Sunday, August 7, 2016

Knots Landing season 7

My fourth Knots Landing essay, as I continue to make my way through the seasons of the great primetime soap (in no logical order, it seems). For this post, I elected to forego the "let me bring you up to speed" paragraph that I did for Season 9 and Season 14; most of my readers seem to be Knots devotees, who remember the characters and story-lines as well as I do. But if you're a Knots newcomer, and need a little background info, I offer up a look at the series' history, premise and core characters in my write-up of Season 3.


Over its fourteen seasons, Knots Landing saw its share of soft reboots and wholesale revamps. Sometimes they occurred at the start of a season, as new headwriters took the reins and charted their own course for the series; sometimes they happened mid-season, as story-lines deemed unsuccessful were jettisoned and new ones quickly devised. But for three seasons -- 5 through 7 -- Knots maintained unparalleled stability in terms of its principal cast and story arcs.

Season 5, Knots' best season, is a dizzying display of confident story-telling that builds to an adrenaline-rush conclusion. Season 6 suffers from a static start and a noticeable tonal shift two-thirds of the way through, but it's blessed with a middle section -- an acting showcase for co-star Joan Van Ark -- that's at once novelette-ish flight of fancy and piercing character drama, and that sees you through. So if you're a fan of Knots Landing Seasons 5 and 6, you should -- by all outward appearances -- love Season 7; in many ways, the three seasons form one long arc. The cast remains intact; all the Season 6 principals stick around for Season 7. The characters who are romantically paired in Season 5 -- author Valene Ewing and reporter Ben Gibson, real estate whiz Laura Avery and politician-turned-tycoon Gregory Sumner -- finally tie the knot in Season 7, while the one Season 5 marriage -- that of hapless millionaire Gary Ewing to aspiring businesswoman Abby Cunningham -- eventually runs its course. The plots left hanging in Season 6 -- the turbulent relationship between newlyweds Joshua Rush and Cathy Geary; Gary's plans to turn his newly-acquired Empire Valley acreage into "a community of the future" (all while Greg and Abby conspire to build a secret communications center beneath it); the hunt for Val's twins (the result of a one-night stand with Gary in Season 5) who were stolen at birth early in Season 6 -- all continue into Season 7, and most are tidily resolved.

So what's not to like about Season 7?

Plenty. Knots Landing Season 7 is what happens when you hire a showrunner with no affinity -- or particular affection -- for a series. Here, scribe David Paulsen was lured away from Dallas with the promise of a producer credit and headwriter chores. And he brought with him a Dallas mentality: where structure was preferable to spontaneity, and uniformity of tone, pacing and look more important than creative freedom. What he didn't bring to the show was an understanding of the characters. Knots Landing Season 7 is the first season that feels writer- rather than character-driven; long-established characters start behaving illogically, or conveniently, to generate plot. (Sometimes it's hard to recognize the characters at all.) And a chilliness sets in. Season 7 is the one in which the characters become alternately self-righteous and self-pitying. And more troubling, it's a season where the men seem to take sick and constant delight in humiliating the women, and where the headwriter -- fresh off three years on Dallas -- seems to view that as a healthy dynamic. It's a sour, unpleasant season.

The issues aren't as apparent in the first ten episodes as they later become. At the start of the season, the sprawling Empire Valley story is neatly trimmed down to one manageable plot -- Greg and Abby's efforts to move the site of some key drilling, to further their own agenda -- that keeps it reasonably scaled. The return of Val's twins is achieved more swiftly than expected, and although the moment itself is less affecting than it's meant to be, the follow-up two episodes later -- when the couple who (illegally) adopted the twins comes to say goodbye -- is deeply moving, and very much in the Knots vein of finding pathos in unexpected places. The Joshua-Cathy story is more problematic. It's a story about spousal abuse, and there's no attempt to make it about anything other than that, or to make that part of a larger story. And although there's a certain integrity in simply laying the issue bare (and the show doesn't turn it into a statistic, as it does years later when it takes on rape and illiteracy), it also doesn't find any way of making it remotely watchable for nearly a dozen episodes. And it's the first case of characters behaving irrationally to ensure maximum conflict. Lilimae, Joshua's mother, doesn't just enable him by looking the other way; she goes along with anything he says, no matter how objectionable. He characterizes his sister Val's twins, to her face, as "children of Adam, conceived in sin," and badgers her to have them baptized: "Let me know what you decide, Val. I mean, we are talking about their souls here" -- and Lilimae is there nodding her head in dopey agreement. The plotting is set up so that in any exchange, in any scenario, Lilimae will take Joshua's side. Lilimae always had a too-trusting nature, an ingenuousness when it came to men (back as far as Season 3's "The Rose and the Briar," and in her mothering of press agent Chip Roberts in Season 4), but here it's taken to a preposterous extreme. To create tension within the family, Lilimae has to stand up for Joshua -- until it's time not to.

