatically in the last half-century: the world spins faster now; our attention spans are shorter. But the TV landscape remains full of acclaimed dramas much slower than '60s Hartnell (e.g., the first seasons of True Detective and The Man in the High Castle), and no one complains when art-house films take their own sweet time. (One of my favorite films of the past year, the Oscar nominee 45 Years, wasn't exactly a barn-burner.)

What the Hartnell era has to keep apologizing for is not being like every other era of Doctor Who. Most hit shows run a half-dozen years -- a dozen if they're lucky -- and are accepted and adored for what they are. The Hartnell era gets compared to the fifty years that followed it. If you grew up with Pertwee, or Baker, or Davison, or McCoy (or Eccleston, Tennant or Smith, for that matter) -- with faster-paced scripts, better effects, and significant retakes and remounts -- then of course the Hartnell era looks scrappy. What other TV show ever had the misfortune of being compared unfavorably to itself? And if you love Who for the monster stories that became more prevalent during the Troughton years, or for the big scares that had their heyday during Tom Baker's early years, then of course you'll find the Hartnell era disappointing: "monsters" and "scares" weren't its chief priorities. But taken on its own terms -- without apologies or justifications -- the Hartnell era is breathtaking. You don't have to be a student of '60s television to understand, within minutes of tuning in to any episode, the confines of the budget and the shooting schedule, yet despite them, you acknowledge and admire the heady aspirations -- and occasionally, the astonishing achievements -- of the creative team.

Not that there aren't things to take the Hartnell era to task for. For the first two seasons, the directing pool is abysmally shallow. Television was primitive in 1963, but it wasn't that primitive. The early serials, as helmed, frequently betray competence without creativity, or occasionally creativity without competence. Doctor Who was a show devoted to experimentation; it's understandable that it takes a season for the story editor and writers to work out the kinks. But if a show is going to aim for such novelty that the scripts are, by design, uncertain of their effects, how much more important that directors of some experience and assurance be assigned to them. The director most used over the first two seasons was Richard Martin. Martin got his start as a stage actor, and when he was offered his first Doctor Who serial -- the show's second, "The Daleks" -- he had exactly one episode of one TV series to his credit. Ironically, he turned out to be one of the most visually arresting of the early Who directors, but when it came to basic skills -- e.g., shaping or buttoning a scene -- he was lost. (Henric Hirsch, the director assigned to the first-season "Reign of Terror" had two TV episodes to his credit when he came to Doctor Who.)

Conversely, there were a half-dozen directors (including associate producer Mervyn Pinfield) who could manage the basics, but seemed armed with little else: when scripts cried out for ingenuity, their cries went unanswered. The directors' failings wouldn't be so maddening if the show's first serial hadn't displayed both craft and artistry: Waris Hussein (who also did "Marco Polo") sets the bar so high, it's irritating to see the lack of finesse or inspiration that follows -- and when a master like Douglas Camfield arrives in Season 2, he put his predecessors to shame. Classic Who is full of second-rate directors (some used again and again), but by the Troughton era, TV had advanced enough -- and Doctor Who had grown assured enough -- that also-rans didn't do much damage. But they do in the Hartnell era. One reason Season 3 seems so strong is that the directors are so much better: the top of the season is a run of serials helmed, in turn, by Derek Martinus, Michael Leeston-Smith, Doug Camfield, Paddy Russell and Michael Imison. It's a far cry from a time -- just a season earlier -- when Richard Martin was considered the show's ace-in-the-hole.

The other thing that takes some getting used to: Hartnell's memory issues. History tells us that, as Hartnell's arteriosclerosis worsened, his grasp on his lines became more tenuous. There's no reason to think that story -- told and retold -- isn't true, but in that case, you have to commend the Who production team, because his memory doesn't seem any worse in Season 3 than it does in Season 1. It was never good -- at least not compared to his companions. Everyone stumbled in early Doctor Who -- it's the nature of nearly-live TV -- but Hartnell did it more. And the sci-fi adventures particularly plagued him. Historicals like Season 2's "The Crusade" or Season 3's "The Massacre" come off with hardly a Hartnell hitch, but the first-season "Keys of Marinus" proves vexing. And it's not just the scientific jargon that trips him up in the futuristic serials; sometimes, it's throwaway lines. The historicals came easier; they were a genre with which he'd had more experience, and he mastered the scripts more swiftly. (And by Season 3, when the memory -- by all accounts -- was truly failing, the series worked mightily to disguise it: playing to his strengths, and allocating the more challenging material elsewhere.)

When the serials first aired, it's doubtful that Hartnell's difficulty with his lines mattered much to audiences; although most television was no longer filmed live, viewers had grown up accepting and enjoying the peculiarities of live TV: where gaffes and glitches were part of the shared experience, a reminder that the actors were performing the material -- in real time -- especially for them. It's that aspect of '60s television -- more than issues of budget or pacing -- that's hardest to recreate for today's audiences. Hartnell's flubs are now distracting in a way they never were when the episodes first aired. But you forgive him, because when he's having a good day, he's so good. And the good days far outweighed the bad. The Hartnell episodes were filmed on consecutive Fridays; typically, if Hartnell had a tough time one week (e.g., "The Keys of Marinus" Episode 1, "The Web Planet" Episode 1), he rallied the next. You see him determined to do better; his resolve is visible and admirable. And the transformation that the Doctor undergoes over the first few seasons is part of that; Hartnell disguises his memory issues by morphing from a Doctor so decisive that even the slightest hesitation reads as a mistake to a Doctor so eccentrically self-amused that he can giggle endlessly while searching for his next line. And fortunately, that transformation -- an act of self-preservation -- seems very much in keeping with how the show presents the First Doctor: as someone smug and superior, who -- through his interactions with his companions -- gains humility, empathy and a sense of humor.

As noted, I don't care for maybe half the Hartnell serials, particularly the earliest ones. I see Doctor Who as a series that takes a season to get its bearings -- but that's true of so many shows I love, from I Love Lucy to Everybody Loves Raymond, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Madam Secretary. For me, it doesn't really hit its stride until early in the second season, and from there, the batting average is much higher. (The string of four stories beginning with "The Rescue" and ending with "The Crusade" is, for me, the high point of the era. It's my favorite string of serials until "The Abominable Snowmen" through "The Web of Fear," three years later. It's over a decade until I again love four consecutive serials.) I had thought about doing serial-by-serial reviews of the Hartnell era, as I did for Troughton, but I fear I'd be restating the same points: my dislike of so many of the early directors, my lack of interest in the Hartnell Dalek stories. (My affection for the little pepperpots only spikes once David Whitaker begins scripting them in the Troughton era. I reflect on that a bit in my review of Troughton's "Power of the Daleks," and a bit more still in my write-up of Pertwee's "Death to the Daleks.") And I'd spend too much time slamming writer Terry Nation. (I pull out my hair thirty seconds into Nation's "Keys of Marinus" when Barbara, the schoolteacher, sees a giant body of water on the scanner and asks, "That's the sea, isn't it?" The rest of the hair comes out three episodes later, when Susan sees a rope-bridge and exclaims, "Oh look... a rope-bridge!") So instead, I'm doing capsule reviews of my top Hartnells, and filling them not merely with impressions of those particular serials, but with some broad-stroke feelings about the First Doctor years.

But before I do, in case I don't have proper room later, I have to focus briefly on one of the Hartnell companions. Stories have been written for years about who was "responsible" for Doctor Who. No one person, obviously, but tales of the show's early success typically boil down to some combination of BBC drama head Sydney Newman's vision, producer Verity Lambert's faith and tenacity, and the instant popularity of the Daleks. (Mark Gatiss's An Adventure in Space and Time certainly spotlights that particular triumvirate.) Me, I'm more taken with a person I think was quietly responsible for the series continuing: Peter Purves, as companion Steven Taylor. As I watch Purves's year-long string of serials -- a revolving door of companions, producers and story editors, with Hartnell frequently sidelined -- I do wonder if the series might have simply shut down sometime during Season 3 if Purves hadn't been able to dutifully expand his role with such humility and authority. I can't say that Purves is the "unsung hero" of Doctor Who; his stint on the show is much admired. But still, he doesn't quite get his due. Of his nine serials, only three survive. (Only Michael Craze and Anneke Wills, as Ben and Polly, have it worse.) And missing serials are sadly overlooked by a faction of fandom. Ian and Barbara seem far more vivid than Steven, not just because they did twice as many episodes, but because four times as many are still around.

But the truth is, I can imagine a Doctor Who without William Russell or Jacqueline Hill -- painful as that would be. I'm unsure how the show would have fared without Purves. I'm sure there were many other versatile performers available at the time he was cast -- but Lambert and story editor Dennis Spooner couldn't have suspected, when they hired Purves, all that he'd ultimately be called upon to do. As companions came and went, as Hartnell disappeared from more and more episodes, as his lines started getting reassigned to Purves (e.g., the last two episodes of "The Daleks' Masterplan"), if Purves hadn't turned out to be such a charismatic chameleon -- equally adept at making heroics look convincing and exposition sound interesting, at managing both the high comedy of "The Myth Makers" and the tense drama of "The Massacre," at alternating (seemingly without ego) between sidekick and co-star, all while mastering the technobabble that was increasingly handed him -- would the show have survived?

