Thursday, October 11, 2012

Knots Landing season 3

A friend who knows of my obsession with Knots Landing told me recently he was thinking of checking it out, after all these years, to learn why it's kept me watching and re-watching for over three decades. Should he start at the top, he wondered, or is there a better place to begin?

It was a tricky question.

Only the first two seasons of Knots have been released on DVD, and neither shows off the series at its best. The first season is mostly episodic, and although there are some strong standalones, it's not till the final few episodes that the show manages to solidify its tone and approach. Season 2 is a mess. With its sister soap Dallas enjoying a tidal wave of publicity (in the wake of J.R.'s shooting), the Knots showrunners go serialized, but it's like they'd never seen a soap before: the pacing is so fast that there's no time to respond to anything, to root for anyone, to root against anyone. The world established in Season 1 -- a land of looser morals, where betrayal is common and often forgiven -- doesn't necessarily lend itself to drama; it lends itself to incident. The top of Season 2 is busy, but uninvolving -- and when the lagging ratings midway through prompt a sudden return to standalones, the writers pull out all the punches with "special episodes": cancer scares, hostage crises. At the end of the season, one of the core characters (Sid Fairgate, pillar of the community) is targeted by criminals, who tamper with his brakes, and he goes over a cliff (that's the "cliffhanger"); creator David Jacobs noted at the time that a good part of their audience went over that cliff, too -- i.e., they bailed on the series -- and I don't think he's wrong.

Season 1 and Season 2: that's all the Knots currently available on DVD, and if -- like my friend -- you're looking to watch just one season, to see if Knots is for you, I can't recommend purchasing either. But if Season 3 ever comes out, don't miss it.

I had occasion to re-watch Knots Landing Season 3 over the summer, and when I was done, I thought of the film The Way We Were, with Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. Not of the actual film, but of Pauline Kael's original review in The New Yorker, where she referred to it as "a torpedoed ship full of gaping holes which comes snugly into port." I don't think I could imagine a better description of Knots Landing Season 3. It's a fascinating season: the only one that I enjoy much more today than I did when it originally aired. In 1981-82, its odd mix of standalones and serialized episodes felt unsatisfying; now, thirty years later, knowing what to expect, I can look beyond it and see that Knots Landing both began and ended with that season. It's the season where the show finds its voice and its pacing; it's also the last season of the original format, a series powered by the claustrophobic energy of a cul-de-sac. It fulfills the promise of Season 1 and avoids (and often corrects) the mistakes of Season 2, and as such, it's a key season: the one that best understands – and illustrates, generally without melodrama -– how complex yet fragile marriages and families and friendships can be. In that respect, it's a television rarity.

In case you're able to locate Knots Season 3, here's all you need to know to get you started. Knots began with four married couples living in a Southern California cul-de-sac: there was the stable couple (Sid and Karen Fairgate), the new arrivals from Texas (Gary and Valene Ewing), the troubled couple (Richard and Laura Avery) and the young hipsters (Kenny and Ginger Ward). In Season 2, Sid's divorced kid sister Abby was added to the neighborhood: the requisite vixen and troublemaker. Season 2 ends with Sid going over that cliff, and Abby's ex-husband kidnapping their kids -- it's an easy place to pick up the story-line. There are essentially three longterm plots in Season 3. There's Karen (played by Michele Lee) mourning the loss of her husband. (Spoiler: he dies.) There's Laura (Constance McCashin) and her painful decision to leave her jerk of a husband -- and her even more painful decision to return. And best of all, there's Abby (Donna Mills) inserting herself into Gary and Val's marriage -- and truly, that's where this promising show gets great.

The Val-Gary-Abby triangle is what most folks remember when they think of Knots Landing, and for good reason. Gary and Val, played by Ted Shackelford and Joan Van Ark, were brought over from Dallas (which Jacobs had also masterminded), with a backstory about finding each other again after decades spent apart. Their marriage seemed unshakable; during the first few seasons, you figured only a force of nature could drive them apart -- but when Abby set her sights on Gary in Season 3, with a business plan that appealed to both his ambition and his altruism, all bets were off. Val offered him safety and security; Abby offered risk and thrills -- and for Gary, the alcoholic who lived life on the edge, it was an impossible choice. It was the sturdiest of soap triangles because both sides were well-supported: you could argue that Gary was his most stable with Val, but you could also argue, equally persuasively, that he was his most dynamic with Abby. Which Gary Ewing do you prize most? In the season's most memorable confrontation, in the series' best episode, "China Dolls," Abby and Val square off; Val needs to know what kind of hold Abby has on her husband. When they go at it, they fight for Gary in terms of how they see him and what they can offer him -- and by the time they're done, the viewer is just as torn as Gary.

