Monday, November 20, 2017

Knots Landing season 2

Previously, on Knots Landing:

At its best, Knots Landing Season 1 encapsulates a sexual freedom emblematic of its time, and a middle-class malaise specific to its setting. But although the series is steadily improving as it reaches the end of the season, the challenges are clear. Now that you've re-imagined married life in a way that speaks to present-day audiences, once characters have grown comfortable with the flirting and even the cheating, where do you turn for conflict and suspense? And if seemingly nothing is taboo, what's going to stop the characters from acting on every impulse -- and if they do, will you be able to rein them in? The end of Season 1 finds the writers on a dangerous precipice. What's most remarkable is that they don't seem to notice; as they head into Season 2, they seem unaware that -- in a perfect metaphor for a domestic drama about to go serialized -- they are figuratively hanging from a cliff. Will they survive?

Well, they survive, but the patient spends most of the season in a coma. With its parent show Dallas enjoying record-high ratings in the wake of J.R.'s shooting, the Knots writers decide to embrace a similar format: juggling three or four salacious story-lines at a time. But the plots lack credibility and variety, and worse, they make most of the characters look dense or deplorable.

Knots Landing Season 2 gets one thing very right: it brings aboard Donna Mills. Cast as Sid Fairgate's kid sister Abby, fresh off a messy divorce, Mills seems right at home in the cul-de-sac. Her acting style and choices are spot-on, and Abby brings added heat and abandon to the cast. What she doesn't bring is a well-motivated character. Oh, don't get me wrong: Abby's qualities are clear -- she's a vixen and a trouble-maker, a flirt and an instigator. We just don't know why. Abby begins her time in the cul-de-sac by going after Richard, who's smarting over his wife Laura's newfound career and his own sudden joblessness. In a series that established in Season 1 that flirting is the new normal, you don't question Abby toying with every man in the cast other than her brother. But why set her sights on Richard? Why seduce him? If she can have her pick of any man in town, as it's implied, why start with one of the least appealing, unless a priority is someone who can unclog her drain (not a euphemism)? And when she joins Knots Landing Motors as Sid's bookkeeper, and starts to stir things up, she doesn't seem fired up for reasons that command our attention -- e.g., a desire to advance herself (particularly in a business dominated by men), the sort of thing that propels her story-lines successfully in future seasons. She just seems to be led by her libido. And at the end of the day, "I like sleeping with men" certainly generates story-line, but it doesn't -- in and of itself -- guarantee good drama.

It's an issue that, in a broader sense, plagues the entire season. In Season 2, the writers take their newly-developed land of looser morals and run with it: driving story-lines by having the characters give in to temptation, or act on impulse. But the writers mistake opportunity for incentive. The answer to "why would they do that?" is too often "because they can"; we rarely get a sense of what the characters are after, or what makes them tick -- and as a result, there's little to make their actions compelling, rootable or consequential.

Diana Gould, one of David Jacobs' staff writers on Family, comes aboard as Executive Story Consultant in Season 2 (joining Robert Gilmer, promoted from Staff Writer to Story Editor). Family occasionally had serialized elements, but it was most certainly not a soap, and neither Gould nor Gilmer shows any affinity for the fundamentals of good soap-writing: the sense of anticipation, the delayed gratification. The unrelenting teases and the climactic payoffs. They think that if they keep a half-dozen plotlines in play, and a sustained level of titillation, they've done their job, but there's no buildup to the stories -- or ramifications after. And worst of all, motivation is given short shrift. For the first ten episodes, it seems like all the married men just take up with the first available woman. Kenny had already set the stage by bedding his protégé Sylvie at the end of Season 1. Sylvie, who returns in Season 2, is charmless and unappealing, sort of a pouty mouse; we aren't given to understand what Kenny sees in her except -- well, she's there. It's a harbinger of things to come: "she's there" seems to be the foundation for half the Season 2 story-lines. Five episodes in, Richard and Abby begin their affair; in the one after that, Gary sleeps with Judy Trent, the wife of the man he's sponsoring at AA. And an episode later, Sid's new mechanic Linda invites him away for the weekend.

Basically, the impulse behind Season 2 is "how quickly can we get the four husbands cheating on their wives?" Forget balance or believability; let's get the adultery underway! There's no apparent spark between Gary and Judy, but that doesn't even seem like a consideration, let alone a hurdle. Chemistry is in short supply in Season 2; there's none between Judy and her husband Earl either, two of the worst conceived characters in the history of Knots Landing. They're apparently working on their marriage, but you can't imagine what drew them together in the first place. As woefully played by two extremely fine actors, Paul Rudd and Jane Elliott, they're like George and Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, transplanted to Southern California. Val invites them to dinner (in Gould's first episode, "Remember the Good Times"), and they hurl insults at each other across the dining-room table -- that is, until Earl starts hurling Val's new china. (Val spends so much time talking about her dishware, you know it'll be in pieces by episode's end. Such clumsy foreshadowing, or else the worst metaphor ever for the human condition: we're all just china plates.) And still, despite the Trents being the kind of toxic couple you go out of your way to avoid, Gary -- within a few episodes -- falls into an affair with Judy.

Gary, the troubled middle Ewing, is particularly savaged in Season 2. His narrative arc in the first season had been one of redemption: trying to carve out his own identity, and hold firm to his beliefs, away from the influence of his cutthroat clan. He stumbled badly by season's end, but fought to get back on his feet. Season 2 barely gives us a chance to reinvest in his character; just a few episodes in, he unaccountably brokers a deal to bring stolen auto parts into Sid's dealership. When two mugs named Roy and Frank approach Knots Landing Motors with an offer that's too good to be true, it's obvious to us that they're shady -- they practically spell it out for Gary by advising him not to perform a background check -- but Gary resolutely moves forward, even though he has nothing to gain by doing so. "Trust me," he keeps telling Sid, as he maneuvers behind his back, but the point of Season 2 is that Gary can't be trusted at all: not where his boss is concerned, and not where his wife is concerned. He'll throw away both relationships for no good reason. And then, within a few episodes of getting involved with Roy and Frank, he gets involved with Judy Trent. As his Knots neighbors gather for a BBQ, he slips away to go comfort Judy, and they wind up sleeping together. When he gets home the next morning, he's content to let Val think he spent a long night trying to get the Trents' marriage back on track. In fact, he goes a step further: he reassures Val that he loves her; he knows he hasn't been around much and swears to remedy that. And that very same day, despite what he just told Val and despite having no reason to take up with Judy except that "she's there," he informs her he wants to see her again.

