Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Three Things I'd Like Never to See Again on TV

1. The failed trip. I was re-watching an Old Christine the other night, and wanted to tear my (remaining) hair out. First, because it was an awful episode; second, because it was credited to two writers I really like; and third, because they should have known better than to write it in the first place -- because it's a premise that never works. It's the episode "Up in the Airport," and can I put in a motion now for A Plot I Never Want to See Again on TV? It's the one where a family -- or group of friends -- is set to go on a trip, but Something Goes Wrong. They get stuck in the airport and never take off (the aforementioned "Up in the Airport" or Designing Women:"The Odyssey"). Or they arrive at their destination, but immediately get sick and never leave the hotel (Designing Women: "Stranded" or Kate and Allie: "Evening in Paris") -- or they arrive, but fall asleep because of the time change and, again, never leave the hotel (Gilmore Girls: "French Twist").

A few weeks ago, Big Bang Theory did its own variation, as the four geeks took off on a bachelor-party excursion to Mexico -- but developed a flat tire. (Their efforts to salvage the situation, wonderfully in character, did a lot to salvage the episode, but still, it was sad to see the show resort to such a TV cliche, especially after they'd trotted out much the same plot last spring, as Leonard and Sheldon headed to a lecture at UC Berkeley, but got sidetracked along the way.) You know the nice thing about when the Ricardos went to Hollywood? They actually went to Hollywood. When Samantha and Darrin visited Salem? They visited Salem. In fact, off the top of my head, only one show excelled at the "failed trip" script, and it was the sitcom Yes, Dear. But then, that was a show built on the comic incompatibility of its four principals, so the more frustrating the situation and claustrophobic the setting, the better. On Yes, Dear, the journey actually was more interesting than the destination; on all other shows, the expression "getting there is half the fun" should be more accurately rephrased as "getting there is only half the fun." The next time a series wants to foist one of those plots on us, where we start off on a destination that we never reach, maybe they can warn us by flashing on the screen, ahead of time, "Rated HF, for half-fun."

2. The flash-forward. It seems that every one-hour drama, at one point or another, uses that hoary device of starting the episode at the end: you open with a car crash, or gunfight, or a shot of the hero seemingly dead, or betraying his comrades -- then cut to the opening theme -- and then when you return, you see "Nine hours earlier" or "Three days earlier" plastered across the screen, and you go back and see how our hero got himself into that sticky situation. I've come to accept that not only is that convention never going away, but its usage seems to be expanding; Walking Dead, one of the chief offenders, just started their new season with yet another flash-forward. (NCIS: LA seems to do it every other week, but I am willing to cut NCIS: LA some slack because they did Kensi and Deeks right, and I can't think of the last time a show took an antagonistic couple with combustible chemistry, and over the course of several seasons, ignited a romance without losing what made them special to begin with. The Moonlighting Curse has officially been lifted; can we now dispense with that expression forever?)

But, you see, now we don't just get episodes starting at the end. We get whole shows fast-forwarding to the end of the season. I'm sure that convention goes way back, but let's just blame Breaking Bad Season 2 and the pink teddy bear in the pool. Was the season really any better for that goddamn pink teddy bear? And now, with How to Get Away With Murder and its clone sister Quantico, it's not just about flashing forward, then flashing back -- you get to go back and forth and back and forth all season till your head explodes. It used to be that part of the season would be the lead-up to the crime, then the rest would be solving the crime -- now you get to do them both at once. You don't just get to watch the episodes; you're expected to study them. (You've heard of appointment television; this is assignment television.) But you know, for me, I don't need something momentous happening on my screen every second: I like the exposition, the slow builds, the sense of anticipation. And I like when the writer is confident enough in their story to let it unfold chronologically. Because for me, these two-for-one storylines don't make the shows more exciting (or heaven knows, "better"); they just make them busier. And my life is busy enough without my TV show multi-tasking too.

