With the series finally on firm footing, Marcus departed at the end of Season 3, and here's what happened over the following ten seasons, in 300 words or less:
Karen met federal prosecutor M. Patrick "Mack" MacKenzie (Kevin Dobson, added in Season 4), married him, then when the writers couldn't figure out what to do with an intelligent, competent, compassionate woman, spent the next decade being shot, kidnapped, stalked and held hostage. Gary married Abby, inherited a fortune from his late father Jock (from Dallas), divorced Abby, and after he and Valene both suffered through a couple of crazies (for Gary, that was an attempted murderer; for Val, a serial rapist), they ended up back together. Donna Mills wanted off the show and received a send-off at the end of Season 10 so publicized that even The Wall Street Journal wrote it up. Laura's husband Richard left town under a cloud of self-hatred and shame, and Laura found newfound strength and love with charismatic politician and Mack's old law-school chum Gregory Sumner (William Devane, added in Season 5), which lasted until, shortly after giving birth to their first child, Meg, she developed a brain tumor and died. Mack's daughter-that-he-never-knew-he-had, Paige Matheson (Nicollette Sheridan), turned up at the end of Season 7, bedded Greg, nearly wed Greg, but was ultimately (and continually) rebuffed by Greg, who feared he'd hurt her as he did everyone else; her mother Anne Matheson (Michelle Phillips) was added as a regular in Season 11, and ever in need of money, bedded Greg herself in Season 13. Greg, meanwhile, on the verge of death from camaride poisoning (don't ask), received a surprise visit in Season 12 from his never-before-mentioned sister Claudia (Kathleen Noone) and her daughter Kate (Stacy Galina), a dead ringer for his own daughter Mary Frances, who had been shot and murdered before she could die of camaride poisoning (no, really: don't ask).
And now you're caught up.
By episode 16 of Season 13 (a fixed point in time that will become clearer later), we have, living in the Seaview Circle cul-de-sac: Gary and Val in their old home, Mack and Karen next door (where Karen had lived with Sid) -- and two doors down, in Abby's old house, Claudia and (occasionally) her daughter Kate. Greg and Paige are working side by side running the Sumner Group (the high-rise office complex added in 1988 when the more urban L.A. Law started siphoning away viewers). Greg resides at his ranch, Paige in her Sumner Group-paid apartment. As for Anne, the aging debutante with no skills or talents -- well, it's hard to say where she's living: on the streets for a while, but let's not go there. It's a plotline worth forgetting.
A lot of the plotlines from Knots Landing Seasons 6 through 12 are worth forgetting, but as many as the various headwriters got wrong (and there were a string of them: Gary being duped into funding an underground spy network; Val's second husband being blackmailed into murdering Greg; an entire story-line for the show's younger characters, set in a Mexican village; Val developing a "brain virus" and stir-frying her kids' hermit crabs), they typically got just as many plotlines right -- so you forgave them. And the actors remained consistent and strong, with the phenomenal William Devane creating a far more complex character in the tortured Gregory Sumner than ever appeared in any of the other '80s primetime soaps. For much of that time, despite its plotting gaffes, Knots was undeniably entertaining.
And then something awful happened: headwriters Bernard Lechowick and Lynn Marie Latham, who had been overseeing the story-lines (erratically, but efficiently) for five years, left to create the ABC period soap Homefront, and took with them the other two staff writers, James Stanley and Dianne Messina. Knots creator David Jacobs, still locked in an uphill ratings fight with L.A. Law, decided to hire an old Steven Bochco scribe, John Romano, to take over the reins for Season 13. And in just a few weeks, Romano and his team of new writers managed to destroy the show. They showed such a baffling lack of understanding of the series that the core characters became unrecognizable; it was the first time in my (then) 25+ years of TV viewing that I realized how little control the actors have: not over the writers, but over their own ability to portray their characters effectively. If the lines are inappropriate, if the plots are incongruous, then the characters -- no matter how long they've been on the air -- disappear, and the actors (however experienced) cannot find them. Romano and company made every possible mistake: the women were subordinated to the men (a strategy that never worked on Knots), the plots were unlikely in the extreme, compelling rivalries were dissolved without explanation, and new characters were miserably conceived and cast.
After fifteen grueling episodes, Jacobs called it quits. He shut down production, sacked Romano, and hired back Ann Marcus (after a decade away) with a simple request: save us.
And she did.
She did the most amazing salvage job that I had ever (and have ever) witnessed in television history. In this age of blogs and social networking, when every TV series is under intense viewer scrutiny, almost every season of every show seems to be at some point "unrecognizable" and then, six to ten episodes later, "back on track." The merest blip in a show's quality is seen as its unraveling, and the first solid episode seen as evidence that it's been saved. But Ann Marcus took a show she hadn't written for in nearly a decade, with almost an entirely new slate of actors, and restored sense, character, drama, tension and humor practically overnight. She reports in her autobiography Whistling Girl that she had just one week to devise a brand-new set of interweaving stories that would last till season's end, and her colleague Lisa Seidman, who was kind enough to email with me at length as I prepared this essay, concurred: "Ann arrived at the first meeting [with the executive producers and the writers who had been retained] with the game-plan already in place." Marcus passed away last December, so it's impossible to know how much of the show she studied, how many episodes she watched, in the mere days between being handed the assignment and her unveiling her new stories -- but it's akin to a television miracle, because every character instantly regained all the qualities that made you first fall in love with them. Her new story-lines mined Knots' history, restoring plot threads (Val's writing career, which Marcus herself had forged in Season 3) and character dynamics (Greg's grief over the death of his wife Laura) in ways that felt at once fresh, relevant, respectful and resonant.
