Sunday, May 15, 2016

Knots Landing season 9

In the beginning, Knots Landing was about four married couples living in a cul-de-sac in Southern California. But as the show grew in popularity, it grew in size, and by the seventh season, there were eleven in the principal cast. The show was riding high in the ratings, so CBS happily assumed a laissez-faire attitude. But then the network got greedy: at the start of Season 8, they decided to move Knots up an hour, so they could launch a new show behind it. (It's a move that hadn't worked in Season 3, but apparently the network programmers had short memories.) So up it went to Thursday at 9 PM, where it faced off against the formidable Cheers and Night Court on NBC, and against ABC's new Dynasty spin-off, The Colbys. Knots star Joan Van Ark predicted, in a bit of pre-season forecasting, "We're gonna whoop The Colbys" -- but it was Knots that took the drubbing. Oh, it beat The Colbys, and rather handily, but it shed a third of its viewers in the process. And its absence from the 10 PM slot allowed a new NBC upstart called L.A. Law to take over and dominate the time period -- so that even when CBS admitted the error of its ways and moved Knots back to its old home, it never regained its audience. While it was away, L.A. Law had blossomed into a mega-hit, and Knots was relegated to runner-up in the timeslot it once owned.

And so, the following season, instead of the Knots writers being allowed to expand the cast however they saw fit, a decree came down from the network brass: trim the budget. And by the time we were a third of the way into Season 9, there were just six principal cast members remaining.

Season 9 is an exercise in frugality; it's the season in which Knots Landing is punished for the network mucking with its timeslot. But it's also, to be fair, a punishment that isn't undeserved, as the show had been flirting with ruin for over two years. In its earliest seasons, Knots had plumbed the fears and foibles of the middle class, often brilliantly; even when it succumbed to the influence of Dallas beginning in Season 4 and became more upscale and outrageous, the focus remained firmly on character. But two-thirds of the way through Season 6, producer Peter Dunne departed, and the remaining scribes began to turn a character-based soap into a plot-driven one, with stories about industrial waste cover-ups and underground spy networks, where the far-fetched plotlines became focal and the characters were subordinated to them. And the issues were only magnified when Dallas scripter David Paulsen took over as headwriter at the start of Season 7. The Knots characters had always had a certain consistency and complexity that distinguished them from their sister-soap counterparts. But Paulsen ignored years of continuity; characters started behaving irrationally simply to generate story. (And the plots -- blackmail, extortion, corporate greed and corruption -- fairly reeked of Dallas; there was even a lavish party midway through the season where secrets poured out. We might as well have been at the Oil Baron's Ball.) And when Paulsen left, and new headwriters -- husband-and-wife team Bernard Lechowick and Lynn Latham -- assumed the reins for Season 8, they too floundered. They focused on some of the newest characters at the expense of the oldest and best-loved, and engaged in a rapid-fire series of flashbacks and misdirects and sleights-of-hand that only distracted from the storytelling. And viewers fled.

But lessons were learned by the time Season 9 rolled around. Get back to basics. Leave behind the high-concept plotting and return to what Knots was supposed to be: a show about people. A show where story-lines were relatable: heightened, yes, but relatable. Get back to the human drama, especially the core characters the audience cared about. Oh yes, and trim a third of the cast, to reel in the budget. And so they did, and the result is the best forgotten season in the show's fourteen-year history. Not the best season, mind you: the best one that no one ever discusses. No one talks about Knots Landing Season 9. The best-remembered Knots seasons have story-lines that you can sum up in a few words. (Season 3: "Sid's death." Season 4: "Ciji." Season 5: "Wolfbridge." Season 6: "Val's babies." Season 10: "Murakame.") Even the worst Knots season -- Season 13, by far (at least for the first two-thirds) -- has "tidal energy." Season 9 has "Laura's funeral," but that comes and goes in a few episodes, and although it's a moment that would haunt the show -- sometimes quite effectively -- until its dying day, it's hardly the season's defining plot. Knots Season 9 restores the Seaview Circle cul-de-sac to its roots. It doesn't ensnare its characters in underground spy networks and assassination plots; it wonders, "How far would a mother go to protect her family?" and "How do you cope with the loss of a friend?" It agonizes over how best to make decisions for young children, and when to stop making decisions for older ones. It understands how hard it is to let go of first loves, and how impossible it is to let go of true love. And how traumatic it can be to make a fresh start. Nothing too out-of-the-ordinary happens for most of Knots Landing Season 9; that's its beauty. It embroils us in the simplest of dramas, and we willingly, gratefully succumb.