3. The stall. I watched the hideous Flash premiere a few weeks ago, with Robbie Amell written off about eight seconds in (and mourned for only slightly longer), and John Wesley Shipp written off during his welcome-home party, sometime between the ice-cream and the cake, and I was pretty much ready to give up on the show. Did the writers really think taking a season-long quest (Barry rescuing his father) and turning it into a MacGuffin was going to warm the hearts of viewers? -- that their cold-hearted deployment of the Reset Button would be greeted by cries of, "Yeah, screw Season 1; here comes Season 2, baby!" So I proceeded to episode two with some caution, and right away, when the affable Teddy Sears appeared on the scene with a doomsday warning for the S.T.A.R Labs sextet, and Barry refused to listen to him, I hit "pause" and emailed a friend who'd already seen the episode, "Oh God, is this going to be one of those episodes where someone refuses to listen to reason, just so the writers can fill 43 minutes?" And he wrote back, "Kind of."

And the episode wasn't as bad as all that, but it utilized one of the most overused TV scripting tactics: the stall. The scene where someone bursts into the room with needed information, but nobody will listen to him -- because if they did listen, if they armed themselves with all the facts, the episode would be over in four minutes. I'm not even going to list the times I've seen that employed recently -- you've all seen it employed. If you're old enough to watch TV, you've seen it employed. My husband and I will often turn to each other -- when someone gets cut off mid-sentence, or dragged out of a room before he can impart key information -- and say, "So is this going to be one of those episodes where, if they were actually allowed to speak, there'd be no episode?" And it always is. And in fact, the only thing worse than the "you've got to listen to me" episode is the follow-up a few weeks later: the "you were right, I should've listened to you" episode. I'd suggest "you've got to listen to me" and its companion, "I should have listened to you," as a new drinking game, but my alcohol consumption is limited to about two quarts a day.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Money and Power, or The Sorry State of TV Villains

"Abby, you don't believe in anything."
-- Gregory Sumner

"That's not true: I believe in money... and power .... And in the end, power is much more fun."
-- Abby Fairgate Cunningham Ewing Sumner


When did TV villains stop being fun? What happened to the baddies who could delight us with the arch of an eyebrow, or the simplest of sinister inflections? When did subtlety become a lost art? All through the spring, I kept seeing Vincent D'Onofrio lauded for his turn as criminal mastermind Wilson Fisk in Daredevil -- Rolling Stone headlined him as "the best new villain on TV" -- even though his overblown performance trampled all story-line logic. Is that kind of garishness and ghoulishness what we now associate with great acting, or is there something deeper going on? Now that we feel less safe than ever -- in our churches, in our schools, in our movie theatres -- with hate groups on the rise and police departments committed to racial profiling and excessive force -- now that everything's hitting horribly close to home, is quiet menace simply too terrifying? Even on shows with "realistic" settings, do we need our villains to be grotesques, for our own comfort? There's probably better acting on television now than at any point in the past. But when it comes to the "bad guys" -- the ones whom we often found ourselves rooting for, despite ourselves, because they were so damned entertaining -- we're failing miserably. And Daredevil is a great example.

Lots of shows feature villains with a private persona and a public one, and Daredevil is carefully sculpted around the moment that Fisk goes from being an underworld killer (most memorably, decapitating a victim with a car door) to the people's savior, stepping out from the shadows with a messianic message for the city. But D'Onofrio can't pull off the transformation. In one scene, Fisk is hosting a fundraiser ("raising money for a better tomorrow") and, in his signature foghorn growl, gives a welcoming speech to his guests, ending with an invitation to "enjoy your evening." But as D'Onofrio delivers those words, it sounds more like a threat than an invitation. (His girlfriend tells him, after, "That was beautiful" -- but we already knew she was a wacko, so no surprise there.) The premise is that Fisk is conquering deep-rooted fears by going public, and to his credit, D'Onofrio seems like he's trying to show Fisk getting comfortable in his own skin, but it's monstrously misjudged: it's like a toddler taking its first steps -- only if that toddler is a gorilla. His speech at the fundraiser, as D'Onofrio delivers it, should have left his guests questioning his sanity and stability -- and maybe their own for supporting him -- but instead they hail him as the savior of Hell's Kitchen. Obviously the writers intended there to be something inviting or welcoming about Fisk's public persona, or something so awkward it was endearingly ingenuous. So why couldn't D'Onofrio get all the way there? Did he not understand how? And why didn't the director or showrunner tell him what they had in mind -- or were they too afraid he'd eat them?

