Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Knots Landing season 14

The great soap writer Ann Marcus was first brought aboard Knots Landing in 1981, to shore up the series after a shaky Season 2, and here's what she gave us in Season 3: Karen (Michele Lee, Emmy-nominated that season) coped with the death of her husband Sid; Abby, the vixen (Donna Mills), inserted herself into Val and Gary's marriage (that would be Joan Van Ark and Ted Shackelford); and long-suffering Laura (Constance McCashin), who'd left her jerk husband Richard, decided to return to him out of guilt and obligation.

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 resided 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 was living: on the streets for a while, but let's not go there. It's a plotline worth forgetting.

A lot of Knots Landing seasons 6 through 12 plotlines 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 -- not to mention those times Karen was shot and kidnapped), 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 self-loathing 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 an ABC period soap called Homefront, and took with them the other two Knots 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 characters became unrecognizable; it was the first time in my (then) 25+ years of TV viewing that I realized how little control actors have over their characters: that if the lines are just plain wrong, if the plots are incongruous, then the characters -- no matter how long they've been on the air -- disappear, and the actors 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 characters were reduced to stock heroes and villains, compelling rivalries were dissolved without explanation, and new characters were miserably conceived and cast.

After fifteen grueling episodes, creator David Jacobs called it quits. He shut down production, sacked Romano, and hired back Ann Marcus (who hadn't been with the show in ten years) 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 blog entry, 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. Marcus gives her the best plot she'd had in years: a family drama that splinters her marriage. Mack and Karen had taken over raising Greg and Laura's daughter Meg when Laura passed away. Near the end of Season 13 Marcus introduces a character named Mary Robeson (played by Maree Cheatham, whom Marcus knew well from her days on Days of Our Lives), who has some shady connection to Greg. By the top of Season 14, her identity is revealed: she's Laura's birth mother, fresh out of jail and demanding visitation rights with her granddaughter. 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 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 fear we all understand -- as opposed to, say, the fear of being kidnapped, or held hostage. 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. Karen's husband 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 is used to being self-righteous and judgmental -- she's the last person he'd confide in.) It's a family crisis that shuts down communication and almost unravels their marriage: exactly the kind of down-to-earth story-line Lee and Dobson desperately needed. And it's a story-line 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 just great: the judge is gonna think I'm some kind 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 ultimately 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 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 business training: the actress is great at taking charge -- she has the bearing of a natural leader. If she seems convincing and commanding in her new role, the audience won't question the steps taken (or skipped, in this case) to get her there.

And 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 and foil for Anne, but here he's placed in Claudia's orbit and expresses a romantic interest, and Claudia (realizing that for all she's acquired, she has no one to share it with) falls -- and falls hard. And much of her story-line examines the lengths to which she'll go to keep Nick in her life, even if it means playing fast-and-loose with Sumner Group funds. The end of Season 13 unleashes Claudia in the Sumner Group like a kid in a candy store, and prides her on her business acumen. Season 14 is the headier follow-up: "She can do the job -- but can she be trusted?"

The women are particularly strong in Season 14, because Ann Marcus and Lisa Seidman -- both strong woman -- liked to write strong women. 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 to her daughter, in the first of two crackling scenes written by Lisa 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: (Laughing) 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: (Cutting to the chase) 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: (Leaning in, quietly) 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.
Paige: Engaged?
Anne: (Chirpily) Yah -- as in "Here Comes the Bride..."
Paige: Well.. (At a loss for words) Congratulations?
Anne: (Satisfied) 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: (Standing) 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: (Exiting) 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 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 Anne goes to ensure that Greg doesn't find out until after the wedding (he doesn't) and that he stays with her even after he does find out (he does) actually 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.

All the characters in Season 14 become relatable and compelling in a way they hadn't in years, 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 and Mexican drug cartels and (in Season 13, no shit) a plan to save the world with tidal energy. I asked Lisa Seidman: was there a conscious effort 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? Seidman's graceful and generous response: "It was Ann's natural brilliance." As in Knots Season 3, there are very few outsiders required to stir the pot; the characters -- as in the best soaps -- create their own drama.

Joan Van Ark, meanwhile, created her own drama by electing to leave the show after Season 13. She was up for a couple of pilots, and feeling that one or the other might be picked up, opted not to return for Season 14. (Until Marcus returned, she hadn't had a decent plot in over three years; you can't blame her.) Her last-minute exit made for some speedy rewrites by Marcus, Seidman and Magnuson, but they managed to weave her disappearance into one of the season's ongoing plotlines, and Val, who had been in Florida at the end of Season 13 researching her new book, was kidnapped and ultimately killed in an explosion. And with her gone, that meant story-lines were needed only for Gary and for Kate. So they paired them: Gary, the beleaguered do-gooder, the former millionaire and failed businessman, father of a grown daughter and two nine-year-old twins; and Kate, the Twenties-something moppet with the pert disposition and miserable taste in men.

But it worked. Kate's "crush" on Gary had been set up briefly back in Season 12 -- and to Gary, Kate embodied many of the qualities that had first attracted him to Val: her nurturing nature, her empathy and compassion, even that breezy optimism that too often seemed out of place in a cynical world. As with all the great Marcus couples, it was a relationship rooted in character. (And killing off Val paid dividends in other ways: it gave Ted Shackelford the best story-line he'd had in years, and he responded with his rawest, most charged performances since Season 4.)

The characters are all well-served in Season 14, and the actors respond -- across the board -- with outstanding performances. (For Noone, Galina, Sheridan and Phillips, it's their best work on the show; for the long-timers -- Lee, Dobson, Shackelford and Devane -- it's their finest work in years.) But budget cuts, required to ensure another season, meant that each principal had to be written out of three or four episodes, and mapping out the story-lines around those absences was, according to Seidman, "insane ... a big part of our day-to-day story discussions." Sadly, the cast absences are one of the things most folks remember about the season -- and that tarnishes their memory. But they remember wrong. It's unfortunate, yes, but it's handled skillfully. The episodes are carefully sculpted to allow for the actors' absences, and sometimes the absences themselves actually impact the story-lines. When Mack is thrown in prison in episode 10, under suspicion for the death of Mary Robeson, he's MIA (it's Dobson's first episode off), and we see the whole episode through the toll it takes on Karen (which includes his stubborn refusal to see her). And again, two episodes later, when Mack jumps bail to go to Florida to solve Robeson's murder, Dobson's written out, and Karen's left to fend for herself and to imagine what he's up to. The payoff comes in the following episode, when Karen and Mack have the row to end all rows, over his inability to confide in her; the following morning, as she stands at the front door, bags packed and cab called, she tells him, "This was the biggest challenge we ever faced, and you shut me out." Couples in soaps always engage in hyperbole, but here, it 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, and that's even less forgivable: it puts us firmly in Karen's camp. The writers use the budget demands to generate story, and even to dictate where our sympathies lie. 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 to tell their story; Seasons 6, 7 and 8 had thirty.) So the story-lines 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 fifth episode of the season, "Love and Death," which includes both Val's funeral 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 pitcher 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 (they don't see him, of course) 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. (Seidman recalls that they struggled with making Paige sleeping with Bill so quickly seem believable; all I can say is, the struggle was worth it, because the moment totally rings true. Seidman and Magnuson focus early in the season on Paige's grief at losing Greg, and on Anne callously throwing her engagement in Paige's face. Of course Paige would fall into the arms of a handsome stranger to avoid attending Greg's wedding to her own mother.)

And the faster pace still permits a healthy dose of humor; in fact, it seems to encourage it. In Seidman's "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 notes he has 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 conference table.

Later, we have Anne visiting Mack in his office, to ask him to make sure Paige is at the wedding (she wants her daughter to witness Sumner being legally declared off limits). All nerves, anxious to get that ring on her finger, she inadvertently lets it slip about her false pregnancy, to Mack's disbelief:

Mack: Does Sumner know?
Anne: No.
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 (who's always loathed Anne, and is mortified to see her marrying her brother Greg ) 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: (Settling in, resigned) Yes.

While over at Paige's, Bill is persisting, Paige is resisting:

Bill: So: you got a bedroom, or does the couch pull out?
Paige: Yah, I got a bedroom. Why? You gonna paint it?

