Friday, November 4, 2016

Knots Landing season 11

My fifth Knots Landing essay, as I make my way through the seasons of the great primetime soap. As with the last post, I'm no longer worrying about bringing the reader "up to speed" -- i.e., devoting a paragraph to "where we are as the season commences." Most of the folks who read these write-ups are Knots devotees who know the story-lines as well as I do. That said, if you're a Knots newcomer who's interested in learning more about the show by way of these essays, you can start with my write-up of Season 3 (which includes a look at the series' creation, premise and core characters), continue along with Season 7, then Season 9, and then the essay below. And finally, finish up with my review of Season 14, and you'll probably have a pretty good feel for the show. Or feel free to jump right into Season 11, uninitiated!

In the days before the internet and social media, there was little uproar when a good show went bad. No fanzines started ragging on it regularly; no bloggers started penning "whatever happened to" posts -- and if the ratings took a simultaneous tumble, there were no online number-crunchers wondering how long it would take before the network staged a sit-down with the showrunner. If a long-running series took a wrong turn, viewers simply waited it out. The mea culpa that Knots Landing creator David Jacobs offered up seven episodes into Season 13 was rare for the time -- an Executive Producer admitting his show had lost its way and asking for another chance -- but he had no choice but to go public: the show was shutting down production to bring in a new headwriter. Word was bound to get out. But that sort of exchange between the creative team and the audience has since become commonplace. Nowadays, a half-season of subpar episodes or sliding ratings, and the showrunner will be out talking to the fans, assuring them he's "making adjustments." Some network honcho will take to the Television Critics Association, to let them know that the situation is under control; the show will soon be "back on track."

If Season 11 of Knots Landing aired today, then midway through the season, there no doubt would be outcries from fandom about how dark and dreary the series had become, and gurus would be swift to note that its ratings had declined dramatically from the previous season. And viewers would be assured that changes were on the way. And when people, in the far future, spoke about Knots Landing Season 11, they probably would divide the season into two parts -- maybe Season 11A and 11B -- to delineate the point where it "got good again." Because the truth is, it's hard to view Knots Landing Season 11 as one season. Earlier seasons have course corrections, but they're more subtle. The one that Season 11 undergoes, two-thirds of the way through, is mammoth. A half-dozen characters added; a half-dozen characters jettisoned. Stories that seemed designed to dominate the season wrapped up without explanation; new plotlines introduced at the drop of a hat. The salvage job that showrunners and headwriters Bernard Lechowick and Lynn Marie Latham perform at the start of the third (and final) block of Knots Landing Season 11 is nothing short of amazing; it absolutely rescues the season. But perhaps as interesting as the salvage job itself is what got them there in the first place.

Lechowick and Latham were headwriters on Knots Landing from Season 8 through Season 12, longer than any other writers. Their tenure began under a cloud, with an underwhelming first season that jettisoned traditional story-telling and beloved characters for a series of flashbacks and "gotcha!" misdirects. They recovered -- beautifully -- in Season 9 by returning to basics, and emboldened by their success, proceeded confidently into Season 10. Season 10 is marked by one great story-line, one great pairing, and one great exit. The story-line: the fallout from Jill's attempted murder of Val (the Season 9 cliffhanger), which Lechowick and Latham expertly sustain for nineteen episodes. The pairing: Greg and Paige, a legitimately appealing May-December romance that, in Season 9, had seemed to exist only in Paige's head. The exit: Abby's, when Donna Mills decided Season 10 would be her last. Mills' departure was so publicized that even The Wall Street Journal wrote it up on the day her last episode aired; they also noted, as many in the business had observed, that Knots had broken the pattern of declining soap ratings by seeing its audience increase over the previous season. By the late '80s, primetime soaps simply didn't do that. Lechowick and Latham were clearly on an artistic roll.

Or were they? What got overlooked at the time -- as viewers took wagers on how Abby would be written off, while critics marveled at the show's ascending ratings -- is that the final batch of Season 10 story-lines were largely awful. Mack started fantasizing about a younger woman; Gary fell into a flirtation with someone who misdialed him; Val began dating her computer repairman. Even Abby's story-line, which tapped into the tropes of film noir, got caught up in its own cleverness, as happened more and more during the Lechowick-Latham era. What was good about the end of Season 10 was how the show ultimately disposed of Abby: a neat twist that seemed both nimble and fitting. And not unreasonably, the writers chose to send her off in the season's penultimate episode, and used the finale to assure viewers the series would be just fine without her. (They lucked out in terms of scheduling, since the final two episodes aired as a two-hour special -- so Abby left, and then the show continued for an hour without her.) The season finale was the first time the show beat its chief competition, L.A. Law, in first-run episodes.