And Joshua's fate is regrettably predictable. As noted, the show doesn't pause to moralize; it simply lets the verbal and physical abuse speak for itself. But it speaks so loudly that there's no place to go. It becomes clear early on that it's a dead-end story-line; Joshua becomes so irredeemable, you realize the writers are going to kill him off. (When next-door neighbor Mack describes him as "a ticking time-bomb that's about to explode," you cringe at the foreshadowing -- and at the bad dialogue.) So you wait for it. But while you wait, the abuse starts to dominate the series, and by the season's ninth episode, it's pretty much the sole plotline. It's unfortunate that that particular episode was handed to story editor Bernard Lechowick (who'd become a headwriter the following season); give him a weighty story-line, and he'd become unrelenting. In a heavy-handed episode that foreshadows later Lechowick offerings like "Suicidal," "Twice Victim" and "Simmer," Joshua's abuse of Cathy becomes graphic; he beats her up in an alleyway. And yet, in a strange aesthetic choice, even as they're trying to make the violence as "realistic" as possible, it starts to take on the trappings of a horror film -- with shadowy lighting, directorial scare tactics, and Bernard Herrmann-like underscoring. It comes to a head in the following episode, when Lilimae shouts Joshua off a rooftop. Again, you recoil at how on-the-nose the dialogue is: "I'm not your mama! You're not my son!" Joshua has abducted Cathy and taken her up to the rooftop of a downtown building (there's a billboard atop it trumpeting her TV show, the one he claims she stole from him); he's decided they'll jump and be reunited in death. But Lilimae arrives and intervenes, and while she's verbally disowning him, he trips and falls over the edge. His body lies crumpled on the street while overhead the billboard promises "A Better Tomorrow."

If only that were true. But Paulsen's just getting warmed up. More on that in a minute. Joshua's death seems telegraphed weeks in advance; the Empire Valley plotline, on the other hand, seems like it's going to dominate the show for months to come. But in the episode following Joshua's death, which seems to be the second "block" of the season, you feel an overhaul begin, as the "underground spy network" aspect of the Empire Valley story-line gets sped up considerably. You sense a tonal shift at that moment; you're suddenly aware that the new headwriter is now fully running the show. (You're not yet aware that he's going to run it into the ground.) In that next episode, despite months of high-handed bureaucrats insisting that the communications center is a top-secret operation, that no one knows (or can know) of its existence, Gary drives to Empire Valley and wanders in -- without anyone stopping him. Bug-eyed, he proceeds deeper and deeper, past computer terminals that look like something out of a '60s sci-fi film -- and no one pays him any mind, except one scientist there to offer helpful exposition. And an episode later, Gary -- who's barely had a moment to digest what he's seen -- blows it all up.

And just as you did when Joshua died, you're fooled into thinking, "Finally: this awful story's over." Fooled you twice: shame on you. This is where the season starts to go riotously wrong. Back to the Joshua story. Joshua slipped and fell off a building; it was an accident. But Paulsen sees story-line potential. So Lilimae sends Cathy home and calls 911; she tells the police that she got a call from Joshua, asking her to meet him there, and that she arrived on the scene to find him dead. She reasons that if she and Cathy tell the truth, they'll have to reveal that Joshua abducted Cathy, and it will tarnish his good name. Cathy protests that they can't lie to the police, but Lilimae counters, "Saying nothing's not a crime."

Yes, and it's also not a story-line.

But Paulsen piles on one absurdity after another. Lilimae invents a story -- that her preacher son was on a rooftop (heaven knows why) and accidentally fell -- that makes so little sense, it actually backfires on her, when everyone reasonably presumes it was suicide. In a spectacularly twisted piece of logic, she's left defending Joshua against accusations of suicide because she decided to cover up an accident. Then things get even more bizarre. A waitress Joshua was sleeping with discusses the case with her boyfriend, and he says -- for absolutely no reason -- "I was there when the preacher man died." Why would someone boast about a crime he didn't commit? -- it certainly doesn't endear him to his girlfriend. But as he so often does this season, Paulsen doesn't worry about the "why," as long as it generates story-line. And so the waitress goes to the police and repeats the conversation, and her boyfriend gets arrested, and Lilimae refuses to come clean. And even when Cathy confesses all, Lilimae still clams up. (In a wonderful moment of meta-dialogue, while Lilimae is holed up in police headquarters inventing yet another half-truth, Val moans, "How long is this gonna go on?")

And once everything's cleared up, Paulsen still can't let go. The police decide that it took Lilimae and Cathy so long to come forward, there must be more to the story. Maybe they lured Joshua up to the rooftop and pushed him. (At that point, the writers are dangling this as a story-line: "Will Lilimae and Cathy be arrested for a crime that never happened because they chose to cover up a crime that never happened?" And by then, you're forgiven for wanting to throw yourself off a building.) And once the police decide not to press charges, and you're praying the story-line has breathed its final gasp, Paulsen tries to shock it back to life. It's like trying to reanimate a corpse. A reporter disguises himself as a professional sax player (understandable: they are, after all, interchangeable skill sets), joins Cathy's band, gets her to talk, and prints a series of nasty exposés -- all while the writers keep cutting to shots of Lilimae at home, staring at the same photo of Joshua, week after week. Paulsen called the season's first episode "The Longest Day," and in a cheeky bit of symmetry, he'll call its final episode "The Longest Night." In retrospect, that's fitting, because Season 7 feels like the longest season.

Joshua's story ended when he went off the rooftop, but convinced he can create drama where none exists, Paulsen prolongs the story for another ten episodes. And in doing so, he makes Lilimae detestable. In order for her to defend her son, in order to preserve his "good name," she has to go on the attack, berating everyone else for what "they did" to bring Joshua down. She's particularly cruel to her son-in-law Ben, deriding him at his own birthday party. ("When you took Joshua's show away from him, it destroyed him.") She attacks Valene for never supporting Joshua; she practically stalks Cathy to make sure she doesn't crack under pressure. When next-door neighbor Karen tries to interject a little common sense, she curses her out: "Stay out of this, Karen MacKenzie. You're not family!" Right before he's about to go off the roof, Lilimae calls Joshua a monster, but she becomes the real monster -- except there's nothing to suggest that Paulsen is aware of the irony. The idea, of course, is that she's deflecting her guilt by blaming everyone else for her own failings, and eventually Paulsen has her face that, but there's nothing persuasive about covering up a crime that never happened, and nothing entertaining about watching an elderly woman belittle everyone in her path. It's a miracle that Lilimae survives Season 7, because you grow to hate her so much. Is it a coincidence that she's given almost nothing to do in Season 8, or did the writers realize that, in order for her to regain our trust and interest, they needed to give her a time-out?