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 one of Paige's old boy-toys, Tom Ryan, the crooked cop), but they're used smartly: they play key roles in the season, and aren't merely there for nostalgia. 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 Knots Season 14 so rich is that it feels like the writers know the show as well as we do, that they're there to ask the questions we ourselves have wanted to ask. When Paige runs into Tom again, she asks, pointedly, "So how was Brussels," a plot-point left hanging in Season 12, and reminds him "you can't commit to anything," referencing their aborted Season 11 wedding. (There's a brilliant montage of clips of past scenes between Tom and Paige, set to "We've Only Just Begun," which Tom had serenaded Paige with in Season 11 -- and the clipfest 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," plot points from Season 10. Late in the season, when Val turns up alive, on the run (Van Ark's pilots weren't picked up, so the writers -- in killing off her character -- had given themselves a clear and clever "out" in case the actress 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 Group, 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, Nick's accomplice in crime, comes clean to Tom about the head of their organization, a man named Treadwell, and his plans to take over the Sumner Group -- and Van Ark shoots Tom and Vanessa at a carousel, first in close-up, and then, in a stunning 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 what is perhaps the season's best piece of acting: Noone's searing performance when Claudia finds out that Nick has been setting her up the whole season. Actors directing actors: sometimes, there's nothing better.)

There are precious few things wrong with Season 14. 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. Sumner starts Season 14 in crisis, still mourning his long-departed Laura and fearing she'd disapprove of the man he's become; the task force permits the actor to engage with a new supporting cast, and the character to see if he can somehow redeem himself in the public sector. (It also permits Claudia, who takes over running the Sumner Group, to engage in the kind of mischief that would have season-long ramifications.) Ultimately, the task force becomes a bit of a MacGuffin that allows Greg to regain clarity and purpose, which leads him right back to his old job. The plot doesn't understate the grim challenges facing Los Angeles in the months following the riots, but ultimately, it's a story about a man, not about a city. It's admittedly the least of Season 14's plotlines, but it only lasts five episodes, 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.

As for me, only a few things about the season annoy me. James Magnuson departed after the first six episodes of Season 14, and Donald Marcus -- a leftover from the Romano regime -- returned. Although Ann Marcus (no relation) speaks highly of him in her autobiography, he was not as facile a writer as Magnuson, and his first two episodes -- "A Death in the Family" and "Call Waiting" -- are probably the season's weakest efforts. The former introduces the members of the L.A. Task Force, and the latter brings Sumner's involvement with them to a close; it's in part due to Marcus's limitations that the story-line seems flatter than the others. His first episode also includes the season's most troubling scene: a first date between two supporting players you couldn't care less about. (You think, "They're not really going to build a story around those two, are they?" Luckily, there's no follow-up.) I don't much care for the dialogue in episode 16, "My Kingdom For a Horse." It's the only Knots episode credited to Howard Lakin, who'd done sterling work on Falcon Crest and Dallas, but apparently had no idea how the Knots folks talked. (It's the episode with the most lead actors missing -- a full five out of eight -- but there's nothing wrong with the tighter focus or premise: one last fast-money caper for Anne and Nick, to strengthen their bond heading into the final episodes. It's the dialogue that lets it down.) The season would have been better-served with a two-hour premiere: the first episode is all the setups that pay off in episode 2. And the final two episodes, which welcome Joan Van Ark and Donna Mills back into the fold, should have aired separately, instead of being combined into a two-hour finale. There's a great surprise at the end of the first episode that would have elicited such water-cooler chatter that ratings surely would have risen even further for the final installment.

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 true start of the series. Marcus was there at the (true) beginning; she and her gifted team of writers were there to oversee the ending. Primetime will probably never see another soap with the enduring affection Knots Landing engenders; thank goodness Ann Marcus was there to set it on its course, and to see it safely home.


Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 3, Ann Marcus's first stint as headwriter; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; and Season 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years. All highly worth revisiting. Also Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; and Season 11, in which the show jumps the track -- and jumps back.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Classic Doctor Who: My Top 50 Serials (part 2)

Continuing my countdown of favorite Classic Who serials. For #50-#26, start here.

25. The Wheel in Space (Second Doctor, 1968)
written by David Whitaker
directed by Tristan deVere Cole

Whitaker plots the Cybermen's return as a slice-of-life drama, about a group of people aboard a space vessel in the future, examining the effects that a brutal attack can have on everyday people, and exploring our varying capacities to cope and carry on. And he uses the Cybermen's defining trait -- their suppression of human feeling -- to cast a critical eye towards mankind and observe how our own emotions define us: how they deepen us and how, sometimes, they destroy us. The Cybermen's very duality -- part robot, part human -- becomes the gauge by which he measures his own characters, and never more so than with Zoe Heriot, the young astrophysicist who's set to become the next companion. Zoe, the product of a mind-controlling parapsychology program, has never properly developed human emotions; a fellow crewmember refers to her as "a robot, a machine" -- not unlike how the Doctor describes the Cybermen. ("They were once human beings like yourself, but now they're more robot than man.") "Wheel in Space" is the unusual serial where you believe the characters had a life before we met them, and that they'll have one after we leave; it's the rare Who with a shipload of people where none feel interchangeable. It continues the tradition of multi-cultural casts of which Cybermen creators Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis were so fond, but here it's done with a lightness of touch that's refreshingly P.C. The characters' shared experience and shared humanity define them more than their accents. Fittingly for a serial that stresses character over carnage, the final shot of "Wheel in Space' is of two crew members from different countries -- an English man and a Russian woman -- holding hands. Watching "Wheel in Space," you feel that -- despite all the Cybermen and Daleks and Ice Warriors marauding the galaxy -- there might be hope for mankind after all. (I offer up a full review of "Wheel in Space" here.)

24. Mawdryn Undead (Fifth Doctor, 1983)
written by Peter Grimwade
directed by Peter Moffatt
Two time streams unfold simultaneously, and the effect is giddy, foolish fun. Key scenes between Tegan and the Brigadier in 1977 play out as memories of the Brigadier in 1983; it's the kind of conjuring trick New Who does often, but rarely better. One of Grimwade's niftiest notions -- of two Brigadiers trapped on one ship but repeatedly missing each other -- calls for the kind of flair and precision that seems beyond Moffatt's grasp, but the story succeeds despite him. Moffatt had been the strongest director on All Creatures Great and Small during its first season, and time and again, he'd drawn out Peter Davison's best performances. But Davison admits that on Who, the sci-fi elements baffled Moffatt, and ultimately, they seem to have defeated him. (A hallmark of his work on Who is actors looking lost for a few seconds between lines; it happens to pretty much everyone at some point in "Mawdryn Undead" -- Sarah Sutton, in fact, seems at sea throughout.) The whole serial builds towards the proverbial "zap" when the two Brigadiers meet; Moffatt nails that moment, but the lead-up is leaden and the fall-out limp. Yet despite the director's limitations, and a final act that's equal parts padded and preposterous, "Mawdryn Undead" is still a heady trip.

23. The Robots of Death (Fourth Doctor, 1977)
written by Chris Boucher
directed by Michael E. Briant
It tries to play like a murder mystery, but it's a mystery with so few clues that the solution the Doctor arrives at is apparently heaven-sent. But it's got a striking art-deco sheen, and a creative, facile director at the helm; it's cast to perfection, and played with style; and as Chris Boucher's follow-up to "Face of Evil," it's part two in The Adventures of Leela. Right from the start, as the Doctor tries to explain the "bigger on the inside" concept to someone seeing it with a fresh perspective, it's apparent how much Leela is influencing the ways the stories are now being told. As Boucher conceives her, coming from a "primitive" society means her senses are more acute, more attuned to the subtleties of body language and inflection, conduct and deportment. She often has insights the Doctor lacks. And because of her keen understanding of human behavior, she fits in anywhere, skimpy outfit and all -- and reading people well means Boucher's Leela is nobody's fool. (Uvanov: "You have cost me and the company a great deal of money and you have killed three people. Can you think of any good reason why I should not have you executed on the spot?" Leela: "No, but you can, otherwise you'd have done it.") The tragedy of Louise Jameson is that, outside of Boucher and the ever-adaptable Terrance Dicks (on "Horror of Fang Rock"), no one else understood how to write for her, so that means of her nine serials, only four show off Leela well. In the following serial, Robert Holmes reinvents her as his original conception, an Eliza Doolittle type: as a creature to be taught, to be condescended to, to be ridiculed. Writers Martin & Baker further diminish her in their two efforts the following season: in "Invisible Enemy," repeatedly referencing her lack of intelligence -- totally confusing intelligence with knowledge; and in "Underworld," as if she somehow needs "fixing," inventing a weapon to tame her. And it's then, and only then, that the scantily-clad huntress becomes a feminist's nightmare.