Vincent D'Onofrio is one of a handful of actors playing villains these days whose performances seem equal parts acclaimed and misguided. Let's talk about another Wilson: Arrow's Slade Wilson, as played by Manu Bennett. The website Cinema Blend declared, "Ask any Arrow fan, and many of them will say that one of the best aspects of Season 2 was Manu Bennett’s [performance] as DC supervillain Slade Wilson." No one asked me. I thought Bennett's performance was about the only sour note in Arrow's (superb) second season. He was fine in the flashbacks; he bleated and bellowed, but as a rule of thumb, when your plane is shot down over an island where you're eventually a) held prisoner for a year, b) shot in the arm, c) shot in the leg, d) severely burned in an explosion, and finally, e) injected with a serum that causes blood to rush from your eyes, you're kind of given a free pass to chew up the (island) scenery. But when he's reinvented in present-day Starling City as a suited businessman intent on taking down Queen Consolidated, that's where Bennett makes a mess of it.

He gets himself invited to the Queen home, promising support to Moira Queen's mayoral campaign. Ollie walks in on him enjoying drinks with his mother and -- since he hasn't seen Wilson in five years (since he indirectly had his girlfriend killed) -- Ollie's thrown off his game. That's the setup: Ollie is rattled, hurling veiled threats; Wilson coolly deflects them, with an air of civility that keeps Moira from getting wise. They're talking of lost loves, and Ollie offers, "My mother and I have had to deal with a lot of loss... And eventually we learned that you just have to move on" -- a plea to Wilson not to seek revenge. And Wilson's response is a simple "I don't believe that" -- which Moira is meant to hear as sad rumination, while Ollie recognizes it as a call to arms. But Bennett digs in so deep with the line (after a hyper-elongated pause), only an idiot could think his intentions were honorable; like D'Onofrio, the actor can't seem to tone it down. Instead of donning a mask of civility, as the script instructs him, we get Bennett hissing like a pitbull about to pounce, while seated beside him is Moira, chirpily chattering away, "My husband amassed quite the collection of 19th century American landscapes." And that's when the storyline stops making sense. Moira was always the sharpest cookie on Arrow (and Susanna Thompson easily the best actress: she has been missed); her apparent obliviousness when there's an obvious madman in her home undermines both the character and the story-line. And it's all because Bennett couldn't master the elegant art of villainy.

Speaking of "mastering," the first time I ever saw John Simm on the small screen was in his maniacal turn as the Master on Doctor Who, and I presumed he was talentless. Imagine my shock to then discover him on DVD a few years later in Life on Mars and realize that, no, the man is brilliant -- it's the role that defeated him. (A friend and I were having a conversation recently about Doctor Who, and noted that too often the show engaged in stunt casting that went disastrously wrong: they'd bring on a well-known actor to play the villain-of-the-week, and instead of something menacing and controlled, they got something over-the-top and embarrassing. The hideous results span decades -- from Graham Crowden in "The Horns of Nimon" (1979) to Jean Marsh in "Battlefield" (1989) to Simm in 2007's "Last of the Time Lords.") But then, the Master is not a role that has inspired restraint. Maybe the original, Roger Delgado, was a hard act to follow; maybe he left a curse on the role, I don't know. But since then, it's been a string of misfires: from Anthony Ainley to Eric Roberts to John Simm to, now, Michelle Gomez as the Mistress/Missy -- all good actors giving awful performances. I was fortunate enough to attend a movie-theatre preview of the first two episodes of Doctor Who's new season, and every time Michelle Gomez opened her mouth as Missy, the audience roared with laughter -- even through her increasingly deranged performance undercut both the credibility and emotional impact of the plot. But the audience didn't mind. Who cares about credibility? Who gives a fig for emotional impact? Give us what we want -- Mary Poppins on crystal meth, a Supernanny for the Generation Z crowd -- and we're good to go.