The same could be said of Gary Ewing. Once the Empire Valley story heats up, Paulsen's vision for Gary comes into clearer focus. It just isn't any Gary Ewing we've ever seen. In Season 5, when Gary discovered Abby's duplicity, he threw her belongings into a suitcase and tossed her out. Here he berates and humiliates her -- for weeks on end. And she lets him. When he drags her out to Empire Valley, to help him blow up the communications center, he threatens her: "Are you going to be more comfortable with your hands tied in front of you or behind you?" Abby had gotten herself in over her head before, but she'd always found a way out. Her resilience is one of the things we loved most about her. Here she becomes scared, useless, a damsel in distress -- bowing to Gary's every demand, whining, "I don't want to die." That pretty much sets the tone for the next twelve episodes. While Lilimae is abusing family and friends, Gary is abusing Abby -- and week after week, she sets herself up for yet one more indignity. Episodes after the Empire Valley blow-up, when Gary's moved out and taken up with another woman, Abby shows up at his hospital room, after he's been in an accident, blithely thinking he'll come home to recuperate. Her passivity and naiveté are absurd; it's just another opportunity for Gary to degrade her. Like Gary, Abby is unrecognizable for much of Season 7. Sumner demands to know what Gary's been up to since he destroyed the underground spy network, and Abby admits she doesn't know – but she doesn't try to find out either. She waits around for Gary to make every move. In one of the season's most objectionable scenes, she's in bed waiting for Gary to come home to her, surrounded by dozens of half-read magazines, while he's in a hotel room laughing it up with a prostitute. You're left thinking, "Who are these people?" -- and then you remember: they're J.R. and Sue Ellen Ewing, from Dallas. (Sumner entertains a prostitute early in Season 7 as well; that seems to be the first place Paulsen thinks single men turn for comfort.)

Paulsen seems unaware that Gary and Abby truly loved each other, or is unable to grasp the dynamics of a relationship based on love, but not trust. Gary's delight in demeaning Abby doesn't seem true to character -- but neither does his self-absorption, and that takes up just as much screen time. Early in the season, Gary realizes that Val's twins are his. Of course he comes to this realization in the same episode in which Val promises Ben that no one will ever find out that the babies aren't his -- that from that moment on, he is their father. You don't resent the show for the coincidence of timing; that's the kind of gesture that soaps are built on. (The great headwriter William Bell was a master at that sort of double-switch.) But once Gary decides the twins are his, he responds by lavishing them with attention and gifts -- and refuses to accept that his actions might be undermining Val and Ben's early months of marriage. Everyone tries to reason with him: Val begs him to stay away; Ben demands it -- and in the next episode he's out buying the twins toys. When he ultimately tosses the toys in a hamper, you think he's finally come to his senses -- and then he gifts them half of Empire Valley. Gary insists that it never occurs him to him that a gift that lavish, that public, is pretty much an announcement that the kids are his -- but is anyone that obtuse? This is middle child Gary Ewing, who's obsessed with spending his family money the "right" way. (His horror in Season 4 when Abby started to use Ewing money selfishly -- "Why are you doing this? We're ruining lives!" -- stemmed from his terror at turning into his older brother J.R.) But in Season 7, Gary is unwavering, no matter who gets hurt in the process. Val shows up at the track where he's racing cars (that's the hobby Gary takes up after splitting with Abby: appropriate for Season 7 because it is "manly"). She tells him he has to take the gift back, and Gary grabs hold of her arm, tightly, insisting, "Half of Empire Valley belongs to the kids -- our kids." It's not said with love; it's more of an angry threat. A lot of Season 7 is men manhandling women, and we're supposed to be impressed by their grit and determination.

And the women just roll over and play dead. Pretty much every scene between Gary and Val ends with Val tremulous and sobbing. Women can't stand up to men; it's (apparently, to Paulsen) against nature. (Remember, this is before Paulsen returned to Dallas the following season, and Sue Ellen bought a lingerie shop and developed a spine.) Midway through the season, when Ben's come to realize that Gary knows about the twins' paternity, he asks Val if she's the one who told him. Of course he suspects her: Gary showed up at their wedding, and asked for private time with Val -- and she gave it to him. She walked off with her ex-husband at her own wedding. (Another possible answer when your ex-husband shows up at your wedding and demands alone time is, "Um, no.") We understand that Val has a weak spot where Gary is concerned -- the writers established that neatly in Season 4 -- but the Valene of seasons past had a backbone. She was blessed with a country girl's common sense. And she wasn't clueless. Just as Gary seems unaware that the attention he's paying the twins is undermining Val and Ben's marriage, Val seems unaware how the attention she's paying Gary is doing much the same thing. Late in the season, when Gary's in the hospital after the racing car accident, even though his wife and mistress are vying to see who gets to nurse him back to health, Valene shows up there, because... Well, so Paulsen can keep the drama going. So that Ben can find out, and it can drive him into the arms of another woman. There's absolutely no reason Val can't keep a healthy distance from Gary, except that Paulsen can't figure out where the season would go if she did. Just as Paulsen can't understand the complexities of Gary and Abby's relationship, he fastens on one aspect of Val's make-up as her sole defining trait; the show's most original, spirited creation becomes a clinging vine, prone to soliloquizing, "Why can't it work? Why can't it all be OK?", and whining to her friend Laura, "Why doesn't anything ever work out like you planned it?"