22. The Awakening (Fifth Doctor, 1984)
written by Eric Pringle
directed by Michael Owen Morris
Eric Pringle was reportedly displeased with script editor Eric Saward's rewrites, branding the resulting script rushed and confusing. But "The Awakening" is neither -- in fact, it's one of the most delightful of all the Davison serials. Pringle has fifty minutes to tell a dense story, and a lot of tricks up his sleeve, but the tricks never seem obvious; director Morris bathes them in the sun. There's a childlike sense of wonder to "The Awakening." It's there in the giant crack in the wall, and in the ghoulish face hiding behind it. It's there in the young boy who flees the church in terror, but isn't too afraid to brandish a torch to save his new friend. And it's there, above all, in Davison's performance. At one point, the Doctor escapes captivity with a schoolboy prank; later he's in the TARDIS with the town schoolteacher, and he throws her looks that say "Why are you in my room?" and "Don't touch my things." He's both rebel and authoritarian, equal parts schoolboy and headmaster, and he's marvelous. There's only one moment in "The Awakening" that feels rushed and confusing, and it's pure Saward: the sci-fi explanation for the creature taking over the town. The schoolteacher characterizes him as "the devil," but never a fan of the mystical, Saward explains it with reconnaissance missions and alien invasions and rocks "mined by the Terileptils on the planet Raaga for the almost exclusive use of the people of Hakol," all of which Davison shrewdly recites so fast that he renders it unintelligible. Saward had no idea how people think; did he not understand that the moment we hear "the devil," we tune out any other explanation? It's the only moment in "The Awakening" that feels false: demystifying the devil.

21. Spearhead From Space (Third Doctor, 1970)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Derek Martinus

UNIT has become such a fixture in the Who-niverse that it's easy to overlook the challenges Robert Holmes faced in penning Pertwee's debut. He had to convince viewers used to spiriting through time and space that it would be fun to set up shop on Earth for a while. He had to sell a reboot that essentially undid the show's premise. And he does so almost effortlessly, with a story that's as much character study as adventure. "Spearhead" is often dismissed with complaints that "the Doctor's hardly in it" -- but that's precisely the point. We don't need to meet the Doctor right away; we expect to like him. The "troubled regeneration" story lets the show first establish the team who'll be joining him, reassuring us (by the time the Doctor is back on his feet) that they're worthy. And not worthy of joining him, in this case, but of him joining them. Holmes not only successfully introduces Liz Shaw and reintroduces the Brigadier, but he manages some nice reversals along the way. The Brigadier and the Doctor previously enjoyed a cordial camaraderie; by the end of "Spearhead," the new workplace environment triggers an amusing alpha-male rivalry. And conversely, Liz starts off as a skeptic, but ultimately, her scientific curiosity and a weakness for the Doctor's charms turn her into his champion. Derek Martinus's previous Who serial, "Ice Warriors," was all grand effects; this one is subtle gestures. He's careful not to overplay his hand or overdramatize events; as his camera fairly floats along on Dudley Simpson's jazz-infused score, he teases as much as he delivers, suggesting that the factories and field HQ's of Earth can be just as tantalizing as far-off alien planets. "Spearhead" promises a look that only rarely reemerges in the Pertwee era, but Martinus's darting camerawork ensures it's a look so elusive that you've practically forgotten it by the time the serial winds down. As such, it's the best broken promise in Who history.

20. Terminus (Fifth Doctor, 1983)
written by Stephen Gallagher
directed by Mary Ridge
The juvenile cast opposite Sarah Sutton is even worse than she is; at one point, they have a contest to see who can show less emotion in the face of impending doom. But the clunky acting by a few key players (and the undernourished sets and the patchwork dog) are easily overlooked, because the tale they're spinning -- a society trapped in a cycle of corruption, abandonment and abuse -- is pure gold, not to mention astonishingly prescient. "Terminus" is about an economic, political and health-care system that's broken, one that preys on the weak and the poor and the sick, that invites mistrust and fear, aggression and violence. It's a salve for the folks who've been on the receiving end, and an indictment of the ones who create and perpetuate it. And too, it's a cautionary tale for the ones who don't yet know what they're in for. Ridge's direction seems utterly in line with Gallagher's narrative. She shoots her characters through grates and grids and bars, as if the eponymous spaceship is holding them hostage, precisely the point of "Terminus." In Gallagher's bleak universe, everyone is trapped: not just the TARDIS crew, but the patients in need of medical assistance, the guards supplied with just enough drugs to keep going, the raiders left to fend for themselves, the Garm killing as many as he's curing because of his lack of free will. (Even the ship itself -- in one of Gallagher's more twisted conceits -- is trapped in an unending cycle of creation and destruction.) Everyone is at the mercy of unseen, uncaring forces -- and for those watching from home who've lived it, who've felt powerless to make a fresh start, who've felt at times at war with the world, and losing, it's a scenario that rings all too true. (I offer up full review of "Terminus" here.)

19. The War Games (Second Doctor, 1969)
written by Terrance Dicks & Malcolm Hulke
directed by David Maloney
If all the serials in Season 6 had lived up to their promise, it would have been one of the most sensational seasons in Classic Who history. The variety of settings and story-lines and styles is staggering -- it's Doctor Who working without a net. Where Season 6 trips up is in the execution. If you read any behind-the-scenes stories, you keep seeing the troubles they were having getting decent scripts commissioned and in shape for filming -- but you don't need to read the backstage chatter: the scrappiness is evident on the screen. Serials constantly seem in need of a final rewrite, or feel padded and stretched beyond their proper length. Not until season's end are you fully and completely blown away. One can't pretend that, at ten episodes, "The War Games" doesn't feel long; it's full of the sort of capture-and-escape plotting that Malcolm Hulke would practically hone to an art form in "Frontier in Space." But here the redundancies of the story-line seem shrewdly tied to the subject matter: the futility of war, where battles are fought and re-fought but victories rarely won. Hulke, Dicks and Maloney make one smart move after another. The tone teeters artfully between grim drama and ferocious comedy, permitting them to switch gears anytime the story-line starts to sag. The revelations are carefully spaced and cleverly placed. The setting allows Jamie to shine in battle, and Zoe to play with technology -- and it gives the Doctor a backstory that inspires one of Troughton's most tense and tremulous performances. And contrary to the way the ending is often remembered, it's in fact strangely uplifting. The Time Lords wipe most of Zoe and Jamie's memories, but let them recall their first adventure with the Doctor -- and as we see Jamie return home, newly primed for battle after the events of "The Highlanders," and Zoe return to the wheel in space, noticeably softer around the edges than the "robot" we first met, we're reminded of the impact the Doctor can have in just one short serial. We think of the thousands of characters who've shared only one story with the Doctor, and how their worlds became different -- and perhaps we reflect on how our own lives were altered, too, after just one adventure in space and time. And although the Doctor, about to be exiled to Earth, rages that he doesn't want his face changed, we know -- as audiences knew in 1968, because they'd seen it happen before, and been rewarded with the marvel that is Patrick Troughton -- that change can be a good thing. The end of "War Games" glows with promise. It makes you eager for the next great adventure.

18. The Rescue (First Doctor, 1965)
written by David Whitaker
directed by Christopher Barry
A scared girl calls out for help; the Doctor arrives, saves the day, and invites her to travel with him. No, it's not "The Eleventh Hour," it's "The Rescue": the first -- and still one of the best -- of the new-companion stories. Whitaker opens with Vicki, stranded on an alien planet, awaiting a rescue mission, and in the serial's early scenes, he paints a vivid portrait: of girlish enthusiasm that gives way to confusion and fear; of loneliness; of intelligence tempered by impulsiveness and naiveté. Vicki's certain the signal she's picking up from nearby is the rescue ship she's been awaiting, and when she's assured it's not, she wonders, "Then who's landed on the mountain?" And only then do we cut to the TARDIS crew. "The Rescue" doesn't use the Doctor and his companions to introduce a new setting; it uses Vicki to introduce the Doctor and his companions. (Whitaker delights in upending our expectations about how Who looks and works, both in the way Vicki dominates the opening and in the monster reveal at the end.) "The Rescue" is an intergalactic fairy-tale about a young girl trapped in a rundown home, caring for an infirm adult, cowering from the awful neighbor who bullies her, and finding consolation in the odd pet who's become her only friend -- and into her world come three strangers to cheer her and save her. It's enchanting and dear; even the perils are like something out of a child's imagination: cliffs and secret passages and blades that come out of walls. The story could have used more visual finesse: Christopher Barry's staging is largely perfunctory. But the serial does what it needs to do; because Vicki's predicament is the stuff of childhood nightmares, and because Maureen O'Brien's performance is so winning (and her rapport with Hartnell so convincing), you're fully prepared to welcome her aboard the TARDIS by serial's end. Whitaker even manages to craft a new companion who'll look after the star and the franchise; no doubt seeing Hartnell's memory start to fade, and his authority dwindle as a result, he invents a companion who's utterly devoted to the Doctor -- as much fangirl as foil. As Vicki looks at the Doctor with those adoring eyes, Whitaker ensures that audiences will continue to do so, too.