So: how to start a dissection of Season 9? Here's all you need to get up to speed. Let's presume you know where we left things at the end of Season 3. (If you don't, start here.) In Season 4, Karen (Michele Lee) avenges her late husband Sid's death, and meets and marries federal prosecutor M. Patrick "Mack" MacKenzie (Kevin Dobson); Mack's long-lost daughter, Paige Matheson (Nicollette Sheridan) turns up at the end of Season 7. In Season 5, Gary and Val (Ted Shackelford and Joan Van Ark), newly divorced, have a weak moment and sleep together while he's engaged to Abby (Donna Mills), who's too busy funneling his inheritance into a dummy corporation to notice; Gary eventually marries Abby, but not before impregnating Val with twins, whom she passes off as her new beau Ben Gibson's (Doug Sheehan), who finally marries Val early in Season 7. After her husband Richard (John Pleshette) leaves town under a cloud of shame, Laura finds new confidence and happiness with Mack's old law-school buddy Gregory Sumner (William Devane), who wins a seat in the US Senate, but gives it up to run his late father's vast estate; Laura and Greg eventually marry, and she gives birth to their daughter Meg. Abby, through her dummy corporation Apolune, builds a resort called Lotus Point; when Gary finds out, he takes Karen on as a (more reliable) business partner, and the three of them run Lotus Point together. He ultimately divorces Abby and takes up with the vivacious Jill Bennett. In Season 7, Jill's unctuous brother Peter appears and attempts to pass himself off as Sumner's half-brother; by Season 8, he pretty much dominates the plotting, bedding Abby and Paige and toying with Abby's daughter Olivia, while plotting to murder his own mother. At the end of Season 8, the headwriters realize he was never an interesting character and kill him off. Ben is blackmailed by some shady former colleagues into assassinating Greg; Mack saves the day, but Ben, fearing for his family's safety, leaves Knots Landing.

And there we are. Season 8 ends with Ben having skipped town, Peter having been murdered, and the audience relieved that it's over. Season 9 picks up three months later, and the change in tone is immediately evident. Whereas Season 8 felt arty and breathless, Season 9 feels warm and confident. It's instantly involving in a way that Season 8 rarely was, and more to the point, it concerns itself with the sort of everyday events on which Knots once prided itself.

That's not to imply that nothing of significance happens in Season 9; this is, after all, the season in which Laura (Constance McCashin, who'd been with the show since the pilot) is killed off. But what's notable is how she's killed off. In Season 7, when it was Alec Baldwin's time to go, his mother had screamed him off a rooftop. In Season 8, Peter had been stabbed with a spindle and buried underneath a children's playground. Both exits were ludicrous, but they were the sudsy stuff that '80s soaps were made of. Laura, on the other hand, gets an inoperable brain tumor. At the time, it seemed like such a stark way to dispose of a character (and a well-loved character at that), fans were numb with grief. We aren't even there for the diagnosis -- we come in after the fact, when she tells her husband. And we don't even get to say goodbye; she takes off for a clinic an episode later, determined to die alone, and the next thing we know, we're at a gathering to mourn her passing. We're left with a death that seems as awful and as random to us as it does to the characters in the show, and because Laura won't dwell on it, and because the writers carefully limit its airtime, we feel helpless.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Laura's exit occurs midway through the first arc of Knots' ninth season. The Lorimar soaps (Knots, Dallas and Falcon Crest) were all doing 28-30 episodes a season at that time, and the writers often broke story in three parts; nowhere is that approach clearer -- or better handled -- than in Knots Season 9. Knots' best season, Season 5, is like one long aria: it's 25 episodes of crescendos and diminuendos, of rallentandos and accelerandos -- all building towards a furioso finale. Season 9 is like three one-act plays: like a series of miniatures. One act ends, and it's as if the lights dim, as they would in the theatre, and when the next act resumes, there are characters added, fresh story-lines to explore, and we begin the simmer-to-boil process anew.

Act I starts with a quartet of episodes resolving the Season 8 cliffhanger: the mystery of Peter's death. The end of Season 8 found Abby coming out of the ladies' room at the Lotus Point restaurant, wiping her hands dry, only to find her daughter Olivia kneeling over Peter's lifeless body. Is Abby discovering Olivia's deadly deed, or is Olivia discovering Abby's? That's our expectation going into the summer months, that there'll a mystery to unravel, but when fall rolls around, the writers let go of the whodunnit early on and focus instead on fixing the Paige Matheson problem. Nicollette Sheridan appeared like a bolt out of the blue at the tail end of Season 7. And in her first full season, she hijacks half the story-lines. The new headwriters, Lechowick and Latham, had never plotted a soap before, and they go overboard trying to be clever: they delight in keeping Paige's character and motives unclear. Is she good? Is she wicked? They even trot out "Is she an imposter?" (And what's more, they cast her in a dual role: playing Paige in the present-day sequences and her mother Anne in flashbacks.) And that would all be lovely if Sheridan were up to the task at hand. But one can only imagine that the writers and producers were blinded by her looks, because they seem catastrophically oblivious to her acting limitations. When Sheridan's meant to come off as vulnerable, she seems whiny; when she's written as a victim, she seems like she's playing the victim. She intrudes everywhere, distant and smug, like visiting royalty.

