Thursday, October 11, 2012

Knots Landing season 3

Knots Landing premiered on CBS in 1979 and remained there till May of 1993; by the time it went off the air, it had become the second longest-running drama series in network history. Creator David Jacobs conceived of four married couples living in a cul-de-sac in Southern California. CBS countered, "If we're going to do soap opera in primetime, let's start with something a little more high-stakes," so Jacobs set aside Knots Landing for a spell; instead, he used two of his Knots characters to create the oil-driven Dallas (that paean to American greed and grit) -- and once Dallas blossomed into a hit, CBS let him launch penny-plain Knots Landing. In its early years, the Knots characters were middle-class, and their challenges and concerns matched our own: they were preoccupied with raising a family, building a business, forging friendships. As Dallas continued its rise to the top of the ratings heap, it inspired countless clones, two of which -- ABC's Dynasty and CBS's own Falcon Crest -- showed staying power; eventually, the Reagan-era affluence trickled down to Knots Landing as well, and it turned upscale and outrageous. When the Dallas/Dynasty bubble finally burst, Knots reclaimed its roots, and it outlasted all the primetime soaps of the '80s.

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 solid standalones, there's nothing that particularly distinguishes it from, say, the first few seasons of ABC's Family, which had premiered three years earlier. Season 2 is a mess. With the Dallas craze in full flower, the Knots showrunners go serialized, but it's like they'd never seen a soap: the pacing is so fast that there's no time to respond to anything, to root for anyone, to root against anyone. It's busy, but uninvolving -- and when the lagging ratings prompt a sudden return to episodic format, they pull out all the punches with "special episodes" (cancer scares, hostage crises). At the end of the season, one of the husbands (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"); 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 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'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, and 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 households: 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, hip couple (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 the characters used to launch Dallas, and their marriage seemed unshakable. (Their backstory was about finding each other again after decades spent apart.) During the first few seasons, you figured only a force of nature could drive them apart, but when Abby blew into town and set her sights on Gary, 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 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.)

On initial viewing, the first half of Season 3 seems aimless; once you accept the idiosyncrasies of the story-telling, though, the episodes themselves are rarely less than engaging. (They range from a heartwarming Christmas episode to a haunting ghost story.) 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. Her story-line is an unqualified triumph. The stages of denial, anger, grief 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. Lee doesn't chew the scenery -- far from it: she's too smart and generous a performer for that -- but still you can't take your eyes off her, and perhaps it's the actor's joy in her own material that infuses her work.

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. He thought talking things out 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? 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? You no longer need an "encyclopedia of Knots knowledge" to enjoy Season 14. I take you through Knots' glorious final season in this new essay. I also delve into Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; Season 9, with Laura's death, Gary and Val's custody fight, and more; and Season 11, in which the shows veers wildly off course, then finds its way again.


  1. This post was brilliant and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It hurts me to see such a great essay with NO COMMENTS written in response to it. I am just getting started a blog all about KNOTS LANDING called Knots Blogging (I will insert an obvious plug for it in a second near the bottom of this post) and I deeply love the show. I am currently up to season three in my viewing (but have only just gotten started putting my essays about season one up; it's good to have a back catelog) and I'm glad to see someone else give the show some passion and respect.

    Also, I think I disagree with your central thesis and actually consider season three one of the worst of the series, yet you present such a great, well written, thoughful argument that I may have to reconsider (I am only about eight episodes deep right now).

    This post is about three years, but I just want you to know that I was delighted to find it today and I read it and thought, "Damn, this guy knows how to write!"

    Shameless plug alert: My blog can be located by just typing in [url][/url]

    1. Well that link clearly didn't work. Just type in and it'll pop right up.

  2. Really appreciate your comments, Brett. I am not a professional writer, heaven knows, and just write here for my own enjoyment, as a welcome distraction from my regular job. But I only write about things I feel passionate about, which, over the last few years, I've learned is a lot. Been enjoying your own blog, and will look forward to seeing what you have to say about Knots Season 3. As noted, it's not a season I loved when it first aired, but it's grown to be one of my favorites. What's better?: a season you love at first, but then the ardor fades; or a season that inspires a mixed response, that gets better with each airing? Logic suggests the former, but the older I get, the more I gravitate towards the latter. Anyway, thanks again for writing!

  3. I came back to reread these and wanted to comment in length as I have just recently rewatched Season 3. It is completely understandable to me why the erratic mix of soapy storylines and standalones would turn people off. For me though, the early years of KNOTS were often boring at its worst but was still a solid show...and frankly I would take the early years over the final seasons, even season 14 (I'll express my views on that post).

    Season 3 does have a very dark cloud over it thanks to Sid's death, but it is, as you said, the season in which Knots begins and dies. You can also see the quality change. Artistic flourishes pop up here and there....the writing even seems to step up more.

    Aside from SILVER SHADOWS, which was a rather dull episode though made with taste and class, the final third of the season represents Knots at high peak form. I first saw these episodes as a young kid...and I think that's why I've always been one to defend season 3 because it was the first season I got to see and it made me want to keep watching so it must not be ALL that bad.

    The death of Sid was one of the best things that could've happened to Knots. It may have taken them some time to work around it but it paid off tremendously. It's funny how death was a topic that brought such riches to the show....not just Sid but obviously Jock dying on DALLAS as that led to Gary achieving wealth and of course the murder of Ciji set off a chain of events that led into the epic season 5.