17. Genesis of the Daleks (Fourth Doctor, 1975)
written by Terry Nation
directed by David Maloney
It's got a villain so well-conceived and vividly played that he instantly became iconic; it's got scope and urgency and enough incident to successfully fill six episodes. For a Terry Nation script, all that pretty much amounts to a miracle, and as directed by David Maloney (so tautly it almost seems an apology for his tepid work on Nation's earlier -- and uninspired -- "Planet of the Daleks"), it's one of the two or three high points of Tom Baker's early years. If there are some underfed supporting players, some ropy cliffhangers, and a too-often-referenced Fourth Doctor speech ("Do I have the right?") that's left unanswered, that's all best swept under the rug -- because it's not the Daleks that are the secret weapon being developed in "Genesis": it's the pairing of the Doctor and Harry Sullivan, that great underutilized Doctor Who double act. While Sarah Jane is off somewhere falling off a tower, Tom Baker and Ian Marter start to gel as a team. The Doctor gains patience, and Harry gains assurance -- traits that reflect well on them both. They develop a winning rhythm that lasts all of one serial. (By the next serial, in a low point of Baker's early years, he's screaming with condescension and disdain, "Harry Sullivan is an imbecile!" The imbeciles were the ones who couldn't see what they had in these two.) The irony of "Genesis" is that the Doctor-Harry pairing, which brought something fresh to the series, and brought out something intensely likable in both, was short-lived, but the Daleks, that satanic spawn of static electricity, go on and on and on...

16. The Abominable Snowmen (Second Doctor, 1967)
written by Mervyn Haisman & Henry Lincoln
directed by Gerald Blake
Patrick Troughton's second season is either revered or reviled for being an "all-monsters, base-under-siege" season. It's not only an over-simplification, it's inaccurate. Other Classic Who seasons -- 11, 12 and 13 come to mind -- boast more monsters per square acre, and few of the Season 5 serials feature the one-set "operations center" that typifies such stories. "Abominable Snowmen" is almost the opposite of what folks think of when they imagine Season 5. As it explores the hills and caves of Tibet, and the religious chambers, dungeons and forbidden rooms of a monastery, it feels in some ways more a First Doctor story than a Second. It's evocative and ethereal, as much mood piece as adventure, which makes the inevitable scares all the more impactful. Cast with care and sensitively played, "Abominable Snowmen" boasts ambiance, novelty and a director so confident in his talent and his material that he dispenses with a musical score (that crutch too often used to bind together Who's disparate elements and gloss over its weaker moments), allowing the monastery to provide its own natural accompaniment. There's one contrivance to set the story in motion -- the usual "Doctor accused of a crime he didn't commit" -- but beyond that, the plot unfolds naturally and logically, at its own pace, and it's captivating. In one sense, "Abominable Snowmen" is another story where a benign society falls under the spell of an evil force. but the monastic setting invites the very questions of faith, trust, worship and blind acceptance that are invariably at the heart of such stories. "Abominable Snowmen" asks: in times of turmoil, do we follow our leaders, our gods or our hearts? -- and it explores its themes gently, without overstating or offering pat solutions. Despite the presence of those cuddly little Yeti, there to provide the kid appeal, "Abominable Snowmen" is one of the most adult, thought-provoking stories in the Who canon.

15. Carnival of Monsters (Third Doctor, 1973)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Barry Letts
The Third Doctor on a budget, and he never looked so good: proof, if any were needed, that imagination trumps special effects. Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning had developed a lovely rapport by this point in their run, and as actors, they'd rarely been as radiant. "Carnival" is a cousin to The Twilight Zone's "Stopover in a Quiet Town," but there's nothing quiet about Holmes's script: it's packed with incident. As the episode after the Time Lords restore the Doctor's ability to travel freely, it imagines the viewer asking, "What kinds of adventures are in store for us now?", and responds, "All kinds" -- and then serves up a four-part demonstration, setting us down in Earth's past to illuminate a maritime mystery, then a barren alien landscape inhabited by massive snake-like predators, and finally a far-off planet mired in political paranoia. (If "Spearhead From Space" promises an era that never truly emerges, "Carnival" shows us, proudly and prophetically, exactly where the show is headed.) The whole thing is colorful and celebratory, and there are wonderful images throughout: a giant hand from the sky spiriting the TARDIS away; a diminutive Doctor stumbling out of an alien peep show; a sea-serpent terrorizing a '20s cargo ship. But most of all, "Carnival" works, like so many of the top Classic Whos, because it's in many ways a commentary -- not the sort of "social issues" commentary that underscored many a Third Doctor story, but a commentary on the series itself: on Doctor Who as a show to be watched, as the actors as characters that we view on a big box -- exactly what they become in "Carnival of Monsters." Like most Holmes stories, it's terribly "aware," but this one is aware without being arch. It bursts with an "anything goes" spirit -- while at the same time putting the Doctor exactly where we want him: inside our TV screen.

14. The Massacre (First Doctor, 1966)
written by John Lucarotti & Donald Tosh
directed by Paddy Russell
Forget "Blink." Forget "Ark in Space." Forget "Seeds of Doom" and "Web of Fear" and any of the other umpteen serials designed to scare the daylights out of you. "The Massacre" might not have had children ducking behind their sofas, but it probably was the first serial to give them nightmares afterwards. It's a historical, sure, but it's Doctor Who's first historical horror-story, because it's rooted in the most basic of childhood fears: abandonment. It's the story of a companion, Steven Taylor, who gets stranded in an era -- here, one of the most bloody periods in French history: just days prior to the 1572 Huguenot massacre -- and has to fend for himself before the Doctor returns to take him away. Steven's compassion -- his concern for a frightened girl named Anne Chaplet -- entwines him in the convulsive politics of the era. The machinations of the Huguenots and the Catholics aren't easily digested and absorbed -- nor are they meant to be. They're meant to overwhelm; the events unfolding are too much to take in, and that makes Steven's plight all the more unnerving. Peter Purves commands the spotlight with grace and intelligence, and his verbal evisceration of the Doctor at the climax -- when the Doctor insists they leave Anne behind, to face near-certain doom -- is the most dramatic scene of its kind until the end of "Kill the Moon" nearly a half-century later. The visuals remain missing, but it makes for an exquisite audio listen; given Paddy Russell's (sometimes maddening) attention to detail, it's easily one of the missing Who serials most worthy of rediscovery. Some claim the serial is undercut by the coda, in which the TARDIS lands in 20th-century London and a young woman wanders aboard who, it turns out, might be Anne Chaplet's descendant (suggesting that she survived the massacre and allowing for a reconciliation between the Doctor and Steven). But it doesn't feel contrived, as some maintain; it feels in line with everything we've since come to understand about the Doctor's relationship with his ship. Forty-five years later, in "The Doctor's Wife," the Doctor would admonish the TARDIS, "You didn't always take me where I wanted to go," and she'd reply, simply, calmly, "No, but I always took you where you needed to go." The TARDIS leads the Doctor and Steven to Dodo, to repair their friendship. It's an unexpectedly uplifting epilogue to a grim and gripping tale.

13. Terror of the Zygons (Fourth Doctor, 1975)
written by Robert Banks Stewart
directed by Douglas Camfield
Like much of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era, you don't remember it so much for what was said, but for how it looked. "Zygons" is brimming with memorable visuals, from a chase across the Scottish moors to the villains' squish-and-squeeze lair. Douglas Camfield, arguably the best director of the Classic Who years, was too often called upon to upgrade second-rate material. But twice he got great scripts, once early in his Who career, with "The Crusade," and then near the end, with "Zygons," both of them classics. But quite aside from the assuredness of the direction and design, there's something else giving "Zygons" its kick -- although you're not let in on the joke until late in the game. When we first meet the shape-shifting Zygons, they've already (unbeknownst to us) assumed the identities of key characters in the show, but as much as they overplay their hands -- the hospital nurse is alarmingly chilly, the Duke aggressively rigid and high-handed -- you don't think twice, because it's consistent with the style of the previous Doctor's era, when everything was pitched to Pertwee's playing. When the real characters emerge from their Zygon tombs, they're suddenly performing in a more naturalistic style, and you realize the truth: "Zygons" is a serial about what would happen if shape-shifters came to Earth and learned everything they know about mankind from watching the Pertwee era. It's wickedly funny -- and a little mean, too. There's not a lot "Zygons" gets wrong, except for its disposal of Harry Sullivan at the end, which story editor Robert Holmes knew was a mistake and producer Philip Hinchcliffe later conceded was one. The Doctor and Sarah Jane needed Harry. Elisabeth Sladen grows as an actress once he's gone, but the Doctor and Sarah Jane grow too much alike; they (and we) desperately miss their old-school apprentice.