Those are the three key plots -- Karen mourning Sid, Laura wrestling with her marriage to Richard, and Abby coming between Gary and Val -- and by season's end, they've all been spectacularly successful. Getting there, though, has been agony at times. Ann and Ellis Marcus were brought on as headwriters in Season 3 -- they were among the best in the business (she had been headwriter of the Emmy-winning Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman in the 1970's). Because of the Marcus's background in daytime soaps, they get -- as the writers didn't in Season 2 -- that on shows like this, the pacing doesn't need to be furious. The waiting is part of the fun: the simmering tensions, the delayed gratification. Season 3 has all that, but parts of it also feel cautious and confused. The Marcuses clearly have no idea how far they can take the show in terms of making it a full-fledged soap; you see them careful not to repeat the mistakes of Season 2 -- but that carefulness is also a bit of a pain. Ann Marcus is renowned as one of the great plotters of the soap world (it's why when your show is a shambles, as Knots was in Season 2, and again in Season 13, you bring her in to save it, because she'll turn dross into gold), but strangely, the first half of Season 3 doesn't feel much like an Ann Marcus soap at all. Every time a good plotline gets going, and you tune in the following week, awaiting a follow-up, it's nowhere in sight. Sometimes promising plotlines disappear for three or four episodes at a time; the Marcuses try to keep the show from getting too serialized too fast, so that casual viewers can still tune in. (The show was, after all, still building its audience.)

Ann Marcus reveals in her autobiography that in order to get the show back on its feet, after a disastrous Season 2 that made the characters seem either dense or deplorable, they approached the first half of the season as "more an anthology than a soap," focusing in on one or two characters at a time, working to restore the qualities that had made them seem so promising in Season 1. It does wonders for the characters, but makes the first half of Season 3, from a plotting perspective, seem aimless. Once you accept the idiosyncrasies of the story-telling, though, the episodes themselves are rarely less than engaging. (They range from a touching Christmas tale to a haunting ghost story to a splendid showcase for famed film actor Lew Ayres, then a sprightly 73.) And throughout we get glimpses of Karen adjusting to life without Sid: often she's focal; sometimes she's only captured in subplots, or in scattered scenes -- but whenever the show seems to be drifting, Karen is there to anchor it. Ironically, the departure of Don Murray (who played Sid, and requested off the show) turns out to be a blessing, because it gives the creative team a template for doing slow-burner stories in a fast-paced world; it becomes a vivid reminder -- one that the headwriters will hold to -- that even in a cozy cul-de-sac at the tail end of the sexual revolution, where sometimes it feels that everything can be made better by a quick dip in the hot tub, there's potential for stories of real consequence. The saga of Karen's instant widowhood is an unqualified triumph. The stages of denial, anger and acceptance are played out without being spelled out; they seem calculated to give both Karen and the audience proper time to grieve, and indeed, by the time Karen is at Sid's grave, months after his death, telling him she's ready to move on, the viewer is finally ready too. (Karen's journey is handled so smoothly that you don't fully realize how effective it's been until it's over.)

As an aside, I think I've always underestimated Michele Lee's Emmy-nominated performance that season. I knew she was good; now I find her startlingly so. She carefully navigates all the potential acting traps: her weeping after Sid's death could be too theatrical, but it's not; her final farewell at his gravesite could come off as self-aware, but it doesn't. They're splendidly played. And in all the "small" moments, she consistently brings fresh details and shadings. Murray's exit liberates Lee. The two made a convincing pair, but his soft-spoken manner meant she had to continually moderate her responses, to keep from seeming too abrasive. The story of Sid's death unleashes her, allowing her a story-line that excuses and even encourages the fits of rage, self-involvement and self-righteousness that sometimes tripped up her character in the first two seasons. The reinvention of Karen proves so successful that the writers ensure -- when it's time for her to meet someone new the following season -- that they create a character who doesn't diminish the "new" Lee: who plays to her strengths, as she had to play to Murray's.

Karen coming to terms with her loss is at the heart of the first two-thirds of Season 3, and the showrunners mine every moment skillfully -- and wisely, just as Karen's arc comes to a close, the other two plots take center stage. Up to that point, the Val-Gary-Abby triangle and Laura and Richard's turbulent marriage have been turning up in fits and starts; at times, it's been difficult to judge where things stand. They've seemed like promising but elusive plotlines. But once the final third of the season hits, the headwriters' best soap instincts kick in, and it's bracing.

