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.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders (part 2)

Following CBS's cancellation of Limitless last month, I decided to look at ten great shows that were canned after one season. I intended to limit this post to shows that came out of the gate fully formed (like Limitless), that had solid first-season runs. But I realized that if I were discussing "one-season wonders," then just as wondrous were the shows that took time to get their bearings -- often much of their first season. Sometimes, that feels like the greater loss: when a show is trying diligently to refine itself during its early months, to tap into what's working and discard what isn't, and then, just as it seems to be coming into its own, it's gone. Everybody Loves Raymond was certainly a show that took almost a season to fully distinguish itself, to learn how best to use the family dynamics to mine laughs; can you imagine if CBS hadn't rewarded it with faith, patience, a better time slot and (ultimately) a renewal? Anyway, my first five one-season wonders can be found here; here are the final five:

Moonlight (2007-08): At the 2008 upfronts, Nina Tassler, head of CBS Entertainment, announced that they were canceling the vampire drama Moonlight after one season, but keeping its star, Alex O'Loughlin, close at hand. They'd find him another role. Her rationale was that folks had taken to the breakout star, and very much wanted to see him on the small screen -- just not in that particular series. Maybe vampire vehicles seemed passé to Tassler (Angel had wound up its run three years earlier), and she figured the audience would soon tire of the premise; how else to explain the network canceling a show that was winning its timeslot in the coveted 18-49 demo, while providing a sturdy bridge from lead-in Ghost Whisperer to lead-out Numb3rs? But enough of this senseless supposition: the award for Worst Timing of Any Cancellation in Network History goes to... Nina Tassler for Moonlight! Six months later, the first Twilight film opened, and vampires became ubiquitous -- and obscenely popular. But aside from the timing issue, the cancellation of Moonlight was painful because -- Tassler's protestations to the contrary -- it was a sensational showcase for O'Loughlin. He was smoldering, dangerous, wry and elusive. (He never again found a role that called for that kind of range; as much as I've enjoyed him in subsequent vehicles, private investigator and vampire Mick St. John let him do it all.) And the show, after a shaky pilot, had started to improve almost immediately, and even the critics who denounced it originally were doing quick reassessments during the fall months. By the time it emerged from the 2008 writers' strike with a new spate of episodes, it felt invigorated and confident: in its expanding mythology; in easy blend of humor, romance and suspense; and in a quartet of actors -- O'Loughlin, Sophia Myles, Jason Dohring and Shannyn Sossamon -- who'd grown so secure in their roles that they already seemed iconic. But CBS soon gave it the heave-ho, and nothing they subsequently tried in that timeslot stuck (the replacement series included such turkeys as The Ex List and Made in Jersey) until they moved O'Loughlin's own Hawaii Five-0 into the timeslot in 2013, where it's remained ever since. If CBS hadn't pulled the plug prematurely on Moonlight, he could have just been there all along.

Mary (1985-86): It's Mary Tyler Moore's return to sitcoms, and it's easy to imagine it as a continuation of her classic '70s series. When we last saw Mary, she was flicking off the lights at WJM; now it's eight years later, she's been married and divorced, and is living in Chicago. She's tougher around the edges, a unemployed fashion writer who begrudgingly takes work at a local tabloid. It puts her back in a newsroom setting, and surrounds her by a crackerjack cast: James Farentino as her editor, John Astin as the theatre critic, Katey Sagal (pre-Married With Children) as a chain-smoking columnist. The premise is solid, but the first episode feels labored, with lame jokes about the blind copy editor and frequent, forced attempts to suggest sexual tension between Moore and Farentino. And her home life is weak, with Carlene Watkins as her frazzled best friend, who announces she's getting married. (Her fiance's name is Lester Mintz, and the implication is that he's a mobster; it feels like a wildly unpromising plot-line.) Nothing about Watkins inspires Moore, who's least interesting seeming charmed by illogical logic. (It's why so many Mary-Georgette scenes are cut from the syndication prints of The Mary Tyler Moore Show: they're the episodes' weakest links.) But Moore and Sagal have fabulous chemistry: a combative ease reminiscent of her first season with Valerie Harper. And Moore is able to balance Sagal's sly swagger by restoring some of her own trademark warmth. The creators, Ken Levine and David Isaacs, know what they have to do: they let go of the homefront and focus on the newsroom, which, with Moore and Sagal's desks front and center, feels welcoming. They tighten the situations, refine the relationships, and although the comedy never quite gels, you keep feeling there's enormous promise. Promise that goes untapped. CBS had looked to Mary as their savior; the previous season, NBC had launched The Cosby Show, which so rejuvenated their line-up that the network, a perennial also-ran, now threatened to steal the ratings crown from CBS. The midseason Mary was CBS's preemptive strike, to shore up their schedule and ensure they stay on top. But ratings were lukewarm, and with Levine & Isaacs uninterested in returning for another season (Levine recalls there was far too much network interference), the network let it go after thirteen episodes. NBC won the season, and viewers lost the chance to have Mary back on their screens.