That's not to denigrate or diminish any of the other Hartnell companions. I love them too, especially Ian, Barbara, Vicki and (yes) Dodo. I think they're extraordinary, but I love most that they're extra-ordinary: bright, gifted, but determinedly unglamorous. They look like everyday people. Once Ben and Polly arrive, the aesthetic shifts. (Compared to their predecessors, Ben and Polly could have been models.) And not that Jacqueline Hill couldn't look stunning when the script called for it (e.g., "The Aztecs," or the start of "The Romans" or the end of "Marco Polo"), not that William Russell and Peter Purves couldn't look dashing, but the more enduring images of the Hartnell era are of Ian and Barbara, ever the schoolteachers (him fussing over his Coal Hill tie, her in her prim suits and wide-neck sweaters), of Vicki in her waistless frocks and Steven in his oversized cardigans. And Dodo in anything "fab" she could pull from the Doctor's closets. (And pretty much everyone, at some point, suffering a very bad hair day.) They were the most wonderfully ordinary group of people, fortunate enough to be invited on the ride of their lives.

As were we.

Next, my thirteen top Hartnells. Yes, thirteen. I could not narrow down the list to ten, which I think says something about how much I love the era. I could easily whittle the Troughton or Tom Baker years down to ten; I did so for Pertwee. But when Hartnell is done right, it's too winning to overlook. There are too many felicities worth mentioning. So coming up, my lucky thirteen.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Judging Amy season 6

"I reject the notion that there is such a thing as an irredeemable child."
-- Judge Amy Gray, Judging Amy Season 6

Judging Amy premiered on CBS in the fall of 1999. It aired Tuesdays at 10, a perennial problem spot for the network; their last hit series there had been The Garry Moore Show in 1964. For thirty-five years, they'd been filling the timeslot with news magazines, or the second half of a two-hour movie; occasionally, they'd order up a new drama, which would stumble out of the gate (anyone remember Island Son, Dellaventura or Four Corners?), and back would come the CBS Tuesday Night Movie. But audiences who had taken to Amy Brenneman in her Emmy-nominated role on NYPD Blue found themselves once again in love with Amy. The series premiered to critical carping (an outwardly similar show, Providence, had debuted the previous winter, and critics were content to dismiss Amy as derivative), but audiences knew better. Even if they didn't recognize quite how original it was (and it was), they knew how engaging it was. It ran for six seasons, securing a host of Emmy and Golden Globe nominations and one win.

Judging Amy began with a script by Bill D'Elia and John Tinker, but it wasn't what Brenneman and her agent Connie Tavel were looking for, so they went hunting for an overhaul, and good fortune brought them to Barbara Hall. Hall retained some of the characters, but otherwise, wrote an entirely new pilot. The premise? Following a messy divorce, high-powered New York attorney Amy Gray returns, daughter in tow, to her family home in Hartford, CT, where she moves in with her mother (the formidable Tyne Daly) and forges a new career as a juvenile court judge. (Brenneman's own mother was a juvenile court justice; Hall had, a few years earlier, gone through a divorce while caring for a three-year-old child -- it was a perfect match.) Amy's mother Maxine is a case worker for the Department of Children and Families, so apart from the personal stories centering around the Gray family (Amy's younger brother Vincent is an aspiring writer; her older brother Peter runs the family insurance company), most episodes included "procedural" aspects -- the cases that Amy tried in her courtroom, the cases that Maxine handled for DCF -- that kept it from dissolving into soap opera. (Hall described it at the time a "drama with honest humor" that was "50 perfect courtroom drama, 50 percent single mother's personal life.") The result was CBS' biggest drama hit in five years.

Behind the scenes, Judging Amy benefited from a split hierarchy. Hall's partner Joseph Stern headed up production, allowing Hall to focus on the scripts, which she did, masterfully. Hall stuck around for the first four seasons, which enjoyed strong, typically top-20 ratings; she left after Season 4 to launch Joan of Arcadia, and relinquished the reins to her sister Karen Hall and to Alex Taub. Both had been working on the show as writing producers; once they took charge, though, they ushered in a format shift. Barbara Hall maintained a careful balance between the personal stories and Amy and Maxine's cases; the new showrunners focused more on the relationships: the new man in Amy's life, assistant D.A. David McClaren; Maxine's budding romance with landscape artist Ignacio Messina; and Amy's daughter Lauren's crush on a boy in her class, Victor, who -- in a coincidence that is not one of the show's prouder moments -- turns out to be David's son. Eighteen months into the show's run, Barbara Hall had noted, "It was very important for me to do a full year about a woman that really didn't have to do very much with sex or relationships, because I felt that was where everybody goes with women. I wanted to keep it about women who have important jobs and relationships outside of men." But as Season 5 developed, it turned out to be very much about three generations of Gray women infatuated with men. It's no great industry secret that Brenneman, a co-producer who was very much hands on, was displeased with Season 5; come season's end, most of the writing staff, including the two showrunners, were let go. And given what Season 5 had become (not a bad show, just not the distinctive one you'd come to love), you understand why. And when you see how the series snaps back into place a third of the way into Season 6, the house-cleaning seems doubly vindicated.

But it takes a while for the new crew to right the ship. One of the dangers of a mostly new writing staff -- and in this case, a new showrunner too, Richard Kramer, who has no history with the show -- is that often you can see the growing pains. For the first few episodes of Season 6, the characters seem vaguely unfamiliar, as if the writers are still learning their voices. The third episode -- credited to Constance Burge, a writer I quite like -- may well be the series' nadir. The personal story-lines feel forced and precious (Amy and David are pretty much reduced to arguing the pros and cons of his new boat); Maxine's DCF case is lightweight; and worst of all, Amy's court case is ludicrous. A twelve-year-old boy has pleaded guilty to felony murder, in the fatal shooting of a grocery clerk; during a break in the sentencing hearing, Amy spots his family from the lunchroom, surmises from the body language that it's really the boy's older brother who committed the crime, and sets a trap for him, coercing a confession. Amy is known for her "creative sentencing," for caring so much about the children who pass through her courtroom that rather than lock them up, she searches for effective means of rehabilitation. When it's done properly, both the testimony and the sentences can be illuminating and frequently moving. Here Judge Gray comes off like Columbo, playing cat and mouse with the guilty. In some ways, the start of Season 6 compounds the issues that plagued Season 5; neither the personal nor procedural story-lines seem to be landing, and you feel the new team flailing for solutions.

The changing of the writing guard is clearly designed to get the focus back on the Gray family, after a season of focusing on the men in Amy and Maxine's lives. (Dan Futterman, an audience favorite who played Amy's younger brother Vincent, was returning to the show for the first time since early in Season 3. With Peter newly separated from his wife, that meant five Grays living under one roof.) When the season starts, the Grays are definitely front-and-center; the show just presents them in the worst possible light. Vincent stumbles around week after week: meeting with a publisher, only to disclose he's barely written any of the book for which he's received an advance; hitting up Peter for money to pay back the advance; and finally, unloading his troubles on a DCF juvenile he's been hired to oversee.

Vincent seems aimless but harmless. His sister and mother don't get off so easy. Throughout Season 5, Amy had pined after David, who was mourning the murder of his wife and obsessed with bringing her killer to justice. That changes instantly in the first episode of Season 6, in which the killer is captured and killed in prison. David is finally available, and ready to commit to Amy -- but now Amy is ambivalent. It's a side of Amy Gray that had been explored consistently throughout the series -- assured as she was in the courtroom, she was indecisive in her personal life, often sabotaging the very things that were working best. But here it's taken to a troubling extreme: after moping after David for an entire season, she freezes him out the moment he's free. Amy is at her most self-absorbed during the first string of episodes: at one point, she agrees to a dinner date with David, then stands him up to hang out with her court services officer Bruce. The camera focuses in on her at the end of the episode (after David has called her out on her behavior, and walked out in disgust), as if to say, "Poor Amy: once again, messing things up, despite her best efforts." But forget "best efforts," she's putting in no effort. The first six episodes seems determined to make you hate her.

But not as much as you hate Maxine. At her worst Maxine could be pigheaded and self-righteous. But you knew she cared deeply about the children whose welfare depended upon her, and that redeemed her. The top of Season 6 decides to bring her most unpleasant qualities to the fore. She becomes obsessed with finding a child who's been lost in the system, and as the search becomes futile, she insults the very people who could help her, shuts herself off from her family (she takes up residence for a while in a seedy hotel, for reasons that are never made clear), and ultimately slaps an unruly foster child, getting herself arrested for battery. It all culminates in a heart attack -- and although the notion of Maxine's headstrong behavior bringing on a health crisis is a valid one, the series overlooks that getting her there means suffering through Maxine at her worst, all in search of a missing child who means nothing to the viewer.