And one more performance this past season that seemed pitched all wrong: Tom Cavanagh as Harrison Wells on The Flash. Like D'Onofrio's Wilson Fisk and Bennett's Slade Wilson, I believe Cavanagh is a fan favorite. (Somewhere, I think I saw him on a "most intriguing characters" list; well, hell, if we're doling out honors for most inexplicable over-playing by a villain, then let's just find Under the Dome's Dean Norris and crown him king.) The Flash's pilot makes it clear that there's more to Wells than meets the eye, but only we know that. The other characters are supposed to see him as a good guy, a decent man who made a tragic mistake that left him wheelchair-bound, but who's atoning by helping Barry Allen hone his new powers. But as Cavanagh plays him from the get-go, he's creepy as hell, turning up in the middle of conversations (as if he's in some sort of magic wheelchair -- oh, wait: he is) and smirking with disingenuous concern. Cavanagh lets the cat out of the bag way too early, robbing the show of all logic -- it's irrational that the rest of the cast isn't as suspicious of him as we are. It's amazing they don't jump every time he shows up; you keep waiting for someone -- when he appears out of nowhere -- to scream, "Stop doing that! You're freaking the hell out of me!" And when he's finally revealed, and publicly embraces his bad side, there's that same irritating smirk; he doesn't seem unleashed or energized in any way. (Well's secret is that his body has been taken over by a supercriminal from the future; ironically, that supercriminal is played by Matt Letscher with more easy, engaging menace than Cavanagh ever manages. Cavanagh reappeared on The Flash this past week, in a parallel-universe role, in one of those entrances that was pitched and positioned as if audiences would be squealing in delight at his return. I saw him, with the forced smile, and the awkward posturing, and thought, "I still have no idea what this guy is doing." He came off, yet again, like an actor trying to play a villain. I get that the Flash showrunners like Cavanagh -- he can be ingratiating in the right role -- but if you're insistent on bringing him back for Season 2, then for heaven's sake, use your parallel universe to bring him back as a character he can actually play.)

And of course, you can look at comic book adaptations like The Flash, Arrow and Daredevil, and at a one-time "kid's show" like Doctor Who, and say, "It's part of the style. Those shows aren't meant to be taken seriously." But then there are the awful villainous turns I've seen on shows with more "adult" profiles. I was a staunch Person of Interest fan for three seasons, but I could not get through Season 4 -- I still have no idea how it ended -- and my chief reasons: John Greer and Camryn Manheim. Greer and Manheim played the heavies the last two seasons, and "heavy" is an apt word -- between the two of them, they pretty much smothered the show. They were so dour, I found myself dreading their appearances. And by all means, let's include Ian McShane in the latest season of Ray Donovan. I thought David Hollander's first season as showrunner was an uneven one; what worked were the episodes that centered around the family -- the Donovans uniting to free Terry from jail, Bunchy's wedding -- and what most assuredly did not work was McShane as gangster billionaire Andrew Finney. He sucked the life out of the series: another heavy who seemed incapable of conveying pleasure to the audience -- even pleasure in his own manipulations, his sociopathic tendencies, his feelings of imperviousness. You wanted to yell at your TV screen, "At least take some joy in your debauchery: you're sleeping with your goddamn son-in-law, you horny little pervert." (You didn't actually yell that, of course, because that would be odd.) Ian gave us dry, humorless menace, and the season suffered for it.