Awake (2012): Remember that nightmare so vivid you awoke imagining it was real? Or the time you recalled a conversation and couldn't remember if you'd merely dreamed it? Ultimately, of course, we learn to discern dreams from reality; once we wake up, and get our bearings, we know where we are. But what if we didn't? What if our dreams were just as convincing as real life? Awake opens with a car crash involving a man, his wife and his son. We soon learn that the man, LAPD police detective Michael Britten, emerged from the crash navigating two separate realities: one in which his wife died in the accident, the other in which his son died. Each time he falls asleep in one world, he wakes in the other. In each, he carries on with his life and his police work, under the watchful eye of an LAPD-appointed therapist. Each therapist insists, of course, that their world is real, and the other a dream: that the dream is his way of dealing with his loss. But each world feels equally vivid. And more to the point, even if it is a coping mechanism, Michael has secured an existence in which both his wife and son survived the crash; why would he want to give that up? Why would he wish to be "cured"? These are the questions that swirl around Awake, but as otherworldly as the premise is, Awake is not, at heart, a fantasy series: it's a police procedural. As Michael carries out his job with the LAPD, he learns how to use clues from one reality to solve cases in the other. The cases focus the series; they keep the concept taut and clear. Awake was a show without missteps, but as assured as its scripting and direction were, it's hard to imagine it without star Jason Isaacs, who performed a masterful balancing act. Its story of a man coping with survivor's guilt (all while investigating homicides and police corruption) could have turned dark and dour, but Isaacs convinced you that Michael found his double life as much blessing as curse -- that every extra day spent with his wife and son was a gift. And he grounded the concept with an earnestness that kept it from veering into the paranormal. During its thirteen-episode order, Awake wove countless variations, and then the first-season climax exploded into a new normal -- one that, sadly, was never explored. Thursdays at 10 had long been home to NBC's prestige dramas, from Hill Street Blues to L.A. Law to ER. Awake was very much of that caliber, and its potential was enormous -- but NBC laid it to rest after one season.

Ellery Queen (1975-76): Let's get this out of the way up front: the first episode is awful. AW-FUL. It appears the episodes were aired largely out of order, so why the network chose to lead off with one where the titular character doesn't arrive at the crime scene till ten minutes to episode's end is anyone's guess. (He gets stuck in traffic, he stops to buy orchids for his girlfriend, he stops to give them to his girlfriend -- all while you're left praying this isn't going to be the weekly format: Murder, He Avoided.) But thank goodness, the solution to the first-episode mystery is superb, and subsequent episodes are far superior. Creators Richard Levinson and William Link, producer Peter S. Fischer, story editor Robert Van Skoyk and writer Robert Swanson all went on to Murder, She Wrote; here they're twice as clever, but undercut by the source material. They conceive the series, fittingly, as a period piece, but the mid-'70s evocation of the mid-'40s is rarely striking or even attractive. The guest cast seems unsure whether to play it straight or in a heightened style suggestive of post-war screen acting. And Jim Hutton, in the title role, doesn't evoke an earlier era at all; he seems pretty much the same likable lug who'd go on to woo Julie Cooper the following year on One Day at a Time. (It's tough to blame him, as Ellery is snobbish and slick in the early novels and short stories, qualities that wouldn't have played well on TV, then later something of a cipher.) Hutton opts for absent-minded charm, but it takes him a while to figure out how to mix in a little urgency. But you're quite willing to overlook the decor and the uneven performances, because the best episodes are beautifully clued, and the solutions -- as in the books -- seem surprising yet spot-on. And they mirror the literary conceit by having Ellery break the fourth wall, shortly before the end, and let you know he's solved the case; have you? And in case you haven't, he directs your attention to key clues. (If he tells you, "There's a reason the body was moved," you can bet you'll be smacking your forehead a few minutes later at how obvious the solution seems in retrospect, yet how cleverly the clue was concealed.) Murder, She Wrote's success rested largely on Angela Lansbury's talents and Jessica Fletcher's appeal; the mysteries were secondary, and by the final half of the series' run, it seemed like every solution involved a character letting slip a piece of information "only the killer could know," and Jessica pointing it out just prior to the wrap-up. But Ellery Queen tried to create a stimulating mystery week after week, and encouraged the audience to play along. The period setting kept it from being bracing, but it was nearly always engaging.

Constantine (2014-15): In the fall of 2012, when DC Comics rebooted its line-up, I got back into comic-book reading, after a 25-year absence. I picked up Constantine after reading some rave online reviews; it was my introduction to the trench-coated master of the occult, but I took to him at once. Two years later, Matt Ryan was announced as Constantine in the 2014 TV series, in what turned out to be perfect casting: he so embodied the cunning conman (who hid his compassion under a cloud of chain-smoking cynicism), it seemed at times that the comic book had been based on his performance, and not the other way around. You felt like you'd be happy to watch Ryan even if the show had nothing else to offer -- which occasionally proved the case. Mistakes were made from the start. The network decided to replace the lead actress after the pilot was shot, but instead of reshooting, they simply had the showrunners (Robert S. Goyer and Daniel Cerone) tack on a scene where we learn that she's elected, after one adventure, not to join Constantine's crew. It ultimately engaged a newcomer in Constantine's preternatural world, then implied it wasn't interesting enough for her to stick around -- not something you tell the audience at the end of a pilot. And the showrunners decided early on that Constantine would be the only constant; the featured players would appear only as needed. It set the show nicely apart from its comic-book counterparts (it seemed a bit like an anthology series) and felt true to its source (as Constantine was ultimately a loner), but without a couple lines of exposition to justify the premise, it felt like the writers didn't know how to use their own supporting cast. And all along it seemed like NBC was rooting for the series to fail. (I hear folks all the time argue, "A network would never sabotage its own show," but tell that to the producers of Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23.) The network started airing episodes out of order, even though the show was semi-serialized, then bumped it to an ill-suited 8 PM timeslot (Constantine was not kiddie fare), almost defying viewers to engage. Constantine was undeniably uneven, but when it worked, it was both facile and frightening -- so much so that you were willing to overlook the growing pains. As often happens when networks are too gutless to announce they're pulling the plug on a cult favorite, NBC never actually canceled Constantine. They simply let it run through its initial order and then, in the feat of magic Constantine himself would've appreciated, it was gone.