Why? What's the attraction? If Gary is thirsting for an affair, why Judy? Yes, their actions are consistent with the world established in Season 1, where the promise of sex -- and extramarital sex, in particular -- lies in wait around every corner, but what does she offer Gary (something that Valene presumably doesn't) that would make us care? It's the key issue that hobbles Season 2: the writers' mistaken belief that by keeping the characters busy, they're keeping the audience engaged. After a time, the writers tell us that Gary has gotten involved with Judy because she's everything Val isn't: worldly and chic. They don't tell us why those particular traits would be so appealing to him, so basically, all we're left with is that he's involved with her because she's not his wife. Note to the writers: that's not a reason for infidelity; that's merely the definition of infidelity.

As for the stolen parts story-line, it becomes an excuse to ease J.R. Ewing back into the fold, as if Series 1 hadn't struggled enough in its efforts to accommodate the Dallas cast. Gary, desperate for $50,000, is forced to borrow from his brother. He tells J.R. he's doing it for Sid, but J.R. isn't buying it: "You're not doing this for Sid Fairgate. You're doing this for the power, for the adrenaline. That thing that rushes through your veins when you know you've got something that everybody else wants." It's basically the same speech that Paul Galveston will give Gary in Season 6, but nothing that Ted Shackelford is playing suggests that he's on an adrenaline high. He seems angry and miserable about the deal he's been handed, and the decisions he's reached. (What he doesn't seem is guilty about the people he's deceiving.) And fundamentally, the crossover simply asserts that Gary's a nonstarter, who can't carry his own story-line without help from his siblings, a point reinforced later in the season when his younger brother Bobby turns up to help him through Valene's medical crisis. By the time we're barely a third of the way into the season, it's episode after episode of Gary in a foul mood, taking it out on Val, as she looks on helplessly. Give him time, the story suggests: he may take Richard's crown for the biggest jerk in Knots Landing.

And that's saying something. In the season's opening two-parter, Sid picks up a hitchhiker, who accuses him of rape, and Richard manages to botch the case. In the fourth episode, Richard quits his job for no reason. (He's been working with a bigshot lawyer from Chicago, and convinces himself there's a firm job offer coming, when nothing we've seen or heard would suggest that. Basically, he quits his job so that the writers can have him home, alone and depressed, an easy mark for Abby.) And that frees him to spend a half-dozen episodes wallowing in self-pity and taking out his frustrations on his wife Laura. He downplays and dismisses her every business accomplishment, flaunting his affair with Abby while humiliating Laura in front of her friends. There doesn't seem to be any reason why Richard can't get off his ass and find a new job (once the writers start course-correcting in episode 11, he does just that, in record time); the writers don't even show him trying. Of course they don't: if he were out pounding the pavement, he wouldn't be available to take up with Abby. It's plotting at its most transparent. And that said, if you're going to force a character to be lazy and odious in order to generate story-line, at least help us understand what's motivating their behavior. (And no: "I lost my job" doesn't cut it.) But there's no effort to make us sympathetic to Richard's frustration or perceived emasculation. The success of Season 1's "Courageous Convictions" in getting inside the head of Richard Avery -- and helping us empathize with his fear of failure, his patriarchal baggage and his struggle to break free from his middle-class trappings -- is all but obliterated in Season 2. The writers seem to think that the titillating details of his infidelity -- e.g., making out with Abby in a hot-tub -- make him interesting, rather than exploring (and legitimizing) the impulse behind his infidelity.

And then there's Kenny, who wants to come home, but can't guarantee he'll give up Sylvie. "I'll take care of her," is the best he can offer Ginger. (That's what a mob boss says.) Ginger is adamant: you break up with Sylvie, then you can come home -- but Kenny can't promise that. But it doesn't stop him from badgering Ginger about her involvement with Laura's pediatrician Carl. Kenny's furious that Ginger's dating while they're still technically married, although he himself has been doing that since the end of the previous season. Kenny's double standard is repulsive; it's a mindset you might've expected from a chauvinist, but Kenny has always had a degree of enlightenment. (If anything, he seemed to spend Season 1 advocating for an open marriage.) The writers can't find a way to resolve Ginger and Kenny's differences without having Kenny admit that he screwed up royally, and for some reason, that option doesn't occur or appeal to them. So they just skirt all the issues keeping them apart and force a reconciliation. In episode 9 Kenny announces to Sylvie, "I want my wife back." Sylvie vanishes, Carl never reappears -- and a few episodes later, Ginger is welcoming back the man who cheated on her. (Ginger, who's discovered she's pregnant, postures for a few episodes that they can't just get back together for the sake of the baby, but when the writers can't figure out what else they'd do, they do.)

The first half of Season 2 brings out the worst in Gary, Kenny and Richard. The writers don't expose cracks in their marriages that might prompt them to cheat, or make their wives complicit in a way that would muddy our loyalties (a staple of good soap scripting); on the contrary, all three men have loving spouses, yet they're unfaithful, simply because the opportunity arises. And so they become loathsome. But the plotting isn't any kinder to the women who put up with them: Valene comes off like a fool, Ginger a waffler and Laura a doormat. At least in Season 1, when the other couples were behaving badly, you could look to Sid and Karen for stability -- but Season 2 doesn't do them any favors either. You thought the writers were making strides with Sid and Karen late in Season 1: better balancing his thoughtful rectitude and her rapid-fire responses. But right from the Season 2 opener, when Sid picks up the hitchhiker who accuses him of rape, we keep focusing on the worst of the Fairgates, with Sid so unquestioning and unconcerned that Karen comes off as nagging and neurotic. That dynamic was the least appealing aspect of their relationship in Season 1, and it's magnified in Season 2. They have three big crises: their youngest son Michael is diagnosed as hyperactive; Sid's new female mechanic takes an interest in him; and Karen discovers that Gary has gotten him involved with criminals. And in all three cases, the writers offer up the same approach: Sid in denial, Karen coming on too strong. After a while, they seem less like a secure couple comfortable with their differences and more like a mismatched couple forever at an impasse.