And so Lechowick and Latham started planning Season 11 emboldened. Audiences clearly loved what they were doing. But when the first episode of Season 11 aired the following fall, ratings were down 30% from the end of the previous season. And you could argue that a large segment of the audience wasn't interested in watching the show without Donna Mills -- except they'd kept watching that last hour of Season 10, even after Abby rolled away in her white stretch limo. They simply hadn't liked what they'd seen after that: the one-hour "life without Abby" preview had been a disaster. (One of the cliffhangers involved Mack getting sprayed by a skunk; it was a fitting metaphor for the stench that permeated the final episode.) But imagining the finale's high ratings were a stamp of viewer approval, Lechowick and Latham decided to shake things up for Season 11. Why not? They had done so at the start of Season 9, and it had been a smashing success. But the Season 9 overhaul was a course correction; the Season 11 reinvention was hubris. And at the end of the day, Lechowick and Latham weren't at their best when they were empowered; they were at their best when they were humbled. (They dug themselves out of a hole better than just about any scripters in the business.)

The reboot that marks Season 11 is apparent from the opening credits. For ten seasons, the show had offered some variation on the same theme: shots of the leading actors in alphabetical order. For Season 11, we get sculpted sandcastles, with waves threatening to wash them away. The absence of the actors' faces proves prophetic: more than a few core characters will vanish from the show's canvas as the season progresses, either in terms of visibility or recognizability. Tonya Crowe, after eight seasons, is elevated to series regular -- and instantly marginalized. Michele Lee is left without a plot for two-thirds of the season; Lynne Moody is similarly stranded -- in fact, she barely gets any airtime at all. And the character of Valene Gibson is essentially recast as what Joan Van Ark would accurately call "the village idiot." The established actors make way for no less than nine supporting players who come to dominate the Season 11 landscape.

But it's not just the (mis)use of the cast that sets Season 11 apart. When Knots began, it was about four couples living in a West Coast cul-de-sac; with its hot tubs and backyard BBQ's, it celebrated a certain Southern California lifestyle. As characters started to move away from Seaview Circle, the vacation resort Lotus Point took its place as the go-to location: with three key characters stationed there, most of the plots could easily be threaded through this new "sun and fun" setting. But halfway through Season 10, Lechowick and Latham decided to move the Sumner Group to a high-rise office, no doubt in response to the success of L.A. Law. So Greg, wife Abby and assistant Paige moved to new digs, where they were joined by assorted bit players: the unctuous Mort, the nebbishy Bob. And in Season 11, the Sumner Group becomes the principal setting: Karen's son Michael is hired by Sumner, and more flunkies make their way up the company ranks. And the look of the show shifts dramatically, as Knots goes corporate.

There's a tonal shift as well. The emboldening of Lechowick and Latham at the top of Season 11 means more of the "unpredictability" on which they prided themselves. (Latham once boasted to the press that their Knots audience never knew what to expect from episode to episode. She didn't see that that obsessive need to impress the viewer was also their greatest flaw.) As the season gets underway, the story-telling seems jittery and disorienting -- and ultimately, you come to realize it's because Lechowick and Latham are skipping over key plot points, to spring them later as "surprises." At times, they seem to be plotting backwards from the next big reveal.

Gary -- as he was in the final third of Season 10 -- is still engaged in a flirtation with "Sally's friend," the woman he's never met. But as Season 11 starts, the presentation is baffling. When Sally's friend first telephoned Gary, and throughout Season 10, her features were concealed. It was clearly done to suggest that Gary's deranged ex Jill was still alive. The back of her head was much the same; it was all -- like Jill's hair -- a big tease: "Did Jill somehow survive?" (Teri Austin's name remained in the opening credits contractually; Lechowick and Latham used that to their advantage.) As Season 11 starts, Sally's friend is still being hidden: we see her photographed through vases, or close-ups of her legs caressing the telephone base. But Teri Austin is no longer in the opening credits, and the voice doesn't sound like her anymore. So why the mystery? Meanwhile, Val and Danny's relationship has heated up. "It's incredibly wonderful just to be around him," Val tells Karen. "Everything is right about him. It's as if falling in love just happened, and there's nothing you can do about it." Later on, she admits, in riotous hyperbole, "I have never loved anyone this much -- not even Gary." They're accelerating Val and Danny's relationship -- you just don't know why. Joan Van Ark and Sam Behrens do their best with what they're given, but because there's no smoldering chemistry between them, the audience is never persuaded to accept the leaps that the writers are making. And the writers know it. So they fall back on a familiar Lechowick-Latham tactic: having the characters speak for the audience. First Val expresses disbelief at how fast the relationship is progressing, then Karen expresses disbelief -- as if that will preempt our own disbelief.

We eventually learn why the story-telling has been so angular. Lechowick and Latham have decided to link Gary and Val's story-lines by having Danny and "Sally's friend" turn out to be -- get this -- husband and wife. It's an absurd contrivance, but by holding off the reveal for five episodes, and having it come when we least expect it, Lechowick and Latham try to turn it into a great twist. (In the world of television, a great twist is an absurd contrivance the writers aren't embarrassed by.) And the only way they can pull off the reveal -- that Danny is married to Sally's friend, a.k.a. Amanda -- is by continuing to hide Amanda's face. You can forgive one bad coincidence -- but how about three? Because Amanda is also the twins' schoolteacher. Oh, and she sings at the same club as Val's next-door neighbor Frank. And the reason the writers have fast-tracked Danny and Val's relationship? Because Danny is going to do something heinous in a few episodes, and Val needs to be totally committed to him by then, for maximum conflict. The plotting hasn't been this cold and calculated since Season 7.