In the season's fifteenth episode (of 22), "Best Intentions," Laura has discovered she's pregnant; she was ready to leave Richard, and now she's carrying his child. It's as common a soap dilemma as any, but the treatment is decidedly uncommon. It's delicate -- and detailed. Laura has decided not to tell Richard about the baby, to simply say that the marriage is over and go. She confides in Karen, who promises support, but as Laura leaves Karen's house, Karen can't resist playing devil's advocate, and the two of them end up in the alleyway between their homes, shivering in the night air. Karen knows she's being intrusive, but doesn't care: "You have to tell Richard. You can't just have an abortion without letting him know." Laura resists, and Karen pushes, "I'm not saying you have to ask his permission, but you have to talk to him. I mean, like it or not, you're in this thing together." Laura quips, "Oh there is nothing together about this," and Karen one-ups her: "Hey, how'd you get pregnant, playing solitaire?" Laura keeps making light: "Well, when you put a couple in the same bed night after night, the law of averages" -- but Karen refuses to let her off the hook: "If you have the abortion without discussing it with Richard, you're going to regret it. I mean, even if he never finds out about it -- you're going to feel guilty and bitter -- and if he ever finds about it... well, either way, it's just going to lead to bitterness." And that's the last thing Laura wants to hear: the truth. "So? The marriage is over," and she tries to escape, but Karen persists, "If the marriage is over, who's to say divorce can't be civil? Try -- try to save something." Leave it to Karen, her best friend, to be principled and reasonable and stubborn; aren't best friends just supposed to tell you what you want to hear? "I hate you," Laura tells Karen, with a mix of sarcasm and sincerity, and Karen responds, with guilt and relief, "I know."

Later that night, Laura and Richard have their own heart-to-heart about mutual respect, betrayal, self-delusion and trust. It seems to go well. And the following evening, Richard comes home from work to start a new life with his wife -- and she's moved out. They bared their souls; Richard, uncharacteristically, was responsible and willing to compromise -- but for Laura, it didn't change anything. In Season 2, their neighbors Ginger and Kenny had been separated, but reconciled soon after discovering she was pregnant; they didn't even have much of a discussion about it -- isn't that what people do when a baby's on the way? Richard had every reason to think that talking things out with Laura would make a difference -- so did we: the writers set us up.

The writers play with us constantly in the final third of Season 3; they keep our expectations and even our loyalties forever shifting. Running parallel to the Richard-Laura drama in "Best Intentions" is the germ of a plot that will propel the Val-Gary-Abby triangle to its conclusion, as Val -- who's been taking a course in creative writing -- pens a tell-all book about Gary's family. It's the start of the "Val as author" story-line that will sustain many a season, but it never again generates plot as nimbly as it does here. After months of watching her husband flirt with Abby Cunningham, Val desperately needs some positive reinforcement, a little ego-stroking -- and she gets that with the initial response to her manuscript. But the book is clearly going to drive a wedge between her and Gary -- who, understandably, doesn't want a thinly disguised exposé in which his family is portrayed as (in his words) "liars and fools" to ever see the light of day. We can see that as Val pursues publishing her book, she's risking her marriage. But do we want to deny Val the self-fulfillment she so desperately craves? Abby and Gary, meanwhile (in the show's most marvelous MacGuffin), have forged a business partnership to power automobiles with methanol, which could prove not only cost effective, but fresh-air friendly; are we really gonna root against the environment? All three parties in the Val-Gary-Abby triangle share culpability for its outcome (the show is careful not to strip the story-line down to a fight between "good Val" and "evil Abby"), yet we never resent them for the choices they make. That's its genius.

The best Knots story-lines -- like the three that dominate Season 3 -- veer in unexpected directions; you delight at how often the writers pull the rug out from under you. As the season approaches its final spate of episodes, that happens so often, you're left breathless. The insights grow more startling, the pacing more fluid. The writers, daringly, interrupt the flow briefly with a standalone called "Night," in which Richard, pushed to a nervous breakdown, holds Laura hostage. Every time I watch "Night," I feel like they were determined to do a hostage drama that would make you forget the earlier, feeble effort in Season 2 (when criminals break into Val's house during Ginger's baby shower and hold the women at gunpoint) -- and indeed they do. "Night" works because the conflict comes from within -- and that's the hallmark of all of Season 3: the crises that befall Karen, and Laura and Richard, and Val and Gary and Abby, are self-generated. The characters create their own drama. And that's truly where Season 3 gets it right.