But the villain's curse has been killing our best actors for years. Who could imagine that John Noble would turn in such an awful, one-note performance on Sleepy Hollow? And it's telling that in his first season, where his character was fresh and his motives ambiguous, he was as fascinatingly opaque as we've come to expect from Noble. But when he was revealed as the Big Bad, well, it was like method-acting mania: he got big, and he got bad. The viewer cruelty lavished on Katia Winters' Katrina during Season 2 was insanely out of proportion (admittedly, she came off less like a sorceress worthy of Ichabod's love and more like the runner-up in a Miss Pasadena beauty pageant, but still...), but it was Noble who rendered the show unwatchable. (Here's praying he turns it around before he reemerges this fall as Sherlock's father on Elementary.) And I'm not saying that the only good villains are the "ones you love to hate"; I'm happy to concede that there are some great TV villains whom you just hate, period. But don't make them so loathsome, so unpleasant, so devoid of humor or self-awareness, that you prompt viewers to fast-forward through your scenes. And at the very least, when the script calls for you to "blend in," to show some self-control, particularly for the purposes of the plot, try to meet the challenge halfway.

And to be fair, there have been some sinister turns recently that I've thoroughly enjoyed: Joan Allen in a change-of-pace role on The Killing, as the heartless headmaster of an all-male military academy; Elementary's Natalie Dormer, who, this past season, quickened the pulse with just the sound of her voice; Zeljko Ivanek as a smug political combatant on Madam Secretary (and a quick plug for Madam Secretary, which came roaring back this season with a knockout premiere: any show that's got Barbara Hall, Joy Gregory and now Moira Kirland on its writing team automatically becomes appointment television); the superb Colin Salmon -- from the fall's best new series, Limitless -- who does the "man of mystery" bit better than just about anyone on TV (except possibly his onscreen boss, Bradley Cooper); Wentworth Miller, so energized as Captain Cold on The Flash that his joy was contagious (just this side of over-playing, but who cares? now there's someone who understood the pleasure the audience takes in a villain who's enjoying himself); and Melissa Leo, who Ratcheded up the drama as a nightmare nurse on Wayward Pines, then, in a tour-de-force turnaround, revealed herself as the sanest person in town.

But if you're looking for villainy done right, look no further than Helen McCrory in Penny Dreadful. Penny Dreadful had a deliciously subdued second season: less a new set of adventures than an elegant reshuffling of the deck, in which characters switched partners and luxuriated in conversation, in verse that could have been fashioned by Trollope or Tennyson. And into that heady brew, creator John Logan added the perfect pinch of spice: Helen McCrory as the seductive Evelyn Poole, practitioner of the occult and the season's Big Bad -- and never once did the actress overstep the role. She had the requisite spark and fire, but also the necessary twinkle. She knew how to bare her fangs, but more important, she knew when to conceal them. Her role was strewn with as many traps as the castle in which she resided, but she resisted them all. She was ruthless, wicked, insatiable, coy, cunning, menacing, dastardly -- and utterly delightful.

In fact, now that producer Greg Berlanti and company are introducing parallel universes in The Flash and the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow, I'd like to propose my own parallel universe where Helen McCrory just plays every heavy on television. She could certainly play a stunning Mistress, and give us a sense of menace that escapes Michelle Gomez, but in my own alternate reality, she's Ichabod Crane's daughter and a distaff Professor Wells. In fact, if every villain were just portrayed by Colin Salmon or Helen McCrory, the TV landscape would be so much more robust. Because right now we have too many actors -- the D'Onofrios and the Bennetts and the Nobles -- giving "big" performances, trying too hard, and ultimately diminishing their respective shows. They forget that the best villains are often distinguished by their playfulness, not their massiveness; it's that lightness of touch that makes them unexpectedly appealing -- which makes their malevolence all the more compelling. Because when you come right down to it, you see, Abby Fairgate Cunningham Ewing Sumner, who delighted for nine seasons on Knots Landing, had it backwards: it's not that power is much more fun, it's that fun has so much more power.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Memoirs of a Gay Man (watching Knots Landing)