Tied to Maxine's health crisis is a mystery to be solved. It presents itself early in the season, when Amy's daughter Lauren has to do a report on her grandmother, and the family realizes they know little about Maxine's childhood, particularly the death of her mother when she was 11. And that gets addressed in the episode in which Maxine is rushed to the hospital, where, under sedation, she envisions and chats with her late mother. (We learn that Maxine never speaks of her mother because she has no idea what her final days were like; she imagines a scenario that gives her closure.) The episode with Maxine in the hospital is entitled "Early Winter"; it's the seventh episode of Season 6, and it should be awful. It's one of those ideas -- Maxine talking to her dead mother -- that's going to have to be great in order to be good, and nothing about the season so far -- except for one assured episode written by Executive Producer Barry O'Brien -- has filled you with optimism. But it's brilliant. Episode 7 marks a turning point for Season 6, and it's hard to imagine the turnaround isn't in good part the result of a new showrunner taking the reins. (Kramer departs the series after four episodes, and Carol Barbee, a Supervising Producer in Season 5 and Executive Producer early in Season 6, is promoted. She's one of the two writing producers retained from Season 5, the other being the reliable O'Brien.) Episode 7 gathers the Gray children at their mother's hospital bedside, and it's the first time in the season that the family dynamic rings true. Early episodes that season had featured moments like Peter and Vincent playing keep-away with Amy's tapioca; we were supposed to be charmed and think, "They're just like any other family," but they felt too much like any other family. In "Early Winter," the interactions feel specific to the Grays.

And so many other good things happen in "Early Winter." As Peter and his estranged wife Gillian look through Maxine's things, to decide what to bring her in the hospital, they reminisce gently and candidly about their own lives, and you feel them take tentative steps towards reconnecting. Amy gets a new clerk named Holbrook, and it's Jim Parsons; the way he's introduced is pure gold, as is the way he comes to Amy's aid during their first case together. And Maxine's bedside conversations with her mother are lovely. There's no attempt to do anything "otherworldly" -- she doesn't appear in a blurry vision. She's just there, in a dream, and she and Maxine relive what it was like when she too was rushed to the hospital, the last time Maxine saw her. And the dialogue is rich, funny and nuanced. It's the first Judging Amy episode by writers Matthew Federman and Stephen Scaia (it's actually their first TV credit); they would ultimately go on to become two of the best scripters in the business, and this is an awesome debut. (Watching in 2004, I made note of their names, as a team to watch. I've never stopped watching.)

Stephen Scaia was kind enough to speak with me while I was preparing this essay. He and Federman were hired by Richard Kramer; he recalls, "He had read a spec script of ours and thought we had an interesting voice... That was curious for us, as before Judging Amy all we'd written were spec episodes of West Wing and Alias, as well as a original one-hour adventure drama. Our brand was dubbed 'aggressively male,' so we were as surprised as our reps that we got an offer to join the staff. But once we arrived, we saw that Richard had hired a lot of new (and truly talented) young writers, like K.J. Steinberg and Matthew Lieberman." Scaia notes that by bringing new voices to the show, Kramer was "very excited to mix things up and, if memory serves, Amy Brenneman was excited to shake up the status quo as well." But he confirms my own suspicions that "the true magic happened when Carol was promoted and became showrunner," and agrees that "Early Winter" is when the season finds its footing: "I do feel like that right around there -- specifically at the introduction of 'Holbrook' (played by the then-unknown but still super-talented Jim Parsons) -- was just about when things did shift creatively."

Shortly after taking over as showrunner, Barbee alerted the press that after a season focused on personal stories, "We're going back to a case-driven model. The show works best with sharp, strong cases." The new approach reinvigorates the show; all the promise seen in "Early Winter" seems instantly fulfilled. Over the following two episodes (the start of the season's second block), the show makes several canny moves: disposing of David, who takes his boat and sails away, and giving Vincent a job at an outreach office for teenaged runaways, with a supervisor played by the winning Jennifer Esposito. Meanwhile, Maxine suffers a second heart attack (a near-fatal one) that forces her to rethink her lifestyle and approach, while Amy takes a personal interest in a young gang member, Graciela Reyes, resurrected from the season's second episode. (Tara Correa-McMullen, the young actress who played Graciela, was -- as Scaia beautifully describes her -- "tough, sympathetic and authentic all at the same time." The writers wisely saw her potential and built her a story-line; it paid dividends all the way to season's end.) With these pieces in place, we move into one of the best runs in all of Judging Amy. It's a short arc -- only five episodes -- but it's stunning. In fact, it's flawless.

At the beginning of the season's tenth episode, Amy learns she's pregnant. Amy Brenneman was pregnant too at the time, but Brenneman revealed in an interview that it's a story-line she'd been contemplating for the better part of a year. And it transforms the show. As Amy welcomes all that comes with impending motherhood -- a marriage proposal from (a returning) David; picking out baby names with her daughter Lauren; putting down an offer on her dream house -- Maxine adopts a new, healthier lifestyle, and Vincent dials back the self-pity as he commits to making a difference at the outreach center. Putting Vincent on the streets gives the show three strong "cases" each week -- a lot of them very dark -- and balancing that is the fact that all three characters are in good places emotionally, at their most decisive and responsible. Their ability to shoulder even the most difficult challenges with grace proves exhilarating.

Amy, Maxine and Vincent dominate Season 6, and the tight focus is bracing. Barbara Hall had always embraced a larger canvas; Season 6 tightens the story-telling -- it refuses to be democratic in its use of the cast, and it's all the better for it. It doesn't try to give Bruce his own plotline; it lets us see him through his interactions with Amy, and watch their mutual affection dwindle as he comes to question her investment in Graciela. It doesn't give Amy's (former) clerk Donna her own story, other than letting her pass the bar, become a court-appointed minor counsel, and every three or four weeks, turn up in Amy's courtroom. (A scene late in the season, where she blasts Amy for refusing to apologize to the State's Attorney's Office, is sensational -- but it's a moment that, again, stems from her evolving relationship with Amy.) And Peter and Gillian are nicely compartmentalized: the moments that we see them slowly reconcile are better for not popping up weekly. That approach reaches its climax in the middle spate of episodes: it's about three people working in child services, and how their experiences inform their personal lives -- and vice versa. Sometimes when you create characters, you love them so much, you want to focus on them even if they're peripheral. (And sometimes the supporting players themselves demand more airtime. Richard T. Jones, who played Bruce, notoriously filed a lawsuit against the show in Season 2, demanding more time off or more prominent story-lines.) My only complaint about Barbara Hall's four years on Judging Amy is that they're filled with subplots I don't particularly care for. (Amy's cousin Kyle, added in Season 3, often seemed a distraction, no matter how convincingly Kevin Rahm played him.) Season 6 wields the scalpel -- it trims the fat -- easily and effectively. (Scaia, graciously: "That's all Carol and the other senior writers. They knew exactly how to simplify the show to what made it work.")

At its best, Judging Amy was careful not to overstate the similarities between the cases that came through Amy's courtroom and events in her own life; it served them up gently, for her and us to reflect on. With Amy newly pregnant, the courtroom offers up daily reminders of the challenges of being a good parent, of all that can go wrong when bringing a child into the world -- but through it all, Amy's optimism never flags. Neither does Maxine's; in light of her recent heart attacks, she's embraced yoga and power walking, a far cry from the woman who was chowing down fried foods and guzzling hard liquor just a few episodes earlier. She remains as outspoken as ever, but there's a lightness now: a self-awareness that's unexpected. When Amy and David are searching for a new home, Amy shares her childhood dream of living in the McGuinn house up the street, where she would go during her worst days growing up, when her father was ill. She asks Maxine if she can relate:

Amy: Like when you and Dad first got married: didn't you have your version of the dream house?
Maxine: We found the perfect place. Right away. It was meant to be. I knew we could stay there forever.
Amy: See, that! I want that!
Maxine: We didn't get that house. So your father and I took this one. We peeled off the horrid wallpaper and polished the floors. Replaced the ancient appliances. Because that's what people did in those days. We worked. We fixed things. We made them our own.

Because that's what Maxine does: she lectures; she imposes her judgments on others. But this new Maxine also knows when she's gone too far, and when Amy, unwilling to let the subject go, asks, "Do you think the McGuinns were as happy as they seemed?", Maxine chooses her words carefully, even though there's no good answer: "Uh.. She cheated. He drank. They stayed together for the sake for the children." But eager to give her daughter some semblance of the answer she wants, she adds with assurance, "Nice house, though."

Amy and Maxine's positive attitude proves infectious. Amy is meeting Graciela weekly in her chambers, as substitute for a shuttered anti-gang program (her "creative sentencing" in action); she asks her if she has any dreams, and when Graciela clams up, Amy shares her own: "My dream is to have a home where everybody I love could grow up and grow old: happy, health and safe." When Graciela rejects it ("That's a stupid dream"), Amy retorts, without embarrassment or apology, "Well, that's all I got. How about you?" And Graciela flashes a momentary smile as she sheepishly admits, "I guess the same thing."