Years after Season 7's original run, Knots Co-Executive Producer Michael Filerman confessed, "I never agreed with David Paulsen. I mean, he wanted to make [Knots Landing into] Dallas, and it’s not Dallas. And I resented that." The Dallas characters were props: magnificent props, but props nonetheless. The characters were defined to a point, but if showrunner Leonard Katzman and company came up with a plot that they liked, they could typically find a way to get the characters into that situation; they could move them around fairly freely. The characters retained enough one-dimensionality to allow plot, rather than character, to dictate story-line -- when that was desirable. That wasn’t true on Knots, and Paulsen never understood or appreciated the difference. Abby’s passivity and immobility for much of Season 7; Lilimae and Cathy’s “cover-up”; Gary coming between Val and Ben, and Val letting him -– he tries hard to motivate it all, but it rings false. You can sense the struggle between how the characters would behave and how he wants them to behave. The characters were mightier than his pen.

Throughout Season 7, you're struck by characters behaving in ways that feel untrue, and by actors struggling to justify the mischaracterizations. Mack and Karen, Knots' "perfect couple," seem particularly elusive. It's like something as simple as a happy relationship -- or, in their case, a healthy relationship forged from temperamental differences -- is foreign to Paulsen. He keeps giving them "fun" scenes together, but there doesn't seem to be anything going on beneath them. As they banter about their honeymoon, or enjoy a "date night" at a French restaurant, or make out in the kitchen, it feels like forced gaiety. And once Paulsen creates conflict for them, it all goes south. At one point, Mack is emotionally unfaithful to Karen, and when she calls him out on it, he outscreams her, lambasting her for being moral and uncompromising, and for holding everyone else up to impossible standards. Mack is particularly sanctimonious in Season 7, waving his finger in everyone's face, and the writers seem to relish it. Later in the season, when his stepson ends up in the hospital, Mack goes off on his colleague Jill, because he suspects she knows more than she does. (She doesn't.) And again we're supposed to see his bullying as justified. The misogyny woven through Season 7 is troubling. Karen, who reasons things out, is neurotic; Mack, who's aggressive and impulsive, is admirable. At one point, when Karen is having trouble forgiving Mack for contemplating an affair, she tells Val, "I want my pride back," and Val counters, "At the expense of your marriage?" Later, when arsenic buried beneath Empire Valley threatens Karen's resort complex Lotus Point, and Sumner promises to clean it up if Gary will sell him the land, Karen refuses (why Karen should be the one to decide what Gary does with his land is never made clear), and Abby admonishes her, "Your pride is more important than Lotus Point." Karen's thoughtful rectitude is seen as a bad thing; Mack and Gary's single-minded self-righteousness is a good thing. That's Knots Landing Season 7 in a nutshell.

The chauvinism that pervades Season 7 is perhaps most noticeable in a relationship that doesn't involve men at all. Karen and Abby's encounters are wildly off-the-mark. Sometimes you feel Paulsen got only a set of character sketches before the season began, and misread half of them. At one point, Karen dismisses Abby with "You're a dabbler, Abby" -- and you think, "No, Gary's the dabbler -- have the writers watched this show before?" In a similar vein, you come to suspect Paulsen's précis for Karen and Abby was "two women: often at odds," and he took it to a one-dimensional extreme, because they spend the season shrieking at each other like banshees. Sisters-in-law Karen and Abby had a history going back decades (Karen's first husband Sid was Abby's brother), and some of the show's nicest moments found them working in tandem (as they had in Season 6, and would again in Season 9). The things that bound them (not just their love for Sid, but the challenges they faced as intelligent women trying to succeed in a male-dominated business) were just as interesting as the things that divided them. As Paulsen uses them, they're the worst of womankind: two strong females who loathe and mistrust each other. (They're a feminist's nightmare.) Each time the camera cuts to a shot of the two of them at Lotus Point, you want to plug your ears. You keep waiting for them to come to a mutual understanding about something, as they pretty much would in any other Knots season (Abby has plenty of opportunities to show appreciation when her daughter runs away and Karen kindly takes her in), but it never comes. Paulsen is content to keep them at each other's throats.

In a 2008 interview about Knots Landing, Paulsen admitted, "My focus is more of a male story focus, so to speak, more of a Giant sort of thing than it is on the 'over the picket fence' sort of thing. I don't know how to write that stuff all that well." (It's a shocking admission considering Knots had always been an "over the picket fence" kind of show.) Of course he wanted to bring a masculine sensibility to Knots: Dallas had thrived on the competitiveness between "good" Bobby and "evil" J.R. To recreate the Dallas model, Paulsen tries to build up the rivalry between Gary Ewing and Greg Sumner, but Season 7 fails on that front too. Once Gary blows up the communications center a third of the way through the season, the Ewing vs. Sumner story dissipates. Sumner has a scene where he talks to a portrait of his father (it's the same scene J.R. would have week after week), vowing to become "a new breed of barbarian," to become even more ruthless in getting what he wants -- but that never happens. He starts buying up all the banks that have loaned money to Ewing Enterprises, and acquiring all the land surrounding Empire Valley -- you briefly glimpse J.R. setting one of his schemes in motion. Then an episode later, his assistant Peter reveals he's his half-brother, and Sumner gets distracted. You keep waiting for him to get back to his plans to acquire Empire Valley, but it never happens -- until a freak event practically hands him the land on a platter. And as for Gary, he gets too absorbed with racing cars and chasing women to give Ewing Enterprises another thought. In that same interview, Paulsen revealed, "When I came onto Knots Landing, one of the things I hoped to do was move it more toward stronger story-lines,” but Paulsen can't seem to settle on a strategy.