Enjoy reading about TV's best? Check out two similarly-styled posts: The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching and Five Great Actors in Ten Great Roles.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Making Peace With Pertwee (part 3)

The conclusion of my latest Doctor Who three-parter: reflections on the Jon Pertwee years. You can read my overview of the era here, and my initial countdown of favorite serials -- #10 through #6 -- here. What follows are my top five Pertwees. Just a few words up front: things that struck me after I'd completed my list. As I've noted elsewhere (most recently in my Doctor Who Top 50), I'm not the biggest champion of writer Robert Holmes; I admire him, but I don't revere him the way many Whovians do. (Two of his best-loved serials, "Talons of Weng-Chiang" and "Caves of Androzani," leave me cold.) So it was a pleasant surprise to see that I'd included three Holmes scripts in my Pertwee top five. I quite like his Third Doctor contributions -- particularly his last two -- and doing this series of posts has caused me to reevaluate Holmes's output. And here's my most interesting revelation. When I published my top 25 Classic Who serials last November, only one Pertwee made the list, for which I was lightly mocked by friends and colleagues. It was "Carnival of Monsters," at #14. I'd still include it, but I've come to love one other serial more, as you'll see below. As I look back at that top 25, I'd now place my (new) top Pertwee at #10 in my list of all-time favorite Classic Whos. "Carnival" would remain where it is, and my third-place Pertwee would probably fall around #20, perhaps between "War Games" and "Image of the Fendahl." So the most illuminating thing about this latest rewatch -- which was designed to view the Third Doctor era with fresh eyes, to better understand what my friends see in it -- is how much my estimation of the era has truly grown. That's been lovely. Anyway, on to my top five:

#5. The Time Warrior
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Alan Bromly
There's some hearty laughter that goes on a beat or two too long; the scene where Sarah Jane first enters the TARDIS is oddly filmed and edited; the nods to women's lib are tiresome and misguided; and the final part feels padded. Those flaws are noticeable, but prove minor. "Time Warrior" is a pseudo-historical romp that's devilishly designed and cunningly sustained, neatly establishing a world in which a Medieval plunderer and an alien warrior would become frenemies -- and playing out that odd-couple relationship against the new, burgeoning partnership between the Doctor and Sarah Jane. Holmes had to lead off Doctor Who's eleventh season by introducing its eleventh new companion; he seizes on a novel approach that energizes the serial, letting her discover the show's time-traveling premise -- which had long since become second-nature to us -- without the Doctor present. Sarah Jane snoops around a police box and finds herself in the Middle Ages, and is left to her own devices: the character there to "ask the questions" has no one to offer the answers, so she's forced -- while her life hangs in the balance -- to fill both roles. ("Now, it's not a village pageant, it's too elaborate for that... A film set! No, no lights, no cameras.") It lets Holmes establish her quick wits and intelligence, and also allows him to gently comment -- as he so often would -- on the sweet absurdity of the show's conceit. Alan Bromly keeps the tone cheeky without letting it slip into camp; the period dialogue is priceless, and performed full-on by a strong cast headed by the commanding David Daker. And Pertwee and Sladen have instant chemistry. An irony of the Pertwee era: the companion he's most remembered with is Katy Manning, but the ones who inspired his most consistent performances were Caroline John and Lis Sladen. Pertwee was at his best when he was challenged, not coddled, and the conceptions of Liz Shaw and Sarah Jane Smith -- two no-nonsense companions who match him beat for beat -- did wonders for him.

#4. Frontier in Space
written by Malcolm Hulke
directed by Paul Bernard

It's ostensibly Hulke riffing on Cold War tensions, of the interplanetary kind. But "Frontier" isn't really about superpowers poised to strike; it's about The Power of Jo Grant. Katy Manning has never been as striking as she is here, with the warmth and fragility we've come to love now fortified by a tougher hide. As she bursts out of the TARDIS at the top, she's equal parts waif and moll, chewing gum as she informs the Doctor, "Well, I'm never going in that thing again!" And when he parries, she attacks: "Only you could have an accident in space!" (Hulke had already given her new assurance, in "The Sea Devils"; now he gives her an assertiveness that will serve her well in the serials to come.) Later, with the pair imprisoned by the Master, Jo is charged with prattling on long enough for the Doctor to escape. Her monologue has to be winning enough to entertain us, yet inconsequential enough for the Master to ignore -- and Manning knows just how to pitch it, delivering a tour-de-force performance. And finally, Jo and the Master get the rematch we've been waiting for since their first joint appearance, as she shows how far she's come: now able to beat him (twice) at his own game -- and relishing it. Pertwee is also in top form. He was vocal about hating acting with rubber-faced aliens; reward him with some splendid masks that allow for facial expression, and he springs to life. The contours of the script are standard-fare Hulke -- multiple conversations hammering home the same points, the Doctor and Jo being dragged from one prison to another -- but the scenes themselves, mostly two-handers, show off the actors at their most appealing. (There's a nice exchange about a purple horse with yellow spots.) "Frontier" craves a better director, and the best you can say about Bernard is that he doesn't get in the way. But the serial boasts austere yet impressive futuristic settings, and when you place these actors in front of them (not just Pertwee, Manning and Delgado, but Vera Fusek, Michael Hawkins, Peter Birrel and John Woodnutt, in imposing guest shots), it's the Pertwee era at its most charismatic.