While all that's going on, Mack has gotten involved in a case of corporate corruption. Correction: another case of corporate corruption. It's a plotline that feels stale even before it gets underway. A company called Oakman Industries has liquidated its pension fund, and is silencing any employees who speak out. This plot drags on for almost fifteen episodes, and why should we care? It doesn't impact anyone in the cast, except Val's Aunt Ginny, arguably the least interesting character who ever stuck around for three seasons. (One episode ends with Mack faced with the prospect that Aunt Ginny committed murder: "Not Aunt Ginny. No way! Not Aunt Ginny" -- as if Aunt Ginny being carted off to jail wouldn't be a relief.) Another ill-advised plot features the return of Eric's wife Linda, who needs to stay with the MacKenzies while Eric is working overseas. Within a few episodes, Eric's brother Michael falls for her. Of course he does: he fell for his step-sister Paige in Season 8; that story was such a disaster, let's revive it -- now he can fall in love with his sister-in-law. But in order to accomplish it, Lechowick and Latham have to rewrite the character of Linda. They introduced her in Season 9 as aggressively opinionated, the kind of know-it-all Twenty-something you avoid at parties. Her only virtue was that she made Eric happy. Now they have to try to excuse her flaws -- and eventually, erase them: not just so Michael can fall for her, but so their forbidden love can be the stuff of tragedy. But because they still need to justify the tension between Linda and Eric, they throw her worst traits onto him, intimating that the marriage failed because he was always judging her. It's exactly the kind of thing Knots didn't do: rewrite years of history to accommodate new story-lines.

To be fair, the top of Season 11 gets a few things right. Paige gets a new boyfriend, dirty cop Tom Ryan, and in a season where the romantic pairings largely fall flat (Penny Peyser's Amanda seems less like a potential love interest for Ted Shackelford and more like his goofy kid sister), Joey Gian and Nicollette Sheridan have sensational chemistry. The coupling of William Devane and Melinda Culea isn't as persuasive, but it's charming. When she tells him that she doesn't want to be his rebound from Paige, he counters that he has no expectations; he's simply delighted to discover that, when you're at your lowest, "Someone new can come into your life and brighten it up." It's such a healthy, sane way of looking at a new relationship -- and such an improvement over watching Greg pine after Paige early in the season, like a voyeuristic schoolboy -- that you're inclined to be patient. And although Behrens and Van Ark don't convince romantically, and although Shackelford and Peyser are a mismatch, Behrens and Peyser seem believable as an embattled husband and wife; his intensity is nicely matched by her smart-aleck delivery. You can see the attraction -- and you understand why the marriage failed.

But back to the Gary-Val-Danny-Amanda quadrangle, because that's going to dominate the first two-thirds of the season. Once the "big reveal" is over, it's time for the main event -- and with horror, you realize the main event is a sexual assault. Danny rapes Amanda at the end of episode 9, and from there, the writers instantly flip from "look how clever we are" to "look how responsible we are." With great power comes great responsibility; the new Lechowick and Latham aren't merely going to entertain -- they're going to educate. They're taking up a social issue, determined to encourage a healthy dialogue -- but you can't get away from the fact that all the contrived plotting up to this point has been designed mostly to put Val solidly, foolishly, in Danny's camp, setting her and Gary at odds. And "Sally's friend," who's been teased for a dozen episodes by that point, is revealed just in time to be assaulted. They essentially introduce a character solely so she can be raped. It's so cutthroat in conception, you can't imagine the execution could be any worse -- but it is. Lechowick writes the episode after Gary learns of the assault -- it's called "Twice Victim" -- and it's a series low point. He structures the episode around a series of monologues -- rhetorical questions that are asked and answered, with key words repeated for emphasis -- and while the speeches are being delivered, the other characters sit in rapt attention. The drama stops dead in its tracks; what's left is a public service announcement, or maybe an afterschool special. Gary tells Amanda that he's going to seek revenge on Danny, and she turns it around on him:

Amanda: That'll make you feel better, won't it? What? You gonna beat him up? You gonna break his arm? Then what happens? Who does he take it out on? Does he take it out on me? On Val? On her kids? And then what? Do you break his jaw? And then what? What does he break? And what do you break? And then what? And then what?

Later, it's Gary's turn to pontificate, while Mack sits uncharacteristically mute:

Gary: I know better than to blame the victim. I'm enlightened. But. But. If only she hadn't gone to his apartment. If only she divorced him earlier. If only. If only I'd exercised perfect judgment my whole life. I mean, you can't fault someone for bad judgment, right? Yeah, right. I'd be condemned for half the things I've ever done. It doesn't matter why she went to his apartment. She could be the dumbest, most irresponsible person in the world -- she could've been drunk and stark naked standing in front of him, and she still had the right not to be raped. I know that. I believe that. So why do I have all these questions? I mean, why do I have even the slightest doubt?