12. The Androids of Tara (Fourth Doctor, 1978)
written by David Fisher
directed by Michael Hayes
Sure, it's slow; what would be the point of fast bliss? Fisher plays up and sends up everything, but Michael Hayes refuses to sacrifice atmosphere for speed. He invites us to bask: in the literary conceit, a Zenda rip-off; in the gleeful malevolence of its villains and the handsome hardiness of its heroes; in lush scenery that seem to devour half of Part One and a sword fight that dominates Part Four. (And to Hayes' credit as well, the serial is cast to perfection, with sterling guest turns by Peter Jeffrey, Neville Jason, Simon Lack, Paul Lavers and Lois Baxter.) For a couple of seasons, Tom Baker had looked like he'd rather be fishing; Fisher just sends him on his way, and entrusts Mary Tamm with the rest -- and she rewards him with her most captivating performance. The coolest customer who ever went TARDIS-hopping, Romana doesn't even lose her grip when she's threatened with decapitation -- to her, life-and-death is no more than a nuisance. A vastly underrated actress, Mary Tamm added smarts, glamour, sophistication and withering irony to the TARDIS team; calling to mind such Thirties screen icons as Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne and Claudette Colbert, she turned Doctor Who into a retro-chic sendup of the Hollywood screwball comedies: the Doctor and Romana as Nick and Nora Charles, with K-9 as Asta. As uneven and uncertain of its effects as Season 16 often was, it was the true miracle season of the Graham Williams era, and the delectable "Androids" (featuring one of Tom Baker's last engaged and engaging performances) its high point.

11. Kinda (Fifth Doctor, 1982)
written by Christopher Bailey
directed by Peter Grimwade
"Our madness is the Mara's meat and drink," the Wise Woman intones in "Kinda," and in Christopher Bailey's hallucinatory universe, the Mara -- the evil lurking in the deep recesses of the soul -- is feasting on us all. On Deva Loka, the line between sanity and madness is perilously thin. It's not just fear and isolation that can sully the mind; insight and empathy wreak their own havoc. Bailey's characters -- and the nightmares that consume them -- seem to spring from the dark corners of his own imagination: in "Kinda," story and story-teller are inseparable. Bailey doesn't connect all the dots, but he doesn't need to; our limited understanding of life's mysteries becomes part of the "Kinda" narrative. Yet despite its philosophic overtones, "Kinda" is not a static piece -- the cast and director attack the work with such ferocity that the narrative becomes, for the most part, as stirring as it is stimulating. (Only a few of the younger actors are, sadly, not up to the task at hand, the chief offender being Matthew Waterhouse. In Part Three, trapped in a dome with two madmen, he's meant to project mounting desperation to escape, but mostly he conveys the bland boredom of a teenager anxious to ditch his parents on a Saturday night.) Peter Davison's own growth as an actor further fuels the story. "Kinda" was his third serial filmed, and as the scenes progress, you see him getting inside the Doctor's skin. While the Doctor gains knowledge, Davison gains insight; by the time the Mara is banished, the journey of the Fifth Doctor, and that of the actor playing him, have become intertwined, and the synergy is powerful.

10. The Ambassadors of Death (Third Doctor, 1970)
written by David Whitaker
directed by Michael Ferguson
On paper, Michael Ferguson seems an odd choice to direct. "Ambassadors of Death" is a fairy tale anticipating early Spielberg, where aliens come to Earth with good intent, and it falls to us to rise to the occasion. It suggests someone with a light touch and an eye for detail. Ferguson was a "bold-strokes" director; his aim was not to be detailed, but daring. (If he staged a fist-fight, he didn't much care if the punches connected -- as long as whoever took the losing punch could then fall off a cliff.) But the unlikely match of script and director only enhances the serial; Ferguson enlarges its scope in a way that augments its sense of wonder. The set-pieces -- ambushes and shoot-outs and chases -- don't strive for authenticity; they feel jam-packed and oversized, like a precocious kid with his toy soldiers, imagining adventures too awesome for the real world to contain. And the serial's climax (the unleashing of the eponymous trio to save the day) becomes not merely satisfying but mesmerizing. "Ambassadors" is credited to Whitaker, but history relates that it was mostly written by Malcolm Hulke; Hulke may have crafted the dialogue, but the plot and sensibility are unmistakably Whitaker, and they set the tone for how the early Third Doctor era can work: for how the three leads can team up to solve a crisis, availing themselves of the Doctor's wisdom, Liz's intelligence and the Brigadier's decisiveness. In "Ambassadors," the UNIT unit is a tight one: the Doctor respects the Brigadier, the Brigadier trusts the Doctor, and everyone loves Liz. And oh, what Liz Shaw -- transformed here from companion to heroine -- brings to the proceedings. Decked out in a miniskirt, adorned by white knee-high boots and matching wide-brim hat, she nonetheless manages to be every bit the scientist. Late in the serial, the Doctor and Liz are held hostage, and the Doctor feigns willingness to help build a device for his captors. Liz has a moment of astonishment, then she realizes they're not going to build the desired machine at all; they're going to devise a means of escape. It's never stated, but it's understood -- and understood by us as well. "Ambassadors" disproves the notion that the Doctor needs someone to "ask the questions." Liz is right there with him every step of the way, and the serial trusts us to keep up -- and we do.

9. Planet of Fire (Fifth Doctor, 1984)
written by Peter Grimwade
directed by Fiona Cumming
The shots of Lanzarote -- its cliffs ripe for climbing, its valleys swirling in mist -- are majestic, and they're set to a percussive score (by Peter Howell) that's one of the most hypnotic in the Classic Who canon. Part Two feels like it's almost entirely shot outdoors, and Cumming milks the scenery for all it's worth. "Planet of Fire" suffers from some scrappy editing, and a few missteps, but by and large, this atmospheric tale is brimming with good ideas, well-executed. Grimwade was handed a laundry list of script requirements, but there's no kitchen-sink clutter: the introduction of Peri, the send-off (and backstory) devised for Turlough, the return of the Master, the final fate of Kamelion -- it all coalesces into a brisk, satisfying story about faith and resistance, abandonment and deliverance. And it uses guest star Peter Wyngarde, in a stirring performance that remains a miracle of restraint, to neatly blur the line between orthodoxy and heresy, revealing how even true believers will reinterpret tradition to further their agenda. As ever, Cumming takes care of her actors, particularly the younger ones, coaxing an understated performance out of Mark Strickland and an appealing one out of Nicola Bryant. (It could be argued that it's Strickland's most understated performance on Who, and Bryant's most appealing.) She even manages to tame Anthony Ainley, who -- after hamming it up horrendously in "The King's Demons" -- returns as renewed as the Master after a whiff of numismaton gas, adopting the physicality of early televangelists to deceive the "wretched citizens of Sarn," and demonstrating how easily religion can be brandished as a weapon, bamboozling both zealots and unbelievers alike: both those seeking salvation and those feeling forsaken. You watch "Planet of Fire" thinking you'll carp about the small things it's getting wrong, but instead you're swept up in the formidable things it gets right. A late Davison sleeper, in many ways it's the highlight of his final season.

8. The Face of Evil (Fourth Doctor, 1977)
written by Chris Boucher
directed by Pennant Roberts
There are certain Whos you can't imagine with any other Doctor. An "Enemy of the World" without Troughton? A "Snakedance" without Davison? A "Greatest Show in the Galaxy" without McCoy? "Face of Evil" is that perfect pairing of subject matter and star. It has the Doctor misprogramming a computer and recreating it in his own image -- but the computer doesn't seem as much a reflection of the Fourth Doctor as of Tom Baker himself, the original Madman in a Box: dangerous and demanding, maniacal yet mesmerizing. "The Face of Evil" has a sound premise -- a primitive society whose traditions arise from the remnants from another, more advanced one ("Planet of Fire" is built on the same foundation) -- but it also has its share of problems. It has a Doctor-put-to-death scene in Part 2 that's weak, and a resolution that's even weaker; it has a lot of skulking about hallways and reuses the same mind-control trick so many times you lose count; it has a star who's just starting to spiral out of control, and some bit players who should have been banished from the BBC soundstages. But it's got Leela, so who cares? Louise Jameson commands the screen in her first appearance like no other companion before or since; watching her, you can't decide what's more spellbinding: the conception of the character, or how far she runs with it. Run, you clever girl; by the time the ending draws near, you start to think that if the Doctor doesn't take her with him, you'd be perfectly happy sticking around to watch her in a spin-off.