#3. Spearhead From Space
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Derek Martinus

UNIT has become such a fixture in the Who-niverse that it's easy to overlook the challenges Robert Holmes faced in penning Pertwee's debut. He had to convince viewers used to spiriting through time and space that it would be fun to set up shop on Earth for a while. He had to sell a reboot that essentially undid the show's premise. And he does so almost effortlessly, with a story that's as much character study as adventure. "Spearhead" is often dismissed with complaints that "the Doctor's hardly in it" -- but that's precisely the point. We don't need to meet the Doctor right away; we expect to like him. The "troubled regeneration" story lets the show first establish the team who'll be joining him, reassuring us (by the time the Doctor is back on his feet) that they're worthy. And not worthy of joining him, in this case, but of him joining them. Holmes not only successfully introduces Liz Shaw and reintroduces the Brigadier, but he manages some nice reversals along the way. The Brigadier and the Doctor previously enjoyed a cordial camaraderie; by the end of "Spearhead," the new workplace environment triggers an amusing alpha-male rivalry. And conversely, Liz starts off as a skeptic, but ultimately, her scientific curiosity and a weakness for the Doctor's charms turn her into his champion. Derek Martinus's previous Who serial, "Ice Warriors," was all grand effects; this one is subtle gestures. He's careful not to overplay his hand or overdramatize events; as his camera fairly floats along on Dudley Simpson's jazz-infused score, he teases as much as he delivers, suggesting that the factories and field HQ's of Earth can be just as tantalizing as far-off alien planets. "Spearhead" promises a look that only rarely reemerges in the Pertwee era (it turns up next during Liz's chase scene in "The Ambassadors of Death"), but Martinus's darting camerawork ensures it's a look so elusive that you've practically forgotten it by the time the serial winds down. As such, it's the best broken promise in Who history.

#2. Carnival of Monsters
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Barry Letts
The Third Doctor on a budget, and he never looked so good: proof, if any were needed, that imagination trumps special effects. Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning had developed a lovely rapport by this point in their run, and as actors, they'd rarely been as radiant. "Carnival" is a cousin to The Twilight Zone's "Stopover in a Quiet Town," but there's nothing quiet about Holmes's script: it's packed with incident. As the episode after the Time Lords restore the Doctor's ability to travel freely, it imagines the viewer asking, "What kinds of adventures are in store for us now?", and responds, "All kinds" -- and then serves up a four-part demonstration, setting us down in Earth's past to illuminate a maritime mystery, then a barren alien landscape inhabited by massive snake-like predators, and finally a far-off planet mired in political paranoia. (If "Spearhead From Space" promises an era that never truly emerges, "Carnival" shows us, proudly and prophetically, exactly where the show is headed.) The whole thing is colorful and celebratory, and there are wonderful images throughout: a giant hand from the sky spiriting the TARDIS away; a diminutive Doctor stumbling out of an alien peep show; a sea-serpent terrorizing a '20s cargo ship. But most of all, "Carnival" works, like so many of the top Classic Whos, because it's in many ways a commentary -- not the sort of "social issues" commentary that underscored many a Third Doctor story, but a commentary on the series itself: on Doctor Who as a show to be watched, as the actors as characters that we view on a big box -- exactly what they become in "Carnival of Monsters." Like most Holmes stories, it's terribly "aware," but this one is aware without being arch. It bursts with an "anything goes" spirit -- while at the same time putting the Doctor exactly where we want him: inside our TV screen.

#1. The Ambassadors of Death
written by David Whitaker
directed by Michael Ferguson
On paper, Michael Ferguson seems an odd choice to direct. "Ambassadors of Death" is a fairy tale anticipating early Spielberg, where aliens come to Earth with good intent, and it falls to us to rise to the occasion. It suggests someone with a light touch and an eye for detail. Ferguson was a "bold-strokes" director; his aim was not to be detailed, but daring. (If he staged a fist-fight, he didn't much care if the punches connected -- as long as whoever took the losing punch could then fall off a cliff.) But the unlikely match of script and director only enhances the serial; Ferguson enlarges its scope in a way that augments its sense of wonder. The set-pieces -- ambushes and shoot-outs and chases -- don't strive for authenticity; they feel jam-packed and oversized, like a precocious kid with his toy soldiers, imagining adventures too wonderful for the real world to contain. And the serial's climax (the unleashing of the eponymous trio to save the day) becomes not merely satisfying but mesmerizing. "Ambassadors" is credited to Whitaker, but history relates that it was mostly written by Malcolm Hulke; Hulke may have crafted the dialogue, but the plot and sensibility are unmistakably Whitaker, and they set the tone for how the early Third Doctor era can work: for how the three leads can team up to solve a crisis, availing themselves of the Doctor's wisdom, Liz's intelligence and the Brigadier's decisiveness. In "Ambassadors," the UNIT unit is a tight one: the Doctor respects the Brigadier, the Brigadier trusts the Doctor, and everyone loves Liz. And oh, what Liz Shaw -- transformed here from companion to heroine -- brings to the proceedings. Decked out in a miniskirt, adorned by white knee-high boots and matching wide-brim hat, she nonetheless manages to be every bit the scientist. Late in the serial, the Doctor and Liz are held hostage, and the Doctor feigns willingness to help build a device for his captors. Liz has a moment of astonishment, then she realizes they're not going to build the desired machine at all; they're going to devise a means of escape. It's never stated, but it's understood -- and understood by us as well. "Ambassadors" disproves the notion that the Doctor needs someone to "ask the questions." Liz is right there with him every step of the way, and the serial trusts us to keep up -- and we do.