And finally, when Amanda decides to report the rape, but is informed that no evidence can be lifted because she showered after, Lechowick offers up his most stultifying sermon, reducing Amanda to a mouthpiece:

Amanda: You know what is really odd about this whole thing? I feel like I've done something wrong. Isn't that weird? You know that shower I took right after: the "mistake" shower that destroyed evidence? I took that shower because... because I felt so dirty. I felt dirty. I just wanted to wash. I didn't think of him as dirty, I thought of myself as dirty. I mean, people have that image of a rape victim -- they think she's dirty. Not consciously -- probably not consciously -- but they do think that. Maybe that's why after I admitted I was raped, I felt so bad I admitted it. Did you hear that? I said "admit." Are there any other crimes we "admit" happened to us? Do we admit that we were robbed? No, we just say we were robbed. We don't admit we were mugged or beaten up, we just say it. But we commonly say, or hear, "She admitted she was raped." I "admitted" I was raped. Listen to that. It's as though I'm guilty of something. Or of being lesser or dirty or something. Why is that, Gary? Why do I "admit" to being raped?

It's not compelling as drama, nor is it convincing as rhetoric. One doesn't want to belittle a story-line that attempts to open a dialogue about sexual assault. But there's a way of doing it that draws people in, that makes them receptive and empathetic. And there's a way of doing it that feels so pompous and relentless that you want to tune it out, like a bad college lecture.

Don't hate the message; blame the messenger.

The first block of Season 11 undermines some characters, under-uses others, and sacrifices both drama and entertainment for heavy-handed moralizing. In some ways, the second block is worse. The Oakman Industries investigation gets extended, as Sumner's daughter Mary Frances (unseen since Season 5) turns up to expose another company scandal. Mary Frances doesn't resemble the Mary Frances we last saw (she's played by a different actress, but that's not what I mean) -- but there's no attempt at character consistency where Linda is concerned, and she was just introduced in Season 9, so why respect the backstory of a character introduced six "long" years ago? When last seen, she was a typical teenager with a burgeoning libido. As reintroduced, Mary Frances (or "Mare," as she says her friends call her -- her friends presumably being Rhoda and Brenda Morgenstern) is now a surly young woman, angry with her father for all the years of neglect and his lack of business ethics. "Why'd you even bother having a kid?" she berates him in a newly-filmed flashback. "Did you think it would look good on your resume?" Back from Africa with a BS in biology, she's sullen, a bore. She announces, "I've worked for two years with families who've had to watch their children starve and die," as if she deserves a medal, and starts psychoanalyzing her father: "You raised a child exactly how you were raised." If you thought the rape story-line was numbing, here comes Miss Doom & Gloom of 1990.

Mary Frances is killed off after one episode, but we can't catch a break. The next episode is her funeral; in the one after that, she's back as a ghost. You can practically hear Lechowick and Latham salivating in the writer's room: "Let's do an episode where Mary Frances comes back to haunt Greg." "Ooh, and maybe we can bring back Howard Duff as Sumner's father." "Twin ghosts! What a concept!" Two seasons earlier, Lechowick and Latham never would have imagined or dared an episode about "twin ghosts" (can you imagine Paul Galveston turning up after Laura's funeral?), but the newly unleashed headwriters have no boundaries -- or shame. Both the funeral and the ghost episode are written by Lechowick, and part of what's wrong with Season 11 is how many of the scripts are his. Typically he and Latham shared scripting duties equally with others on the writing staff, but in Season 11, Lechowick writes 3 of the first 5 episodes, 8 of the first 17. He sets the tone for the first two-thirds of the season, and it's deadly, because his worst habits are on display. The heavy-handedness, the self-referentialism, the conceptual plotting that strains credulity and common sense. And an alarming willingness to sacrifice character consistency for cheap theatrics.

Funeral episodes are dour by definition, and funeral episodes for a character you just met -- one whom you're not even mourning -- can be brutal; you need a fresh approach to keep them from feeling static and oppressive. Lechowick does just the opposite of what you want him to do; he makes Mary Frances's funeral as grim as possible, choosing -- as the key subplot -- to revisit the rape story-line. Hearing that Val is considering marriage to Danny, Gary threatens her:

Gary: Wherever you are, wherever my children are, I'm going to be watching you. And at your wedding, when the minister says, "If anybody has any objections, speak now or forever hold your peace," I'm gonna yell, "Rapist! Rapist! Rapist!"

(You want to shout at the TV screen: "And then what? And then what?")