Meanwhile, Vincent is engaged in a sort of urban romantic comedy, one that plays to Dan Futterman's puppy-dog charm. Here's Vincent and his supervisor Crystal advising a young girl how to survive on her own, never realizing they're turning into a Thirties screwball couple:

Crystal: Everyone wants something from you -- even other kids -- so don't talk to anybody on the streets. Are you warm enough?
Vincent: Crystal's always cold, so she thinks everyone else is.
Crystal: This one's a writer. He observes.
Vincent: Yah, look who's talking. You move the stapler on her desk, she notices. She guards her stuff like it's gold.
Crystal: The way you take care of your hair -- he checks it, like, every half an hour.
Vincent: Who's observing who?
Girl: My grandparents used to tease each other like you guys. How long have you been married?
Crystal & Vincent (simultaneously): We're not married.

Judging Amy Season 6 finds its principals, briefly, radiating hopefulness -- but by the end of the second block, the real world intervenes. A personal tragedy sends Crystal into a downward spiral, forcing Vincent to pick up the pieces. Maxine gets so comfortable with Ignacio that she strays beyond her comfort zone. And Amy is dealt the cruelest blow. On a day that starts normally, with morning sickness (Donna implores her to drink more milk, as she herself had when she was pregnant a few seasons earlier), Amy starts to spot. The script underplays it:

Amy: My doctor says it's totally normal.
Donna: Yeah. It's really no big deal. Happened to me a couple times. OK, here's what you do. Feet at a 55-degree angle, deep breathing...
Amy: Donna, if I told you that I developed the ability to speak Portuguese while I'm pregnant, would you tell me that happened to you, too?
Donna: Too helpful?
Amy: Little bit.
Donna: Dialing it back.
Amy: Thank you.

The court case that day involves a young girl who took her father's car out for a joy ride, and killed her best friend in the process. Her shock and guilt, a psychiatrist warns, has put her on a path to suicide. Just as Amy finishes hearing the facts, she lurches from pain, rushes out into the hallway, and tells Donna to call her doctor. In the following scene, the doctor informs her, upon examination, that the fetus is no longer viable. We fade on Amy's stunned face, her shock mirroring our own. (Knowing Amy Brenneman was pregnant in real life, we presumed that's why they'd written in a pregnancy for Amy Gray -- and that, obviously, she'd carry it to term.)

When we see her next, it's the following morning -- her 40th birthday -- and she's determined to put the miscarriage behind her and go to work. In court, she tries to keep it together as she delivers her sentence.

Amy: At the time of this accident, Shelly Cecil was a typical 13-year-old girl: hanging out with friends, being a teenager. And sometimes, teenagers do stupid things. When I was her age, my best friend and I decided to hide in a train tunnel with our backs against the wall to feel the rush of the train as it went by -- and if either one of us had moved an inch, or been swept along by the train, we would have died. We just...didn't. I'm not condoning what Shelly did. It was irresponsible, and she was warned -- and she learned how quickly things can go wrong.

Her own words touch a nerve. She looks down, rubs her forehead. Donna looks on, concerned. Amy recovers: "I'm recommending Shelly be sent to a residential facility for one year, where she will receive treatment, and then be placed on probation for three years, during which time she will continue therapy on an outgoing basis. I'm also mandating family therapy." She addresses Shelly and the mother of the girl she killed: "Shelly, you and Mrs. Thompson have a great deal in common. You both have suffered a tre-- " The words catch in her throat. She inhales quickly and looks down again: hiding her countenance, fighting to regain her composure. She does her best to continue: "You both have suffered a tremendous loss. And I understand.. that right now.. it may seem... as if you will... always feel this empty or..." She tries to wrap it up quickly: "You know, it's just a terrible time. We have to get through it."

Shelly asks, "How?": a question so reasonable yet so enormous, Amy can only brush it aside with a sad laugh: "I don't know." She exits the courtroom without explanation, reaches her car, and unwilling to head home (her family is throwing her a birthday party), drives an hour to the beach. As she sits on a log, the wind whipping against her face, a stranger, Jerry Lambert, spots her and strikes up a conversation. She cuts him off, but he presses: "Feeling a little down? Break up with your boyfriend -- I hope? Joke. Sorry. Did you?" She gets up and starts to walk away, as the camera catches them in a long tracking shot.

Amy: Fine, I'll leave.
Jerry: No, come on now, we're just getting to know each other.
Amy: Don't follow me.
Jerry: Don't get mad with me. Come on, let's start over. I'm Jerry.
Amy: Leave me alone, Jerry.
Jerry: Whoa, somebody's in a mood.
Amy: Does this work on anybody?
Jerry: What?
Amy: Badgering women who clearly don't want to talk to you. Why would you do that?
Jerry: I have a weakness for beautiful women.
Amy: Aw, dear God..
Jerry: I have a feeling about us.
Amy: No, no, you don't. No feeling. I did not come here to talk to you. We are not fated by the universe to meet. You are intruding. You are not welcome in my presence. Is that clear enough?

And when Jerry makes light ("You know, this is the story we'll tell our grandchildren"), Amy turns on him, practically snarling, "I had a miscarriage yesterday. OK? Twenty-four hours ago I was pregnant. You still hot for me? I turned 40 today. Does that turn you on?" And finally, as if offering an angry summation: "You are a moron of epic proportions. You leave me alone."

She makes her way to one of those seaside bars that litter the New England coast, with cheap fishnets and crude anchors everywhere. She breaks down in the bathroom, heaving and sobbing, then drifts to the bar, where she orders a draft beer. And Jerry shows up, seating himself just a few stools away:

Amy: Oh, you got to be kidding me.
Jerry: I'm sorry, I just wanted to apologize. That guy out there on the beach -- that's not me.
Amy: He looked a lot like you.
Jerry: Well, he's not. That guy, I hate that guy -- I roomed with that guy in college. I never liked him. So please, forgive me if I came on too strong. I didn't realize how much pain you're in, and I'm sorry.
Amy: Fine. Apology accepted.

He orders what she's having, but as she stares down at her drink, he can't help himself:

Jerry: So what happened, some kind of accident or something?
Amy: What?
Jerry: The baby, I mean. That must be rough.
Amy: You're still doing it. I can't believe you're still doing it.
Jerry: What?
Amy: Bothering me.
Jerry: Look, I'm a nice person, OK? I mean, I know it didn't seem like it out there, but I am. And you've been crying. I don't know, maybe you want to talk.

And Amy bursts out laughing.

Amy: Yeah, Jerry, that's just what I want to do. Talk to you about my miscarriage: I think that's a great idea. Because I can't think of anyone more qualified to listen to the deepest, saddest details of my life than some guy off the beach that I just met.
Jerry: OK, I get the joke.
Amy: Really? Because everything else I've said has just flown over your head.

He resolves to shut up, and we cut away to a sweet scene between Lauren and Maxine, in which Lauren has prepared what she'll later describe as "the worst birthday cake ever" (for one thing, she's spelled "birthday" with an "o"). And when we cut back to the seaside bar, Amy and Jerry are still seated, except now the camera is hitting them from behind, creating greater peace and parity. No longer crouching over her drink, Amy's leaning back. The tone is quieter.

Jerry: I'm sorry, but when you were yelling at me, did you say this is your birthday?
Amy: Yup. I'm 40.
Jerry: Wow. What's that like?
Amy: It's a lot like sitting in a bar with you, Jerry.
Jerry: It sneaks up on you, doesn't it? I had a plan. I was supposed to be VP of Acquisition by the time I was 35. I'm 38, and I'm on the bubble. The market just turned. My parents are gone. My friends are scattered and miserable. I'm not married. No kids. It wasn't supposed to be like this... It was not supposed to be like to be this.

As the waves roll in, Amy responds with a sigh that evokes both sadness and sympathy: "Oh, Jerry..." Jerry's quick to apologize: "Listen to me, I'm talking your ear off. You're the one sitting in a bar with a stranger on your 40th birthday." Amy recovers: "Yah, right. What am I doing? I've got people waiting." And that's not what Jerry expected; he thought he'd found a kindred spirit. His face darts with surprise, his voice quivering: "You got people?" Amy gently nods, as Jerry, shaken, musters a smile: "You should go be with those people." And Amy sees the light: "Yeah. Yeah, right." She stands and assures him, "Drinks are on me. Thanks." And as she leaves, she turns to quietly reassure him, "It was really nice talking to you."

She makes her way home and spies, through the front door, her friends and family in their party hats. The experience has helped put things in perspective. But as always on Judging Amy, nothing's as straightforward as it seems; with a shudder, Amy remembers:

Amy: Oh God, we put an offer on the McGuinn place.
Maxine: Is that a bad thing? I thought you said you always dreamed of living in that house.
Amy: I know, I know, but --
Maxine: But what?
Amy: I don't know. I guess I'm awake now.

The episode is called "Happy Borthday," it's a Carol Barbee script, and make no mistake: it's Amy Brenneman's best work on the show. It's an episode unlike any other, yet it's the essence of what Judging Amy is about. It's not a case of "here's someone whose life is so bad, it makes Amy's look good"; on the contrary, it insists that Amy's grief is no less valid than Jerry Lambert's (or Shelly Cecil's, for that matter). The people who pass through Amy's courtroom lead far less fortunate lives, but that doesn't make Amy's pain any less real. It doesn't make her choices any more trivial, or her accomplishments any less admirable. And likewise, the victims and defendants over whom she presides are never reduced to mere statistics; their troubles are never minimized or marginalized. (The writers -- and Amy herself -- see to that.) Judging Amy grants everyone equal dignity: the parents anxious to abandon their adopted child and the mother unable to love the son who got sick; the boy who stabbed his teacher and the girl who killed her best friend; the gang girl looking to go straight and the struggling businessman on the beach.