Marcus and her writing team -- Seidman and James Magnuson -- only had seven episodes remaining in Season 13 to revive the show and prove to the network brass that they deserved a fourteenth season. And they did. The last seven episodes of Season 13, beginning with episode 16, are very good, but they go by fast: they feel like an appetizer to a main course -- and the resulting main course, Season 14, is the tastiest one imaginable. It's the best Knots Landing had been in years -- it's the first time since Season 5 that every plotline works: there are no misfires.
First, and most important: oh, what Knots Landing Season 14 does for Michele Lee. Finding a decent plotline for Karen Fairgate MacKenzie had proven a tough task for most of the Knots writing teams. She was, as noted, capable, smart and vivacious -- where's the drama in that? So much easier to just give her a stalker, or have her shot -- or kidnapped -- or held hostage. (In the later years, the writers stop bothering to characterize her altogether: she becomes "the voice of the people," a mouthpiece for whatever societal ills the creative team wants to bring to our attention.) Marcus knows Karen well -- she's the one who unleashed her in Season 3, in the aftermath of Sid's death -- and she understands all that Lee can do, and what it is she does best. And armed with that knowledge, she gifts her the best plot she's had in years: a family drama that splinters her marriage. The introduction of the shady Mary Robeson near the end of Season 13 proves crucial to her plan; Marcus and her team carefully tweak her backstory till they arrive at the one that will have the most impact on Karen: Mary emerges as Laura's birth mother, fresh out of jail and demanding visitation rights with her granddaughter Meg. It's a brilliant story-line; it evokes the series' rich history (Constance McCashin, who'd played Laura, had been a fan favorite, and viewers had long lamented her departure from the show), and by putting her adopted daughter Meg's welfare at stake, it gives Karen something relatable and domestic to play. Her fear for her daughter's safety ("Will she hurt Meg?" she keeps demanding of Greg, as if he'd know) is the kind of panic we all understand -- as opposed to, say, the fear of being kidnapped, or held hostage, or having your dead producer return from the grave and try to murder you. It grounds the character and showcases the actress, beautifully.
And as always happens when a family comes under attack from the outside, cracks appear on the inside. Mack always had a vigilante streak: in his law practice, he routinely took matters into his own hands. Here, faced with the possibility of a felon having visitation rights to his daughter, he again goes rogue -- but without confiding in Karen. Mack's used to going off half-cocked; why would he think twice when his family's welfare is at stake? Karen, at her worst, is self-righteous and judgmental -- she's the last person he'd confide in. It's a family crisis that shuts down communication: exactly the kind of down-to-earth story-line Lee and Dobson desperately needed -- and through it all, we're struck by Karen's muted terror at seeing her marriage fall apart, and her powerlessness to prevent it. (Season 3, the saga of Karen's instant widowhood, gives Lee the showier showcase, but in its own quiet way, this is no less stunning a piece of sustained acting. I would go so far as to label it Karen's best story-line since Season 3; Season 5 has a gutsier one, Season 11 a timelier one, but here we get to the heart of Karen Fairgate MacKenzie: the woman so assured and so determinedly right that she scares off the people who mean the most to her.) And it's a plotline where the writers remember -- as in all good Knots stories, and as in all of Season 14 -- that however grim the situation, there's humor in the ways we cope. As Karen dresses for Meg's visitation hearing, determined to make a good impression, she agonizes over whether or not to wear a scarf. "On or off?" she keeps asking Mack, as if he's some sort of fashion guru -- and when he suggests she seems a little tense, Karen fires back, in hushed hysteria: "Well, that's gonna look great in court: the judge is gonna think I'm some sort of a neurotic!" And so Mack does his best to appease her, and manages to calm her nerves -- until finally, resigned to expecting the worst but hoping for the best, Karen's left with just one question: "On or off?"
The wonders Marcus, Seidman and Magnuson work on some of the characters. They transform Claudia, who had always been a problem. She joined the show in Season 12 as a conniver, a master manipulator, but as often befalls those types of characters, she hijacked too many plotlines too quickly, and the writers needed to dial her back. And they did so in the laziest way possible: by making her a victim. ("Then the audience will like her better...") So they gave her a long-lost son she'd given up for adoption, conceived when she slept with her mother's lover. (Oh, dear Lord.) That was Season 12. Then Romano's team appears in Season 13, apparently only studies the last couple of episodes, and goes, "Oh, OK, so she's a victim: got it," and do it to her again: this time, she's blackmailed for a sordid secret, that she euthanized her mother. (Oh, sweet Jesus.) Marcus goes, "Enough! You've got Kathleen Noone, one of the most formidable and versatile actresses in the business; build her a great character." And she does. Four episodes into Marcus's regime, Greg finds himself unable to run the Sumner Group anymore -- and Claudia, the anthropology professor, steps in. She's transformed instantly into a businesswoman, and Marcus understands viewers well enough to know that it won't matter to the audience that Claudia has had no corporate training: the actress is great at taking charge -- she has the bearing of a natural leader. If she seems convincing in her new role, the audience won't question the steps taken (or skipped, in this case) to get her there.