I posted the essay below at the Knots Landing Forum in the fall of 2011, just a few months before my husband birthday-gifted me this blog. Two friends whom I know from my days posting there suggested I reprint it here. I resisted, because the post was meant for avid Knots viewers, with a keen knowledge of the characters, and I try to keep my posts here pretty general-audience friendly (e.g., my write-ups of Knots Landing Season 3 and Knots Landing Season 14). But I do like this post, so I'm breaking (my own) protocol. Maybe all you need to know is that a poster at the Knots Forum, Montyc, had written a tongue-in-cheek post called "Is Knots Landing the Gayest Show Ever?" It inspired some spirited discussion, much of it equally amusing; a poster named Cambeck, a gay man, said he always felt like he'd be welcome on Seaview Circle, the Knots Landing cul-de-sac, and another poster, Sunshineboyuk, listed some of the show's most intolerant characters to prove him wrong. Ultimately, and sadly, some of the comments turned distinctly homophobic -- and the moderator closed the thread. I discovered it late in 2011, and decided to start my own follow-up post, one that was not tongue-in-cheek, but more autobiographical. And so I wrote:

I haven't posted here since -- oh, I don't know -- sometime before the Crimean War. But I was alone in my office today, sort of lost and blue and dazed, a little like Paige in Season 14's "Lovers and Other Strangers," without the somber music. And I decided to revisit the Knots Forum, for the first time in years. And nine hours later, when I finally found the frigging Knots Forum, I hunted far-and-wide for a post that would inspire comment. And there, buried inauspiciously near the back, was Montyc's "Is Knots Landing the Gayest Show Ever?" post, fishing for "gay subtext" in Seaview Circle. Now that thread interested me. And it was closed.

So I figured I'd write about it anyway.

FYI, I don't believe for a second that Knots had "gay subtext." But that wasn't really the point of the original post; that was Montyc being flip and funny, and good for you, Montyc, because the Knots Forum could use a kick in the ass right now. But Knots did -- and does -- have a certain appeal to gay men; it's an appeal to which some respond and some don't -- but it's precisely because that appeal is so understated, yet resonates across decades of viewing, that it's worth discussing here. I was 20 years old when Knots Landing premiered; it was 1979, and the gay world hadn't changed much since Stonewall. I moved to New York City in the summer of 1981, and over the next few years, most of my gay friends were watching Dynasty. Of course they were: it had the catfights and the bitchy repartee and the gay-for-a-while character. It had the "camp." I've never really been into "camp," so Dynasty had little appeal to me.

The gay people I knew who watched Dynasty used to watch in groups and clumps; they'd cheer and laugh at the small screen. Those of us who watched Knots Landing did so alone, and if a friend asked to join us, no, that wasn't allowed. Our attachment to Knots couldn't easily be explained to an outsider; they wouldn't have understood what it was we saw when we watched. Sunshineboy's post about gay people not being as welcome on Seaview Circle as Cambeck might presume missed the point, I think. No gay person watching in 1979-1993 thought a gay couple was suddenly going to show up on Knots Landing. But we did understand, subtly and intuitively, that someday, sometime -- when timid network executives and a hostile public were ready -- there would be gay people on something like Knots Landing. And that's where we'd settle. And we were right, of course, because when Knots morphed into Six Feet Under, we were there; and when it morphed into Desperate Housewives and Brothers and Sisters, we were there, too. Knots wasn't a haven -- but it was the promise of one, and in the 1980's, very few shows were.