In Season 9, the writers try to weave Sheridan back into the fabric of the show, and to find some softness beneath Paige's tough exterior. And they start in the aftermath of Peter's death, when Paige is having nightmares: putting up a brave front, but clearly falling apart. As it turns out, she was there when Peter died (it was an accident), but was terrified to come forward. It's a good move on the part of the writers; it engenders a little audience sympathy. And they don't stop there: they offer up a mea culpa for how they let Paige shanghai the show in Season 8, as -- one by one -- Mack, Abby and Sumner put her in her place, reminding her that she'll never have the upper hand while they're around. The principals essentially reduce Sheridan to a supporting player, as she should have been all along. The writers send her back to the barracks and make her come up through the ranks. It's training that will pay off handsomely the following season, when she has to transform herself from vixen into heroine -- and has (finally) acquired the skill set to do so.

While Paige is undergoing a make-over, other story-lines are getting underway: Abby reconnecting with her first love Charles; Val letting it slip to Gary that he's the father of the twins; Val's mother Lilimae (Julie Harris) acquiring a suitor (a new character, Al Baker, played by Red Buttons). And with those plots in place, the focus shifts to Laura, as she shares her diagnosis with Greg. Laura dominates only one episode, but it's a doozy, entitled "The Gift of Life," in which she resolves -- in the little time remaining -- to leave nothing unsaid or undone. She sees to Meg's christening, allows friends to throw her a goodbye party (she's announced she's leaving her job to concentrate on full-time mothering, without letting on it's her final goodbye) -- all while Greg is making the rounds of doctors' offices, seeking out second opinions and treatment options, drowning in anger and self-pity. As dire as Laura's story-line is, it never overwhelms the show; because Laura retains a cool head, the show can, too. At the end of the episode, Laura drives away, and the other plotlines instantly resume; a week later, they collide in a one-of-a-kind marvel called "Love In."

When I did my post on Knots Season 3, I crowned that season's "China Dolls" the best episode of the series. "Love In" comes in a close second. It's penned by Dianne Messina (one of Knots' best writers, and regrettably, her sole contribution to Season 9), and it takes place over the course of one evening, as the principals engage in family dinners, first dates and romantic reunions. It's Knots Landing at its most winningly domestic, scripted with care and precision (and acted to perfection, under the loving guidance of director Kate Swofford Tilley).

It's an episode full of flashbacks, but it's almost an apology for the string of uninvolving flashbacks that dismantled Season 8. These are about Karen and Abby, two of the most popular characters, whose backstories had never been explored. We see young Karen, fired up by '60s activism (when she's not steaming up the backseat of Sid's truck), a far cry from the contented suburbanite she's become; we see Sid's kid sister Abby, a junior-college coed, meet and date the upper-crust Charles Scott -- and then, when he's forced by his family to marry someone more suitable, swearing never again to lose her heart. (No one had thought to explain why Abby had grown so calculating by the time she joined the series in Season 2. Now we know.) In the present, Charles (Michael York, in a guest shot) turns up at Lotus Point and asks Abby to dinner. In a gently overlapping montage, they catch each other up on twenty years, culminating in her cheeky request: "Tell me your life has been frustrating and lonely and unfulfilled all these years. Tell me your wife is a bore, and your work is meaningless, and your dog chews your slippers. You can spare me the details; just so I know that your life has been miserable, and that leaving me was the biggest mistake you ever made. Then I'll be happy." And his candid reply ("Let's make a toast. To the most miserable man in the world. Me.") makes us eager to see where the story-line takes us.