Then, in Season 14, the masterstroke: Marcus and her team bring back a character from two seasons earlier, con artist and gigolo Nick Schillace. He'd previously been an ally of Anne's, but here he's placed in Claudia's orbit -- and she discovers that, for all her "business-only" posturing, she's quite pleased to have a handsome Italian showing up at her door with flattery and flowers. Claudia's goals have always been simple: see to her daughter's future, and secure a place at the Sumner Group. The possibility of more pleasurable pursuits has hardly entered her mind, but we understand intuitively that it's a part of her life she regrets neglecting. We like this softer side of Claudia; so does she -- and so, when Nick announces a few episodes later that he's contemplating a move to New York, she knows she has to act. In a great interweaving of story-lines, she uses Mack and Karen's situation with Mary Robeson to her advantage, exploiting Mack's need for a million dollars (to set up a sting) to dip into Sumner Foundation funds and set up Nick with his own restaurant. A few episodes later, as Claudia's double dealings are uncovered, Karen insists she's "a neighbor, a friend," Mack defends her as "the only one trying to help me," while Paige brands her "a shark" -- and all of these things are true. Claudia is no longer easily categorized as "a conniver" or "a victim" -- she's become as multi-dimensional as the other characters. So much so that even as you're appalled by her tactics, you can't help but admire her bravado and her exquisite timing when, just as Paige is about to prove that she stole a half a million dollars, Claudia sees to it that the money mysteriously reappears. She even has a ready-made explanation that she delivers with just the right blend of moral righteousness and martyrdom.
The women are particularly strong in Season 14; as Seidman notes, "Ann was a strong woman herself -- as am I -- so we were going to write women true to our own beliefs." But then, every character is at their best in Season 14; it's a good part of what makes it so rewarding. The characters are so on target, the plots seem almost self-generating -- like the reignited battle for Greg between mother Anne and daughter Paige. At the end of Season 13, Anne discovers she's pregnant with Greg's baby; at the start of Season 14, she convinces him to marry her by playing up their mutual failings as parents. Here's Anne arriving at Paige's office to break the news of her engagement, in the first of two crackling scenes written by Seidman:
Anne: Who's that?
Paige: My new assistant.
Anne: How did he know I'd been away?
Paige: Everyone knows you've been away. You should know by now there are no secrets in Knots Landing.
Anne: Well, I guess not. You know too?
Paige: Know what?
Anne: Don't be coy, Paige. It doesn't become you. That Greg and I spent some time alone together.
Paige: You mean, he took off and you chased him...
Anne: Well, believe me, he wasn't that difficult to catch.
Paige: Well, why don't you get to the point, mother...
Anne: I invited you to dinner because I have some very exciting news I wanted to share with you.
Paige: What, you and Greg got matching tattoos?
Anne (after a pause, firmly): Greg and I got engaged.
Anne: Yah -- as in "Here Comes the Bride..."
Paige: Well... Congratulations?
Anne: Thank you. You may kiss me on the cheek if you like.
Paige: Are you kidding?
Anne: Look, Paige, I stepped aside when I thought Greg wanted you. I can't help it if you dropped the ball.
Paige: Dropped the ball? What do you think this is: a football game?
Anne: I got Greg because I wanted him, and I did something about it.
Paige: Let me ask you something: does "love" enter into this?
Anne: I told you: we're getting married.
Paige: But did he tell you, "I love you Anne. I want to spend the rest of my life with you, Anne."
Anne: Why should I answer that?
Paige: Oh, don't be coy, Mother. It doesn't become you.
Anne: Maybe dinner's a bad idea.
Paige: If you were planning on asking me to be your maid of honor, it is.
Anne: I was going to ask somebody who'd be happy for me.
Paige: Like your creditors?
Anne: I'll cancel the reservation.
Paige: Good idea.
Decades of hurt, rivalry and resentment poured into one scene -- and the next one, moments later, is even more brutal, as Anne reveals she's pregnant, and lords that over Paige's head, while Paige remains stoic and sarcastic. (Anne: "Maybe you'll have a cute little sister you can tell all your secrets to." Paige: "What fun.")
And then, in the final scene of the following episode, Anne discovers that she was never pregnant to begin with. (It's one of the series' great "gotcha!" moments.) And the lengths to which she goes to ensure that Greg doesn't find out until after the wedding (he doesn't) serve to humanize Anne. Like Claudia, Anne had appeared on the scene with a one-note agenda: willing to go to any lengths to get her hands on money. And as with Claudia, the Season 12 writers soon decided she needed more vulnerability and did it with the subtlety of a sledgehammer: in Anne's case, by making her homeless. (Like taking a woman with no scruples and putting her out on the streets would somehow make her "likable.") Marcus makes her sympathetic by revealing the very real insecurities that would, in fact, plague a forty-something former socialite raised only to be beautiful. And Michelle Phillips takes that scenario -- being in sexual competition with her own daughter, and all that comes with it (the fear of losing her looks, of being unloved) -- and runs with it, giving the kind of multi-layered, moving performance that was unthinkable just a season earlier.
In the season’s ninth episode -- Seidman’s bravura “Some Like It Hot” -- Anne realizes she has to come clean to Greg about her (false) pregnancy. She's quick-witted and shrewd -- those qualities, crucial to Lechowick and Latham’s conception of the character in Season 8, haven’t vanished since Marcus took the reins -- but it’s also clear that the rigors of aging have taken their toll: Anne's bravado now masks self-doubt and quiet desperation. We see her at her most honest and vulnerable, but ever Anne, she’s calculating that that honesty and vulnerability will counter the months of deceit. (It’s a dizzying high-wire act, and Phillips makes the most of it.) She makes the case for why Greg should forgive her and stay with her; determined to cover all her bases, she alternates between practicality (“I’ll make a great political wife”) and psychology (“Stay married to me and you don’t have to commit to Paige”), topping it off with a note of festivity: "Carlos is going to make a special dinner. I think I'll go down to the cellar and get us a Grand Crus Classé." And Sumner -- as ever, revealing no more than he absolutely has to -- proceeds to eviscerate her: “If this marriage is going to work, you're going to have to learn to mind your own business. 1. We don’t ever talk about Paige. Ever. 2. You don’t analyze me, I won’t sue you for fraud. 3. This is a marriage of convenience. My convenience. 4. Why don’t you go down to the cellar and get a nice bottle of domestic Cabernet?”