The season reaches its climax in its penultimate episode, "China Dolls"; watching it again recently, I realized the series reaches its climax there, too -- or at least the series as David Jacobs conceived it. Nothing up to that point has prepared you for the cunning of "China Dolls" (written and directed by departing producer Joseph Wallenstein), which fast-tracks Gary and Abby's affair by delving more deeply into the desires, the failings and the frailties that draw them together. (In essence, Wallenstein accelerates the story-line by slowing down the pace; it's like no conjuring trick I've seen before or since.) It's character drama at its most convincing, yet the result is plotting at its most unpredictable; every time you think you have a handle on where the episode is heading, it gallops away like a race-horse. At the Knots Landing Forum, a poster named James From London started in-depth reviews of each of Knots' 344 episodes, and although he never completed more than a few dozen, it was easily one of the most substantive reflections on popular culture I've read. Here's a snippet of what he had to say about "China Dolls":

Fear of losing control permeates this episode. It is the exploration of this fear, and of the characters’ all too human frailty, that sets Knots apart from its contemporaries. Affairs, adultery, marital and mental breakdowns -- the events that dominate Knots Landing in its third season -- are the staples of any prime time serial, but the residents of Seaview Circle aren’t just two-dimensional soap caricatures jumping in and out of bed or marriage with one another without any messy consequences -- however much they might like to be. In this episode, Gary wants to be able to enjoy a guilt free extra-marital affair. Equally, Laura wants to put her life with Richard behind her, insisting that “It’s over, I don’t love him, I moved out, it was clean.” However, it is the characters’ messy emotions that betray them. As strong and in control as they would like to appear, they are fragile creatures secretly plagued by doubt, fear and -- in spite of Gary and Laura’s protests to the contrary -- lots and lots of guilt. For all of Donna Mills’ naughtiness, this is still a show about the institution of marriage, and the powerful hold that institution has over its members. Gary, Val, Abby, Laura, Richard: these are the china dolls of the episode’s title, and it is their individual struggles, between where they are and where they would like to be, that makes for such a compelling episode.

Midway through the episode, Gary's conscience gets the better of him; he breaks things off with Abby, but he can't handle the consequences of that decision either. His frustration and longing are somehow worse than his guilt, and as night falls, he paces his living room like a caged animal, eyeing Abby's empty home across the cul-de-sac, while Valene anxiously studies him from across the room. The next morning, after Val attempts to wrestle an explanation or admission from Gary, she determines to confront Abby, and her furious walk across the cul-de-sac, from her house to Abby's, is the series' most iconic image. There's a youtube clip, from a French telecast of all things, but you don't need to speak French to appreciate that shot; it's what the early years of Knots Landing were all about -- the tensions that emerge and erupt in a small, closed community -- and it's a series high point.

And it's followed by the "most memorable confrontation" that I referred to earlier, in which Val demands, "Are you or are you not having an affair with my husband," and Abby, bluffing in her coolest, cruelest manner, admits nothing: "I'm not saying we're having an affair, and I'm not saying we're not. I am saying I can have him anytime I want." Val slaps her across the face, and it hurts: Abby didn't see that one coming. This is no Dynasty-style catfight; there's not an ounce of camp in the writing or playing. This is two admirable women so proud and so scared that they're reduced to inflicting pain on each other. It's brutal, and it's brilliant. And it's the clearest indication that if the writers didn't know exactly where they were going when they first plotted Season 3, they figured it out mighty fast, because when the moment comes, you feel like the show has been building up to it for an entire season.

As indeed it has.

With "China Dolls" and the season closer, "Living Dangerously," the third season of Knots Landing -- after a rocky start -- comes snugly into port. And the Knots Landing that David Jacobs envisioned starts to re-invent itself; incoming showrunner Peter Dunne (a very fine producer in his own right) "enlarges the situations," as he put it at the time, and in Season 4, characters start moving out of Seaview Circle. Early that fourth season, Gary Ewing inherits a million dollars, and by year's end, all the characters are embroiled in a murder mystery -- and we are a far cry from where we started. We don't really get back to Knots at its purest until the final season. That season, in which Ann Marcus is brought back for one last, great hurrah, is a splendid one, but you'd need an encyclopedia of Knots knowledge to fully appreciate it. The best Knots season, Season 5, has an operatic sweep unmatched by any other season, or any of its fellow primetime soaps, but starting there would be equally tough.  But Season 3 -- the true start of the series -- is a great place to begin. Not available on DVD, but if you're in the mood for a tasty slice of early '80s television, by writers who knew how to tell a story and actors to knew how to sell it, then beg, borrow or steal a copy...

Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 1, which establishes the characters and struggles to set the tone; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 6, one of the series' best story-lines, and its greatest acting showcase; Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; Season 8, in which the characters return, but the plotting goes haywire; Season 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years; Season 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; and Season 14, in which Ann Marcus returns for one last glorious hurrah.