The evening also includes Gary and Val growing closer, falling into old habits, even though he's committed to Jill. Lilimae and Al enjoy a night of dancing, bonding over the commonalities of their generation. (Al: "That was my wife's favorite song." Lilimae: "You were married?" Al: "Who wasn't?"). And best of all, a family dinner at the MacKenzies turns hilariously uncomfortable when both of Karen's sons show up with guests: Eric, her oldest, returns from college newly married, with his (controlling) wife Linda in tow; Michael, her youngest, brings along his (clingy) girlfriend Jodi. It's a meddlesome mother's nightmare, and Michele Lee is at her most brilliant in these scenes, digesting each dinner-table revelation (Jodi: "Do you think people should wait till they're married to have sex?" Linda: "We didn't.") and hiding her horror behind a frozen half-smile. Until finally, alone in the kitchen with Mack, as she saran-wraps the leftovers, she lets loose:

Karen: Open the oven, blow out the pilot, turn on the gas... Those are my sons out there. I've loved them, I've nurtured them, and they do this to do. They bring those... those two women into my house to pontificate and paw.

And when Mack protests ("It's not that bad"), Karen demands, "Step aside," moves to the oven and turns on the gas. He turns it off; she turns it back on.

Mack: So your first impression was negative, so what? It doesn't mean you have to kill yourself.
Karen: Me? I'm not talking about me. Call those two women in here. Then we'll run out and toss in a match.

Mack urges her to "wait till you get to know them a little better," and Karen sees the light: "You're right. Then no one will blame me." And then she's back on a tear, furiously pacing the floor: "I am going to sue those boys for every penny I've ever spent on them. I just can't stand those -- " and in walks her new daughter-in-law Linda, gushing, "I'm just so happy to be a part of this family." And she hugs Karen, diffusing the situation, then returns to the dining room (but not before quizzically noting, "I smell gas"). And Karen stands there speechless: amusingly deflated and defeated.

"Love In" is the best evidence yet that Knots has gotten back on track. All of the stories are driven by the core characters, and they're relationship-based; for the first time in years, the show hasn't required the addition of madmen, criminals, con artists or kidnappers to generate plot. It's followed by "Flight of the Sunbirds," which ends with Greg receiving a late-night phone call. We hear only his end of the conversation, and little is disclosed, but when he makes his way into Meg's nursery and sighs, "It's just you and me, kid," we understand. Up to this point, Greg's been in denial, convinced Laura would return. (In some ways, even though TV Guide has announced McCashin's departure, we thought so too. Isn't that what soaps do: serve up "miracle cures"?) News of her death hits us as hard as it does him -- and then we cut to black: the end of Season 9, Act I.

We resume the following week at Greg's home, prior to Laura's funeral. But this isn't Act II just yet; this is intermission. It's a famous moment in Knots history, a gathering of the cast at creator David Jacobs' home, where they were asked to improvise -- in character -- their responses to Laura's death while the writers trailed them, notated their conversations, and then turned them into a pair of scripts. But what's been forgotten in the decades since its original airing is what a letdown the first part is. The decision was made to include only the remaining six series regulars in Part One (plus Laura's ex-husband Richard, returning for the first time in four years). The limited dynamics didn't yield an hour of good story -- but once Lechowick and Latham got an idea in their heads, they stuck with it. A pall hangs over the first episode, but not by design; it feels undernourished: as unintentionally awkward as gatherings like that are in real life. But all is redeemed by the second part, which resumes after the funeral, with the entire cast in tow; it's filled with the kind of razor-sharp exchanges and surprising shifts in tone on which Knots thrived. (It also subtly sets up three story-lines that will dominate the remainder of the season.) The episode climaxes with the airing of a video Laura prepared, in which she makes requests of all her friends, then concludes with Sumner alone hearing her final words. Sumner came on the show as the smooth politician with the toothy grin, good at choosing his words and compartmentalizing his feelings; in one key scene, Laura, who brought out the best in him, urged him to "stop giving lip-service to having a passion for something and get passionate." And now he does. He breaks down, in a way he never permitted himself while she was alive: "You left me in a bad spot, Red. I don't know what you're trying to tell me. Why did you leave me all alone? I love you... I hope I don't end up hating you." Devane sobs uncontrollably -- and he's magnificent.

There are those fans who still say that killing off Laura was a bad move: some who go so far as to claim "the show never recovered." They're mistaken. Folks love Laura because Constance McCashin was a fine actress, and Laura was always there with a clever quip. But she hadn't had a plot to call her own in three years; she was mostly a sounding board for Greg. And ironically, because she was the one who tamed him when he went wild, he was never able to potentially ascend to the heights -- or more likely, descend to the depths -- that he could without her. But the writers had written themselves into a corner. Laura was the love of Greg's life. You couldn't just "split them up" -- we'd keep waiting for a reconciliation. It took Laura dying to unleash Greg.