The cases that Amy tries in her courtroom hit so close to home that she's never truly free of them. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. A year into the series' run, Barbara Hall was asked how Amy's volatile relationship with her mother would change, now that they had been living together for a while. "I think it's going where I think all of our relationships with our parents go," she responded, "which is basically nowhere." Judging Amy acknowledges that sometimes we're affected more by encounters with strangers than by those we're closest to. Their stories change us; our actions impact them. There's a wonderful scene in the series' final episode, when Donna gathers some of the defendants who've appeared before Amy over the past six years, so they can tell her what a difference she's made in their lives. What's unstated, but understood, is the difference they've made in hers. "Happy Borthday" reminds us that our lives are inseparable from the people with whom we interact, even if those interactions are fleeting. Barbee simply takes the drama out of the courtroom, and plants it in the sand: by the ocean, that great equalizer. She makes it fresh -- and after six years, that's remarkable.

"Happy Borthday" reasserts the very premise of Judging Amy -- and then the final block of the season blows it to bits. It asks "What if our interactions with others are compromised? What if we can no longer do our job with conviction or objectivity?"

At the start of the season's final block, David is written off (for the second -- and final -- time). When David previously sailed away, in episode 8, it seemed motivated only by Amy's indecisiveness. Here, they've both suffered an enormous loss, and Amy in particular needs time to grieve. Amy's infatuation with David comes on so strong in Season 5 that you can't imagine the writers will find a convincing way to write him off -- but they do. The fallout from the miscarriage is handled so persuasively that you never see it as "merely" a plot device to get rid of David; on the contrary, it becomes a key component of what moves Amy forward: a personal tragedy that launches her on a professional trajectory. In the same episode in which David is written out, Graciela, having completed her sessions with Amy (and in one of most charming moments of the season, been rewarded with a surprise party), finds herself under arrest when she's in the wrong place at the wrong time -- specifically, in the backseat of a car when her cousin, in the front, shoots someone. As the state's attorney's office presses for Graciela to be tried as an adult, Amy is approached by someone who wants her to run for senator, to address the ways the juvenile justice system is being dismantled -- and the rest of the season sees Amy get slowly politicized. Scaia recalls that "Carol was looking for something specific to bring the show in for a landing. A lot of different ideas were discussed, and Matt and I, having just come from The West Wing (as assistants), were still marinating in politics, and suggested a version of Amy's arc that goes from judge to politician -- based on the reaction of what happens to Graciela." It's a bold choice for the series, but it feels utterly right.

Four years earlier, Amy Brenneman had told the press, "I have great faith in individuals, [but] I'm not so sure about the system. The juvenile justice system is changing and not for the better. When it was started 100 years ago, the idea was juveniles should be treated separately from adults. The underlying philosophy was: We as a society are responsible for any of the things a child might do. That's really being thrown out the window." Brenneman's concerns become her character's in the final spate of episodes, as Amy starts to question the changing face of the juvenile justice system (as well as her own effectiveness and impartiality), which Scaia reports are precisely the issues that were being hashed out at the time in the writers' room -- in particular, "Why is she still a judge?" And to its great credit, the political story-line, a brave turning point for the series, flows clearly and resolutely from recent events in Amy's life. When Bruce objects to the lengths she's going to see that Graciela gets tried as a juvenile, she insists, "She just needs someone to get up there and fight for her, care about her... love her," and he responds, "I just don't want to see you lose –- again." The loss of her unborn child and her quest to save Graciela become unmistakably intertwined. As Scaia puts it, Amy's evolution plays like "a natural character progression from enforcer of law to the one who helps create better ones." Although the series ends before the arc truly gets underway, the ways in which it's teased, including Amy's appearance before the U.S. Senate, to offer insight on a pending bill that would allow 13-year-olds to be tried and sentenced as adults, are extraordinary satisfying.

The final block isn't quite as solid as the second. There are some story-telling oddities that seem to stem from scheduling issues, and the cases are a bit less varied. (Maxine has two HIV-related cases over three episodes, and both play more like PSA's than good drama.) But through it all, the principals continue their awkward steps toward self-fulfillment. Vincent finds a way to reignite his passion for writing. Maxine opens herself up to the possibility of new relationships. Remarkably, the season seems to reflect back on its own inglorious beginnings, when the three leads were floundering so. It gently reminds us that there were no easy solutions, no fast fixes, to get these three back on track. They had to do it in their own way, in their own time.

"What was so great for us who joined in Season 6," Scaia notes, "was the privilege to ask why the relationships were the way they were and start the discussions in the room as to whether they were really working or not." The final season of Judging Amy takes a half-dozen episodes to get its bearings, but once the new writing team settles in, they show an impressive understanding of the characters: their capacity to self-destruct, but more critically, their ability to self-correct. Without compromising the integrity of Barbara Hall's original vision, without undermining the sometimes maddening complexity of her creations, they manage to leave the characters -- just briefly -- at their best, as if the past six years truly counted for something. As if acknowledging -- without the contrivance of "happy endings" -- that our investment in their lives was time well spent. Stephen Scaia recalls that, for him, "Judging Amy was a fantastic first writing job in Hollywood. Interesting, well-run, full of kind and intelligent people." For the audience, it's a tremendous, audacious final season, and a splendid way of saying goodbye.

Do you enjoy when shows end on a high note? Then check out my write-ups of Gilmore Girls Season 7, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4, and Knots Landing Season 14: all splendid final seasons.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Knots Landing season 7

My fourth Knots Landing essay, as I continue to make my way through the seasons of the great primetime soap (in no logical order, it seems). For this post, I elected to forego the "let me bring you up to speed" paragraph that I did for Season 9 and Season 14; most of my readers seem to be Knots devotees, who remember the characters and story-lines as well as I do. But if you're a Knots newcomer, and need a little background info, I offer up a look at the series' history, premise and core characters in my write-up of Season 3.

Over its fourteen seasons, Knots Landing saw its share of soft reboots and wholesale revamps. Sometimes they occurred at the start of a season, as new headwriters took the reins and charted their own course for the series; sometimes they happened mid-season, as story-lines deemed unsuccessful were jettisoned and new ones quickly devised. But for three seasons -- 5 through 7 -- Knots maintained unparalleled stability in terms of its principal cast and story arcs.

Season 5, Knots' best season, is a dizzying display of confident story-telling that builds to an adrenaline-rush conclusion. Season 6 suffers from a static start and a noticeable tonal shift two-thirds of the way through, but it's blessed with a middle section -- an acting showcase for co-star Joan Van Ark -- that's at once novelette-ish flight of fancy and piercing character drama, and that sees you through. So if you're a fan of Knots Landing Seasons 5 and 6, you should -- by all outward appearances -- love Season 7; in many ways, the three seasons form one long arc. The cast remains intact; all the Season 6 principals stick around for Season 7. The characters who are romantically paired in Season 5 -- author Valene Ewing and reporter Ben Gibson, real estate whiz Laura Avery and politician-turned-tycoon Gregory Sumner -- finally tie the knot in Season 7, while the one Season 5 marriage -- that of hapless millionaire Gary Ewing to aspiring businesswoman Abby Cunningham -- eventually runs its course. The plots left hanging in Season 6 -- the turbulent relationship between newlyweds Joshua Rush and Cathy Geary; Gary's plans to turn his newly-acquired Empire Valley acreage into "a community of the future" (all while Greg and Abby conspire to build a secret communications center beneath it); the hunt for Val's twins (the result of a one-night stand with Gary in Season 5) who were stolen at birth early in Season 6 -- all continue into Season 7, and most are tidily resolved.

So what's not to like about Season 7?

Plenty. Knots Landing Season 7 is what happens when you hire a showrunner with no affinity -- or particular affection -- for a series. Here, scribe David Paulsen was lured away from Dallas with the promise of a producer credit and headwriter chores. And he brought with him a Dallas mentality: where structure was preferable to spontaneity, and uniformity of tone, pacing and look more important than creative freedom. What he didn't bring to the show was an understanding of the characters. Knots Landing Season 7 is the first season that feels writer- rather than character-driven; long-established characters start behaving illogically, or conveniently, to generate plot. (Sometimes it's hard to recognize the characters at all.) And a chilliness sets in. Season 7 is the one in which the characters become alternately self-righteous and self-pitying. And more troubling, it's a season where the men seem to take sick and constant delight in humiliating the women, and where the headwriter -- fresh off three years on Dallas -- seems to view that as a healthy dynamic. It's a sour, unpleasant season.