As for the ghostly, ghastly follow-up, entitled "My Bullet," it's a "very special episode" that -- like the rape monologues -- brings the show to a grinding halt, as two characters rise from the dead to indulge in aphorisms and clichés. ("Girlie has a pair of legs I'd like to wrap around me twice," Galveston drawls, drooling over Paula. His chauvinism was entertaining in Season 6 as a foil for businesswomen Abby and Karen. Here, he's just spouting offensive one-liners.) Sumner tries to escape them by fleeing to Mack and Karen's, but the ghosts show up in his car. "Trying to get away from us, but it won't work," Mare informs him. "And we don't have to bother with seat-belts," Galveston quips. And the next bit is pure vaudeville: Greg responds, "Aw, shut up," and his driver delivers the requisite punch-line: "I didn't say anything, sir." Ba-dum-tsh. Lechowick isn't resuscitating Mary Frances and Paul Galveston to drag Greg into greater depths of despair -- or to offer him new insight or awareness. They're just there so Lechowick can try something different, do something "unpredictable," show how clever he can be. (The difference between a character-driven soap and a writer-driven one is that, in the latter case, you can hear the scripters, at every turn, going, "What if...?" That question pops up ever more frequently during the Lechowick-Latham era: "What if we start Laura's funeral with just the principals present?" "What if we riff on that new Ann Landers column?" "What if we imagine all the ways Danny might have died?" And of course, "What if Sumner sees ghosts?" There's even an episode early in Season 12 called "What If?" -- why disguise your calculated cunning when you can celebrate it?)

The ghost episode is made even worse by the subplot that underscores it. Karen and Mack's four-year-old Meg brings home a goldfish from the school carnival, and it dies. And so we get Karen and Mack debating how to tell Meg that her goldfish has gone belly-up. Ultimately Karen just replaces it with a new one, but not before linking the two story-lines for us, in case we weren't paying attention: "There's too much death already. She has plenty of time to learn about death."

The season's first block is about rape. The second block is about death. Where, we fear, do we go from there? We start with a creative shake-up: the departure, at the end of the second block, of two of the series' worst staff writers, Chuck Bulot and M.J. Cody, replaced by one of its best, Dianne Messina, returning to active duty for the first time since Season 8. (She'd written "Love In" in Season 9, one of the highlights of the Lechowick-Latham era, and would go on to pen "The Unknown," its last great episode.) Perhaps Messina arrived and said, with bemused horror, "What have you done to this show?" Perhaps Lechowick and Latham (and the reliable James Stanley, on staff since Season 9) realized on their own, after nearly twenty episodes, that nothing was working: that core characters were being underutilized, that too many plots were uninviting, that the tone was too grim and oppressive. But however it happened, it inspires the kind of clean-up job at which Lechowick and Latham excelled. With impressive precision, they make a series of smart moves that transform the season -- starting with a story-line for Michele Lee.

People remember Karen's Season 11 story-line as the one where she gets a stalker. That's not what's memorable about it. The stalker story-line works the first time you see it -- Lechowick and Latham keep laying traps, as they do so well, and you fall for every one of them -- but once it starts to heat up, it doesn't really have any place to go. (It ultimately dead-ends Karen four episodes into Season 12.) What's great about Karen's story isn't that they give her a stalker; it's that they give her Robin Strasser. Strasser, as her producer Diane, puts her on the defensive, and Karen's insecurities prompt her to push back, even when it's ill-advised. What's brilliant about Open Mike, once that story takes off, is that you can see exactly why Karen would succeed as a talk-show host -- her intelligence, her passion, her advocacy, and her lack of artifice are ready-made for TV -- but you can also see why a producer might consider her a prima donna. Karen Cooper Fairgate MacKenzie was, at her worst, opinionated and self-righteous. The people who loved her put up with that, first and foremost because she was generally right. But in a work environment in which she's a novice, where others know much more about putting on a show than she does, her know-it-all attitude can be galling. It's an opportunity to see Karen at both her best and her worst, and it's often those times that Michele Lee excels the most. Her acting choices are vivid and startling. In one of Strasser's first episodes, she takes down Karen, in brutal fashion, for introducing her son on the air: "You are what we loosely call the talent. And talent can be replaced." The brilliance of how Michele Lee pitches her response is that she doesn't get defiant, which would be the expected choice; instead, she gets teary. She gets emotional about the public dressing-down. Her voice shaking, she insists, haltingly, "I was hired to do a talk show... and I talk about things that I think are important to the audience... and I think family is very important to the audience -- and if it's not, it should be." It's about the first time in Season 11 that you go, "Oh my God, that is some great acting."

Pretty much everything turns around for the final block of the season. It's obviously not just the return of Messina to the writing staff that makes all the difference, but it's hard to ignore that her first script of the season -- the twentieth, "Wrong for Each Other" -- puts the first nineteen episodes to shame. "Wrong for Each Other" marks the return of Paige's mother Anne, which is cause enough for celebration -- but more notable is how fully rounded all the characters seem. Messina digs deep. Tom has a magnificent speech in which he explains to Paige how his life has changed since he met her, and she realizes how similar their childhoods were, both of them neglected by their mothers and forced to fend for themselves. We've seen enough of the steamy and stormy side of their relationship; now Messina start to cultivate the sweet side, and it does wonders for both of them. It starts to feel like a relationship worth investing in.

Later in the episode, Karen questions why Paula is spending all her time at the hospital, at Greg's bedside. (He's been shot by Mare's boyfriend, who -- befitting the histrionic middle block of Season 11 -- turned out to be a psychopath.) Paula offers up a passionate defense:

Paula: Because I'm in love with him. Come on, he's an incredible man. He was a prominent senator. He's been married to some phenomenal women. But in the biggest crisis of his life, he's alone: no friends, no family, a paid employee who comes to the hospital with his pajamas. You might say that that's because he's self-serving, mean and shallow. Someone else might say it's because he's sensitive and afraid of being hurt, so he alienates himself from the people who want to be close to him. I don't want to be there in case he dies. I want to be there in case he lives.