Act II focuses on Greg's efforts to raise a toddler without his wife, and Val's terror at giving Gary access to their twins; it's about the damage we do to our children when fear clouds our judgment. It also introduces a new cast of supporting players. In its continuing efforts to humanize Paige, it gives her an old boyfriend, the charming 33-year-old soap "veteran" Peter Reckell, here imagined as an Irish rogue named Johnny Rourke. Unfortunately, Lechowick and Latham conceive him as a singer, and even though Reckell has a wretched voice, keep making him sing (another example of the headwriters holding to an idea even when it proves unwise), but Reckell sparks Sheridan: he knows how to push her buttons -- and for the first time on the show, she seems engaged. She seems caught off guard, fighting for dominance, and it suits her. And the other set of new characters is a masterstroke: a family to reside in Laura's old house. The Williamses -- Frank and Pat and their daughter Julie -- join the cast, as a family (we ultimately learn) hiding out in witness protection. The witness-protection angle -- which starts as a "what are they hiding" mystery -- could feel contrived, but it doesn't, as we view the Williams mostly through their interactions with their neighbors, particularly Mack and Karen. (As the MacKenzies try to figure out the new family next door -- Mack, the D.A. with a knack for ferreting out the truth; Karen, the ultimate in nosy neighbors -- they unwittingly make a stressful situation worse.) And Lynne Moody, as Pat, is remarkable. Her inflections are dynamic; she breathes life into even the palest dialogue. (Her climactic day in court -- the cross-examination in which she confronts the men who forced her to abandon her medical practice and go into hiding -- is routinely scripted: it's "how dare you?" and "that's obscene" and "I was a doctor!" But Moody's line-readings are fresh and surprising -- at times, each syllable seems pitched in a different octave. She makes the scene work; she makes it powerful.) You like Moody instantly, and because of that, you're prepared to welcome the Williams family into the cul-de-sac even before their neighbors are.

The middle act of Season 9 would be pretty much flawless if it weren't for Johnny's singing -- oh, and one other thing. Abby's big storyline, as noted, is the return of her one great love, Charles Scott. The only problem: the chemistry between Donna Mills and Michael York just isn't there. There's a scene at the end of the episode "Weak Moment" where they're having a quarrel, and anger turns to desire. But it feels like, as the episode title suggests, a weak moment. York and Mills can't seem to find a common rhythm: you see them trying, like two pros, but they never convince as former lovers rediscovering their youthful passion. Everything else about the storyline works, in particular Eileen Barnett's smashing turn as Charles' wife Judith. (She and Abby are a study in contrasts: Judith is old-world money, whereas Abby only stole Gary's fortune in the last couple of seasons.) And Abby discovering that Charles has been playing her, and the coup she pulls off to get even (neatly reminiscent of how she disposed of her first husband, Jeff Cunningham, in Season 3's "The Surprise"), are great showcases for Mills. The Abby-Charles story-line isn't a disaster: far from it. The writing, and Mills and York's resolve, see it through. But as one of Knots' rare casting mistakes, it's a missed opportunity for greatness. It's clear from the way it's positioned that this story-line was to be the centerpiece of the season, but it plays second fiddle to Val and Gary's custody fight, which is splendid, and even to the mystery of the Williams family.

Act II ends with Val and Gary settling their custody dispute, and Greg making a decision about Meg's future. And Abby breaking things off with Charles, but managing to make off with a wedding gift he's given her, to expand the Lotus Point marina. And from there, we launch into Act III: the final set of stories. And it's here that things get simultaneously even better and much, much worse.

Worst first. The young characters on Knots Landing had been getting a lot of screentime, and quite a bit of attention from the press; CBS, it was reported, considered spinning them off. In the third act of Season 9, Paige, Johnny and Michael are given their own plot, sort of a try-out to see if they could sustain their own series. How do they do? Well, let's just say there was no spin-off. It's not the actors' fault: the writers fail them. They ship the younger cast members off to Mexico, and entangle them in a plot about an archaeological dig in danger of being shut down. It's the furthest thing from what Knots does best; suddenly we're in Hollywood's version of a Mexican village (where chickens scurry through dirty streets and distressing South-of-the-Border stereotypes litter the landscape) being asked to care whether some pre-Colombian artifacts can be saved. And then it turns out it's cocaine dealers who want to shut down the dig (they want to build a highway through the town), and ultimately they do: with explosives, with kidnapping and with murder. (When it all ends with the young characters held hostage, you realize their plot has strayed so far from what you loved about the show that you don't care if they're ever found.) And worse, back up north in Knots Landing, the same criminals are trying to smuggle their drugs through Abby's expanded marina, and Karen, Mack, Abby and Gary are stranded in their own mob-related drama. It's a terrible comedown, after the first two-thirds of the season have been so character-driven, to see the show return to the kind of gangster-ridden melodrama that had been plaguing it the past few years.