Season 7 isn't a disaster: far from it. The cast is not just brilliant, but valiant: no Knots cast ever worked harder. Constance McCashin is particularly appealing, especially when Laura returns to Greg following the blow-up at Empire Valley, and later in the season when she implores him to "stop giving lip-service to passion and get passionate." Hunt Block, as Peter, is charming and intriguing when introduced (he has both a smooth and rugged presence early on that will all but vanish by Season 8), and he gets a nice boost when the story-line enigmatically links him to Jill. Donna Mills has one transcendent episode late in the season when, her back to the wall, Abby pretty much one-ups all the other characters, reasserting her authority and superiority. (It's an episode called "Phoenix Rises," and as much pleasure as we take in watching Abby rise from the ashes, the title's an unfortunate reminder that we've been watching her decompose -- like the mythological bird -- for half a season, and taken no pleasure in that.) And although Michele Lee is largely misused or wasted throughout Season 7, she has one scene that's stunning, as Karen vies for a spot on the State Planning Commission, but fearing Abby will expose her one-time addiction to prescription drugs, takes it upon herself -- at a meet-and-greet lunch -- to come clean about her past. As she prattles on, doing her best to minimize the damage without whitewashing the issue, Lee manages to convey the price of being responsible; you see her relief in owning up to her mistakes, and the terror of what that's costing her. It's the kind of scene at which Lee excels: Karen seems very much in the moment, yet simultaneously scrutinizing herself and self-correcting. It's a short scene, and in the grand scheme of things, almost inconsequential, but it feels like -- for a brief time -- the sun shines through.

Karen's lunchtime confessional is the kind of slice-of-life drama that Knots does best, and although those sorts of scenes are few and far between in Season 7, they do turn up, often when you least expect them. Just before Val's wedding to Ben, Lilimae appears as Val is getting made up; she knows she's been treating her daughter poorly, and wants to make amends. She's halting and uncertain of what to say -- a blessed relief from her incessant badgering of Valene up to that point in the season -- and Julie Harris and Joan Van Ark share one of their loveliest scenes, both of them fighting back tears. At Ben's birthday party, when Lilimae is being vile, Val takes to the kitchen, wailing to Karen, "It's tearing me apart -- what am I going to do?", and Karen responds, with a mix of tough love and healthy practicality, "You're going to go out there, and you're going to serve your husband a birthday cake." It's a tiny moment, but you sit up and take notice, because it's one of the rare times that reasonable behavior is seen as a virtue, and that the characters seem to be reacting to each other armed with years of backstory. And once Abby's daughter comes home from Karen's, she has a nightmare, and Abby rushes to her bedside to comfort her, and it's a little treasure of a scene. It's just what you most want to see: an unexpected encounter that seems to exist simply to strengthen the bond between longtime characters -- an exchange that's not about relentlessly pushing the plot forward, but reminding us how much these characters care about each other, and how much we care for them.

But by and large, the things that go right in Season 7 never last, and really only one major character survives the season unscathed: Val's husband Ben. Doug Sheehan seems comfortable with everything he's handed, which is essentially a season-long emasculation. He manages to be both crown prince and court jester, and making his way among characters largely devoid of self-awareness, he's permitted a rare moment of eloquence. After Gary has bequeathed half of Empire Valley to the twins, and wound up in the hospital, only to have Valene show up for a visit (she believes his reckless behavior is the result of him being a dry drunk), Ben admits to Valene:

Ben: Do you know, I don't think I know right from wrong anymore. Is it right for me to be so angry about this trust fund?
Val: I don't know, it's perfectly normal for you to ---
Ben: I didn't ask you if it was normal -- I asked you if it was right. Is it right for my "normal" anger to deprive our kids of the kind of security it would take me ten lifetimes to be able to give them? Is it right for me to expect you not to care about the suicide course that your ex-husband has set for himself? Is it right for me to resent you for going to visit him? Hell, you could take him from that course. You could save his life. What is my resentment compared with that? You know, you're doing what's right for you, and I respect you for that. And if I also resent you for it, then I guess it's my problem, isn't it?

Knots Landing Season 7 offers up a world where decent people like Ben Gibson suffer. It's a world that rewards the clueless and the greedy -- that punishes the faithful and mocks the needy. And it all ties back to Paulsen's Dallas roots. Dallas was, at heart, a chillier show than Knots. Not that it couldn’t be emotional and occasionally moving, but on a basic level, Dallas was a show about grand gestures, and Knots was a show about small moments. Paulsen never adjusted well to that. The warmth that saturates the first six seasons of Knots Landing dissipates once Paulsen comes on board, and a lot of the big moments feel overscaled, like they belong on some other series. Late in the season, Karen's son Eric has been stricken with arsenic poisoning from swimming in the Lotus Point reservoir. (Sumner's father Paul Galveston had buried the waste beneath Empire Valley.) We get a montage of Karen trying desperately to school herself in the clean-up of toxic waste, then cut to a full-body shot of her standing on a hill, the reservoir beneath her. (She's wearing what looks like red pajamas, but never mind.) She screams to the heavens, “Damn you, Paul Galveston!", and the camera pulls back across the water like she’s Moses about to part the Red Sea. It’s the kind of scene that might have provided some foolish fun on Dallas; on Knots, it feels ludicrous and misjudged.