The issues aren't as apparent in the first ten episodes as they later become. At the start of the season, the sprawling Empire Valley story is neatly trimmed down to one manageable plot -- Greg and Abby's efforts to move the site of some key drilling, to further their own agenda -- that keeps it reasonably scaled. The return of Val's twins is achieved more swiftly than expected, and although the moment itself is less affecting than it's meant to be, the follow-up two episodes later -- when the couple who (illegally) adopted the twins comes to say goodbye -- is deeply moving, and very much in the Knots vein of finding pathos in unexpected places. The Joshua-Cathy story is more problematic. It's a story about spousal abuse, and there's no attempt to make it about anything other than that, or to make that part of a larger story. And although there's a certain integrity in simply laying the issue bare (and the show doesn't turn it into a statistic, as it does years later when it takes on rape and illiteracy), it also doesn't find any way of making it remotely watchable for nearly a dozen episodes. And it's the first case of characters behaving irrationally to ensure maximum conflict. Lilimae, Joshua's mother, doesn't just enable him by looking the other way; she goes along with anything he says, no matter how objectionable. He characterizes his sister Val's twins, to her face, as "children of Adam, conceived in sin," and badgers her to have them baptized: "Let me know what you decide, Val. I mean, we are talking about their souls here" -- and Lilimae is there nodding her head in dopey agreement. The plotting is set up so that in any exchange, in any scenario, Lilimae will take Joshua's side. Lilimae always had a too-trusting nature, an ingenuousness when it came to men (back as far as Season 3's "The Rose and the Briar," and in her mothering of press agent Chip Roberts in Season 4), but here it's taken to a preposterous extreme. To create tension within the family, Lilimae has to stand up for Joshua -- until it's time not to.

And Joshua's fate is regrettably predictable. As noted, the show doesn't pause to moralize; it simply lets the verbal and physical abuse speak for itself. But it speaks so loudly that there's no place to go. It becomes clear early on that it's a dead-end story-line; Joshua becomes so irredeemable, you realize the writers are going to kill him off. (When next-door neighbor Mack describes him as "a ticking time-bomb that's about to explode," you cringe at the foreshadowing -- and at the bad dialogue.) So you wait for it. But while you wait, the abuse starts to dominate the series, and by the season's ninth episode, it's pretty much the sole plotline. It's unfortunate that that particular episode was handed to story editor Bernard Lechowick (who'd become a headwriter the following season); give him a weighty story-line, and he'd become unrelenting. In a heavy-handed episode that foreshadows later Lechowick offerings like "Suicidal," "Twice Victim" and "Simmer," Joshua's abuse of Cathy becomes graphic; he beats her up in an alleyway. And yet, in a strange aesthetic choice, even as they're trying to make the violence as "realistic" as possible, it starts to take on the trappings of a horror film -- with shadowy lighting, directorial scare tactics, and Bernard Herrmann-like underscoring. It comes to a head in the following episode, when Lilimae shouts Joshua off a rooftop. Again, you recoil at how on-the-nose the dialogue is: "I'm not your mama! You're not my son!" Joshua has abducted Cathy and taken her up to the rooftop of a downtown building (there's a billboard atop it trumpeting her TV show, the one he claims she stole from him); he's decided they'll jump and be reunited in death. But Lilimae arrives and intervenes, and while she's verbally disowning him, he trips and falls over the edge. His body lies crumpled on the street while overhead the billboard promises "A Better Tomorrow."

If only that were true. But Paulsen's just getting warmed up. More on that in a minute. Joshua's death seems telegraphed weeks in advance; the Empire Valley plotline, on the other hand, seems like it's going to dominate the show for months to come. But in the episode following Joshua's death, which seems to be the second "block" of the season, you feel an overhaul begin, as the "underground spy network" aspect of the Empire Valley story-line gets sped up considerably. You sense a tonal shift at that moment; you're suddenly aware that the new headwriter is now fully running the show. (You're not yet aware that he's going to run it into the ground.) In that next episode, despite months of high-handed bureaucrats insisting that the communications center is a top-secret operation, that no one knows (or can know) of its existence, Gary drives to Empire Valley and wanders in -- without anyone stopping him. Bug-eyed, he proceeds deeper and deeper, past computer terminals that look like something out of a '60s sci-fi film -- and no one pays him any mind, except one scientist there to offer helpful exposition. And an episode later, Gary -- who's barely had a moment to digest what he's seen -- blows it all up.

And just as you did when Joshua died, you're fooled into thinking, "Finally: this awful story's over." Fooled you twice: shame on you. This is where the season starts to go riotously wrong. Back to the Joshua story. Joshua slipped and fell off a building; it was an accident. But Paulsen sees story-line potential. So Lilimae sends Cathy home and calls 911; she tells the police that she got a call from Joshua, asking her to meet him there, and that she arrived on the scene to find him dead. She reasons that if she and Cathy tell the truth, they'll have to reveal that Joshua abducted Cathy, and it will tarnish his good name. Cathy protests that they can't lie to the police, but Lilimae counters, "Saying nothing's not a crime."

Yes, and it's also not a story-line.

But Paulsen piles on one absurdity after another. Lilimae invents a story -- that her preacher son was on a rooftop (heaven knows why) and accidentally fell -- that makes so little sense, it actually backfires on her, when everyone reasonably presumes it was suicide. In a spectacularly twisted piece of logic, she's left defending Joshua against accusations of suicide because she decided to cover up an accident. Then things get even more bizarre. A waitress Joshua was sleeping with discusses the case with her boyfriend, and he says -- for absolutely no reason -- "I was there when the preacher man died." Why would someone boast about a crime he didn't commit? -- it certainly doesn't endear him to his girlfriend. But as he so often does this season, Paulsen doesn't worry about the "why," as long as it generates story-line. And so the waitress goes to the police and repeats the conversation, and her boyfriend gets arrested, and Lilimae refuses to come clean. And even when Cathy confesses all, Lilimae still clams up. (In a wonderful moment of meta-dialogue, while Lilimae is holed up in police headquarters inventing yet another half-truth, Val moans, "How long is this gonna go on?")

And once everything's cleared up, Paulsen still can't let go. The police decide that it took Lilimae and Cathy so long to come forward, there must be more to the story. Maybe they lured Joshua up to the rooftop and pushed him. (At that point, the writers are dangling this as a story-line: "Will Lilimae and Cathy be arrested for a crime that never happened because they chose to cover up a crime that never happened?" And by then, you're forgiven for wanting to throw yourself off a building.) And once the police decide not to press charges, and you're praying the story-line has breathed its final gasp, Paulsen tries to shock it back to life. It's like trying to reanimate a corpse. A reporter disguises himself as a professional sax player (understandable: they are, after all, interchangeable skill sets), joins Cathy's band, gets her to talk, and prints a series of nasty exposés -- all while the writers keep cutting to shots of Lilimae at home, staring at the same photo of Joshua, week after week. Paulsen called the season's first episode "The Longest Day," and in a cheeky bit of symmetry, he'll call its final episode "The Longest Night." In retrospect, that's fitting, because Season 7 feels like the longest season.

Joshua's story ended when he went off the rooftop, but convinced he can create drama where none exists, Paulsen prolongs the story for another ten episodes. And in doing so, he makes Lilimae detestable. In order for her to defend her son, in order to preserve his "good name," she has to go on the attack, berating everyone else for what "they did" to bring Joshua down. She's particularly cruel to her son-in-law Ben, deriding him at his own birthday party. ("When you took Joshua's show away from him, it destroyed him.") She attacks Valene for never supporting Joshua; she practically stalks Cathy to make sure she doesn't crack under pressure. When next-door neighbor Karen tries to interject a little common sense, she curses her out: "Stay out of this, Karen MacKenzie. You're not family!" Right before he's about to go off the roof, Lilimae calls Joshua a monster, but she becomes the real monster -- except there's nothing to suggest that Paulsen is aware of the irony. The idea, of course, is that she's deflecting her guilt by blaming everyone else for her own failings, and eventually Paulsen has her face that, but there's nothing persuasive about covering up a crime that never happened, and nothing entertaining about watching an elderly woman belittle everyone in her path. It's a miracle that Lilimae survives Season 7, because you grow to hate her so much. Is it a coincidence that she's given almost nothing to do in Season 8, or did the writers realize that, in order for her to regain our trust and interest, they needed to give her a time-out?

The same could be said of Gary Ewing. Once the Empire Valley story heats up, Paulsen's vision for Gary comes into clearer focus. It just isn't any Gary Ewing we've ever seen. In Season 5, when Gary discovered Abby's duplicity, he threw her belongings into a suitcase and tossed her out. Here he berates and humiliates her -- for weeks on end. And she lets him. When he drags her out to Empire Valley, to help him blow up the communications center, he threatens her: "Are you going to be more comfortable with your hands tied in front of you or behind you?" Abby had gotten herself in over her head before, but she'd always found a way out. Her resilience is one of the things we loved most about her. Here she becomes scared, useless, a damsel in distress -- bowing to Gary's every demand, whining, "I don't want to die." That pretty much sets the tone for the next twelve episodes. While Lilimae is abusing family and friends, Gary is abusing Abby -- and week after week, she sets herself up for yet one more indignity. Episodes after the Empire Valley blow-up, when Gary's moved out and taken up with another woman, Abby shows up at his hospital room, after he's been in an accident, blithely thinking he'll come home to recuperate. Her passivity and naiveté are absurd; it's just another opportunity for Gary to degrade her. Like Gary, Abby is unrecognizable for much of Season 7. Sumner demands to know what Gary's been up to since he destroyed the underground spy network, and Abby admits she doesn't know – but she doesn't try to find out either. She waits around for Gary to make every move. In one of the season's most objectionable scenes, she's in bed waiting for Gary to come home to her, surrounded by dozens of half-read magazines, while he's in a hotel room laughing it up with a prostitute. You're left thinking, "Who are these people?" -- and then you remember: they're J.R. and Sue Ellen Ewing, from Dallas. (Sumner entertains a prostitute early in Season 7 as well; that seems to be the first place Paulsen thinks single men turn for comfort.)