Only one of the young characters emerges from the end of Season 9 unscathed (she gets in and out of Mexico fast); Tonya Crowe gets a chance to shine as Abby's daughter Olivia -- in fact, she gets her best showcase on the series. The young actress had proven someone to watch as early as Season 5, where -- at the mere age of 13 -- she'd had a raw and riveting breakdown when Gary was thought dead. In Season 8, she has the one great plotline, as her addiction to cocaine pits mother against daughter. (Abby's determination to get her daughter clean by sheer will power is easily the season's highlight.) In Season 9, at the top of Act III, Olivia gets a boyfriend, Harold Dyer; unfortunately, unbeknownst to her, he's the nephew of the man looking to smuggle drugs through Lotus Point. Paul Carafotes is perfectly cast as Harold: you believe he'd fall for a mixed-up girl like Olivia -- you believe he'd find and bring out the best in her -- and you also believe he's the kind of guy who'd drop her off after a date, then go break someone's arm for being late on a payment. He's equal parts sweet and sinister, but Carafotes plays the "sweet" so sincerely, he makes you quite willing to overlook the sinister. And Crowe is remarkable: we're used to seeing her troubled; now the actress shows she can be just as compelling playing something as conventional as a teenager in love. As she gets happier, you get get happier for her -- she's that radiant. And yet, because you know she's being set up for a fall (you just don't know who's going to give her the final push), your heart goes out to her. (Crowe and Carafotes are never again given the chance to shine like that; the writers soon forget what made them special, and write them off after another season-and-a-half.)

But the best-remembered plot concerns Jill, who's tired of playing second fiddle to Gary's exes. In the first episode of Act III, she sets a trap to convince Val that Ben is coming home. Her thinking: that Val will be so busy readying for Ben's return that she'll leave Gary alone. Except the plan backfires: the longer Ben stays missing, the more Val turns to Gary for support. So Jill adapts: upon learning that a few years earlier, Val had a breakdown, Jill determines to drive her mad. And then after a few episodes, she decides that the only way to keep Val out of Gary's life permanently is to murder her. Jill had been introduced three years earlier as a schemer and a flirt, but over time, as her brother Peter became more ruthless, she'd been the one holding the moral compass, taking him to task for each transgression. But since Peter's death, Jill had been pursuing a darker path -- we simply had no idea how dark, and in 1988, the devolution of Jill's character (and the lengths to which she goes to set up her alibi and commit "the perfect crime") felt recklessly invigorating. Now, on rewatching, the holes show. You can't pinpoint when Jill's plans evolve; they seem to switch gears without exposition or explanation. There's muddiness in the plotting, and the penultimate episode is contrived in having Jill not only set up her alibi but comment on it -- and pride herself -- each step of the way. (There's a lot of self-conscious winking to the viewer, the sort that would ultimately come to stain Lechowick and Latham's tenure on Knots.) And the actresses' long confrontation in the season-closer, in which Jill forces Val to take sleeping pills while showing her a forged suicide note she's prepared, is shatteringly played, but scrappily scripted. There a few head-scratching moments (Frank and Julie drop by to offer baby-sitting services at what seems about 2 AM); some of the dialogue seems underwritten and repetitive; and for the scene to play out the way the writers need it to, Jill has to be monomaniacal and Val both clueless and helpless -- it starts to reduce the characters to "types" (Jill, the walking psychopath, and "Poor Val," the professional victim) that would come to define them, unhappily, in the upcoming season. These final two episodes are standard Lechowick-Latham: brilliant in design, uneven in execution.

Season 9 ends with Jill holding a gun to Val's head, but the season doesn't go out with a bang; instead, it ends with a distressing whimper, as the characters become embroiled in the kind of cheap theatrics the rest of the season had assiduously avoided. But the disappointments that cloud the end of Season 9 don't detract from the season's very real accomplishments. For most of its length, the show has gotten back on track, after a couple unrecognizable years.

And ultimately, the moments that linger in the mind aren't the mobster melodrama, or the heavy-handed scripting of the Jill-Val plotline. It's the lighter moments. It's the subtler moments. It's Abby and Olivia, when they finally figure out that neither of them was responsible for Peter's death, twirling off into the breaking Pacific waves, as we hear Olivia in voice-over, "Oh, Mom, we gotta talk more." It's the oblique way Laura chooses to share her diagnosis with Karen, when they're out shopping for dresses for Meg, and Laura insists on buying enough outfits to last her daughter the next five years: "I have to plan ahead." (Karen asks, blithely, "Why?" -- then, seeing the answer on Laura's face, her own face darkens.) It's watching Paige preen before the mirror, dressing to impress -- and when she emerges from her bedroom, certain she's irresistible, being told, "You've got a run in your stockings." (And when she hurriedly changes, her step-brother further deflates her: "I liked the other outfit.") It's Karen and Pat bonding on a shopping spree, in which Karen is convinced to buy a leather miniskirt, and it's Abby smirking in amusement during the business meeting that follows, as Karen fidgets in her chair, trying to conceal her exposed legs from a new client. (Abby, post-meeting, offers her some advice: "Don't be a slave to fashion.")