Ultimately, Anne's story in Season 14 becomes a cautionary tale, as she finds herself with the money and status she's been craving ever since she lost her fortune, but yoked to a man who has little use and no regard for her. But just because Marcus strands Anne in a loveless marriage doesn't mean she's about to strip away her self-esteem; everyone in the season is accorded equal dignity -- that's one of its accomplishments and a great part of its appeal. Late in the season, after a half-dozen episodes of trying to get back in Greg's good graces, Anne has had enough."You think you'll ever make love to me again?" she asks Greg, and he has a ready-made reply: "I don't know. The heart wants what the heart wants, and at the moment, it doesn't want you." And that's the last straw. Anne gets out of bed, dresses to the nines, and informs Greg she's going shopping. Isn't it a little late for that? "What I'm shopping for is open all night." Her self-respect is worth more to her than money or status. She pops in to see Nick at his restaurant, and toys with him just enough to remind herself how much she has to offer. And then she returns home, finally ready to unload on Greg:
Greg: How was shopping?
Greg: Find anything you like?
Anne: I wouldn't be here if I had. (She starts to strip down.) What are you staring at?
Greg (laughing, as if the question were rhetorical): You.
Anne: What for? You want something? You see something you like? Anything I can do for you?
Greg: Just being sociable.
Anne: Then be sociable by yourself, OK? 'Cause you know, I gotta tell you something: up till now, I've been ready.
Greg: Ready for what?
Anne: Anything. Everything. Ready to make you happy. Ready to make you a nice home. Ready to make you proud in public. Drive you nuts in bed. But you didn't want that. OK. But you know, because I'm the one who knows what you're missing, I'm also the one who knows what a loser you are. (Closing the bathroom door behind her) So if you'll excuse me, it's hard to strip naked in front of a loser.
And Greg stares at the closed bathroom door with that mix of loathing and self-loathing that Bill Devane pulled off better than just about anyone in the business. It's a savage little scene, and it comes just one episode after Karen and Mack have their own big blow-up, where he regards her with that same look of shamed contempt. Season 14 doesn't get bogged down or defined by the callousness that seeps into several of its relationships; on the contrary, the pervading mood is warm and welcoming. But Knots Season 14 cuts deep. It's been a long time since the series so reflected its Scenes From a Marriage roots, but as she proved in Season 3, Marcus knows how to dramatize the damage that spouses can inflict on each other, while prizing the institution of marriage enough to ensure that the damage isn't permanent.
All of the characters become relatable and compelling in Season 14 in a way they haven't been in years (or haven't been at all), as they fight for their families, or face the realities of growing old, or worse, the prospect of growing old alone; it's a far cry from underground spy networks, Mexican drug cartels and dreams of saving the world with tidal energy. I asked Seidman: was there a conscious decision to ground the actors again, in character-based drama that made them seem at once "real" and sympathetic -- or was it just natural brilliance on the part of the writers? Her graceful and generous answer: "It was Ann's natural brilliance."
With the characters so well-served, the actors respond -- across the board -- with outstanding performances. For Noone, Galina and Phillips, it's their best work on the show; for the long-timers -- Lee, Dobson, Shackelford, Devane and Sheridan -- it's their strongest showing in years. In particular, the decision to kill off Valene, once Joan Van Ark elects not to return for Season 14, does wonders for Shackelford, who delivers his rawest scene work since Season 4. After nine seasons of watching him play the multimillionaire who buries himself on his ranch and willfully cuts himself off from the rest of the cast, it’s almost startling to see Shackelford throw himself back into middle-class life on the cul-de-sac -- and how effortlessly he manages it: cooking breakfast (badly) for the twins, interviewing housekeeper candidates (and withering under the stare of the one he finally hires), fretting about his oldest friend Karen and trying to instill some common sense into Mack. ("Karen know about this?”, he inquires, tilting his head for effect, when Mack tells him about his upcoming sting operation. Then, furrowing his brow and punctuating it with a cautionary smirk, “Don’t you think you ought to tell her?”) With Shackelford, every movement, every gesture, every piece of exposition is carefully considered and bathed in emotion. Gary seems haunted by the loss of Val, but as the season progresses, his dry wit and gentle skepticism resurface, and with everyone else increasingly consumed with marital woes or business intrigue, Shackelford ends up grounding the proceedings with that stoic quality that Gary Cooper once brought to the screen. Season 14 -- as it does for Lee, Phillips, Galina and Noone -- gives him the ideal final story-line. It returns Gary to Seaview Circle as if he’d never been away and reveals that -- for all the personal betrayals and professional upheavals he’s suffered -- he’s emerged a better, saner, sturdier man than when he left.