Knots Landing didn't have the campy women with their big shoulder pads to which gays are stereotypically drawn (well, except for two seasons where William Travilla oversaw the costumes, and turned out one monstrosity after another), but the importance of the Knots ladies -- Karen and Abby and Laura and Paige and Claudia -- in "drawing us in" can't be overlooked. Although Knots began as a traditional gender-role soap, headwriters Ann Marcus and Peter Dunne -- starting in Season 3 -- turned it into a show about the emergence of women. Not, as is so simplistically stated too often, a show about woman (to contrast it with Dallas, a show that was indeed "about men"), but a show about the emergence of women: the gratifying results of the feminist movement of the '60s and '70s. And if you were gay in the 1980's, and felt too often that you had no real place in society -- a time when, in the early years of the AIDS crisis, your country's own Administration decided it would be better if you all died -- then there was something deeply comforting about seeing women come into their own. Because we could be next. (And of course, we were right about that, too.) Seeing Karen take over Knots Landing Motors after the death of her husband Sid and find she had a head for business; looking at how Laura thrived once she emerged from a suffocating marriage to her husband Richard; and of course, watching Abby grow more and more comfortable in her own skin-- it was enormously pleasurable and gratifying to see a movement toward equality and freedom actually work.

And that's why Abby's success in the boardroom in Season 5 meant so much to gay viewers, as did Claudia taking the reins at the Sumner Group in Season 13. (If her brother Greg won't take the meeting with Burton Biotech, she'll take the meeting -- and do a damn good job at it.) Knots was proud of its women's achievements. It was also highly protective of them; it understood that real change takes time, that equality is tough. (It's still tough for gays: our country seems to repeal our rights as often as it grants them. Hell, it's still tough for women.) But Knots knew that, and Knots consoled us. Go after your dream. Realize your potential. Break down those barriers. No matter how you've screwed up, Claudia, Greg will still get you that teaching job in Monaco in the series' final moments; no matter how much you've duped and offended him, Abby, Gary Ewing will still be there for you in the Season 5 finale, chasing after your limo when you've been kidnapped. Sure, it was soap opera fantasy, but it was a lovely dream; the Knots women's achievements became empowering for us all.

Seaview Circle wasn't "gay-friendly" -- who the hell was gay-friendly then? But it was "accepting." Knots Landing was about a community, and as others have noted, it was a community full of unlikely friendships and alliances: not a community where no one was judged, but where everyone was judged equally. (As Eric Fairgate learned when he started to date a black girl and was visibly disappointed that his family and neighbors weren't scandalized, no one in Seaview Circle cared about things like that. On Knots, there were worse things than bringing home a girlfriend of color: you could bring home a sociopath, like your sister; a criminal, like your cousin; or a rapist, like your next-door neighbor.) It was a show that understood that in a crisis, we all become equal -- and if it's a funeral, we all become awful. And because Knots Landing was better written and better acted than the other prime-time soaps, because the characters were so much deeper, we felt we knew them, and because we felt we knew them, then they must, by extension, know us, understand us, accept us. If you grew up gay -- if you were bullied and beaten, or just excluded and "different" -- then the concept of an embracing community was deeply comforting. (Lilimae: "I just don't wanna see you get hurt, sweetpea." Karen: "People should be nice; nice should be the norm.")

The week of the final Knots episode, People Magazine ran a full-page ad: "There Goes the Neighborhood." I had it enlarged to poster-size, and even today, it hangs in my office. "After 14 years together," it says, "Say good-bye to all your old friends." Who would have said that about Dallas or Falcon Crest or Dynasty: "Say goodbye to your friends"? But that's what Knots communicated, all the way to the final scenes of the 1997 special ("Nothing lasts." "We do.") -- we're all part of the same beautiful, torn tapestry. We're all worthy, and we're all flawed. Our achievements should be celebrated, and our failings will be forgiven -- by our friends, our family and our community. When producer Joseph Wallenstein wrote, in one of the show's best-remembered episodes, "We're all just china dolls," he spoke to our shared humanity -- that mixture of fragility and fortitude that cuts across race, class, gender and orientation. In 1982, it resonated deeply with me. And remarkably, it still does.