7. The Evil of the Daleks (Second Doctor, 1967)
written by David Whitaker
directed by Derek Martinus
In a strange way, "Evil" is regarded as one of the great Who serials and yet still remains underrated, partly because the structure is so novel, some find it unnerving: every time you feel you have a handle on where it's heading, it deceives you. "Power of the Daleks," its immediate Dalek predecessor (also by Whitaker), was a sturdy but traditional narrative, with stock characters and a steady build. Here, Whitaker juggles time periods and tropes and images like a master magician: just setting the stage takes nearly three episodes, but there are so many sleights of hand (the first episode confidently crosscuts between a hunt for the missing TARDIS and a Victorian antique store that's not what it seems to be), so many graceful juxtapositions (Victoria, imprisoned by Daleks, feeding birds like an animated Disney princess) and so many pay-offs (the first Dalek reveal, for the viewer, is outdone by the second reveal, to showcase Troughton's reaction) that by the time the "real" adventure gets underway -- the Daleks' quest for the "Human Factor," which turns out to be bogus -- you're already in a sort of bedazzled delirium. And once that plot is in motion, there are still unexpected detours and delights and reckonings to come. It's one of Troughton's three best performances (the others being "Enemy of the World" and "War Games"), but equally important to the success of "Evil" is how Jamie comes into his own; freed from being the third wheel in the double-act lovefest that was Ben and Polly, Frazer Hines both relaxes and grows more assured. The great Doctor-Jamie bromance that would sustain the series for another two seasons isn't the mutual admiration society that we nostalgically remember. Jamie and the Doctor are given permission to love each other and still lose it with each other, like real best friends -- and it all begins here.

6. The Crusade (First Doctor, 1965)
written by David Whitaker
directed by Douglas Camfield
The TARDIS touches down in 12th-century Palestine; within minutes, Barbara is kidnapped, and the Doctor, Ian and Vicki set out to save her. The "chase" aspect of the plot allows Whitaker and Camfield to paint a particularly broad canvas (from the courts of King Richard and Muslim leader Saladin to the bustling marketplaces and barren deserts) and to serve up compassionate yet clear-eyed looks at both monarchs. It also provides a tour-de-force for all four principals -- their characters filled with resolve, wit, resourcefulness and guile -- and the actors rise to the occasion magnificently. Whitaker channels Shakespeare with the poetry of his dialogue -- some of it in iambic pentameter -- and Doctor Who would hear no finer dialogue for decades. (Richard, to his sister Joanna: "Saladin sends me presents of fruit and snow when I am sick, and now his brother decorates you with his jewels. Yet with our armies do we both lock in deadly combat, watering the land with a rain of blood, and the noise of thunder is drowned in the shouts of dying men.") Douglas Camfield, in his first full Who directorial outing, does splendid work -- but it's the lines that linger. When Saladin implores a captured Barbara, "Please talk. It helps me to consider what I have to do with you," her response, without hesitation, is "Well, I could say that I'm from another world, a world ruled by insects. And before that we were in Rome at the time of Nero. Before that we were in England, far, far into the future..." -- describing three recent adventures. As Saladin interprets it ("Now I understand: you and your friends, you are players, entertainers"), the scene glows with gentle irony and self-awareness: Doctor Who interpreting history, history interpreting Doctor Who. And the showdown between Richard the Lionheart (Julian Glover) and his sister Joanna (Jean Marsh) is as explosive as any exchange in Classic Who. There's really only one thing wrong with "The Crusade": the fact that two of four episodes are missing, and it's particularly unfortunate here. There are some Classic Who writers (Ian Stuart Black, Brian Hayles) and directors (Christopher Barry, Derek Martinus) where missing episodes don't matter as much; they worked in broad strokes, and once you've been able to ascertain the tone and style of a partially extant serial, you can intuit the rest. But Whitaker and Camfield were artists who found the drama in nuance and detail; when you watch the reconstructions, and then flip to an extant episode, you realize just how much you've missed. But even the two lost episodes don't prevent "The Crusade" from being the crowning achievement of the Hartnell era.

5. The Deadly Assassin (Fourth Doctor, 1976)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by David Maloney
Tom Baker wanted to do without a companion, so for one serial, he gets his wish. It exposes how badly the Doctor needs -- at the very least -- a sounding-board, as key plot points, left unexplained, need to be intuited, imagined or ignored. And flying solo proves a mixed bag for Baker. On the plus side, he's as charismatic and commanding as ever -- and his eager efforts to prove that he can be both narrator and participant are enormously endearing. But during Part 3, trapped alone in the Matrix on Gallifrey, you realize he's stretching as far as he can -- and that it's not quite far enough: that Baker is better -- more expressive -- with an audience, that internal monologue is not where his strengths lie. Instead, "The Deadly Assassin," the story that was supposed to be about the Doctor, is really about the director: it's a dizzying display by David Maloney, and as you watch it, you can't help but feel it's the Who story he'd been building to for years. Holmes envisions a world of all-too-human subterfuge and double-dealing, a black-tinged political satire, but Maloney plays against all that, shooting Gallifrey as a foreboding land eternally shrouded in mist and fog, with towers ascending majestically to unseen skies, and processions teeming with impressive pageantry. The design itself is rarely more than rudimentary, and on occasion, decidedly low-rent, but Maloney keeps his camera so busy, and the editing so aggressive, that the setting practically gives off sparks. (A couple of the costumes, which look so extravagant in "Deadly Assassin," turn up again in the Ron Jones-directed "Arc of Infinity," looking drab and ill-fitting.) And in Part 3, you see that easy marriage of vision, instinct and technique that he was straining to learn in his first Who stint, "The Mind Robber"; the pupil has become the master. "Deadly Assassin" may be the most virtuosic directorial display in the Classic Who canon; unfortunately, it meant multiple returns to Gallifrey that, in lesser hands, resulted in some of the series' most tedious, unsightly serials. "The Deadly Assassin" was lightning in a bottle.

4. Enlightenment (Fifth Doctor, 1983)
written by Barbara Clegg
directed by Fiona Cumming
Sailing ships in space: an iconic image from Classic Who, and one of the best serials for the unenlightened. Others may be more thought-provoking ("Kinda"), more haunting ("The Ambassadors of Death"), more gripping ("The Massacre") or more pure fun ("The Androids of Tara"), but "Enlightenment" manages a satisfying blend of all these qualities. It's the third in a string of remarkable stories (the others being "Mawdryn Undead" and "Terminus") that form "The Black Guardian Trilogy," and that all, by design or chance, ponder the price of immortality, the plight of the disenfranchised, and the curse of an alienated existence. Like Christopher Bailey before her, Clegg aims high without ever becoming high-brow, making the prosaic sound poetic ("It's as though somebody's been rummaging around in my memories") and the poetic unexpectedly resonant ("You are a Time Lord, a Lord of Time. Are there lords in such a small domain?"). No other helmer of the Fifth Doctor era could balance the intimate and the panoramic quite like Cumming, but a few moments do seem to get away from her -- no doubt because an electricians' strike forced filming to be spread across three months. But if Cumming's direction isn't quite as smooth or sly as her previous efforts, she still works so many wonders, particularly with Janet Fielding's Tegan, that chance complaints are best (and easily) forgotten. Script editor Eric Saward's comment that the script went nowhere -- this from the man who gave us the lumbering "Visitation" -- is one of his most sadly revealing. Can we chalk it up to professional jealousy? Peter Davison and Keith Barron share an exchange about human worth that's so vibrant, it puts Saward's paler version in "Earthshock" to shame. But then, everything about "Enlightenment" is vibrant: from the sparkling performances to the sumptuous design to the scoring and special effects. A race through space, but one where there's not merely a prize to be won, but characters to explore, themes to develop, and philosophies to argue and ponder -- all accomplished with elegance and ease.