Paulsen seems unaware that Gary and Abby truly loved each other, or is unable to grasp the dynamics of a relationship based on love, but not trust. Gary's delight in demeaning Abby doesn't seem true to character -- but neither does his self-absorption, and that takes up just as much screen time. Early in the season, Gary realizes that Val's twins are his. Of course he comes to this realization in the same episode in which Val promises Ben that no one will ever find out that the babies aren't his -- that from that moment on, he is their father. You don't resent the show for the coincidence of timing; that's the kind of gesture that soaps are built on. (The great headwriter William Bell was a master at that sort of double-switch.) But once Gary decides the twins are his, he responds by lavishing them with attention and gifts -- and refuses to accept that his actions might be undermining Val and Ben's early months of marriage. Everyone tries to reason with him: Val begs him to stay away; Ben demands it -- and in the next episode he's out buying the twins toys. When he ultimately tosses the toys in a hamper, you think he's finally come to his senses -- and then he gifts them half of Empire Valley. Gary insists that it never occurs him to him that a gift that lavish, that public, is pretty much an announcement that the kids are his -- but is anyone that obtuse? This is middle child Gary Ewing, who's obsessed with spending his family money the "right" way. (His horror in Season 4 when Abby started to use Ewing money selfishly -- "Why are you doing this? We're ruining lives!" -- stemmed from his terror at turning into his older brother J.R.) But in Season 7, Gary is unwavering, no matter who gets hurt in the process. Val shows up at the track where he's racing cars (that's the hobby Gary takes up after splitting with Abby: appropriate for Season 7 because it is "manly"). She tells him he has to take the gift back, and Gary grabs hold of her arm, tightly, insisting, "Half of Empire Valley belongs to the kids -- our kids." It's not said with love; it's more of an angry threat. A lot of Season 7 is men manhandling women, and we're supposed to be impressed by their grit and determination.

And the women just roll over and play dead. Pretty much every scene between Gary and Val ends with Val tremulous and sobbing. Women can't stand up to men; it's (apparently, to Paulsen) against nature. (Remember, this is before Paulsen returned to Dallas the following season, and Sue Ellen bought a lingerie shop and developed a spine.) Midway through the season, when Ben's come to realize that Gary knows about the twins' paternity, he asks Val if she's the one who told him. Of course he suspects her: Gary showed up at their wedding, and asked for private time with Val -- and she gave it to him. She walked off with her ex-husband at her own wedding. (Another possible answer when your ex-husband shows up at your wedding and demands alone time is, "Um, no.") We understand that Val has a weak spot where Gary is concerned -- the writers established that neatly in Season 4 -- but the Valene of seasons past had a backbone. She was blessed with a country girl's common sense. And she wasn't clueless. Just as Gary seems unaware that the attention he's paying the twins is undermining Val and Ben's marriage, Val seems unaware how the attention she's paying Gary is doing much the same thing. Late in the season, when Gary's in the hospital after the racing car accident, even though his wife and mistress are vying to see who gets to nurse him back to health, Valene shows up there, because... Well, so Paulsen can keep the drama going. So that Ben can find out, and it can drive him into the arms of another woman. There's absolutely no reason Val can't keep a healthy distance from Gary, except that Paulsen can't figure out where the season would go if she did. Just as Paulsen can't understand the complexities of Gary and Abby's relationship, he fastens on one aspect of Val's make-up as her sole defining trait; the show's most original, spirited creation becomes a clinging vine, prone to soliloquizing, "Why can't it work? Why can't it all be OK?", and whining to her friend Laura, "Why doesn't anything ever work out like you planned it?"

Years after Season 7's original run, Knots Co-Executive Producer Michael Filerman confessed, "I never agreed with David Paulsen. I mean, he wanted to make [Knots Landing into] Dallas, and it’s not Dallas. And I resented that." The Dallas characters were props: magnificent props, but props nonetheless. The characters were defined to a point, but if showrunner Leonard Katzman and company came up with a plot that they liked, they could typically find a way to get the characters into that situation; they could move them around fairly freely. The characters retained enough one-dimensionality to allow plot, rather than character, to dictate story-line -- when that was desirable. That wasn’t true on Knots, and Paulsen never understood or appreciated the difference. Abby’s passivity and immobility for much of Season 7; Lilimae and Cathy’s “cover-up”; Gary coming between Val and Ben, and Val letting him -– he tries hard to motivate it all, but it rings false. You can sense the struggle between how the characters would behave and how he wants them to behave. The characters were mightier than his pen.

Throughout Season 7, you're struck by characters behaving in ways that feel untrue, and by actors struggling to justify the mischaracterizations. Mack and Karen, Knots' "perfect couple," seem particularly elusive. It's like something as simple as a happy relationship -- or, in their case, a healthy relationship forged from temperamental differences -- is foreign to Paulsen. He keeps giving them "fun" scenes together, but there doesn't seem to be anything going on beneath them. As they banter about their honeymoon, or enjoy a "date night" at a French restaurant, or make out in the kitchen, it feels like forced gaiety. And once Paulsen creates conflict for them, it all goes south. At one point, Mack is emotionally unfaithful to Karen, and when she calls him out on it, he outscreams her, lambasting her for being moral and uncompromising, and for holding everyone else up to impossible standards. Mack is particularly sanctimonious in Season 7, waving his finger in everyone's face, and the writers seem to relish it. Later in the season, when his stepson ends up in the hospital, Mack goes off on his colleague Jill, because he suspects she knows more than she does. (She doesn't.) And again we're supposed to see his bullying as justified. The misogyny woven through Season 7 is troubling. Karen, who reasons things out, is neurotic; Mack, who's aggressive and impulsive, is admirable. At one point, when Karen is having trouble forgiving Mack for contemplating an affair, she tells Val, "I want my pride back," and Val counters, "At the expense of your marriage?" Later, when arsenic buried beneath Empire Valley threatens Karen's resort complex Lotus Point, and Sumner promises to clean it up if Gary will sell him the land, Karen refuses (why Karen should be the one to decide what Gary does with his land is never made clear), and Abby admonishes her, "Your pride is more important than Lotus Point." Karen's thoughtful rectitude is seen as a bad thing; Mack and Gary's single-minded self-righteousness is a good thing. That's Knots Landing Season 7 in a nutshell.

The chauvinism that pervades Season 7 is perhaps most noticeable in a relationship that doesn't involve men at all. Karen and Abby's encounters are wildly off-the-mark. Sometimes you feel Paulsen got only a set of character sketches before the season began, and misread half of them. At one point, Karen dismisses Abby with "You're a dabbler, Abby" -- and you think, "No, Gary's the dabbler -- have the writers watched this show before?" In a similar vein, you come to suspect Paulsen's précis for Karen and Abby was "two women: often at odds," and he took it to a one-dimensional extreme, because they spend the season shrieking at each other like banshees. Sisters-in-law Karen and Abby had a history going back decades (Karen's first husband Sid was Abby's brother), and some of the show's nicest moments found them working in tandem (as they had in Season 6, and would again in Season 9). The things that bound them (not just their love for Sid, but the challenges they faced as intelligent women trying to succeed in a male-dominated business) were just as interesting as the things that divided them. As Paulsen uses them, they're the worst of womankind: two strong females who loathe and mistrust each other. (They're a feminist's nightmare.) Each time the camera cuts to a shot of the two of them at Lotus Point, you want to plug your ears. You keep waiting for them to come to a mutual understanding about something, as they pretty much would in any other Knots season (Abby has plenty of opportunities to show appreciation when her daughter runs away and Karen kindly takes her in), but it never comes. Paulsen is content to keep them at each other's throats.