Michael's hyperactivity starts to rear its head in episode 3, but they don't get him to a doctor for nearly two months, because although he's practically ping-ponging off the walls, Sid keeps looking the other way and arguing that he's just a normal, energetic kid. Finally, in episode 9, Karen and Sid get a diagnosis. The doctor prescribes a routine of keeping Michael active till he burns up all his excess energy: a regimen that he cautions can be "very tough on a family." (Luckily, it won't be tough on the Fairgates because the plotline will be dropped by season's end.) At the end of the episode, Karen blames herself for creating too pressurized a world for her children, and the writers are content to let that idea linger: that Karen, the nurturing mother, has something to apologize for, whereas Sid, the distant father, is beyond reproach. Throughout the season, we're treated to battles between Karen, who misses nothing, and Sid, who misses everything -- but the writers, mysteriously, don't judge Sid for his obliviousness. They -- like him -- seem to be wearing blinders. "There's a difference between trust and blind faith," Karen reminds him late in the season, and of course she's right. He goes through Season 2 looking like an idiot: where Michael is concerned, where Linda is concerned, where Gary and Abby are concerned. If you look at the season finale, "Squeezeplay," where -- all evidence to the contrary -- Sid's practically begging Gary to assure him that his sister is innocent of all wrong-doing, you can't help but think, "No wonder Don Murray wanted off the show."

There's one standout scene in the first seven episodes. After Richard has degraded Laura in front of her friends, drunkenly mocking her success at her job, Abby steps forward, adamant and angry, and proposes a toast to Laura. She may be screwing around with Laura's husband, but she's not about to see Laura humiliated – at least not by anyone but her. Abby stands up not just for Laura, but for women everywhere. It's unexpected, yet it seems rooted in character -- and in a way you didn't see coming. It's one of the few times the writers seem to consider that the richer the characters, the more they can create drama in unexpected ways, rather than tapping into the same traits over and over. It's just what you want from a good soap, and you pray for more -- but you don't get it. By episode 8, there's a foul odor permeating the cul-de-sac. All the couples are so angry with each other, and all the marriages appear to be on the rocks -- the sameness is stifling. The Season 2 writers create drama by focusing on the worst aspects of everyone's personality: Gary's spinelessness, Val's gullibility, Karen's self-righteousness, Sid's obtuseness, Kenny's selfishness, Richard's penchant for self-pity. It's a rookie mistake: counterproductive and shortsighted. It might generate story-line, but why would we care what happens to such an odious crew? And once the debris has settled, how will you salvage your characters?

It all comes to a head in episode 10, as Abby -- who's decided that six episodes with Richard are six too many, and that she'll move on to Gary next -- realizes she first has to get Judy out of the way. So she arranges for Val to run into Gary and Judy having a clandestine dinner. If offers Gary one more opportunity to redeem himself, but no: he rushes home and lies to Val yet again, insisting that there's nothing going on with Judy: "There's no me without you. I couldn't betray you, you know that." And Val, the imbecile, falls for it. But he hasn't counted on Judy herself deciding to spill the beans. So secure in Gary's commitment to her (after four episodes), Judy turns up on Val's doorstep and airs all her dirty linen, and finally Val realizes how she's been duped. She and Gary have it out on the beach. She hits him -- and everything's better. There are no recriminations, no aftershocks. Apparently, the violence was cathartic, and they move on. And we close with a triumphant Abby sending Judy packing, and knocking on Gary's office door, with seven little words that everyone remembers, but which are miserable and miscalculated: "Gary, are you ready for me now?" After Gary cheated with Judy, now the writers are setting him up with Abby. If it proceeds the way the rest of Season 2 has, they'll be hitting the sheets within two weeks; the affair will last about a month, and have no repercussions.

Thank heavens the writers slam on the brakes after episode 10. And not just on Abby and Gary. On everything. The show isn't working, and they know it. Perhaps Knots Landing wasn't meant to be serialized, at least not like this -- and certainly not by this team of writers. They return to the Season 1 model of standalones with A- and B-plots -- a model with which they have some experience -- in the largest midseason course correction the show will see till Season 11. It's a half-season of damage control; as the new episodes start to air, you can feel the writers zeroing in on the items that most need fixing, and addressing them swiftly and efficiently.

And momentarily, you're heartened. The first new episode, Rob Gilmer's "A State of Mind," is the first to recognize that -- for all the show's posturing that old moralities have been gleefully discarded -- actions still have consequences. Abby's ex-husband Jeff returns, gets a whiff of how Abby is leading her life, and plots to gain custody of their children. (In one episode, it speaks to the turmoil of separation in a way that Kenny and Ginger's story-line, over a dozen, never did.) As Jeff rails against Abby's promiscuity, the show reasserts that a person's private life is their own business: that they're not to be judged for their number of sexual partners. But Gilmer also concedes that plenty of people are still uncomfortable with that idea, particularly when it's a woman with the healthy sex life. It's a shrewd episode. How do you make Abby a more complex character? By putting her under a microscope, as Jeff does here. The benefits are enormous. After nearly a dozen episodes of watching Abby in action, without a great deal of insight into her character, we finally get a glimpse at how she sees herself, and how she thinks others see her -- and how she rationalizes her own behavior. She starts to seem interesting and even admirable, not just provocative. The story does wonders for Abby, and for Donna Mills -- and for Michele Lee, too, as the episode gets to the root of Abby and Karen's abrasive relationship. And not just their competition for Sid's loyalties, but their differing outlooks on the women's movement: Karen, who sees equal rights as being about fairness and responsibility, and Abby, who sees it being about freedom. (It's the first time she expresses exasperation that people view her as "wicked Abby," and we start to understand why she loathes the label so much; from where she stands, she's not looking to stir up trouble, but to take advantage of the newer freedoms that the sexual revolution allows her: freedoms that men have been enjoying seemingly forever.)

The B plot is equally good, an effort to redeem both Richard and Laura: him for abusing her so badly for ten episodes, her for letting him. As Richard complains that Laura's been treating him like a child ever since he lost his job, you sense at least some rationalization for why he's been so awful. Later, a client propositions Laura, and she turns him down, insisting that as bad as her marriage is, it's something she wants to work on -- and that as cruel as Richard can be, the very fact that he needs her keeps drawing her back. It doesn't make her sound weak; it feels like a rational, commendable decision. And Richard and Abby start to communicate as well. He tells her, "Abby, I need you," and mindful of her ex-husband's scrutiny and tired of the games, she comes clean: "I don't need you. I like you." Finally, the characters in Season 2 seem to be having honest exchanges that define and deepen the relationships, instead of glossing over everything for the sake of furthering story-lines. (The episode also features the first of Olivia's nightmares that will plague her throughout the series, and it's touching and well-played; Tonya Crowe already seems like a promising addition to the cast.) After a half-season where everybody seemed either loathsome or a loser, suddenly characters regain a modicum of strength and self-respect.