On the surface, it's Paula justifying her attraction to Greg; underneath, it's Messina reestablishing what makes Sumner such a fascinating character. (It's knowledge that's going to come in handy later in the season, when we're asked to forgive and empathize with some of his most abhorrent behavior -- ironically, directed towards Paula herself.) It defines and humanizes him in a few sentences, in a way that "My Bullet" failed to do in an entire episode.

Later still, there's a moving scene where Eric, who's returned to town, realizes that his marriage is over, and that it's time to move on. As he sobs in Karen's arms, she assures him, "You deserve to be happy" -- and then, in the next scene, alone with Mack, reflecting on her own life when she was Eric's age, growing up on the East Coast, she expresses an unexpected regret:

Karen: I wish we lived where it snowed. It'd be different if it snowed. Eric's leaving -- I just hate what happened to him. I'm so worried about Michael. I wish I'd raised my sons where it snowed. They would have known what it was like to have to shovel the snow and... the walks... Feel the cold air. Slip on the ice. They could've seen how pretty the snow could be -- and how dangerous. How it could get sooty and stay that way for weeks. How inconvenient. How wonderful. How... out of our hands. Snow would've been good for them.

It's the question every mother agonizes over: how do I keep my children from getting hurt? And the answer Karen considers is not only specific to her background, but to Eric and Michael's: two naïve young men who keeps setting themselves up for heartbreak. Messina doesn't posture that Eric and Michael's upbringing has left them unprepared for life's vagaries. She simply put the question out there and lets it linger – and then has Karen concede the foolishness of second-guessing ("Maybe it doesn't matter") before getting to the heart of what really pains her: "I miss them so much when they're not here." In a season that has set most of its plots in a corporate high-rise with tinted windows, this one speech restores Knots to its roots. It reasserts that however much the Sumner Group seems to dominate the proceedings, the heart of the show is in Seaview Circle: that cul-de-sac overlooking the sea, in the land of perpetual sunshine.

The half-dozen episodes starting with "Wrong for Each Other" are as good as any six-episode run in Knots history. The writers get everything right, pulling the plug on the worst stories (Oakman Industries is never mentioned again), and re-energizing the ones that have grown static. They instantly flip two relationships for the better. Tom, after lying to Paige for a dozen episodes, comes clean about his past -- and she forgives him. Val, who's been foolishly defending Danny against the rape charges, learns the truth -- and takes action. The evolution of Paige and Tom's relationship gives us romance; the dissolution of Val and Danny's marriage gives us suspense. And the return of Anne Matheson gives us a sense of fun that the season has been sorely lacking. Paula observes of Anne, "She is constantly performing. There is not one sincere word that comes out of that woman's mouth" -- but that's just what the show craves at this point: an antidote to all the gloom. When Paula asks her what she's going to do when she can't fit into a size 4 any longer ("Size 3," Anne is quick to correct), Anne simply replies, "Enjoy life. What else is there?" After a second act haunted by ghosts, it's so nice to see someone so joyously alive.

But then, all the characters come to life during the final third of Season 11, particularly the women: Karen, defending herself against Diane's attacks; Val, trying to reclaim her dignity once Danny's actions and lies are exposed; Paige, finding herself (despite her father's objections) falling for Tom, and willing to take the matrimonial plunge. The scene in which Tom gives Paige a garnet engagement ring, during a picnic, is some of the loveliest work the actors do together; it's also another glorious piece of writing by Messina. And the follow-up later in the episode, in which new client Mrs. Richfield spots Paige's garnet and expresses her approval, has one of my favorite pieces of advice Knots ever imparted: "Never worry about anything that's replaceable." Here's to you, Mrs. Richfield. (In the same episode, when Pat is in a coma and Julie refuses to leave her bedside, Frank observes, "One who won't go to sleep; one who can't wake up." Some of Messina's lines play like poetry. She brings not only clarity to the season, but elegance.)

The final block of Season 11 marks the departure of three fine actresses. The writers can't figure out what to do with them, so they dispose of them. But at least -- over three consecutive episodes -- they give them three great send-offs.