Paulsen took the job as Knots showrunner because, by his own admission, he wanted the producing credit, but apparently he knew it was a mismatch. And instead of stretching himself, he tried to stretch the show, and mercifully, it proved unyielding. And yet, there’s a nagging disparity between what Paulsen has said in interviews and what's on the screen, Although Paulsen claims he was no good at the “over-the-picket-fence stuff," it’s precisely those scenes that are some of the strongest -- and most nuanced -- moments in Knots Season 7. In contrast, the elements he brought over from Dallas -- the streamlined characterizations, the uniformity of look and feel, the alpha-male aesthetic, and, yes, the hookers -- were largely unsuccessful. Yet Dallas's 1983-84 season -- a season largely about relationships, with little emphasis on business dealings -- suggests that Paulsen did indeed know how to do the warmth, humor and spontaneity that were Knots staples. So did Paulsen really not think he could do the “over-the-picket-fence stuff" that well, or was that merely his excuse to continue writing the kind of show that he thought was "better"? Did he underestimate his abilities, or was he simply calculating? Or lazy? Or ultimately, as Michael Filerman asserts, did he simply lack the talent to write complex characters, and this was the best he could do? It's a mystery that, in the world of primetime soaps, dwarfs even "Who shot J.R.?"

Knots creator David Jacobs loved his writing teams to be spontaneous; he loved discovering what worked, as a season progressed, and running with it. He found creative freedom often allowed for wonderful and surprising results. His approach made for the occasional lull, when nothing was coming together as planned, but also resulted in some breathless highs, when the writers, actors and directors seemed to be running on pure adrenaline. Paulsen schooled under Leonard Katzman at Dallas, who ran a tight ship. Paulsen notes, "It was always hard for Leonard to move forward unless he saw the end. David [Jacobs] was more free- thinking." To Paulsen, "You need a certain look to the show, a certain feel. So you need stuff coming down from the top. It's the Executive Producer who designs the look of the show with his artistic people, his creative people, and then you wanna stick to that. But David, to his credit -- and detriment sometimes during certain periods which were not easily controlled -- tried all sorts of things." His conclusion: Dallas, which he admits was "story-driven," was "a far more consistent show." Whether that's true or not is debatable. More interesting is the notion of "consistency" as the ultimate goal. The headwriters who worked best -- and lasted longest -- on Knots Landing (Ann Marcus, Peter Dunne, Lechowick and his wife Lynn Latham) mined the characters so skillfully that the plots often seemed self-generating. And often, particularly during the Lechowick-Latham years (the show's most uneven), the characters would lead them in directions that proved unsatisfying -- but the flexibility of story-telling allowed for instant course corrections, and the richness of the characters led to moments of joyous inspiration. Knots Landing Season 7 is the one Knots season that feels generic; you feel the showrunner taking it on a pre-determined path, unwilling to let anything deter him from his destination. But because his understanding of the characters is shaky, the ride is a rocky one.


Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 1, which establishes the characters and struggles to set the tone; Season 3, in which the show finally masters the challenges inherent in its premise; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 8, in which the characters return (after vanishing in Season 7), but the plotting goes haywire; Season 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years; Season 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; and Season 14, in which the great soap writer Ann Marcus, who'd guided the series during a critical time in its history, returns for one last glorious hurrah.

10 comments:

  1. So this is going to have to be split it into multiple comments haha.
    It gives me great joy to respond to this post, so be prepared for the novel you are about to read (and hopefully I don't miss any of the points).

    Season 7 is fascinating to me. You made the comment about how the bookend episodes are called The Longest Day and The Longest Night. Obviously a show should grow as a season goes along and despite the misguided moments, you do feel the show has changed almost dramatically. It's hard to believe when watching The Longest Night that this is still the same season that even began with The Longest Day. Visually, you have the better cinematography which just seems to improve as the season goes on but that's a superficial point...but the show just morphed into somethings completely different.

    The season began on such a high note with the conclusion of the babies storyline. You still feel a since of the Dunne era since they are still running on the fumes of some great seasons (personally I think season 6 was the best).

    I will begin with Cathy/Joshua since that IS the storyline that dominates early on. I'll admit that I enjoyed it despite its obvious one-note nature. Alec Baldwin brought an energy to the show that I personally never thought other villains matched, even Jill on some level. But what also hurts the storyline and I knew you'd call it out is Lilimae. When they are on the roof and she says "The sad part is that I believed you!", you do have a brief moment of seeing this is indeed the woman who trusts so easily and that is why I am so happy you brought up Chip because that was such a perfect example...and even after she ran him over, she also suffered from extreme guilt once she made the connection he could've died by her own doing as opposed to say....a pitchfork.

    Once he falls off the roof, it is almost like her worst fear that didn't occur after hitting Chip came to be because she now screamed at Joshua about how horrible he was and now he's dead knowing his mother disowned him. Instead of owning up to it, we get the overprotective trite of her defending his good name. I HATE this actually and despite Julie Harris doing magnificent work as always, she is given tough material to work with as she becomes too unbearable. As I watched this storyline again recently, I was actually entertained despite Julie Harris doing magnificent work as always, she is given tough material to work with as she becomes too unbearable. As I watched this storyline again recently, I was actually entertained despite being overly annoyed...that's the weird phenomenon for me. Season 7 is the first season where I simultaneously find myself being immensely entertained and also stunned at the odd writing choices...a trademark of the upcoming L&L years.

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  2. Paulsen does add in some history linking Lilimae and Cathy to precious violent crimes to give the motive of them killing Joshua more weight which I appreciate and I also find entirely unnecessary as this whole thing could've been over IN EPISODE ELEVEN AFTER HE DIED!!!!

    Why not let Julie Harris show off her acting skills more by having her mourn her son and accept truthfully that he lost himself to madness..Lilimae never really recovered after this storyline and you said it perfectly: she was on a time out next season and then it gave them the motivation to write her out in season 9. The moment when she FINALLY confesses what happened is beautifully acted but once again, extremely frustrating because she cries out to Joshua that she "tried" to keep his name in good standing. By that point, you just want to yell "YOUR SON WAS A PSYCHO. SCREW HIM!"