Next up: an episode devoted to euthanizing the Sid and Linda story-line, Misty Stewart-Taggart's "Players." Wisely, the writers have decided to get rid of Linda, the unpopular mechanic, but they realize that before she goes, she can be useful. With three of the four husbands having cheated on their wives, it falls to Sid to provide a bit of balance. The episode plays a lot like a remake of Season 1's "Civil Wives" (in which Sid's ex had swept into town in hopes of a reconciliation), as Karen and Sid fight over Linda's intentions, then Karen practically forces him into Linda's arms. But here there's time for rumination. Karen reflects on how hard it is being married to "Saint Sid" and admits the source of so much of her fury: her frustration at being unable to bridge the gap between how she appears to her friends --- "Karen the wise, Karen the sophisticate" -- and how she really feels: uncertain and insecure. While Karen pontificates, Linda and Sid -- in typical soap opera fashion -- have gotten themselves stranded on a deserted road, where Linda decides to confess her feelings and proposition Sid: assuring him, of course, that "no one will know." As Sid finally realizes that Linda is interested in him (as he "finally realized" there was something wrong with his hyperactive son, and later will "finally realize" that Gary is screwing him over), we realize, with relief, that there's no chance of anything happening between the two of them -- because as obtuse as Sid has been all season, he's still at heart the same decent guy we so admired in Season 1. Ultimately, the episode makes both Sid and Karen look good -- and after a dozen episodes of them berating each other, they needed that.

"Players" also manages a makeover for Val, when -- in response to Karen fretting about Sid and Linda -- she opens up about Gary's affair: admitting that, despite what we'd been led to believe, she's not yet over the hurt and humiliation. If she's trying to move past it, it's not because she's understanding, but because she's practical; she still feels her marriage is worth saving, and holding on to old wounds will only undermine that. We recognize it as a rewrite, but it's a rewrite in the right direction, and after half a season where Val was so trusting that she came off as weak and foolish, it helps restores the qualities we'd grown to love in her: above all, her backbone and her common sense. And as a B-plot, there's Richard apologizing to Laura and getting a job; he even tells her he's proud of her. The show is speedily self-correcting, and isn't it lovely?

Abby deepened, Richard and Laura salvaged, Valene newly grounded, and Sid and Karen (momentarily) on the same page -- and all this in only two episodes. Now it's time to go to work on Gary. The creative team manages it by giving Valene a tumor, in the first episode written by producer Joseph B. Wallenstein. (His second will be the ineffable "China Dolls.") Why a cancer scare? Well, it's the kind of plot that had worked well when Miss Ellie had her mastectomy on Dallas, which isn't a good reason for doing it, and it forces Gary to confront his recent treatment of Val, which isn't a bad reason for doing it. Just as Sid's temptation became a character study for Karen, Val's health crisis becomes a course correction for Gary, as he's left to stew in his guilt and reevaluate his priorities. (It reduces Valene to wailing "I don't wanna die!" -- which sadly is about the only acting challenge that Joan Van Ark gets all season.) As in the Season 1 finale, Gary has to hit rock bottom before he can claw his way back, but hit and claw he does. A mere three episodes earlier, he had assured Val, "There's no me without you," and it had been a cruel bluff; here, he echoes those same sentiments to Sid -- "I can't live without her" -- and the words ring true. At episode's end, as the doctor appears in the waiting room with good news and Gary shakes with relief, we're treated to some of Ted Shackelford's best work. And when Val awakens from surgery, with Gary at her bedside holding and kissing her hand, and she looks at him and murmurs, "Piece of cake," he laughs with gentle adoration and gratitude -- and you're quite willing to invest in their love story again. For all its excesses, the episode helps restore Gary to our good graces.

Nobody, however, emerges unscathed from the next episode, "Moments of Truth," in which the women are held hostage at Ginger's baby shower by a masked Bonnie and Clyde. (The other houses on the cul-de-sac are empty, but the burglars decide to break into the one that's full of people. Sounds like a plan.) The previous three episodes had been about re-establishing the characters' depth and dignity; this one is calculated, too -- but for all the wrong reasons: a "special episode" designed to boost the ratings. By mid-episode, as reporters litter the Ewing lawn while a SWAT team overruns the Avery home, you can practically hear the writers salivating over the publicity they'll snare from this "ripped-from-the-headlines" story. But it's a self-defeating effort. Yes, sure, CBS will manage a half-page ad in TV Guide to lure in viewers, but when folks tune in, they'll have to sit through something ludicrous and exasperating that reduces the denizens of Seaview Circle to victims or vigilantes. "Moments of Truth" could have been a season highlight; it could have used the hostage situation as a catalyst for confrontations -- between characters who've been holding it all in: Abby and Laura, Karen and Abby, Sid and Richard. (Abby and Laura have a chance to hash things out when they meet up in Val's kitchen, but instead of the two women asking hard questions and demanding honest answers, the scene is reduced to generic bitchery: "You are so simple." "You are such a slut." Slap.) It might even have served as the crisis that reunites Kenny and Ginger. But instead, it's an episode about women strategizing uselessly or cowering fearfully (or doing what women do: using their sexual wiles to gain advantage) as their alpha males posture that they know better than the professionals. The script even cops to being derivative, when Kenny asks, "Who are these guys?" and Richard responds, "Don't you watch TV? It's a SWAT team." At the end of the day, "Moments of Truth" could be just about any cast on any show on any network. And that's the real crime.

The midseason course correction had begun promisingly, as characters emerged with their heads held high. But "Moments of Truth" ushers in a string of subpar episodes that undo much of the good work that's been done; it's as if the writers had a burst of energy and inspiration, and then -- once they'd accomplished their goals -- fell into the same old bad habits. Part of the challenge when switching to standalones is that the A-plots had better be uniformly strong, because there aren't a half-dozen continuing stories to hide behind -- and this late in the season, "half-hearted" won't cut it. We're five episodes from the end of the season; time to pull out all the stops. (Let's look ahead to the following two seasons. Five episodes from the end of Season 3, we have "Exposé," where the two ongoing plots -- the Val-Gary-Abby triangle and Richard's downward spiral -- come to a head; five episodes from the end of Season 4, we have "Celebration.")