And it's moments like this one. Midseason, Gary is suing Val for visitation and has enlisted Jill to represent him. And Jill subpoenas Karen and Mack to testify, as both of them know Gary is the twins' father. But Val turns up at Karen's, prior to the court date, terrified at the havoc Gary could wreak if he's allowed into the twins' lives. She asks Karen -- begs Karen -- to lie under oath: to deny that Val ever told her that Gary is the father of her children. And later that episode, we're in court, and Karen is asked, "And did she tell you who the father is," and we hold on her face, then cut to credits. It's the end of the episode, and we have no idea what Karen will say. In the previous season, Karen had been kidnapped, held hostage, and almost burned alive; none of it was as bracing as simply watching her wrestle with a moral dilemma: should she lie under oath for her best friend? And miraculously, fortuitously, Knots Landing has reduced back down to the kind of human proportions where a moment like this feels...well, momentous. That's the beauty of Season 9, and a bunch of mobsters and a gunpoint suicide near the end can't undo it. For a brief time, Knots Landing has gotten real again. It's felt like the show you first fell in love with. There are five seasons left -- and there are some breathless highs to come -- but Knots won't recapture that "welcome home" feeling in such a warm, unforced and inviting fashion until it's nearly time to say goodbye.


Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 3 and Season 14. Both helmed by the great Ann Marcus, and both remarkable. Also my write-ups of Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; and Season 11, in which the show jumps the track -- and jumps back.

8 comments:

  1. As a big fan of KNOTS, I have loved all of your posts about it. While I tend to give the middle seasons more credit, I also highly agree that Seasons 3, 9, and 14 are underrated seasons. I also appreciate your essays because they make me reevaluate the show because I'll admit that I LOVED the Jill storyline and yet it was very self-aware of its smart plotting as you stated.

    And it is what makes the Latham/Lechowick years so frustrating because when it was good, it was still quite entertaining and great to watch but when they did something wrong, it was campy or boring (Jean Hackney, Phil Harbert, the Mexico debacle, Val's "brain virus", or the convenient connection of Danny and Amanda and Gary and Val).

    I hope you do more of these, especially dissecting seasons you have strong critiques on.

    Anthony

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    1. Anthony, thanks so much for reading -- and for commenting. I'm so pleased you've been enjoying my Knots posts. They're always among my most popular, but I don't get a lot of feedback -- I fear sometimes I'm so opinionated, I scare people off!

      I agree about Lechowick and Latham: they were a real mixed bag, more so than I realized at the time. They were very clever writers; often, on first viewing, I was so swept up in the cleverness of the conceit (as with the Jill-Val story-line, which I thought in 1988 was pretty much perfect) that I didn't notice the flaws until later on. And as you said, several of their story-lines (and I think you nailed the worst offenders) are just dreadful -- and unlike other writers, they didn't seem to know (or care) when stories weren't working; they just kept holding fast to them, sometimes for an entire season. (The Jean Hackney story-line destroys Season 8 for me; Lechowick & Latham seem so consumed with surprising us with "twists" -- Sumner's dead! No, Ben's dead! -- that they don't see how uninvolving the whole thing is. I watch it now and think, "Man, Peter Dunne would've pulled the plug on that one in six episodes...") But you can't get around the fact that some of their story-lines were splendid -- and just as important, they kept Knots rolling along, with fresh ideas, at a time when all the other prime-time soaps were dying.

      I will definitely write up another Knots season over the summer, and may well focus next on a season that I think went off the rails.

      Again, so glad you enjoyed, and thanks so much for the kind comments.

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  2. Hi there - I just read your three KL write-ups and LOVED them, thank you for a lovely afternoon. I am lucky enough to have all the KL eps on DVD and re-watch my favorite eps from time to time - always enjoying an old gem of a line - or the discovery of a new one.