    Empire Valley: the epitome of Paulsen bringing in the world of Dallas. You hit the nail on the head yet again with this. The moment Joshua dies, a shift occurs and then the tone changes and you get treated to the underground spy network. Things are blinking and bleeping up a storm...and I was just kind of wondering what the hell was going on.

    I was left not hating Empire Valley but rather felt indifferent about it. It didn't bore me but it certainly felt out of place. And then it led to the arsenic poisoning which was probably the weakest section of the season for me.

    Val and Karen are wasted this season....truthfully ALL of the women were except Abby and as you said, she had been defanged. For me, the woman who dominated the season was Jill and not because she was strong (and I'm not saying she was, if anything she was a true Dallas pawn device), but because it seemed like they wanted to do whatever they could to her. She comes in and woos Mack and then suddenly ends up sleeping with Gary and then you realize she may have a sexual history with Peter and that she is only after Gary for Empire Valley...then comes the twist: she now loves Gary, who is now angry, and Peter is her...brother. Part of me admittedly likes it despite how convoluted it is. This is one of those stories I would've wanted to see how quickly it was developed in the writers room.

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  3. I don't recall you bringing up Olivia. She stands out fairly well because of her response to discovering Abby's involvement in the stealing of the twins. Now THIS was a moment where seeing Abby crumble was understandable and good to see....she always loved her children deeply and then she gives that speech you mentioned and you start to see signs of the old Abby.

    Mack and Karen are probably best left unsaid. I do really like Mack but this is the beginning of where he became too much. First he gets tempted by Jill and then by Anne and then AGAIN by Paula. I can understand the Anne situation somewhat but I felt Paula was completely unnecessary.

    Val got her babies back and despite letting Gary get in the way, she doesn't really have much to do.

    Ben is certainly a character who remains steadfast but even he gets trapped in a forced affair with Cathy....and even though you can see the buildup to it, it just doesn't feel right. And then don't even get me started on how they kept Ben the next season only to give him Jean Hackney. Not to mention the absolute PERFECT timing of him coming home for good only to conveniently get the telegram from Jean right then and there...but that is for me to complain about once you write about season 8.

    I can't complain about Laura other than she was underused but Constance McCashin was a master at doing so much out of so little.

    And lastly, the kidnapping. I've seen arguments defending it and hating it. Obviously in real life, they just happen but something about this just felt too tacked on to me. It's almost like the show was coming to a halt and then season 8 is a clean but stale slate. I think the kidnapping had potential but fell flat (another season 8 discussion). And of course, Paige comes into the picture and you aren't sure what she wants or if she is who she is....

    Season 7 ends and it is almost like we were watching 2 or even 3 different seasons. The end result is that despite its flaws, I still enjoyed it and actually think it's better than season 8 and especially the later seasons.

    Not sure if I missed any points but there's the end of my novel!


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    1. I enjoyed your "novel" enormously. It's so funny, Anthony: when we initially spoke about Season 7, I presumed our opinions would be polar opposites, but really, I think we come down to seeing the season in much the same way: as you put it, both "entertaining" and "annoying." I suspect for you, the former more than makes up for the latter; for me, it doesn't. And as I note, I think much of the first 10 episodes is right on the mark -- but once Joshua goes off the rooftop, the cover-up story not only dominates the season, but threatens to decimate it. As magnificent as Julie Harris is (and I was fortunate enough to see her on stage in "The Last of Mrs. Lincoln" and "The Belle of Amherst" -- there was no one like her), she's forced to hit the same notes over and over again. There are actually a couple moments of her insanely lashing out at people that feel so unmotivated, so unwarranted, that I think they defeat even Julie Harris -- and as far as I'm concerned, you have to work pretty hard to write something so bad even Julie Harris can't save it.

      There are a couple of excellent points you raised that I realize I simply didn't get to. One of my biggest objections to Season 7 has always been the affair between Ben and Cathy, which I never believe for a second. Years ago, I think I named that as the single thing that bothered me most about the season, how writer-driven it felt -- rather than being character-driven. It's as if Paulsen said, "Let's have Ben and Cathy have an affair near the end of the season. Now, what do we have to do, plot-wise, to get them to that point?" -- which was SO not how Knots worked. The other point I didn't make is how splendid Alec Baldwin is. I wish they hadn't laid it on so thick with Joshua's "descent into madness" -- I never thought Knots did "descent into madness" well -- but I don't think he hits a false note in Season 7, and in fact, he actually hits some notes that are higher than any Knots had dared reach for. I don't give him enough credit for how much his sheer acting ability makes Joshua's storyline compelling, despite the odiousness of the subject matter.

      I didn't go into Karen's kidnapping at all, nor Paige's arrival, because by the end of the season, it feels to me like the writers practically give up on Season 7 and start laying the groundwork for Season 8. I can't recall another instance of them doing that, and I suspect I'll take that up when I eventually write up Season 8. Like you, I think Season 8 is worse than Season 7, so man, that is gonna be one testy essay. I think I might have to get to that one last! (I think I am moving on to Season 11 next.)

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    2. Oh, and by the way, I totally agree about Jill: of all the women, she's the one who dominates the season. And I think it's because the way her story is told feels "fresh" -- it feels spontaneous. It feels like the way David Jacobs loved to work. As I understand it, Jacobs so loved her brief appearance in Season 6 that he instructed Paulsen to write her into Season 7, so Paulsen devised her short story arc near the top of the season. And then clearly, after she'd filmed those episodes, they thought, "Oh, she could be useful paired with Gary," and decided to bring her back in the second block. And THEN they decided, "Oh, and we could link her to Peter." The Peter-Jill pairing doesn't emerge until the third block, and tellingly, it first rears its head in the very first episode of that third block, so you can tell it's an idea they came up with while they were brainstorming the final third of the season -- and moved on it quickly. In a season that feels (to me, at least) very pre-packaged, like Paulsen had plans and stuck to them, Jill's story bursts with the kind of energy that Knots thrived on; you could tell the writers were getting great ideas about what to do with her and were perfectly willing to modify stories to accommodate them.