Accordingly, the last thing you need at this point in the season is the primetime equivalent of an after-school special -- but that's just what you get, as Eric holds onto some joints for a friend, and goes to a party where someone laces them with angel dust, and Ginger's (previously unseen and unmentioned) sister takes a few puffs and lapses into a coma. "I feel betrayed by my own son," Sid proclaims, as he punishes Eric with silence. Well, better silence than what Ginger's mother has in store: a self-pitying soliloquy roughly the length of Roots, full of half-rhetorical questions she takes it upon herself to answer. "If she lives, you'll be the man of the hour. If she dies, you won't be the man of the hour -- what will you be? If she dies, you'll be her killer." Ah, but she's just getting warmed up: "I wish it had been you -- you deserved it, not her." And Sid just lets her attack his son, instead of drop-kicking her to the curb. Worse, he indulges in his own overblown soliloquy: it's like he and Karen and the kids are in a boat paddling through rough water, only to discover that one of the kids has carved a hole in the bottom. Sid's feelings of betrayal are outrageous; what happened to the guy who, the previous season, cautioned his daughter that betrayal is common and shouldn't be judged too harshly? Are we supposed to brand him a hypocrite? Karen keeps asking Sid why he's acting so out of character, and we ourselves don't know the answer: it's almost as if, after a season of him being a disengaged parent, the writers decide to undo the damage by making him a strict disciplinarian -- but it's a miscalculation that only serves to make him look worse. Of course, Eric could resolve the conflict by revealing that the joints weren't his, but he doesn't -- nor should he have to. Maybe Sid could just -- oh, I don't know -- love his child unconditionally. But instead, it takes Sid discovering the truth -- the joints weren't Eric's -- before he lets go of his anger. And all is forgiven, because it turns out his son isn't "bad" after all. The final shot is a freeze frame on a smiling Sid, who's gratified that his son is once again worthy of his affection. It's the season's nadir.

Oh, crap: it's not. In the following episode, Earl Trent makes the reappearance that only masochists were clamoring for, this time turning up as Valene's substitute teacher; he's insistent that the only way he and Val can take revenge on their spouses is by sleeping together. As unbearable as Earl was earlier in the season, now he's worse. "My name is Earl Trent, and I am a writer," he proclaims to his class, putting the emphasis on the "er" of "writer," as if reciting iambic pentameter to the back row of an amphitheater. Further, "I am one of the few people in Southern California who has written something more creative than a license plate." Are we really supposed to take this guy seriously? He affects a worldly attitude and good breeding, but ultimately, he's diminutive, ineffectual and sexless -- it's like Val is being stalked by an anxious leprechaun. It's as muddled an episode as anything the series ever produces, because the impulse is to show Val still stinging from Gary's infidelity and empower her with a choice: does she want to "get even" by giving him a taste of his own medicine? But as happens throughout Season 2, there's no chemistry between the two actors being potentially paired, so you never imagine that Val would be tempted. In the end, the writers fall back on Earl deciding if he can't have Val willingly, he'll assault her: reducing Valene, once again, to being the victim in her own story-line. And although, at the very least, Gary swooping in to save her could have reinforced his (latest) redemptive arc, it's undercut when he absolves himself of any responsibility where Earl is concerned: "You wanna be sober, don't drink. You wanna drink, be my guest." The character assassination of Gary is complete when he admits he gave up helping Earl stay sober because Earl didn't want a sponsor, he wanted a babysitter. Always good to know that the terms of AA sponsorship -- like a father's love for his teenage son -- are conditional.

After six standalones, and with just two episodes left, Gould and Gilmer try to reintroduce some of the continuing story-lines they'd jettisoned earlier in the season, to give the series momentum going into Season 3. I'm not even going to dwell on the season finale; the cliff-hanger (the literal "cliff-hanger") is tacked-on, mobster-based melodrama, and so far removed from the series' Scenes From a Marriage roots that David Jacobs began apologizing for it shortly after it aired. I'm more concerned with the penultimate episode, which Gould and Gilmer co-wrote, suggesting it was a story-line of some importance to them. Clearly, as it plays out, it's designed to feature prominently in Season 3. But it's awful: as with most of the first ten episodes, it offers short-term incident at the expense of long-term drama. J.R. returns to town to convince Sid to sell him the plans for his pet project, an engine he hopes will someday get 100 miles to the gallon, and by episode's end, with Abby's assistance, he heads back to Texas with a copy in hand. (The episode ends on a freeze-frame of Larry Hagman smirking, in what was quickly becoming a Dallas trademark. That's how little Knots is working to distinguish itself from its parent show.) You can't imagine how this plot will serve the series in episodes to come. Sure, it might provide a strong dramatic scene when Sid finally gets wise to Abby's lies, but how long do we really believe their estrangement -- if it gets that far -- will last? What lasting repercussions will a story-line about a "dream engine" actually have? And if the story of Sid's engine is merely a MacGuffin -- as the methanol story that powers Season 3 ultimately becomes, the best MacGuffin in the show's history -- then what's the endgame? How will it shake up the cast dynamics? The story-line is, of course, abandoned once Don Murray decides to leave the show, but this episode, "Designs," reveals how disastrous Season 3 might have been, had this particular crew continued heading up the writing chores. After a full season, they seem to have learned nothing about creating character-driven stories that carry weight and consequence.

Robert Gilmer departs at the end of Season 2; Diana Gould schools under incoming story editors Ann and Ellis Marcus in Season 3, and returns to headwriting duties in Season 4 far better-suited to the task at hand. Simply put, Knots Landing Season 2 is what happens when people with no experience in serialized drama take on writing a soap; the show suffers a similar, far more disastrous fate in Season 13. (In both cases, Ann Marcus is called in to bail them out.) Yet even as you're left reeling from a season that missed the mark on so many levels, you can easily envision a version of Season 2 that works. A season that showcases the characters at their best, not their worst, and that's so committed to establishing its own voice that it eschews cheeky crossovers with Dallas. A season that recognizes -- in an age when affairs are easy to come by -- that that's all the more reason to make the hook-ups convincing, and to give us cause to care. A season where Karen's passion is unleashed rather than undermined, where Val is given something besides her husband to occupy her time, and where, if Gary does stray, we understand the impulses egging him on, and find ourselves as torn as he is. A season that considers that perhaps a baby isn't a quick fix for a broken marriage, that understands that infidelity has consequences, and that insists there are two sides to every good story -- and if it's a triangle, then there are three. In short, there's a far better version of Season 2 out there than the one that aired.

