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.

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.