Want more Classic Who? I offer up capsule reviews of all the Second Doctor serials here, and an overview of the Fifth Doctor era -- plus capsule reviews -- here.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders

CBS cancelled Limitless last week; there goes another great TV series, jettisoned after one season. The network seemed to lose interest early on; they never tried a new timeslot to see if a more compatible lead-in might boost its ratings. (Mondays at 10 PM, after Scorpion, seemed a good option.) And ironically, the serialized elements that the network itself had encouraged made it less valuable to them in syndication than their more static procedurals, Code Black and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, both of which got second-season pick-ups. Limitless's cancellation got me thinking of other worthy shows that disappeared after one season: shows with unexplored potential that seemed, well, limitless. Ten instantly came to mind; here are the first five. If you've read any of my blog entries, you know this list probably won't match anyone else's; my tastes remain emphatically, occasionally erratically, my own. (You also won't find Limitless on this list -- but only because I discussed it, and its brain-twisty brilliance, last November. It's a post entitled "Welcome Home, CBS," written at a time when I thought the network was finally reinventing itself with novel programming; now that it's prematurely cancelled both Mike & Molly and Limitless in the same season, I find myself watching less on CBS than at any point since the late '60s.)

Now and Again (1999-2000): It was "National Superhero Day" a few weeks ago, and I wondered, "Do I have a favorite TV superhero?" And I immediately thought of Now and Again, which seemed remarkable, given that it's been off the air for 15+ years and ran only one season. But for those who watched and adored the series (as I did), it's unforgettable: a family drama turned rom-com, masquerading as a sci-fi spy caper. The brain of a (recently deceased) middle-aged man is implanted into a young, bio-engineered body, cultivated by the government for use in espionage. Except the man wants nothing more than to be reunited with his wife and daughter: the one thing his superiors won't allow. That tug-of-war between duty and desire infused the proceedings with a wistfulness and a longing that made it far more emotionally involving than the pre-season network promos led you to believe. Now and Again boasted an astounding cast: Eric Close (as the bio-engineered "Mr. Newman") just before Without a Trace, Dennis Haysbert (as his handler) just before 24, Heather Matarazzo (the daughter) just after Welcome to the Dollhouse. And anchoring it all was Margaret Colin (the wife) at the peak of her powers: never sexier than when frazzled, never fierier than when frustrated -- embodying in her own way the "ideal women" just as Close, with his sculpted torso, embodied the "ideal man." Now and Again was expertly done, but it suffered from one miscalculation. The opening three-parter -- Mr. Newman's fight to save New York City from the elderly Eggman, who engaged in bioterrorism (he kept his poison in an egg) -- promised a fun action-adventure series, one that featured our hero weekly fighting off novel baddies. But Glenn Gordon Caron, who had masterminded Moonlighting and would go on to Medium, intended something less conventional: a series that mixed and matched genres, while keeping the fractured family dynamics front and center. He just didn't let us in on the plan until weeks after the show began -- and the unexpected shifts in tone were initially disconcerting. It took a while to adjust to his approach, and in the process, Now and Again shed enough viewers that CBS couldn't justify its renewal. But it was pure pleasure while it lasted.

Forever (2014-15): Oh, for the days that networks stuck with shows for a few seasons, while they built their audience. I'm not even talking about shows still working out the kinks; I'm taking about shows that come out of the gate fully formed -- impeccably cast, written, directed and performed -- but don't attract enough viewers after six months to demand renewal. ABC gave up on Forever much too quickly, and a season later, after all its new series disappointed or died (including everything they tried out in Forever's timeslot), you couldn't help but feel vindicated. The premise of Forever wasn't novel -- a man cursed with immortality -- but nothing this charming had come along in a decade, and the cast instantly clicked. I've been a Ioan Gruffudd fan since Horatio Hornblower, but no role ever showed him off to better advantage. Henry Morgan, the doctor turned medical examiner, who uses the knowledge and observational skills that his 200 years have afforded him to assist the New York Police Department, called for the kind of intelligence and grace that Gruffudd naturally exuded. You sensed that he and his fellow actors -- Alana de la Garza, Judd Hirsch, Lorraine Toussaint, Donnie Keshawarz and Joel David Moore -- relished every moment they were together: they were in a show with meaty roles, in which adults were given permission to behave like adults. Like Grantchester, another winning series that emerged in the fall of 2014, Forever struck a novel balance between the procedural and the personal, as the cases Henry worked on with the NYPD triggered memories from his past. (The season-long flashbacks sketched in his 200-year timeline, including marriage to the radiant MacKenzie Mauzy, as a nurse he'd met during World War II.) It could have come off as frantic or unfocused, but Gruffudd grounded it all; the show proved as winning as Gruffudd's old-school manner, as warm as Henry's trademark scarfs. Its only flaw: in their haste to move the cases along, the writers too often fell back on having Henry make all the deductions, rather than letting the detectives exercise their own skills -- but it's something that no doubt would have been better handled in Season 2. The passion that viewers felt for Forever was palpable; with its recent release on DVD, that passion seems unlikely to fade.