It's called Season 3.

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 ultimately masters the challenges inherent in its premise; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 6, which boasts one of the series' best story-lines, and its greatest acting showcase; Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; Season 8, in which the characters return, but the plotting goes haywire; Season 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years; Season 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; Season 13, an epic fail, then an epic save; and Season 14, in which the great soap writer Ann Marcus, who'd guided the series during a critical time in its history, gives it a glorious send-off.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss

The TV landscape felt unusually barren this past summer, as opposed to just a few years ago, when it was bursting with good programming. None of the new summer series won me over, and old favorites -- from high-end dramas (Ray Donovan) to low-rent pot-boilers (Zoo), from sci-fi reliables (Dark Matter) to soapy historicals (Poldark) -- were no longer holding my interest. Little by little, my husband and I found ourselves gravitating towards foreign TV series, particularly when we discovered that we could access the streaming service Walter Presents (which imports some of the best in international programming) through Amazon Instant Video. Below are five foreign dramas unlikely to have crossed your path, but well worth seeking out. I haven't included the more popular, long-running series; you've probably heard of those: Denmark's Norskov and the Netherlands' Black Widow, to name two of the best. These are series that came and went in a season or two, but that gave me as much pleasure as just about anything I watched in 2017. (U.S. audiences can access them via Amazon Instant Video, with a subscription to Walter Presents; in the U.K., they're available On Demand through Channel 4.)

Merciless (Brazil, Ojos sin Culpa): Like the British-Irish crime drama The Fall, it's serial killer as matinee idol, the unsub's good looks not merely allowing him to terrorize a city and evade capture, but muddying our response to his crimes. At first glance, the similarities between the two shows are disconcerting; like Jamie Dornan in The Fall, Merciless's Bruno Gagliasso sports a thick wave of brunette hair and a meticulously-trimmed beard. (Their characters' jobs are even similar: Dornan works as a therapist, Gagliasso mans the phone at a crisis center.) But whereas The Fall was a psychological chase, Merciless gleefully cuts across genres, blending the intrigue of a political thriller, the grittiness of a cop show, and -- what gives it its kick -- the sudsiness of a telenovela. With its edgy camerawork and angular soundtrack, Merciless imagines Rio de Janeiro as a hotbed where passions spiral out of control, in a postmillennium world where control is everything. And as political strategist Eduardo "Edu" Borges, who insinuates himself into a Senator's campaign for reelection, into the police department investigating the very crimes that he himself is committing, and into the life of one of the department's star witnesses, Gagliasso is mesmerizing. He took home the 2015 Prêmio Contigo for Best Actor in a Series or Miniseries -- and watching him, you can see why; his virtuosity makes this unlikely mix of genres not only plausible, but persuasive. Each episode begins with a quote from Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy or the BTK Strangler; for all its frothy excesses, it's a show committed to teaching its audience about the psychology of serial killers and the techniques of behavioral analysis used to apprehend them. (The lead detective has returned to Rio to assist in the investigation, following a stint with the FBI. As this is a cop show, she's determined to show the department head how criminal profiling can be used in tandem with traditional detective work; as this is also a soap, he's more interested in renewing the affair they began twenty years earlier.) Serial murderers -- and the methods used to track them -- have been explored in countless U.S. dramas; of course they have -- the United States has had over 2700 spree killings, more than nineteen times that of any other country. Brazil, on the other hand, has had less than ten. So if series creator Glória Perez's scripts play a bit like a primer on criminal profiling, it's understandable -- but the tone never become heavy-handed; on the contrary, her back-to-basics approach makes it feel fresh. That said, Merciless would be merely a great piece of guilty-pleasure programming, if Gagliasso's performance weren't such a jaw-dropper: commanding not only attention, but respect. The result, at its best, is gripping, daring and disturbing -- and, at its least, it's still wicked fun.

Framed (Netherlands, Bellicher): Charles den Tex, the Netherlands' top writer of thrillers, has penned two award-winning novels centered around a software consultant, Michael Bellicher, who finds himself unwittingly caught up in conspiracy. The first, De macht van meneer Miller (The Power of Mr. Miller, 2006), was adapted for television in 2010, and a second season -- based on the sequel Cel (Cell, 2008) -- followed three years later. The novels are a decade old, but the themes are computer hacking and identity theft -- could they be more relevant? (The first novel, alarmingly prescient, turns on a secret organization that pries into the computers of government officials: manipulating policy and public opinion through the falsifying of data and relentless propaganda.) And the TV adaptations are grounded by Daan Schuurmans, one of the Netherlands' most respected theatre, television and film actors. Compared to his other 2010 roles -- in Bernhard, schavuit van Oranje and Annie MG, both of which won him the Netherlands' Beeld en Geluid Award -- Framed is decidedly lightweight fare, but how lovely to have an action hero played by someone of such skill. Schuurmans projects every moment of surprise, clarity and resolve, making it the rare thriller that's equally effective as character drama. Feats of derring-do don't come naturally to Michael Bellicher; Schuurmans is careful to show the fear and desperation as he outruns the authorities, or bluffs his way into a political summit, or scrambles to stay one step ahead of a terrorist -- all to clear his name and expose those who've sullied his reputation. He's agile, quick-witted and occasionally lucky, but never superhuman, and he's splendidly paired in the first season with Anna Drijver, radiant as his newly-transitioned sister Kirsten, who understands fully his need to get at the truth. (Their separate quests for identity -- and how her own journey has made her sympathetic to his -- is one of the nicest, understated aspects of the series.) Drijver, sadly, is relegated to supporting player in the sequel, and in fact, the two seasons feel markedly different in tone: the first boasting an urgency, a leanness and a barrage of action sequences that's replaced, in the second, by a slower build, a broader canvas and a more tempered approach. Even Bellicher himself, in Season 2, takes a while to find his bearings, as if he's never faced adversity before. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. If you're going to go the unlikely route of having a man framed not once, but twice, better the two seasons balance rather than duplicate each other's efforts -- as they do here, admirably and effectively.