And most important perhaps, Shackelford’s playing opposite Stacy Galina has charm and assurance; it's surprisingly effective, given how their story-line forces the actors to rethink their relationship. The Gary-Kate coupling is clearly a last-minute creative decision; with Val gone, all the stories are mapped out except Gary and Kate's, so the writers pair them. On paper, the coupling feels calculated, but onscreen, it's lovely. You understand the attraction. To Kate, Gary is the one who's been looking after her ever since her tennis career evaporated; she feels a connection -- and a closeness. To Gary, Kate -- particularly once she starts caring for the twins at the top of Season 14 -- embodies many of the qualities that first attracted him to Val: her nurturing nature, her empathy and compassion, even that breezy optimism that too often seems out of place in a cynical world. That said, the writers know that -- given the age difference -- however gently they ease into the relationship, we'll have our doubts. So they don't ease in at all; they jump in, commencing the coupling at the most inappropriate time (right before Val's memorial service) -- then give us a month to ruminate before they return to it. And in case we're initially thrown for a loop, they make it clear that we're not the only ones; in the following episode, Kate self-flagellates over her lack of self-control:
Kate: I came into his bedroom, and he was cleaning out Val's closet, and he was sitting on the edge of the bed. I don't know, I just felt so bad for him, you know? -- so I was trying to comfort him and -- I don't know, I still can't believe it.
Paige: You made love with Gary right before Val's --
Paige: Oh my God.
Kate: We were going to.
Paige: Oh, thank God!
Kate: I would've.
Paige: But you didn't.
Kate: No. He stopped, not me.
Paige: Well, you've always liked Gary. I mean, when someone's in trouble, and they're suffering, you want to comfort them. There's nothing wrong with that.
Kate (in disbelief): What??
Paige: Well, there's nothing wrong with the feeling.
Kate: What about the doing? Isn't there anything wrong with that?
Paige: But you didn't.
Kate: Right, right, but I was on my way -- I mean, no thanks to me. Wife not buried yet? Pht, that's not a problem. Is that her bed? Let's do it in there! I was gonna do it. See, I would've done it!
It's the characters' remorse at their initial indiscretion -- and in Kate's case, her very funny, frazzled remorse -- that makes us more receptive to the relationship. (Shrewdly, Marcus -- knowing she's going to pair Kate with Gary, a man more than twice her age -- doesn't make her seem older by making her more serious, which would go against the grain of everything she's done for Kate since taking over in Season 13. She ages her by making her more self-aware.) And once the pair come to terms with their feelings for each other, it’s all delicately scripted. When Gary pulls away from Kate, insisting it’s too soon, she argues, “If I thought that were true, I would never push you. But every time we’re in the same room together, I feel someone who’s very ready” -- and you understand where she’s coming from. Yet when they finally do spend the night together, and he instantly backpedals, confessing, “My wife died. I miss her. I still mourn her. I’m still in love with her. And until that ends, I can’t commit to anybody” -- you understand where he’s coming from. He feels guilty about betraying Val; she feels guilty about wanting more. As Kate puts it late in the season, jokingly, it’s a relationship based on “mutual guilt” — but it’s that very quality that gives it weight and specificity, and that keeps the actors’ scenes together bristling with such longing, hesitation, hurt and regret. Every time Kate manages a forward push in the relationship, Gary counters with a step back. Because the writers know the series is ending, and where Gary's future lies, that's how it has to be scripted, but that doesn't make it any less effective. The relationship comes at a terrible time for Gary, but arguably an even worse time for Kate, who for the first time on the show has found something meaningful. Ultimately, it’s the most rueful of romances, and when Kate has to face its dissolution at season’s end -- and come to terms (and come face to face) with the reason why -- it’s Galina’s finest hour.
One of the great ironies of Knots Season 14 is that even as the actors are doing some of their best work, their airtime is being limited. Getting Knots renewed for a fourteenth season had required deep budget cuts; each principal had to be written out of three or four episodes, and that, according to Seidman, was "insane ... a big part of our day-to-day story discussions." The cast absences are one of the things most folks remember about the season, and it is indeed unfortunate -- but it's handled skillfully and, on occasion, cannily. The episodes are sculpted to allow for the actors' absences, and sometimes the absences themselves impact the story-lines.
The best example: how Kevin Dobson's weeks off pave the way for Michele Lee's, and how they turn plot points into character beats. When Mack is thrown in prison in episode 10, under suspicion for the death of Mary Robeson, Dobson is written off the canvas entirely: instead of the expected scenes (Mack sweating in the slammer, his courtroom theatrics), we view his incarceration solely through the toll it takes on Karen -- which includes Mack's stubborn refusal to see her. It proves a striking showcase for Lee; as Karen awaits news about Mack, the writers deny her the sort of quaint surroundings that passed for a suburban police station in Seasons 2, 4 and 10. Instead, she's forced to navigate her way through the General Jail for the County of Los Angeles, a quagmire of booking areas and courtrooms and hallways, all of them awash in chaos and outrage. Lee is at once scared, flustered, resolute and self-righteous, and she's wonderful, as she is again later when she returns home and the simplest things -- sheets and pillowcases tumbling out of an overstuffed cabinet -- reduce her to tears. Two episodes later, when Mack jumps bail to go solve Robeson's murder, Dobson's written out again, and Karen once more has to fend for herself; yet again, it turns the expected episode (Mack cruising Tallahassee hunting for clues) into a character study for Karen, who finds herself increasingly desperate, seemingly abandoned and alienated from her own husband.
It all pays off in the following episode, when Karen and Mack face off over his inability to confide in her. (It's a knockout battle -- reminiscent of their rehab fight in Season 5 -- that gets to the differences in temperament and outlook that have always plagued them.) The following morning, as Karen stands at the front door, bags packed and cab called, she informs Mack, "This was the biggest challenge we've ever been through, and you shut me out. And now that it's all over, you're keeping me out. I can't live that way." Couples in soaps always engage in hyperbole, but here the sentiment rings true, because we've been watching through Karen's eyes, and shutting her out is precisely what Mack did. And worse, by the actor's absence, he shut us out too -- that's even harder to forgive, so far be it from us to quibble with her decision to leave. And as a result, her resolve to take Meg and go stay with her oldest daughter Diana in New York -- a move designed solely to give Lee the requisite number of episodes off, and which might have seemed out-of-character for someone like Karen, who never shied away from conflict -- seems completely justified. The writers use Dobson's time away to legitimize Lee's, and in doing so, manage to turn stale procedural beats into fresh character ones. They don't just generate story around the budget restrictions, but through them. It's remarkable.