3. The Enemy of the World (Second Doctor, 1967-68)
written by David Whitaker
directed by Barry Letts
Even before the five missing episodes were located, it was one of the great Classic Who serials. Troughton's bravura dual performance (as the Doctor, and as Salamander, would-be dictator of the world) came through clearly in the surviving audio, starting with the glorious sequence near the end of Episode 1 in which the Doctor watches Salamander deliver a speech and then deconstructs, digests and assumes his accent. That said, now that it's been rediscovered and restored, and we can see that the visuals are beyond anything we'd dreamed (including a romp in the ocean that's pure bliss), it takes its place as Troughton's defining serial, as "Snakedance" is for Davison and "The Deadly Assassin" is for Baker. It's not merely a remarkable acting feat, cunningly sustained for six weeks -- it's a brilliant plot that keeps piling on surprises. The Holmes-Hinchcliffe years, finding many of the Pertwee six-parters problematic, aimed to make theirs palatable by dividing them into two parts, and abruptly switching gears after the first or second third: a 2+4, or a 4+2. They should have just looked a little further back, to Whitaker's approach: he simply develops a plot so layered that he doesn't need to change course -- he can merely peel it back episode by episode. (The revelation that comes in Episode 4 -- and it's a doozy -- doesn't send the serial in a new direction; it's more the "missing piece" that enlarges its scope.) Flawlessly cast, fearlessly directed and splendidly performed, with a special nod to Mary Peach as Astrid, one of the great guest stars in all of Classic Who. She fights, she flirts, she flies -- and when she and Troughton are seated on a sofa, playfully interrogating each other (Astrid: "Oh, you're a doctor?" The Doctor: "Well, not of any medical significance." Astrid: "Doctor of law? Philosophy?" Doctor: "Which law? Whose philosophies?"), the halcyon days of '60s television are at their most heavenly.

2. Castrovalva (Fifth Doctor, 1982)
written by Christopher H. Bidmead
directed by Fiona Cumming
Beguiling and exhilarating. Bidmead's scripts could be too clever by half, the results more science lesson than science fiction. Cumming lifts "Castrovalva" out of the lecture hall and infuses it with pace, style and warmth; she takes Bidmead's showy conceits (hydrogen inrush! recursive occlusion!) and paints a human face on them. Cumming was an accomplished technician, but she was above all an actor's director: just what "Castrovalva" needs. Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton don't seem to be spouting technical jargon; they seem to be processing it, sharing it. They have a few scenes where Cumming brings the volume down and draws the camera in close, and the two actresses are charmingly convincing. And Peter Davison is, from the start, a revelation. It was his first serial aired, but his fourth filmed; producer John Nathan-Turner made a lot of questionable moves during his tenure on Doctor Who, but deciding to hold off filming Davison's debut until he'd inhabited the role for a while was not one of them. The Doctor is in a weakened state for much of "Castrovalva," but Davison is in command of every gesture and effect: he's riveting. A few blemishes in Part Four, mostly some action shots that were never Cumming's strong suit, but otherwise a triumph of script, direction, design and musical composition -- and one more thing, which lifts it into the Who stratosphere. Folks who dismiss "Castrovalva" as "just" a regeneration story -- some who even argue that such stories aren't necessary -- miss the point. Bidmead makes us feel that helping the Doctor through his regeneration is the most important thing in the universe -- which of course it is. (Russell T. Davies would take much the same approach in "The Christmas Invasion.") Three companions (two of whom hardly know him) risk their lives to save him, and although Sarah Sutton, Janet Fielding and Matthew Waterhouse aren't an experienced or, in some cases, dependable bunch, they exceed our expectations -- and their own. "Castrovalva" is a serial about the joy of being a Who fan; it's about the bond we feel with the Doctor, and how we're better for it.

1. Snakedance (Fifth Doctor, 1983)
written by Christopher Bailey
directed by Fiona Cumming
No Classic Who serial is blessed with better dialogue; no script better caught the essence and appeal of the Fifth Doctor. Peter Davison was such a departure from the more imposing Doctors of the previous decade that the early writers had no idea how to rethink the old formulas; they left the character sketchy and called upon Davison to fill in the blanks -- which he did, handsomely. But during Davison's second season, Christopher Bailey pens a piece that captures the Fifth Doctor in full: the wild youthful intensity; the righteous passion and the nervous posturing; the constancy of a good teacher and the curiosity of a good student; the sincerity, tenacity and humility -- and Davison responds with the single best performance by a Doctor in Classic Who history. Davison became a master, during his years on Who, of bringing energy and conviction to scenes even when the writer, director, guest cast or supporting cast were letting him down miserably. In "Snakedance," when everyone else is at the peak of their powers, Davison unleashes his Doctor as in no other serial: in the first half, practically bounding across the set, piecing together the mystery of the Mara with wild leaps of mental agility; in the final segment, in a feat of concentration so intense it looks torturous, demonstrating that focus, awareness and quiet resolve can often be the most effective weapons against evil. It's a dazzling tour-de-force. Equally dazzling: the detail and delicacy that Bailey and Cumming bring to the proceedings. The opening exchange between the Federator's wife and son doesn't appear to be scripted; it just seems to unfold, the way a scene would in the theatre. Leisurely yet luminous, it tells us more about two guest characters -- their relationship to each other, to the featured players with whom they'll interact, and to the culture over which they preside -- than most serials manage over four or six parts. As it turns out, it's almost all exposition, but so beautifully disguised that as it's playing out, it seems a far cry from the Who norm, where you can hear the plot creaking during the briefest of exchanges. The rare classic serial that doesn't merely create an alien world, but luxuriates in it, "Snakedance" is sui generis: endlessly rewatchable and rewarding.


Want more Doctor Who? I take an affectionate three-part look at the William Hartnell era; serve up capsule reviews of the Patrick Troughton serials; do an overview of the Jon Pertwee era (including a 10-best list); and take an expansive look at the Peter Davison years.

Limitless and Madam Secretary: Welcome Home, CBS

Last January, in my year-in-review post, I made note of my "big break-up" with CBS, and my decision to start devoting more time to other networks. It's not like I'd been an exclusive CBS follower, heaven knows, but truly, since the early 1970's (and it probably began with The Mary Tyler Moore Show), I'd say 90% of the shows I watched were on CBS. I started to feel a certain "brand loyalty" to the Tiffany Network, with its "welcome home" slogan, and I'd invariably sample their new shows first, and stay with their shows longer. And as I look back on over four decades of TV viewing, I find that most of the shows that stick with me -- and often that I've chosen to write about here -- aired on CBS: from the aforementioned Mary Tyler Moore Show to WKRP to Knots Landing, from Newhart to Picket Fences to Everybody Loves Raymond, from Survivor to Cold Case to Mike & Molly. But as a viewer, it was hard to justify that brand loyalty after a while: not just because there was so much great television on other networks, but because the CBS luster was fading.

Oh sure, it was still "America's most-watched network," but for years, their new output had been spotty -- I mean, they'd been greenlighting things like Made in Jersey and The Ex List and How to Be a Gentleman and Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior. Year after year, I'd sit gob-smacked watching their pilots and think, "Wow, that must have been one bad development season." And admittedly, the astonishing success of CSI and 60 years of sitcoms dating back to I Love Lucy clobbered the network, because it trapped them with an aging audience devoted to procedurals and multi-cam comedies, who didn't care to sample or stick with much else -- but how much longer could a loyal viewer watch Nina Tassler pull the plug on every great show that tried to break the mold (and often she seemed as sad to see them go as I was), from Jericho to Moonlight to Swingtown -- or even the promising ones like A Gifted Man and The Crazy Ones? And shows that were desperately in need of network interference -- like 2 Broke Girls (from the start) and The Good Wife (as it aged) -- simply weren't getting it. Every network goes through its ups and downs, but CBS seemed flummoxed, for the first time since the mid-'90s. (I'm thinking of around the time they went searching for new identity by greenlighting the Raquel Welch-led CPW in 1995, just before Les Moonves arrived to rebuild.) And as for me, by May of last year, I think I was watching less CBS than I had since the late '60s. What shows did I really care about? Well, Elementary and Mike & Molly and Mom -- and that's about it. For the most part, I was more interested in Ray Donovan on Showtime, The Leftovers and Silicon Valley on HBO, Arrow and iZombie on the CW, Longmire on Netflix, Grantchester on ITV, Doctor Who on BBC -- and lots of others.

So imagine my shock, here in November of 2015, when I find two of the shows I most look forward to each week -- no, let's be more specific: the only two shows I insist on seeing "live" each week, as they air -- are on CBS: Limitless, in its first season, and Madam Secretary, in its second.

Well, friggin' welcome home, CBS.

These are two shows on the air right now basically Doing Everything Right, and I'm not going to linger on either for more than a paragraph or three, because nothing I could say could do justice to the experience of watching.