The Hunter (France, Le chasseur): The tango music at the top prepares you for what lies ahead: an air of respectability that masks the brutality at the series' core. Each week, once the opening credits have rolled, an immaculately styled and coiffed businesswoman, Mme. Natacha Delaunay, greets a new client in her plush home office. (It's Marie-France Pisier, muse of the New Wave movement, best remembered in the U.S. as Karine in Cousin cousine, and here giving one of her final -- and defining -- performances.) Perhaps she and her latest client are old friends; perhaps they're fresh acquaintances. Perhaps they chat a bit, or dispense with pleasantries altogether. But at some point, the client gets down to business: he has someone he wants assassinated. The Hunter is a fable about a family engaged in contract killing, where the mother brokers the deals, and her son Simon carries them out. Arch and entertaining, it takes the sting out of death by turning it into just another business transaction, handled by professionals. (Whenever the client names the next victim, Mme. Delauney hears the desperation or determination in their voice and instantly ups the price. She understand what the market will bear.) And Simon is exemplary at his job; he's an impressive assassin, who can take out a target without exposing himself to suspicion. (He sees to it that the deaths appear to be suicides, or tragic accidents, or the work of others.) Once he receives his assignment, he devises a strategy within hours, and if it means insinuating himself into the life of the victim, he has a new identity devised and backstopped soon after. As Simon, Yannick Soulier is a marvelous chameleon, equally convincing posing as a doctor or a circus performer: comfortable in a sports coat or a leather jacket, in a luxury car or on a motorcycle. He can be as tough or as tender as the situation demands. The Hunter asks us to sympathize with a contract killer, and we do, because Soulier and writer Laurent Burtin see to it that he's clever and charming and resourceful -- and because, crucially, he's anguishing over a previous case, a woman he was supposed to kill, but whom he chose to spare instead. The repercussions from that decision come back to haunt him in a continuing story-line that's threaded through the narrative; each episode has procedural and serialized elements that intertwine until, in the final installment, they collide. Its "victim of the week" format could quickly grow predictable, but each episode adds a new layer of intrigue, and ultimately, we lose ourselves in a world in which everyone is lying about their lives and about their loyalties -- and we scramble to keep track of what is true, and truly felt. The Hunter keeps piling on twists till the very end, when it explodes in a marvelous bluff that not only reboots the narrative, but makes us reconsider everything we've seen. It keeps us guessing, and we're glad.

Duel (France, Duel en ville): It's easy to dismiss as "just another crime drama." It's got the corrupt politician, and the cop eager to take him down. It's got the town simmering with racial and religious tensions, and the police department struggling to diffuse them. It's got a dabbling of personal subplots -- from alcoholism to divorce to office romance -- that we've seen countless times, and in better dramas. What elevates Duel are two characters, and not the obvious ones (the politician and the cop). It's the politician and his bodyguard, played by two veterans giving performances of such conviction and dimension that you forgive even their gravest transgressions. As Mayor Philippe Dellas, who makes one deadly mistake in the opening episode and then spends the rest of the series running from it, the prolific character actor Patrick Chesnais (best-known to American audiences as the physician in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) gives the series stature and unexpected pathos. Dellas has lost the fire in his belly; mired in an increasingly ugly re-election campaign, he's disheartened by a political atmosphere that's abandoned all pretense of integrity and inclusiveness. (His opponent is an extremist all too eager to incite racial violence, to energize his base and expand his media coverage -- the themes feel particularly pertinent in 2017.) He wearies, too, of a home life that's begun to feel flat and fraudulent. And Chesnais is matched, beautifully, by actor Olivier Rabourdin. (Rabourdin's supporting turn in 2010's Of Gods and Men, which received the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, was nominated for a César Award; he seems to turn up in every American movie set in France, and is probably most familiar to U.S. audiences as former agent Jean-Claude Pitrel in Taken and Taken 2.) As Joël Delpierre, a police officer who left the force to look out for Mayor Dellas, he's tasked with cleaning up his boss's messes, and although the lengths to which he'll go to do so are extreme and abhorrent, the series gets past that, turning instead on the devotion and constancy between these two old friends, and the rapport between two distinguished actors. There's an end-of-an-era feel to Duel that's inescapably moving. The teleplay by Gérard Carré is imbued with nostalgia for "simpler" times, and Chesnais and Rabourdin's performances seem sympathetic to that notion: that the world is spinning too fast, and that decent men -- and reasonable discourse -- are being perverted and discarded in the process.

Valkyrien (Norway, Valkyrien): The past decade has seen more than its share of dystopian dramas, as films and TV series have plunged us into post-apocalyptic chaos. Valkyrien is the rare pre-apocalyptic drama, taking its cue from a lead character -- Leif Lien, chief technical officer of Norway's Civil Defense Unit -- who's a doomsday prepper and blogger, and placing his survivalism front and center. Lien is tasked with risk assessment and emergency management, and he's good at what he does, but his heightened awareness of the threats posed by climate change, terrorism, overpopulation, energy shortages and a shaky global economy have bled into his personal life and stoked his private fears. (As Leif, Pål Sverre Hagen -- one of Norway's most versatile and popular actors -- manages a double-edged performance that evokes both modesty and mania, a dictatorial manner tempered by basic decency.) Leif's doomsday preparations find an outlet when his doctor, Ravn Eikanger, approaches him, in desperate need of a laboratory to carry out private research; his wife, also a physician, and suffering degenerative illness, has fallen into a coma after her hospital prevented her from pursuing experimental testing that might have saved her. And so Leif -- who's built a significant network in Oslo's black economy -- sets up Ravn in an abandoned shelter beneath Valkyrien Square, and in exchange for the space and equipment to keep his wife alive and continue his research, convinces him to open a clinic -- both literally and figuratively underground -- catering to other societal outcasts, who are unable or unwilling to risk treatment in traditional settings. (Ravn is played by the great Sven Nordin, star of TV and film -- including the Oscar-nominated Best Foreign Film Elling -- and a forty-year member of Oslo's New Theatre.) Once creator Erik Richter Strand has put his pieces in place, Valkyrien becomes a character drama focused on a core four: in addition to Leif and Ravn, there's a second doctor at the clinic (a colleague of Ravn's wife, who's been equally mistreated by her superiors) and a reluctant bank robber who's running from authorities. They form the most improbable of blended families, but because the emotional beats are so strong, the dramatic detours (including several to explore their home lives) never feel random. It's only in the final third, when a couple of the interpersonal conflicts seem cursory and convenient, that you raise an eyebrow or two. But the game-changer at the close of the penultimate chapter -- and the satisfying way it's resolved -- ameliorates any concerns you might have had. Valkyrien is about four unlikely allies who've grown wary of a world defined by greed, corruption and inaction, and the (small) steps they take to correct it. In this pre-apocalyptic age, it's the rare ray of hope.