Secrets of Midland Heights (1980-81): CBS launched Dallas in the spring of 1978, and once it made a ripple in the ratings, the network greenlighted creator David Jacobs' Knots Landing. And when Dallas, late in 1979, surged into a mega-hit, the network ordered up a third Jacobs soap from the Lorimar production company, this one the sudsiest yet. Dallas had served up the greed and grit of oil-rich Texas cowboys; Knots plumbed the fears and foibles of the Southern California middle class. Secrets of Midland Heights, set in a midwestern college town, took its cue from its younger characters, most in that awkward stage between adolescence and adulthood, when teens feel most invisible, yet every decision seems consequential. The adults had it just as bad: the unhappy wife preparing to leave her husband; the lonely widow fighting to make ends meet. Everyone seemed perched between despair and deliverance: clear what they wanted their lives to be, but clueless how to get there. The cast was uniformly strong, with Lorenzo Lamas and Linda Hamilton heading up the high-school set, and veterans that included the great Robert Hogan (twenty years into a career that continues to this day), plus Bibi Besch, Mark Pinter and Jenny O'Hara. And top-billed: venerable stage and film star Martha Scott as town matriarch Margaret Millington. (Her conniving son Guy was determined to get his hands on her inheritance, and all that stood in his way was his niece Ann. Ann's mother had gone insane, and Guy -- in the series' most delectable plotline -- was happy to drive Ann down the same path.) Secrets of Midland Heights debuted in December of 1980 on Saturday night, a death zone for CBS for several seasons. With a lousy lead-in, little fanfare and a late-season start, it didn't stand a chance, and only eight episodes aired. A year later, Margaret Millington was resuscitated (with less warmth but greater cunning) as Angela Channing on Lorimar's next soap, Falcon Crest. Lamas went straight from Secrets to Falcon Crest, and Besch did a six-episode stint there as well. And four of Secrets' younger actors, including Hamilton, showed up the following season on ABC's King's Crossing (also a Lorimar production), with new character names, but essentially playing the same roles. The folks at Lorimar were good to their own.

High Society (1995-96): Absolutely Fabulous concluded its initial run in the spring of 1995, and that fall, along came High Society to fill the void. It took Jean Smart, so sweetly suggestible as Charlene in Designing Women, and reinvented her as Ellie Walker, an author of trashy romantic novels, a boozy broad who gleefully spoke her mind, however inappropriate the thoughts. (With her leopard-print coats and purple suits and toucan-colored turbans, she was both fashion icon and eyesore.) It paired her with Mary McDonnell as her publisher and best friend Dott Emerson: Ethel to her Lucy, Mame to her Vera, Costello to her Abbott. Dott was ostensibly the sane one, but McDonnell approached her lines with a sense of wonder, then delivered them in a deliciously wry manner. (Smart could say something outrageous and incoherent, and when McDonnell translated -- "Let me see if I've got this straight" -- she'd nail just as many laughs.) High Society was hampered by one initial lapse in judgment; perhaps fearing Ellie and Dott were too far removed from most viewers' experiences, creators Robert Horn and Daniel Margolis saddled them in the pilot with an old college chum (the great Faith Prince, in a thankless role), a sad divorcee who turned up out of nowhere and moved in with Dott. (It reminded you of when Irving Thalberg decided to make the Marx Brothers "palatable" by inserting young lovers Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle into A Night at the Opera, so that people would have someone to relate to.) Prince's wet-blanket character kept intruding in story-lines, dismantling the dynamics, when all you wanted to see was Ellie and Dott unleashed; Horn and Margolis wisely wrote her off after six episodes. High Society showed only patchy brilliance during its thirteen-episode run, but there were marvelous moments throughout, and one bit (Ellie's recounting of a chance meeting with Francesco Scavullo in Ibiza, waiting for a plane from Barcelona, who sees provocative pictures she shot in Massapequa) that's a skitcom classic, its rewatchability akin to "Let's Go to the Mall" from How I Met Your Mother. What a shame CBS didn't give the series half a chance -- or at least a full season.

Swingtown (2008): Swingtown was a promising series that, in a mere thirteen episodes, became an irresistible one. It was initially crucified by critics, who presumed it was going to be all open relationships and key parties. It wasn't. It was a period piece that eschewed both melodrama and titillation: an exploration of married life in the Chicago suburbs in the summer of 1976, as three couples wrestled not only with the fallout from the sexual revolution, but with issues of class and social status that defined the era. At the heart of the story was an upwardly mobile couple (the tremulous Molly Parker and a lovably Neanderthal Jack Davenport, sporting a spot-on American accent) relocating to a more affluent neighborhood, not so much out of aspiration as desperation. In the pilot, they moved into their new home and fell in for one night with the swingers across the street (a mustachioed Grant Show, never more convincing or charismatic, and the astounding Lana Parrilla, equal parts sex kitten and earth mother). In the episodes that followed, they kept returning to them -- but not for gratification: for their advice, kindness and concern. (In the show's cleverest conceit, the swingers were the most grounded and centered of the lot.) And the friends they'd left behind in the old neighborhood (the equally splendid Miriam Shor and Josh Hopkins), already wrestling with feelings of jealousy and abandonment, struggled to break free from their own middle-class malaise. Every episode of Swingtown centered around an event -- a fundraiser, a housewarming, a night of clubbing, a pool-party; the tone was unmistakably celebratory. But it also mined the quiet complexities of everyday life. It was a drama that understood that our best friends are often the ones who push our worst buttons, that it's possible to wish you were closer to your parents or children and still dread every family gathering. Over its thirteen episodes, Swingtown proved invigorating, addictive and, on occasion, unexpectedly profound.