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    3. I would argue that season 10 was an example of them setting up season 11 in almost a similar way to how they began setting up season 8...but I'll save that for when you get to it.

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  4. I don't have anything trenchant or insightful to post, but I do want to say that even though I don't know a "Knots Landing" from a "Falcon Crest" ("Fresno" was more my speed), I've always had a great respect and admiration for soap opera writers, and I love your dissections and analyses of the seasons and epochs of "Knots". To me, anyway, it now feels like I've seen these shows and followed the arcs through every permutation, and had the benefit of a great commentary track, to boot. It's a wonderful way of looking at the evolution of long-form television, and the variety of approaches (whether ridiculous, sublime, or something between the two) that can be applied to a more 'earthbound' series. One thing I always loved in school was reading about the act of storytelling, or revisiting a work where a substantial portion is devoted to people telling each other stories (maybe why I'm so fond of detective fiction), so these posts are like a motherlode to me.

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  5. Season 7 is an interesting one for me. When I watched it through the first time, I didn't care for it. I found it to be a little dull and certainly a letdown after the swirl of seasons 5 and 6 (The final resolution to the Ciji murder, Wolfbridge, the babies). The only real low points for me were that I felt like the Chip storyline and strident Diana lasted just one beat too long, and Is Karen to die? just seemed too much for me. But after the amazing end to season 6 starting with Karen's "What if Val's babies didn't die?" and ending with Val's classic panoramic turn when she finally found the babies, season 7 felt poised for bigger things and then just fall flat. Empire Valley felt like Wolfbridge/Lotus Point 2.0. I couldn't understand why Gary was so angry with Abby because this should have been exactly what he expected her to do. When he took her back in the beginning of season 6, he told her he loved her. But he didn't trust her. So there you go. I found Joshua's downward spiral to be almost out of character (And a little sad because I felt like the writers just never really knew what to do with him so they turned him crazy), and I never bought the idea of Ben having an affair with Cathy for one second. It all seemed so out of place. I have to admit, though, as I watched it again years later, I was able to see the season in a night light and actually really enjoyed it. For any of its flaws, I never felt like anything that happened was out of character (Well, except maybe Ben and Cathy). I completely bought that Gary would blow up Empire Valley. I loved the exchange with Karen, Mack, and Gary when Mack asks Gary what he's going to do. Mack: "He doesn't know". He blew up a project with no plan and didn't even have a plan for getting home (Gary to Mack: "Can you give me a ride?"). Classic impulsive Gary. I also really enjoyed the Karen/Mack/Jill triangle. I felt like it was such a relatable story for an otherwise solidly married couple. I liked the angle because even though Mack didn't technically cheat on Karen, it almost hurt her more than if he had. I thought that Tonya Crowe was wonderful in showcasing the start of Olivia's drug addiction which will climax the following season with Abby and a hammer and a bathroom door at Gary's ranch. So, long story short, season 7 was one of those seasons I loved more the third time around. Certainly not as epic as seasons 5 and 6 but some real jewels of scenes tucked away. Enjoyed your take on it!

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    1. What fun to compare notes! For me, when I first watched Season 7, when it originally aired, I didn't actively dislike it; I just wasn't as engaged as I had been with previous seasons. It wasn't until the summer of 1988, when I decided to binge Seasons 4 through 8 (I had all the episodes on VHS) that I realized, upon rewatching Season 7, how out-of-character everyone seemed. (The moment Season 8 started, it felt like everyone behaved like themselves again.) And my opinion of Season 7 never really changed. I hadn't watched in a decade when I did this latest rewatch, and I wondered if my opinion might be different. It wasn't. :)

      That said, the only thing I really loathed when I first watched the season was -- as you note -- the affair between Ben and Cathy. Just awful and unconvincing and poorly handled. Just because actors have rapport doesn't mean their characters are "destined" to sleep together. Amusingly, as I noted to Anthony above, it's one of the things I forgot to write about in my essay, because by the time I got to it, working my way through the season, the season had already worn me down. I didn't have the energy to beat up on it anymore! But yes, Ben & Cathy might be the season's low point. It's funny about Lisa Hartman. She was so vibrant as Ciji, but when they brought her back as Cathy, they never really knew what to do with her. I don't find her "great passion" with Gary in Season 5 ("It was you. It was always you") any more convincing than her affair with Ben. And she's well paired with Joshua, but then of course, the writers have him become so abusive so quickly, she's mostly left to react to how awful he's become. I'm glad they brought her back; I just wish they'd found a reason to.

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  6. It's interesting that you note that once Lisa Hartman is brought back as Cathy, they never really knew what to do with her. I completely agree. I am in the middle of a binge watch of the series, and I am now halfway through season 6. I have never watched the entire series as a binge before so it definitely changes my perspective on things. Stories that seemed like they took so long to resolve in reality may have only spanned over a few episodes-- They were just more spread out. I always felt like with Cathy, they didn't want to make the same mistake as they did with Ciji and write her off too quickly and infuriate the fans again. Which, in my opinion, is why they hang on with her two more seasons than was really needed. I might be remembering this wrong, but I also think that Doug Sheehan was supposed to leave the show at the end of season 7 which is what led to the Ben/Cathy pairing and his decision to stay is what led to Spy Ben in season 8. I'm not a hue fan of season 8 as a whole so I will be interested to see if my feelings change with the next watch. ALSO, I read your season 9 blog. I adored it. Season 9 ranks up there as my favorite season, if not my very favorite.

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