Ah, Tonya Crowe. Lechowick and Latham had Abby disown her daughter before she left town in Season 10, and promised us that one of the Season 11 story-lines would be "Will Olivia, left penniless, become as scheming as her mother?" But Olivia doesn't become anything; she's barely there -- appearing in only three of the first nine episodes, and then only to fight with her husband Harold. It's as if the writers consciously said, "Let's keep Olivia and Harold around, and see if we can drain all the charm out of their relationship." When Olivia implores Harold, ten episodes in, "I don't want to fight about money anymore," you can practically hear the actress begging the writers for a fresh story-line. Olivia and Harold don't even get a plotline till halfway through the season. Newly separated, they try to make money in the ways they know best: Olivia gets in on some insider trading and makes a killing in the market; Harold bets on a football game, and loses it all. At Mary Frances's funeral, Harold recognizes Tom from their mutual mob connections, and you can see a plan form in his mind. It's a sensational idea; it feels fresh -- and it goes no place. The writers ship him off to Florida an episode later, and you realize that for all their pledges to give Olivia and Harold a story-line, they never had a gameplan. And once Harold's gone, they can't figure out what to do with Olivia either, so a few episodes later, in Episode 23, she too gets the boot. She gets a phone call from Harold, telling her life is unbearable without her -- and the look on her face is heartbreaking. She knows her life is empty without him as well -- and perhaps she realizes that if they can survive the wrath of Abby, and arguments over money, and all the horrible things they've said to each other this season, they can endure anything. It's the same look of silent anguish that made Crowe's performance in Season 9 such a standout -- that vivid understanding of how much true love hurts -- and you think, "What a find she was." And with that, she's gone (to join Harold in Florida) -- but what a way to go.

Alas, Melinda Culea. She was hired for one episode in Season 10, when Mack, wallowing in a midlife crisis, goes on a retreat and flirts with the female forest ranger. The writers liked her so much, they brought her back, but never figured out what to do with her. Mack fantasizes about her for the final third of Season 10, but the writers can't recreate the chemistry that Dobson and Culea had in the mountains; once they're on familiar turf, the pairing seems forced and misjudged. Her coupling with Greg is better -- they crop her hair nicely to age her, and give her a bit of a sarcastic streak -- but still she's mostly a sounding board. And when Anne Matheson shows up, she renders Paula obsolete. Paula can only offer sincerity -- the season's got that in spades; what it needs is irreverence. It's a mark of Lechowick and Latham's particular brilliance in the final third of Season 11 that they know just how to ease Paula off the show. As late as episode 20, she seems a fixture in Greg's life, one who's earned our respect; within a few episodes, we delight in watching Anne outmaneuver her. (Of course we do: Anne's the fun one.) And by episode 24, we realize that Greg -- drowning in guilt and self-pity over the death of his daughter -- has shut her out, and we'd rather not watch. Better they let her leave town with a little dignity -- and before she goes, she gets to alter the arc of the season. She offers Paige some advice, in case she's finding herself once again drawn to Greg: "There's the marrying kind, and there's the single kind, and it comes as a surprise, but in the end, the single kind is colossally, monumentally boring." In part, watching Greg dump all over Paula convinces Paige to marry Tom. Culea has served her purpose.

Ave atque vale, Lynne Moody. Her time on Knots was cut absurdly short. By the middle of Season 10, just a year into her run, they no longer knew what to do with her. (Once they'd decided that a romance between her and Ted Shackelford was too "daring," they couldn't envision a story-line for her.) Frank was useful to the writers: working at Mack's law practice, singing at the local club -- they could tie him to ongoing plots. But Larry Riley was merely a solid, dependable actor; Lynne Moody was an original, with a character that seemed fully formed. Pat always seemed to be thinking fast on her feet; it's why you believed she'd been a great surgeon, and why she could survive in WITSEC. And Moody's line readings were spectacular: so full of inflection, she could transform even the drabbest dialogue. Early in the season, Mack is trying to convince Karen he didn't sleep with Paula, and Pat mutters under her breath, "I don't believe this." You've never heard it said quite like that: both an aside and an embarrassed admonishment. At a dinner party for Danny and Val, Danny tells a joke, and Pat replies, "That's funny! Oh no!" It's a generic response, but she manages to seem both charmed and surprised -- and doubly surprised that the joke came from Danny, when everything she's heard about him has made him seem so menacing. Every time Moody opens her mouth, you're grateful for the thought she's put into her delivery. But for twenty episodes in Season 11, while Frank is doing buddy comedy with Mack, or singing, or playing guitar and harmonica, Pat is mostly offscreen -- and when she does appear, her airtime is minimal. In one episode, Frank has to watch over a witness, and Pat joins him at his office; she's in two scenes and has no lines. A few episodes later, Mack asks her to babysit. That's what she's reduced to, after just two seasons.

But her screentime picks up in episode 21, after Val, learning of Danny's past and panicking, stabs him with a letter opener. Pat shows up and -- in one of the season's most crackling scenes -- uses her skills as a surgeon to save his life. And from there, she decides to return to practicing medicine, even though it violates her contract with WITSEC. It ultimately becomes one of the tackiest soap tropes: let's give the underused actor a plot before we kill them off, so their death feels more meaningful. But even in hindsight, you don't care. While she's front and center, she's radiant: determined -- against all odds and in defiance of her disapproving husband -- to resume her career as a doctor. It's not just that she seems too much for Frank to handle; at times she seems too big for the screen to contain. The character's joy at returning to a profession she loves is inseparable from the actor's joy at being given a decent story-line. In its own way, it's as good a showcase for Moody as Season 3 was for Michele Lee, as Season 5 was for Donna Mills, as Season 6 was for Joan Van Ark, and as Season 14 will be for Kathleen Noone. And then, of course, Danny plows her down with his rental car, and by episode 25, she's brain dead. But Lynne Moody's resurgence is great fun while it lasts.