In a 2008 interview about Knots Landing, Paulsen admitted, "My focus is more of a male story focus, so to speak, more of a Giant sort of thing than it is on the 'over the picket fence' sort of thing. I don't know how to write that stuff all that well." (It's a shocking admission considering Knots had always been an "over the picket fence" kind of show.) Of course he wanted to bring a masculine sensibility to Knots: Dallas had thrived on the competitiveness between "good" Bobby and "evil" J.R. To recreate the Dallas model, Paulsen tries to build up the rivalry between Gary Ewing and Greg Sumner, but Season 7 fails on that front too. Once Gary blows up the communications center a third of the way through the season, the Ewing vs. Sumner story dissipates. Sumner has a scene where he talks to a portrait of his father (it's the same scene J.R. would have week after week), vowing to become "a new breed of barbarian," to become even more ruthless in getting what he wants -- but that never happens. He starts buying up all the banks that have loaned money to Ewing Enterprises, and acquiring all the land surrounding Empire Valley -- you briefly glimpse J.R. setting one of his schemes in motion. Then an episode later, his assistant Peter reveals he's his half-brother, and Sumner gets distracted. You keep waiting for him to get back to his plans to acquire Empire Valley, but it never happens -- until a freak event practically hands him the land on a platter. And as for Gary, he gets too absorbed with racing cars and chasing women to give Ewing Enterprises another thought. In that same interview, Paulsen revealed, "When I came onto Knots Landing, one of the things I hoped to do was move it more toward stronger story-lines,” but Paulsen can't seem to settle on a strategy.

Season 7 isn't a disaster: far from it. The cast is not just brilliant, but valiant: no Knots cast ever worked harder. Constance McCashin is particularly appealing, especially when Laura returns to Greg following the blow-up at Empire Valley, and later in the season when she implores him to "stop giving lip-service to passion and get passionate." Hunt Block, as Peter, is charming and intriguing when introduced (he has both a smooth and rugged presence early on that will all but vanish by Season 8), and he gets a nice boost when the story-line enigmatically links him to Jill. Donna Mills has one transcendent episode late in the season when, her back to the wall, Abby pretty much one-ups all the other characters, reasserting her authority and superiority. (It's an episode called "Phoenix Rises," and as much pleasure as we take in watching Abby rise from the ashes, the title's an unfortunate reminder that we've been watching her decompose -- like the mythological bird -- for half a season, and taken no pleasure in that.) And although Michele Lee is largely misused or wasted throughout Season 7, she has one scene that's stunning, as Karen vies for a spot on the State Planning Commission, but fearing Abby will expose her one-time addiction to prescription drugs, takes it upon herself -- at a meet-and-greet lunch -- to come clean about her past. As she prattles on, doing her best to minimize the damage without whitewashing the issue, Lee manages to convey the price of being responsible; you see her relief in owning up to her mistakes, and the terror of what that's costing her. It's the kind of scene at which Lee excels: Karen seems very much in the moment, yet simultaneously scrutinizing herself and self-correcting. It's a short scene, and in the grand scheme of things, almost inconsequential, but it feels like -- for a brief time -- the sun shines through.

Karen's lunchtime confessional is the kind of slice-of-life drama that Knots does best, and although those sorts of scenes are few and far between in Season 7, they do turn up, often when you least expect them. Just before Val's wedding to Ben, Lilimae appears as Val is getting made up; she knows she's been treating her daughter poorly, and wants to make amends. She's halting and uncertain of what to say -- a blessed relief from her incessant badgering of Valene up to that point in the season -- and Julie Harris and Joan Van Ark share one of their loveliest scenes, both of them fighting back tears. At Ben's birthday party, when Lilimae is being vile, Val takes to the kitchen, wailing to Karen, "It's tearing me apart -- what am I going to do?", and Karen responds, with a mix of tough love and healthy practicality, "You're going to go out there, and you're going to serve your husband a birthday cake." It's a tiny moment, but you sit up and take notice, because it's one of the rare times that reasonable behavior is seen as a virtue, and that the characters seem to be reacting to each other armed with years of backstory. And once Abby's daughter comes home from Karen's, she has a nightmare, and Abby rushes to her bedside to comfort her, and it's a little treasure of a scene. It's just what you most want to see: an unexpected encounter that seems to exist simply to strengthen the bond between longtime characters -- an exchange that's not about relentlessly pushing the plot forward, but reminding us how much these characters care about each other, and how much we care for them.

But by and large, the things that go right in Season 7 never last, and really only one major character survives the season unscathed: Val's husband Ben. Doug Sheehan seems comfortable with everything he's handed, which is essentially a season-long emasculation. He manages to be both crown prince and court jester, and making his way among characters largely devoid of self-awareness, he's permitted a rare moment of eloquence. After Gary has bequeathed half of Empire Valley to the twins, and wound up in the hospital, only to have Valene show up for a visit (she believes his reckless behavior is the result of him being a dry drunk), Ben admits to Valene:

Ben: Do you know, I don't think I know right from wrong anymore. Is it right for me to be so angry about this trust fund?
Val: I don't know, it's perfectly normal for you to ---
Ben: I didn't ask you if it was normal -- I asked you if it was right. Is it right for my "normal" anger to deprive our kids of the kind of security it would take me ten lifetimes to be able to give them? Is it right for me to expect you not to care about the suicide course that your ex-husband has set for himself? Is it right for me to resent you for going to visit him? Hell, you could take him from that course. You could save his life. What is my resentment compared with that? You know, you're doing what's right for you, and I respect you for that. And if I also resent you for it, then I guess it's my problem, isn't it?

Knots Landing Season 7 offers up a world where decent people like Ben Gibson suffer. It's a world that rewards the clueless and the greedy -- that punishes the faithful and mocks the needy. And it all ties back to Paulsen's Dallas roots. Dallas was, at heart, a chillier show than Knots. Not that it couldn’t be emotional and occasionally moving, but on a basic level, Dallas was a show about grand gestures, and Knots was a show about small moments. Paulsen never adjusted well to that. The warmth that saturates the first six seasons of Knots Landing dissipates once Paulsen comes on board, and a lot of the big moments feel overscaled, like they belong on some other series. Late in the season, Karen's son Eric has been stricken with arsenic poisoning from swimming in the Lotus Point reservoir. (Sumner's father Paul Galveston had buried the waste beneath Empire Valley.) We get a montage of Karen trying desperately to school herself in the clean-up of toxic waste, then cut to a full-body shot of her standing on a hill, the reservoir beneath her. (She's wearing what looks like red pajamas, but never mind.) She screams to the heavens, “Damn you, Paul Galveston!", and the camera pulls back across the water like she’s Moses about to part the Red Sea. It’s the kind of scene that might have provided some foolish fun on Dallas; on Knots, it feels ludicrous and misjudged.

Paulsen took the job as Knots showrunner because, by his own admission, he wanted the producing credit, but apparently he knew it was a mismatch. And instead of stretching himself, he tried to stretch the show, and mercifully, it proved unyielding. And yet, there’s a nagging disparity between what Paulsen has said in interviews and what's on the screen, Although Paulsen claims he was no good at the “over-the-picket-fence stuff," it’s precisely those scenes that are some of the strongest -- and most nuanced -- moments in Knots Season 7. In contrast, the elements he brought over from Dallas -- the streamlined characterizations, the uniformity of look and feel, the alpha-male aesthetic, and, yes, the hookers -- were largely unsuccessful. Yet Dallas's 1983-84 season -- a season largely about relationships, with little emphasis on business dealings -- suggests that Paulsen did indeed know how to do the warmth, humor and spontaneity that were Knots staples. So did Paulsen really not think he could do the “over-the-picket-fence stuff" that well, or was that merely his excuse to continue writing the kind of show that he thought was "better"? Did he underestimate his abilities, or was he simply calculating? Or lazy? Or ultimately, as Michael Filerman asserts, did he simply lack the talent to write complex characters, and this was the best he could do? It's a mystery that, in the world of primetime soaps, dwarfs even "Who shot J.R.?"

Knots creator David Jacobs loved his writing teams to be spontaneous; he loved discovering what worked, as a season progressed, and running with it. He found creative freedom often allowed for wonderful and surprising results. His approach made for the occasional lull, when nothing was coming together as planned, but also resulted in some breathless highs, when the writers, actors and directors seemed to be running on pure adrenaline. Paulsen schooled under Leonard Katzman at Dallas, who ran a tight ship. Paulsen notes, "It was always hard for Leonard to move forward unless he saw the end. David [Jacobs] was more free- thinking." To Paulsen, "You need a certain look to the show, a certain feel. So you need stuff coming down from the top. It's the Executive Producer who designs the look of the show with his artistic people, his creative people, and then you wanna stick to that. But David, to his credit -- and detriment sometimes during certain periods which were not easily controlled -- tried all sorts of things." His conclusion: Dallas, which he admits was "story-driven," was "a far more consistent show." Whether that's true or not is debatable. More interesting is the notion of "consistency" as the ultimate goal. The headwriters who worked best -- and lasted longest -- on Knots Landing (Ann Marcus, Peter Dunne, Lechowick and his wife Lynn Latham) mined the characters so skillfully that the plots often seemed self-generating. And often, particularly during the Lechowick-Latham years (the show's most uneven), the characters would lead them in directions that proved unsatisfying -- but the flexibility of story-telling allowed for instant course corrections, and the richness of the characters led to moments of joyous inspiration. Knots Landing Season 7 is the one Knots season that feels generic; you feel the showrunner taking it on a pre-determined path, unwilling to let anything deter him from his destination. But because his understanding of the characters is shaky, the ride is a rocky one.

Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 3 and Season 14: both seasons helmed by the great Ann Marcus, and both remarkable. Also, my write-up of Season 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years.