    I'm rambling on now but so be it. The moment of Val leaving Gary at the end of the season is so strong and is also one of those decisions that paid off in spades....and I would say they did a good job with keeping them apart, although I firmly feel they should NEVER have brought in Danny. Val and Gary should have began dating right after the Jill storyline ended and then got married during season 11. That's my opinion.

    ill just stop while I'm ahead haha.

    1. So delighted you returned, Anthony, and doubly delighted to read your comments. FYI, I watched Season 3 when it first aired, and had much the same response you did. Up until then, I had been an interested -- but not necessarily engaged -- viewer, but when the final third of the season hit, it seemed like the series really caught fire for the first time. And watching it, you recalled all the little moments along the way that had led you there. I think you're right: the writing does improve in Season 3. A lot of the freelancers who did one or two scripts a year for Knots at that time easily do their best work in Season 3; they really step up their game. It's interesting: when you read interviews with the Knots creators, they always talk about how they "struggled" in Season 3, but I don't see the struggle. I see them trying to interweave some compelling longterm story arcs with some strong standalone episodes, and although their objective is not always clear, the stories themselves are very solid. I think that was part of the Marcuses' resolve. How do you build an audience? With strong standalones. How do you keep them engaged? With a couple slow-burn story arcs. And they were such good soap writers, they knew just how to do that.

      And yes, Lechowick and Latham should have just let Gary and Val reunite in Season 10, but I think by that point, the production team had convinced themselves that they had to keep the pair apart as long as humanly possible, no matter how they had to contort the story-lines (and defile the characters) to do so..

  4. From watching season 3...I truly think Ann Marcus wrote Val the best. She was naive, yet had backbone..and wasnt so easily gullible. I think the first 4 seasons showed Val as a fairly well balanced character...not a victim nor village idiot.

    I do think the val/gary/abby triangle couldnt start till mid season 3 sue to abby grieving her brother, getting hwr kids back, and making her ex husband pay..while Val had to focus on school and writing her you had to show Val being too much of a wet blanket toward gary in the early episodes. It is interesting to see Val and Abby being friendly..having coffee and having heart to hearts. Abby causing havoc on the cul de sac worked because the characters welcomed her into the inner circle...then Abby made her move with causing trouble. Just like Jill in season 9/10...Abby wasnt the typical baddie hired to cause trouble.

    Oddly Abby thought Val was stronger then anyone else, and didnt treat Val with kid gloves like everyone did.

    Season 3 was the season whwre David Jacobs vision truly worked...Very Ingmar bergman esque in the three main plots you mention.

    Sadly, Ginger isnt given much to do though the scene where she lets Karen hold her newborn baby and sensing that is the key to Karen being able to express her grief said a lot. You didnt need the writers to say anything...they were able to show you..that Ginger knew more then people assumed. A shame she didnt get a lot to do especially given snippets of her backstort (controlling mom, forced to get an abortion, two sisters that looked up to her.)...i do think ginger would have had tgoughts on Laura wanting to get an abortion given her history...moreso then Karen.

    1. I agree: Ann Marcus had a great handle on the character of Valene -- and on how to use Joan Van Ark. It's so nice when Marcus returns to the series late in Season 13 and devises the Sumner bio as a story-line for Val -- and you see Van Ark able to restore some of the character's original toughness and drive. I've always wondered, if Van Ark had remained with the show for Season 14, what Marcus had planned for her, because she so clearly loved writing for that character; alas, when I spoke with Marcus's colleague Lisa Seidman, when I did my write-up of the final season, she couldn't recall what the writers had planned for Val.

      You're right, of course, about the slow build of the Val-Gary-Abby triangle; it couldn't happen until the pieces were in place -- until Abby had gotten her kids back, and Val started to pursue her writing career. It's those slow builds that make Season 3 so rewarding, even when there are fits and starts along the way. I'm forever grateful that, when the writers started to have Abby make her move on Gary in Season 2, they instantly pulled away from it. None of the affairs in Season 2 have any weight: Richard with Abby, Kenny with Sylvie, Gary with Judy. Everyone just hops into the sack with everyone else. Season 3 keeps you waiting, and when the pay-off comes for Gary and Abby, in "Acts of Love," it feels huge. It feels earned.

    2. Will you be soing a season 8 write-up...that season was always fascinating because it wad the first season of Latham and company in charge...and it seemed like a transition season to me (ironically Val had some good scenes..and wasnt that the only time outside of season 13 that she and Sumner were in a story together?)

    3. It's funny: I never intended to do multiple Knots essays. When I started this blog, five long years ago, I was going to write about favorite seasons of various shows, and I started with this essay: Knots Season 3, as it was an underrated season I quite liked. Then one of the folks who comments here occasionally, Knots blogger Brett Roberts, asked about my admitted affection for Season 14, so I decided to write it up. And then at some point, another commenter, Anthony Host, said he'd like to see me take on a season I didn't particularly like, and I settled on Season 7. As it turns out, my Knots essays are easily my most popular, as well as the ones I most enjoy writing, so I suspect I will indeed cover every season at some point. And as I am always more than willing to take suggestions from the folks who visit here, I am officially fast-tracking my essay on Season 8. I'm actually just in the midst of writing up Season 1 (I wasn't sure I'd have enough to say, with only 13 episodes, but it seems like I do), and then I'll tackle Season 8. It's one I haven't seen in a long, long time -- it'll be a nice change of pace for me.