One of the other remarkable things about Season 14: how densely plotted it is. It doesn't waste any time. I always think of Ann Marcus seasons as having slow builds, but there's no time in Season 14 for slow builds. (The writers were given only nineteen episodes; Seasons 6, 7 and 8 had thirty.) Seidman recalls, "We consciously upped the pace because we knew we had limited time to tell the story." So the plotlines are stacked on top of each other, and come to a head sooner than you expect. The pacing feels swift, but never frantic. Seidman writes the season’s fifth episode, "Love and Death," which includes Val's memorial service and Anne and Sumner's wedding. It also manages to squeeze in a brand-new story-line, complete with new recurring characters, as Paige, still hurting over Greg, meets former major-league ballplayer Bill Nolan (David James Elliott), who's pitching the Sumner Group the idea of building a new sports complex. Bill flirts with Paige, she rebuffs him, he persists, she beds him, and then Sumner -- rethinking his impending nuptials -- turns up at Paige's (using his company key), walks in on them making love and resigns himself to marrying Anne. It's lightning speed, it's all payoffs, but it's so firmly rooted in character that you don't question it.
The brisker pace of Season 14 means that relationships have to unfold seemingly overnight -- there's no time for fifteen episodes of foreplay; the challenge for the writers is to ensure that the couplings feel character- rather than plot-driven. (Seidman recalls, "We struggled with making Paige sleeping with Bill seem believable" -- a struggle that totally pays off. Seidman and Magnuson take pains to show Paige's pain at losing Greg; of course she'd fall into the arms of a handsome stranger to avoid attending his wedding -- and to bury her grief.) Season 14 becomes a bit of a master class in making sudden pairings convincing. Claudia and Nick run into each other in episode 4 -- two characters who have had only the most fleeting of interactions up to that point in the series -- but given his way with women, and her susceptibility to flattery and need for companionship, it's unsurprising when a shared bottle of wine that night leads to much more. In episode 5, Gary returns from Florida, having watched his wife die in a blaze, and Kate consoles him by holding his face and kissing his forehead and cheeks -- and despite himself, Gary gets caught up in his need for comfort and human contact. The next thing you know, they're in a lip-lock. And late in the season, Nick's colleague Vanessa meets Paige's ex, Tom Ryan. She's felt unsafe since Nick threatened to expose her past, and a rugged cop is a ready-made protector; he's been pining after Paige since mid-season -- and that energy has to go somewhere. Small wonder that, within an episode, they're hitting the sheets. All these couplings emerge quickly, but the groundwork has been laid, in terms of our understanding of the characters: their goals, their needs and their natures. (Season 2, the last time the series moved this fast, couldn't make one instant pairing convincing. Season 14 nails them all.)
And although Season 14 moves along at a nice clip, the faster pace still permits a healthy dose of humor; in fact, it seems to encourage it. And not the kind of thought balloons, subtitles and music montages that had yielded the laughs in Season 12, but genuine character humor. In the aforementioned "Love and Death," Paige and Bill "meet cute," as -- in his first meeting with the Sumner Board of Directors -- Bill mistakes Paige for Claudia's office assistant, and suggests, "Maybe your girl can run out and get me some coffee." He admits to having a real sweet tooth, so Paige hands him a coffee cup and proceeds to dose it with serious sugar. "Hope that's sweet enough for you," she coos, before settling into her seat at the head of the boardroom table.
Later, we have Anne visiting Mack in his office, hoping he'll bring Paige to the wedding. (She wants her daughter there when Sumner is declared legally off limits.) All nerves, anxious to get that ring on her finger, she lets it slip about her false pregnancy, to Mack's disbelief:
Mack: Does Sumner know?
Mack: No. You're not pregnant, but the man who's going to marry you thinks you are, and all you're concerned about is whether Paige is coming to the wedding or not...
Anne: You know, I don't criticize your life, Mack.
At the wedding, Kate helps Anne into her dress, then joins her mother in the pews:
Kate: She looks great. She has the most beautiful white suit on.
Claudia (too loud): She's wearing white?!?!
Kate: Shh! Mom! (Looking at her) Why are you wearing black? What are you, in mourning?
Claudia (resigned): Yes.
While over at Paige's, Bill is persisting, Paige is resisting:
Bill: Is the bedroom down the hall, or does the couch pull out?
Paige: I got a bedroom. Why? You gonna paint it?
Bill: I thought we had something going here.
Paige: Yeah? The only thing going is you. Out!
And speaking of moving things along, when Greg decides to go through with the wedding, here's how it goes down: he shows up at the church, where a panicked Anne is growing increasingly certain that she's been stood up, takes one look at her and (as always with Greg) revealing nothing, simply says, "You look great, babe. Whaddaya say, you wanna get married?" And Anne responds, with breathless relief, "Why not?" End of episode. No marching down the aisle. No rings. No vows. No need. The drama has occurred; we can move on: swiftly and confidently.