It would be nice to pretend that Season 11 continues just as strong to the end. It doesn't; the final four episodes are scrappier than the six that precede them. Once the stalker story-line gains prominence in episode 26, the plotting get muddier, and clear-headed story-telling is subordinated to titillation. Greg's plan to sabotage Paige's wedding provides a sturdy cliffhanger, and gives us a nice scene between him and Paige when he proffers a ring and a proposal that they live together. ("What do you think I am?" she asks, in another memorable Messina moment. "Flavor of the month?") But it's awful character assassination for Greg, who willfully destroys Paige's chance at happiness. Linda, towards the end of the season, is reinvented as a schemer and a vixen, and it's the only plotline in the final block that flops; it leaves Pat Peterson with nothing to do but mope for episodes on end -- where's the fun in that? (Why do the writers find it interesting to have Linda walk all over Michael? Their infatuation with Lar Park Lincoln's Linda is unfathomable to me -- but then I remember they created the character, and writers are always falling in love with their own creations. If they were looking to install someone at the Sumner Group as a rival for Paige, I wish they'd used Olivia. It would have been a neat way of letting us see how much of her mother's make-up -- and I don't mean the eye-liner -- had been passed on to her.) And by the time Gary and Val are engaged in a "caper" to get Danny out of Val's house, you feel the season sort of limping to a conclusion. But the season does what the previous one didn't: it leaves you eager for more. And given what a drag the first nineteen episodes are, that's something of a miracle.

A few footnotes, a couple ironies. Although the Sumner Group becomes the primary setting for the final four seasons, Lechowick and Latham never figure out how to make it work as a place of business. It simply becomes a backdrop for the same romantic entanglements and interpersonal rivalries. During the Lechowick-Latham era, no one seems to work on anything of consequence at the Sumner Group; the setting doesn't inform the stories. It'll take Ann Marcus, at the end of Season 13 and into Season 14, to fix that, as she creates a scenario that actually gives all the principals a stake in the success of the Sumner Group. But then, Season 14, ostensibly about cleaning up the mess left by John Romano at the top of Season 13, is also devoted to cleaning up much of the damage done by Lechowick and Latham in their final years. A half-dozen things Lechowick and Latham screw up in their final two seasons -- the conception of Anne, which grows limiting; the scattershot characterization of Claudia; the ineffectiveness of the Sumner Group as a means of generating story; the reduction of Val to "village idiot" and Karen to "voice of the people" -- are addressed and corrected by Marcus in just a few episodes.

Final footnote: I mentioned in an earlier post that the best-remembered Knots seasons have story-lines you can sum up in a few words: "Ciji," "Wolfbridge," "Val's babies." There's no getting around the fact that the rape story-line dominates Season 11; ironically, despite Lechowick and Latham's efforts to portray sexual assault as more than a statistic, that's just how it's come to be remembered in the Knots Landing history books. Season 11 is "the rape season." And although the story-line upends the show's very structure and undermines the credibility of key characters, Lechowick and Latham viewed it as such a success that they took on another social issue -- child abuse -- the following season. That plot proved arguably even more enervating than the rape story-line. And the mere existence of those two story-lines convinced John Romano -- when he took over as headwriter in Season 13 -- that Knots was supposed to tackle at least one hot-button topic each season, and he and his staff settled on adult illiteracy. That story proved so lame that it was one of the factors that led Joan Van Ark to quit the show. It calls to mind a Season 11 exchange (by Lechowick, of course):

Paula: "Don't you ever think about leaving your mark?"
Sumner: "Some might say what I leave is scars."

Lechowick and Latham try to leave their mark, but they stick around so long -- and get so caught up in their own PR -- they end up leaving scars. At one point in Season 11, Karen refers to Open Mike as "my show," and Diane is quick to correct her: "Our show. The show." Lechowick and Latham, during their final two seasons, come to see Knots as "their show," and it ultimately proves their undoing. But the final third of Season 11 -- enormously entertaining -- is their last gasp of greatness. It's not impeccable, but it's indelible.

Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 3 and Season 14. Both seasoms helmed by the great Ann Marcus, and both remarkable. Also Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; and Season 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years.

Friday, October 21, 2016

My Restless Hartnell (part 3)

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

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

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

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

written by Donald Cotton
directed by Michael Leeston-Smith

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

written by David Whitaker
directed by Christopher Barry

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

written by John Lucarotti & Donald Tosh
directed by Paddy Russell

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

written by David Whitaker
directed by Douglas Camfield

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

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

Sunday, October 2, 2016

My Restless Hartnell (part 2)

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

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

written by Donald Cotton
directed by Rex Tucker

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

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

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

written by Bill Strutton
directed by Richard Martin

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

written by Dennis Spooner
directed by Christopher Barry

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

written by Ian Stuart Black
directed by Christopher Barry

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

Next: my top five Hartnells.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

My Restless Hartnell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As were we.

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

Monday, September 19, 2016

Judging Amy season 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the beginning of the season's tenth episode, O'Brien's "The Long Run," 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 (in executive story editor Christopher Ambrose's "You Don't Know Me") 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.