    S5 was my favorite season. Perfectly executed from beginning to end with one the best (if not the best) cliffhangers executed of all the prime-time soaps (with so many characters in peril). But this was also KL's downfall. Like many shows, they attempted to repeat the success of that season too many times, which is why S9 was a welcome return in just dealing with our favorite characters - until Manny comes in with his drug cartel (here we go again!). Mark St. Claire was the perfect outside evil presence - invited into the KL neighborhood (so to speak) by Abby, who was way in over her head trying to play business woman with all of Gary's fortune. It's what always worked great with Abby - she never outright tried to be the "bad gal" (getting her brother involved with the stolen parts ring, St. Claire, and, most famously, her hand in Val's twins being stolen because she wished they never existed!). KL thought the secret of it's success in the ratings was increasing the wealth of it's core characters by having them mingle with the underworld (unbeknowst) to keep up with Dallas, Dynasty and FC's affluent stylings. They forgot what made KL unique - FAMILY. Like you said, the best drama is character driven conflict - the kind we ALL face in real life. I can't tell you the last time I was kidnapped or had a run in with the mob (even though I'm Italian, LOL). ;) KL was at it's very best in those small scenes in the kitchens, couches and beaches. Thank you for allowing me to relive it once again! xo, John Z

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    1. I envy you having all the episodes on DVD; I still have them on VHS, from when they originally aired, and every time I do a rewatch, I'm terrified my ancient VCR is going to shred them! I obviously share your feelings about Season 5 -- I doubt I'll ever write the season up, simple because I couldn't do justice to its genius. But it's funny: it never occurred to me how they kept trying to duplicate the success of Mark St. Claire -- but, of course, you're so right. That's precisely what happened. And so we get a string of "so-and-so inadvertently gets involved with the underworld" stories -- it happens to Gary with Empire Valley, and Ben with Jean Hackney, and practically everyone with Manny Vasquez. But Wolfbridge worked because it took two seemingly unrelated plotlines -- Abby's determined rise to corporate power and Mack's fight to end corporate corruption -- and effortlessly, brilliantly merged them into one story. It wasn't just "the good folks of Knots get involved with the mob" -- but that was the element they kept fixating on, and kept trying to recapture. Anyway, so glad my essays provided an enjoyable afternoon, and it's a great pleasure to "meet" you, John. I truly had no idea how many devoted Knots fans (like me) there still were out there, until I started doing these write-ups -- but they inevitably end up being my most popular posts!

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  3. Season 9 was truly a great season...and I think the show having Jill become the new baddie as the season ended made perfect sense...since viewers had gotten to know the character for 3 seasons..plus the other characters had welcomed her into the inner circle.

    With that said, the focus on making Val miserable seemed kind of sudden...since before mid season 9...she and Val sort of got along....and the show seemed to be starting a Paige/Jill feud due to Paige accidently killing her brother Peter before shifting gears mid season 9.

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    1. It's been nice to see the outpouring of love for Season 9 since I published this post; back when I used to haunt the Knots Forum, a decade ago, I felt sometimes like I was its only supporter. I do think the Jill-Val story-line was both one of the best things and one of the worst things to happen to the show. "Best things" because, although I have some reservations about the Season 9 cliffhanger (as noted above), the fall-out in Season 10 is remarkable. The way they're able to sustain that plotline for another 20 episodes was, at the time, completely unexpected -- and the story-line itself felt fresh, at a time when several of its sister soaps were growing rather stale. "Worst things" because it started to define Valene in a certain, unflattering way that Lechowick and Latham felt worked for them: Valene as "unwitting victim." Victim of Gary's crazed girl-friend; victim of a smooth-talking serial rapist; victim of a "brain virus." It would have been interesting, if Joan Van Ark had stuck around for Season 14, to see what headwriter Ann Marcus had planned for Val: if she'd have continued to restore the intuitiveness and the spirit that we'd briefly glimpsed again at the end of Season 13, when she took on the Sumner biography.

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    2. I do agree that in the short term that the Jill/Val story made for a pretty strong season 10....but I do agree that long term..it hurt Val...and I think Jill could have easily fit into the show as it hit the early 90s...and could have helped fill the gap once abby departed...Paige/Jill could have been rivals...closer in age..and them working at the Sumner Group could have worked, too.

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    3. You know, that's an idea I had never considered -- keeping Jill around past Season 10 -- but you're right: that would have been sensational. Jill's "descent into madness" in Season 10 -- which was when you knew she was being eased off the show -- is my least favorite part of that story (I never thought Knots did the "descent into madness" thing well -- I didn't like it any better with Joshua); they could have just sent her off to prison, gotten her an early release, and boom! -- six months later, she's back on the scene. And indeed, as you said, the animosity between Paige and Jill that played out briefly at Laura's funeral was never fully explored. It would have been great to have Jill and Paige become rivals, even in terms of Jill making a play for Greg. Greg never did find out she was Peter's sister, after all; it would have tied in nicely with her original goal, to get back Empire Valley.

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