Knots Season 14 brings back two popular supporting players (the aforementioned Nick Schillace and Tom Ryan), but they aren't there for nostalgia; they're used smartly, and have key roles to play. The season seems acutely aware of every incident that's happened in the thirteen years prior -- past events and conversations are referenced with gratifying accuracy -- and another of the things that makes Season 14 so rich is that it feels like the writers know the show as well as we do. When Claudia first runs into Nick, she calls him "the thieving Mr. Schillace," referencing the statue he stole from the Sumner Foundation in Season 12; when Paige runs into Tom, she asks, pointedly, "Why did you come back from Brussels?" -- a plot-point left hanging that same season. (There's a lovely montage of past scenes between Tom and Paige, set to "We've Only Just Begun," which Tom had serenaded Paige with in Season 11 -- but the clip-fest isn't just there to elicit a sentimental response: it shows Tom falling back into old, bad habits.) When Karen leaves town, she goes to New York to stay with her daughter Diana, unseen since Season 6; when Abby returns to town, Greg asks, "How was Japan," and she asks Paige, "Are you still sleeping with Greg?" -- picking up where they left off in Season 10. Late in the season, when Val turns up alive, on the run (the writers -- in killing off the character -- had given themselves a clear and clever "out" in case Van Ark wanted to return for the series finale), she sends Gary a coded note, "I've never seen the ocean," referencing a line from the very first episode; when the two reunite, they fall into old speech patterns ("Give us a kiss" "Piece of cake") from Season 2.
And a quick round of applause to Michele Lee and Joan Van Ark, who turn in the two best directing jobs of the season: Lee on episode 9 ("Some Like It Hot") and Van Ark on episode 15 ("Hints and Evasions"). No one understood the impulse behind Knots Landing better than these two: the middle-class domesticity that lay at the heart of each story-line, no matter how outrageous. As they do close-ups of the most mundane tasks -- Karen pouring a glass of milk for Meg, or Paige cleaning the underside of her glass dining-room table -- you're reminded of the ineffable yet wonderful "ordinariness" that is Knots Landing. But they also go for grand effects that pay off handsomely. In "Some Like It Hot," Claudia, having embezzled money from the Sumner Foundation, sets up Mack as the fall guy by filling Tom Ryan's head with half-truths -- and Lee shoots her mock confession in a tunnel, the two of them doused in blue lights and soaked in rain. It's a stunning sequence. In "Hints and Evasions," Vanessa comes clean to Tom about her past, including her involvement with a man named Treadwell, who plans to take over the Sumner Group; Van Ark shoots the pair at a carousel, first in close-up, and then, in an ambitious crane shot, inching slowly away until, just as Vanessa is revealing the extent of Treadwell's machinations, the whole carousel is revealed. (Van Ark also captures perhaps the season's best piece of acting: Noone's searing performance when Claudia finds out that Nick has been setting her up from the start. Actors directing actors: sometimes, there's nothing better.)
There are precious few things wrong with Season 14 -- or more to the point, when things go wrong, they don't stay wrong. And even when things do go wrong, they're not Jean Hackney or Tidal Energy wrong. Some rail against a plot in which Greg, having quit the Sumner Group at the end of Season 13, is recruited to head up a task force to rebuild L.A. following the real-life 1992 riots; they argue that it's the kind of story-line Knots has no business dabbling in, since it can offer no real solutions. I don't have a problem with it, at least not in concept. Since Sumner gave up his U.S. Senate seat in Season 6, he’s never been able to shake his political ambitions: sponsoring his half-brother’s State Senate run in Season 8, making a bid for Mayor of Los Angeles in Season 10. (Undeniably, part of his attraction to Paula in Season 11 was that he saw her as he once saw himself; he even nicknamed her “do-gooder.”) The task-force story-line gives us a chance to revisit Sumner as we met him in Season 5: as the insider struggling to balance idealism and pragmatism, determined to make a difference even if it means working within a rigged system. And not hiding behind a desk, but getting his hands dirty -- managing civic leaders, schmoozing reporters, haggling with City Hall: a look that’s far more interesting on Bill Devane than stranding him in a penthouse office at the Sumner Group. (As I noted in an earlier essay, Lechowick and Latham, who conceived the high-rise Sumner Group in Season 10, never saw it as anything other than a backdrop for the same old interpersonal relationships and rivalries. Sumner was never given a business project for which he had a passion -- he was stuck mooning after Paige, or amusing himself with Linda, or haggling with Claudia about time spent with Kate.) And ultimately, in Sumner’s late-season decision to return to the Sumner Group -- in his newfound understanding that you can’t go back, that the public sector is no longer where he belongs -- he’s accorded a measure of clarity that’s eluded him since Season 6. As the series ends, Sumner is finally comfortable in his own corporate skin.
So far from the task-force story-line being a misstep, I’d argue that it’s exactly the right plotline for both Greg Sumner and Bill Devane at this point in the series’ run; it's a story about a man, not a city, and if Knots is going to touch on timely issues, I much prefer its character-based look at the challenges of rebuilding L.A. to its enervating takes on sexual assault, child abuse and adult illiteracy in previous seasons.