Next up: five more one-season wonders. A vampire romance, a '70s whodunnit, an '80s sitcom, and more.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Making Peace With Pertwee (part 2)

The second chapter of my latest Doctor Who three-parter, beginning a countdown of my top ten Pertwee serials. (You can check out the first chapter, an overview of the Pertwee years, here.) As I noted in Part 1, my enthusiasm for the Third Doctor era is tempered by some very real reservations, so I suspect my top-10 list won't resemble anyone else's. (Spoiler: two of his most beloved serials -- "The Silurians" and "The Green Death" -- are nowhere to be found.) I gravitate towards the serials that aren't quite as emblematic of the Letts-Dicks approach, but that strive for a little more novelty, even if they're rougher around the edges. And I definitely respond most to the serials that are best directed. One of the first Who reviewers I read, Finn Clark, argued that strong directors were particularly needed during the Troughton years, as a way of differentiating the numerous base-under-siege stories. I see it differently. I think solid directors were needed much more in the Pertwee era. The similarity of settings -- particularly during the earlier, Earthbound years -- cried out for directors with singular style and creative vision. I find parts of the Pertwee era visually flat (the early '70s, after all, were not a particularly flattering time, design-wise); of the serials below (#10 through #6 on my list), I see that all are anchored by directors whose work bears evidence of a deeply personal aesthetic. For me, that often made the difference between a good Pertwee and a great one. Here goes:

#10. Invasion of the Dinosaurs
written by Malcolm Hulke
directed by Paddy Russell
Oh, of course: if you're going to do a six-parter about dinosaurs, it would be nice if the dinosaurs weren't so dismal. But after the first puppet makes its appearance, you know what you're in for, so you make the mental adjustment. "Dinosaurs" is the oddball Hulke serial where you don't root for the meek to inherit the Earth; here, the peacemakers are the nutjobs. Hulke tries to hammer home that the quest to preserve the planet remains a noble one, and that only these particular antagonists are misguided -- but still, most of the famed Hulke moralizing is happily buried beneath layers of fruitcake. You almost sense that once Robert Sloman picked up Hulke's penchant for polemics, it liberated Hulke: he could be livelier and sloppier. But other forces drive "Dinosaurs" as well. Sarah Jane is still settling in, but Lis Sladen has already proven a force to be reckoned with. You see her mind going a mile a minute, and keeping Pertwee engaged; you can tell that he's adapting to her rhythms, not vice versa. (There's a scene early on where the Doctor, the Brigadier and Sarah Jane are seated at a table, strategizing, and each is using their particular insights to solve the puzzle; it's a dynamic we haven't seen since Liz Shaw left, and it's invigorating.) Legend has it that Pertwee was fighting back pain and boredom during Season 11, and so the story has been passed down that he's muted and off his game. On the contrary: Season 11 offers some of his most ingratiating performances. The new dynamics keep him from resorting to old habits. And one other thing challenges him in "Dinosaurs" -- in a good way: the maddeningly hands-on Paddy Russell. She was a director who loved to rehearse. (Sladen would say she wrung every ounce of spontaneity out of a scene.) But her serials never seem over-rehearsed. They seem confident. They seem full of details and ambiguities too often overlooked in Classic Who. Russell feels in command of every moment of "Dinosaurs": there's not a scene in which the intent is unclear, in which the execution is muddy. And Pertwee -- with a control-freak director and an able new acting partner -- seems renewed, forced to think on his feet. Even driving through the streets silently, his face seems fairly bursting with thought. It's a look that suits him.

#9. The Sea Devils
written by Malcolm Hulke
directed by Michael E. Briant
In one well-remembered scene, the Master sits in a prison cell watching children's programming -- and that's apt, because "The Sea Devils" is very much like a recruitment ad that you'd see on a Saturday morning kiddie show. Join the Navy: you'll get to ride in a submarine, and there'll be sword fights and boat races, and you can navigate a mine field, and blow things up -- and there'll still be plenty of time to practice your golf putting, to fight over finger sandwiches, and to indulge in the kind of hoary gags ("after you" "no, after you") that your parents learned from their parents. "Sea Devils" is not so much a follow-up to "The Silurians" as a topsy-turvy remake: glib where that one was glum, snappy where that one was slow. It's almost the early serial's undoing -- forget about "Silurians," it tells us: you know, the one that exposed human beings at their most paranoid, ruthless and unforgivable. Now even the Doctor will blow up alien reptiles without batting an eyelash. There are a lot of devilishly good performances -- not just the regulars, but also Edwin Richfield, June Murphy and Donald Sumpter. There's almost no forward motion, it's just a string of set-pieces, but forward motion was never Michael Briant's strong suit. Derek Martinus and David Maloney propelled you from one scene to the next; Briant, at his best, simply encourages you to bask. And every ten minutes or so, he reaches into the candy box and pulls out another goodie -- and no confection is as sweet as Katy Manning, finally elevated (after a season and a half) from assistant to colleague. Hulke imbues her with new assurance and astuteness; Manning seems exhilarated by the redefinition of her role, and her empowerment fuels the fun. "Sea Devils" has its oddities -- including the fact that the eponymous aliens are draped in foam-blue fish-net mumus -- but none of that detracts from the viewing pleasure. It's the most ebullient Pertwee serial.