Limitless

But let's start with Limitless, which for CBS is sort of a miracle: the kind of younger-skewing, still older-adult-friendly show CBS has been searching for for half a decade, as well as the sort of popular, serialized drama it's been struggling to find since Desperate Housewives and Lost revitalized the form back in 2004 (and before Shonda Rhimes went on to create a dynasty). And in truth, before it aired, we were all ready to tag it as another CBS procedural. The plot: Brian Finch is a regular bloke, down on his luck, the self-admitted family-screw-up type (but so winningly played by Jake McDorman, and carefully conceived by creator and EP Craig Sweeny, that you're on his side from moment one). Luck finally goes his way; he gets his hands on a pill called NZT that magnifies his brain function, allowing him to remember every piece of information he's ever processed. And then fate intervenes twice: first, when Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper's character from the movie of the same name) steps in with an antidote to the deadly side-effects of the drug (which allows Brian to continue taking it, but makes him bound to Morra for life); and second, when the FBI steps forward with a job offer: come aboard while we study you.

And it absolutely could have gone the way of most CBS hour-longs: let's solve a case a week. But Sweeny notes that CBS encouraged the show to introduce more serialized elements, and he and his brilliant writing team -- some of my favorite writers in the business -- seized the challenge and went to town like Yankee Doodle. The third episode had a case-of-the-week; the fourth did, too, but it was subordinated to three other storylines. By episode five, the show had come into its own: deliriously abandoning the procedural format in favor of something much less predictable, filled with ongoing threads, mysteries and revelations. The result is more sheer fun than anything on TV right now.

Because here's the thing about Limitless: Brian is an everyday fellow. He's not Sherlock Holmes; he's not Ichabod Crane; he's not Henry Morgan, of my late, lamented Forever. He's the most ordinary of guys -- he's us -- so when he has these flights of fancy that demonstrate how fast his engine is running, it's the way our own geeky brains would work. A mind so stuffed with knowledge is also a mind in need of diversion, so Brian embellishes his narration (sometimes, it seems, for our own enjoyment as much as his) with instant rewinds, with triple-speed montages (complete with hand-chosen accompaniment), with pop-up speech bubbles and clay-figure reenactments, with himself in James Bond-like fantasies and his co-workers lecturing him in Peanuts-style "wah wah" voices. Limitless asks: "wouldn't you love to be this smart," and the answer is "yes, and I'd be just like Brian, too." Brian is scruffy-faced and irreverent -- on occasion, downright childish -- and yet he's utterly devoted to the people he cares about and (to his great surprise) morally responsible in a way he himself hadn't ever suspected. And Limitless itself is fleet-footed, brash and irresistible. It's a shot of adrenaline for the viewer, and one for the network as well. (It's CBS on NZT.) It's infused with a "top this" mentality; you start to think the writers' room must be the happiest place on earth. Limitless asks: what if utter brilliance wasn't an obligation, or a calling, or a curse: what if it was fun? And each week, it provides the answer.

And let's talk briefly about its four stars. Jake McDorman is giving the kind of star turn that's star-making: it's not just a dynamic performance, it's an astoundingly ingratiating and empathetic one. Jennifer Carpenter, as his FBI handler, matches him scrape for scrape, quip for quip, and the two share undeniable chemistry. Hill Harper is showing more authority, more spirit and more shadings than the ensemble-driven CSI: NY allowed him, and a bit this past week -- where he was tempted to turn traitor and truly kept you guessing till episode's end which side he was on -- was some of the best onscreen work I've seen him do. But you know the revelation? Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, because she is a firecracker on this show, and I wouldn't have necessarily thought of her for the role. But it's brilliant casting: the head of the FBI field office, someone strong enough to lead and warm enough to engender loyalty -- of course it's Mastrantonio. She's best at playing characters who don't relax in front of the camera, who always seem to be on their guard and on their game; it's a perfect piece of casting, and the show is enriched by her presence. When they first aired the opening credits, I counted the list of actors and went "just those four"? Now four seems like the most magical number, and Limitless the year's most magical surprise.

Madam Secretary

Limitless is reaching the younger audience that CBS has been thirsting for; Madam Secretary is reaching its more traditional base, but with strong overall viewing figures -- and it's giving them the best character-based drama they've had since the early days of The Good Wife. Madam Secretary had a solid first season, but it had some kinks to work out. Téa Leoni (subtly commanding and amusingly withering, often in the same breath) stars as former CIA agent Elizabeth McCord, brought back to Washington to serve as Secretary of State. The show utilizes the dual home/workplace format that's been around for generations, and the first season struggled a bit figuring out how to define and humanize Elizabeth's staff, and how to keep her home-life interesting, when (obviously) the family plots (e.g., her eldest daughter dropping out of college) couldn't be nearly as gripping as what she was dealing with at work. And as befalls a lot of shows early in their run, they needed to wrap up plots quickly, so that new viewers could tune in at any time, which meant Elizabeth was scoring an awful lot of successes for a rookie Secretary of State. The plots needed broadening -- Elizabeth needed longer-term challenges -- and that's a structural change that's paid off handsomely in Season 2.

But other marvelous things have happened this season. Elizabeth's staff has settled into their roles -- and the writers show greater command of both their quirks and their strengths. The President, facing an upcoming election, has morphed from lamb into tiger, and the newfound vigor and unpredictability that Keith Carradine is bringing to the role have energized his scenes with Elizabeth and his chief of staff (Zeljko Ivanek, never smarmier and never better). And the political stories have grown more sweeping and more nuanced, and the stakes ever higher; in particular, killing off the Russian President, only to have him supplanted in power by his more ruthless, decidedly anti-American widow, was a masterstroke that ramps up the tension between the two nations and allows the plot to proceed in new directions without inviting (or avoiding) "real-life" comparisons.

The need to make Elizabeth's home life as compelling as the life-or-death situations she faces on the job has, this season, been met with greater success as well, and that should come as no surprise to anyone aware of series creator Barbara Hall's background, as no one writes family drama better. Over the past two decades, I figure we've had about three network dramas that accurately represented -- without melodrama, without the tropes of soap opera -- what the day-to-day drudgery and messy humor of family life is like: one wasn't Hall's (it was Glenn Gordon Caron's Medium), but the other two were: Judging Amy and Joan of Arcadia. (It says a lot about how badly American families have been portrayed on network television when, of the three series to do it well, one featured a mother who was psychic, the other a daughter who talked to God; apparently, capturing the American family with any grain of truth requires divine intervention.) This season, the Madam Secretary writing staff boasts Joy Gregory (from Joan of Arcadia) and Moira Kirland (from Medium), and family life has rarely rung so true. The kids could easily have developed into stereotypes: the rebellious older daughter, the neglected middle child, the youngest who longs to fit in -- but they haven't. They're such a step up from the one-note blunders we've seen in similar shows (e.g., The Good Wife) that every breakfast scene around the kitchen island is like a gift: the madness and mundaneness we all go through before we go off to conquer -- or in this case, save -- the world. The Secretary of State is equally well cared for on the home front and abroad.

One thing clicked on Madam Secretary from the start, although that too has only gotten stronger: the relationship between Elizabeth and her husband Henry, as the onscreen chemistry between Téa Leoni and Tim Daly bled into real life. During Season 1, they smartly blended Henry into the ongoing political landscape by uprooting him from his university teaching job, and placing him in a new position as military ethics professor for the National War College, working secretly for the NSA. In one recent episode, Henry goes on CSPAN2 to talk about a new book and comes under fire from a call-in viewer, Jeff, who wants only to discuss a compromising picture that's surfaced of Henry's daughter in bed with the President's son: to attack Henry for holding himself up as "an expert on morality" and ask if that photo is his definition of "moral parenting." And far from backing away from the question, Henry goes on the warpath, on the air:

"I'd like to start by making a distinction that I usually make on the very first day of my Morals and Ethics class. A lot of people say that morals are how we treat the people we know, and ethics are how we treat the people we don't know. So morals are what make us a good parent, a good friend, a nice neighbor. But ethics are how we build a society. That's the true test of our higher self. But what happens, Jeff, when society is ruled by the subjective morals of, say, you and your family, and you choose to project that onto complete strangers is that we all end up with a society that's governed by self-aggrandizement. So really, by calling in, to make sure you're the first little pedant to jump off your chair and teach me a lesson with smug superiority about your own particular moral point of view, when you know precisely nothing of the situation, you've done your part to contribute to the erosion of our entire social fabric. Pat yourself on the back. Bravo."

In an age when "why is your penis on a dead girl's phone" is promoted like it's a dazzling line of dialogue, where else on network TV are we seeing moments like this: intelligent, able people being stretched until they break, but remaining principled, defiant and passionately articulate?

And I'm not going to say much more. If you haven't seen Limitless, do a Brian-Finch rewind back to the beginning of the season, catch up (we're only eight episodes in) and join the fun. If you haven't seen Madam Secretary, you can start with the pilot, but you can also easily slip in at the start of this season and get a good grasp of the characters and situations, at their best, and you will not be disappointed.

Two very different shows, two exhilarating hours.