What lets it down isn’t the concept, but the execution. James Magnuson departed Knots after the first six episodes of Season 14, and Donald Marcus -- a leftover from the Romano regime -- returned to the series. Although he was an energetic and efficient writer, his personal style wasn't as striking as Seidman or Magnuson's, nor his character beats as strong -- at least not initially. The Task Force is prominent for only three episodes; Marcus writes two of them. His first script details Sumner's first day on the job; his second, Sumner's final day. They're obviously crucial episodes, and it's in great part due to Don Marcus's learning curve that the story-line seems flatter than everything around it. In the first, "A Death in the Family," Marcus works hard to establish the supporting players who are being introduced, and to address some contemporary concerns, but Sumner himself gets short shrift. You long for his scenes with the Task Force to hit the personal beats so powerfully that we truly understand how much he's pinning his hopes on this “second chance” (especially after his hopes of a second chance at fatherhood are dashed) -- but it never happens. Yes, Sumner is working long hours, but what -- and how much -- does the job mean to him? We never find out. And Don Marcus's second episode, "Call Waiting," is easily the season's weakest. As noted, it's the episode where Sumner decides that he and the Task Force aren't a good fit, and that he belongs back in his ivory tower -- but you never feel the mounting frustration that leads Greg to make a disastrous P.R. gaffe (one that prompts him to reevaluate), nor the importance of his epiphany at the end of it all. And if the intent wasn't an epiphany, but more a sense of defeat -- well, you don't get that either. It feels like Marcus is following the story beats dutifully, but the emotional content just isn't there in the writing, certainly not in the way it is in the story-lines devised for Shackelford, Lee, Phillips, Noone and pretty much everyone else in Season 14.
My other reservations about Season 14? They’re slight. The season would have been better served with a two-hour premiere: the first episode is all the setups that pay off in the second, and it's weakened by spending too much time writing off Bruce Greenwood's character from Season 13 -- it makes for a rather static season opener. There's an utterly baffling scene in Don Marcus's first episode: a first date between two supporting players -- Bill Nolan’s business partner and Mary Robeson's attorney -- that you couldn't care less about. (Mercifully, there's no follow-up.) There's a preposterous set-piece in his second episode, where Paige keeps Tom from learning that Mack has skipped bail by helping him apprehend Mary Robeson's killer at a local racetrack. Because there's nothing simmering subtextually (it might've shown Paige fighting her old attraction to Tom, or vice versa), it ends up being little more than a caper: a dull one at that, and one that makes Tom look pretty dimwitted. (In fairness to Donald Marcus, whom I've been tough on, his third Season 14 script, "Day of the Assassin," is wicked good fun. He just took a while to learn the ropes.) And finally, although it was lovely back in 1993 when CBS merged the last two episodes into a two-hour finale, then preceded it with a one-hour "Block Party" (a fitting tribute to a show that had served it so well for so long), the final two episodes -- in retrospect -- play better separately. The reappearance of Abby Fairgate Cunningham Ewing Sumner (making one last power play) is designed as the cliffhanger of the penultimate episode. The end of the season has threatened to succumb to the sort of mobster melodrama that had undermined the end of Season 9; as it turns out, that's not where the writers are headed at all, and the reappearance of Abby (the last great character-driven cliffhanger) instantly restores a sense of equilibrium -- but it's undercut somewhat when the final two episodes are combined.
But beyond that, Knots Landing Season 14 is bliss. And it ends with the most wonderful wink to the audience, with a moment harkening back to Season 3, the last time Ann Marcus was in charge, and the season in which the show finally mastered the challenges inherent in its premise. Marcus was there at the (true) beginning; she and her gifted team of writers were there to oversee the ending. The symmetry is sweet and the conclusion clear: Knots was damn lucky to have her around. Had she not returned late in Season 13 to right the sinking ship, who knows if legions of fans would still be discussing the show with such fervor today. There's something rare and lovely about a long-running show departing the airwaves when it still has a little fire in its belly, and when it's still, at heart, the same show you first fell in love with.
The success of Knots Landing is ultimately due to the efforts and talents of thousands of people. Obviously, it never would have achieved a measure of its success without its extraordinary ensemble, and I hope I've sung their praises suitably over the last fourteen essays. But ultimately, its most remarkable achievement -- creating multi-dimensional characters whom the viewer came to empathize with and care about, and who generated a kind of audience loyalty that was rare for '80s primetime soaps -- began behind the scenes, in the writers' room, and that part of the story boils down to a few key players. David Jacobs, of course, for conceiving the series and nurturing it. And inescapably, Bernard Lechowick and Lynn Latham (as inconsistent as they were, and as self-congratulatory as they became), for taking over late in the game, when audiences were tiring of nighttime soaps, and for pioneering a cheeky irreverence that welcomed new viewers. And along the way, some wonderful writers and story editors (Diana Gould, Joel Feigenbaum, Dianne Messina, Lisa Seidman), whose contributions I've tried to honor here.
But ultimately, it's a story about three people whose consistency and commitment to character-driven story-lines were unmatched, and who came to the series precisely when it needed them the most: Ann Marcus, for giving Knots Landing a template for telling slow-burner stories in a fast-paced world; Peter Dunne, for saving a series on the verge of cancellation and goosing the ratings, not by making it more like Dallas (as folks expected), but by making it more like Knots; and Richard Gollance, whose gift for telling heightened stories in a naturalistic style -- and for digging deep into character -- proved invaluable to the transformation of Knots into a top-10 series. Primetime will probably never see another soap with the enduring affection Knots Landing engenders; the role of these three giants shouldn't be overlooked or undervalued. And at the end of the day, thank goodness Ann Marcus was around to set the series on its course, and to see it safely home.
Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 1, which establishes the characters and struggles to set the tone; Season 2, which pretty much mucks up everything; Season 3, in which new headwriter Ann Marcus masters the challenges inherent in the show's premise; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 5, the show's annus mirabilis; Season 6, one of the series' best story-lines, and perhaps 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 10, the year the ratings rose; Season 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; Season 12, a shot of pure adrenaline that soon fades; and Season 13, an epic fail, and an epic save.