#8. Inferno
written by Don Houghton
directed by Douglas Camfield (and Barry Letts, uncredited)
A drilling operation on Earth is going awry; the Doctor ends up on a parallel Earth where he sees the catastrophic impact the drilling could have on our own world. You presume the Doctor will gain insight that will help him persuade our chief scientist, upon his return, to stop the drilling, but that's not where Houghton goes. He doesn't go anywhere. By the time Episode 5 hits, and the parallel Earth starts to crumble, Houghton -- after a sensational start -- runs out of ideas, so he resorts to the cliches of the horror genre to see him through, as werewolf-like beasts burst through doors and break through windows -- all while characters shout, over the crude hum of machinery, unfortunate lines like "it's about time you learned that some problems just can't be solved by brute force and terror." Eventually, the Doctor returns home, but no one believes his predictions of doom, until the chief scientist himself is changed into a werewolf -- and then everyone goes, "Omigod, he's a werewolf: we must stop the drilling," as if that's a logical conclusion to draw. What sustains "Inferno" through the bad, late stretches are the three leads, all of them at their most winning. Caroline John is particularly good. She appears first as our Liz Shaw, then as one on the parallel Earth: tougher, more severe and less trusting. But as she softens, and becomes more like the Liz Shaw we know, John still manages to distinguish between the two characters. She's masterful. Right up there with the dimwitted decision to axe Ian Marter after his first season of Who is Barry Letts's decision to can Caroline John after hers. Not to denigrate Katy Manning, who grows wonderful as Jo, but John hits the ground running and only grows more assured -- and she inspires Pertwee to heights he only sporadically hits again in the serials to come. Fittingly, Pertwee's first season ends not with the Doctor, not with the Brigadier, but with a close-up of Liz: a strong woman who made the Doctor even stronger. And then, in a feat of chauvinism that will come to haunt the era, she's gone.

#7. Death to the Daleks
written by Terry Nation
directed by Michael E. Briant
The closest to a mood piece that Doctor Who had attempted since "The Abominable Snowmen" six years earlier. A lot of "Death" is silent exploration, but done with a gentle hand and a cheekiness that's rare for the era; it's a Pertwee playing out like a Hartnell, with the tone of a Troughton. Briant was a hit-or-miss director, but on a good day, he was the best the Pertwee era had to offer, and perhaps because -- by his own admission -- he disliked the script so much, he was struck with the kind of inspiration that made for not just a good day, but a very good one. And he's aided immeasurably by production designer Colin Green (whose only other Who contribution was the sumptuous "Enlightenment"); Briant was always at his best working with a strong art director (e.g., "Robots of Death," with Kenneth Sharp), and these two have a field day taking an underwritten story and making it visually arresting. And Carey Blyton upends all expectations of what Who should sound like; he orchestrates "Death to the Daleks" for a saxophone quartet, in a style that could be described as Claude Debussy meets Bernard Herrmann. (At its lightest, it's sort of "Golliwog's Cakewalk" crossed with the shower scene from Psycho; Herrmann's screeching strings have their counterpoint in a recurring percussive effect that's half ratchet, half razor strop.) This is Doctor Who as theme-and-variations: the pleasures not to be found in simple scares, but in the interplay, manipulation and subversion of color, camerawork and composition. And if that's not enough to engage you, "Death" comes with a secret weapon: Bellal. This native of the planet Exxilon, a miniature man seemingly covered in grey, clay papier mâché, is utterly charming: a triumph of conception and casting. Actor Arnold Yarrow manipulates his voice and gesticulates so convincingly that it more than makes up for the lack of facial features. At a mere 5'3", he's nearly a foot shorter than Pertwee, and he proves a delightfully meek foil, showing Pertwee off at his most protective and endearing. "Death to the Daleks" is the quietest Third Doctor serial, and for an era steeped in squabbling, that's cause for celebration. (I discuss "Death to the Daleks" in detail here.)

#6. The Claws of Axos
written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin
directed by Michael Ferguson
It's like Doctor Who on LSD: a trip you don't soon forget. It's also the serial Michael Ferguson had been building up to for years. There's a hallucinogenic aspect to all of Ferguson's Who serials: here he goes full throttle. "Axos" has long been dismissed as a walking-joke serial, but it's visually arresting in a season that often looks flat and forgettable; the gaffes are easily forgiven, because the images stay with you, The interior of the ship is a psychedelic synthesis of textures and colors and shapes. (In its own way, it's as other-worldly as "Web Planet.") And "Axos" itself is full of memorable moments: the aliens materializing out of walls, then merging back into them; the Doctor and Jo escaping an exploding ship as golden faces attempt to block their path; Jo being hyper-aged, then returned to normal. "Axos" features one of Pertwee's best performances -- his reactions sharp, his timing impeccable, and his character deliciously ambiguous; it also has one of the era's best bureaucrats. The Pertwee years are strewn with self-serving businessmen and fatuous government officials -- after a while, it's hard to remember one from another -- and they constantly prompt Pertwee to go on the attack, a dynamic that quickly grows stale. But "Axos," to its credit, manages to eat its cake and have it too. It offers up a government official who's so loathsome that he provokes not merely testiness in the Third Doctor, but genuine rage (he lights a fire under Pertwee, rare for Season 8). And at the same time, the script takes the piss out of him by giving him a commanding officer who sees right through him. When the unctuous government official calls in his report, asking the head of the Ministry if they should scramble the call, and the Minister responds, "Just your report. I'm sure that will be scrambled enough," it's a welcome relief. Someone else can take care of cutting the bureaucrats down to size; Pertwee can just get on with the plot.

Next: continuing the countdown, #5 through #1.