Enjoy reading about TV's best? Check out two similarly-styled posts: The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching and My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders. Or if you enjoy detailed looks at hit shows, check out my write-ups of Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Judging Amy Season 6, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. Or if you prefer sitcoms, I pen a Mike & Molly appreciation, look back at WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4, and ponder why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Knots Landing season 13

By the late '80s, my passion for Knots Landing had become more like an obsession. I wasn't just watching it live and taping it to VCR in case I wanted to have another look (which I invariably did); I was watching it live and taping it to two VCR's, in case one broke down. I couldn't imagine a fate worse than missing an episode of Knots.

Then Season 13 rolled around, and within a few weeks, I stopped taping it to two VCR's. Was it even necessary to tape it to one? I remember being rather shocked at how quickly my devotion faded into disinterest. It's not like Knots hadn't gone through rough spells; I mean, even then, as I looked back at the history of the show, I was able to spot a half-dozen dry patches -- some of them bone dry. But there had never been anything like the first fifteen episodes of Season 13: a perfect storm of mediocrity. New writers, none with soap experience, let alone an understanding of these particular characters -- and an outgoing team who had left them with nothing to work from, merely a set of unpromising cliffhangers and compromised characters.

It's easy to deride the first two-thirds of Season 13, in which newly-installed showrunner John Romano brings on an entirely new writing crew and, in record time, decimates the show. But my latest rewatch left me with as many questions as responses. So I reached out to James Magnuson, who was brought aboard by Romano at the start of the season, and was one of the two writers retained when creator David Jacobs famously shut down production after fifteen episodes, sacked Romano, and sent out an S.O.S. to legendary soap scribe Ann Marcus. (The other writer retained, Dallas and Falcon Crest vet Lisa Seidman, had joined near the end of the Romano regime. Marcus, Seidman and Magnuson proved such a potent team that all three stayed on for Season 14.). So Magnuson is the only one who was there at the start of Season 13, and also for the masterful late-season overhaul -- and as such, his is a voice very much worth hearing. But lest anyone fear that because I've spoken with one of the season's writers, I'm going to be any more tolerant of those early episodes, have no fear: I'm prepared to trash them.

I have to, right?

Because it's staggering how far afield they go. The law of averages suggests that if you assign a team of writers -- in particular, a team with genuine talent -- to brainstorm a season of a series they're unfamiliar with, they'll at least get a few things right. Knots Landing Season 13 deals a death-blow to the law of averages. Lack of familiarity -- and pressing deadlines -- did the writers in. For Magnuson, "I got on a plane, and four hours later, I was in a room planning story. None of us had seen much of the show, and that was a huge problem. Once I got into it, I was trying to watch previous episodes, but it's pretty hard to absorb twelve seasons." (The new writers were given neither season summaries nor character breakdowns. In an anecdote that's funny only in retrospect, Magnuson recalls that they spotted Laura Van Wormer's 1986 coffee table book, Knots Landing: The Saga of Seaview Circle, and started to study it, brainstorming story-lines, before realizing that much of it had nothing to do with the TV series.) In the end, it seems pretty clear that the new writers studied mostly the second half of Season 12, because so much of Season 13 -- the perceived obligation to do "social issues"; the depictions of Claudia as a victim (undone by family secrets), Kate as sullen and angry, Karen as "the voice of the people" (and the voice of Christmas), and Anne embroiled in screwball capers -- seems a reflection of how the characters and the show were left at the end of Season 12.

At the start of the season, it was Romano, Magnuson and Donald Marcus breaking story. On paper, this was an impressive trio: Romano was an Emmy-nominated vet of Steven Bochco's Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law (Jacobs' joke at the time was that, if he wanted to beat L.A. Law in the ratings, he'd have to raid from Bochco); Magnuson had received an NEA fellowship, written numerous plays and novels, and was then teaching writing at the University of Texas; Marcus had founded the Ark Theater Company in New York City, and served not only as its producer, but as one of its most successful playwrights. As Magnuson notes, the writing team "was sneakily high-brow, but we didn't know this kind of television." And they didn't know Knots.

It's fruitless to go episode by episode through Season 13, and point out all the errors in judgment. Let's just look at a few of the worst-handled characters and relationships.

Take Anne Matheson. Or, as the old joke goes, take Anne Matheson -- please. When reintroduced into the series in Season 11, she had a joie de vivre that was welcome in a season mired in misery. At the top of Season 12, she's reinvented as a screwball heroine, and finally, in an effort to be "relevant," the writers see to it that she loses everything and is left poverty-stricken and homeless. OK, given that there are, like, three Anne Mathesons through the course of Seasons 11 and 12, it's small wonder that the new writers can't quite figure out who she is. But she had certain constants: first and foremost, a core group of characters (Paige, Mack, Sumner and Claudia) who helped define her. So you develop a plot that eliminates that foursome from her life, then strand her with a loudmouth grifter named Benny Appleman for the first ten episodes. The boorish Benny, as Magnuson notes, is "a character out of Hill Street Blues," but he does nothing for Michelle Phillips -- and the actor who plays him, Stuart Pankin, bellows his lines twice as loud as everyone else. When Anne's screwball antics had been successful, early in Season 12, it was because she and her partner-in-crime were simultaneously struggling with an undeniable sexual attraction, a formula that owed much to the great romantic comedies of the 1930's; remove that element, and Anne's just doing "capers" -- and who cares? Benny involves her in a scheme to photograph cheating husbands, a plot that goes nowhere, then he and Anne seize upon the idea of having her pose nude for an upscale magazine, a plot that goes next to nowhere. Finally, Benny parlays Anne's newfound "exposure" into a radio gig, giving advice to the lovelorn, the most unlikely job imaginable. (The writers, apparently unaware of Anne's privileged upbringing and utter lack of empathy, don't see the irony or incongruity in her new career, or realize that there's not a single character in Knots Landing you'd be less likely to take advice from, except possibly Val's hairdresser.) And all the while, she's saddled with Benny, the beached whale. There's a scene where they go out to a fancy restaurant and a waiter places an artichoke in front of him -- and he sniffs it and stares at it and fumbles trying to eat it, like it's his first time in civilization. Ultimately he sticks a fork in it and starts eating it from the bottom, and all you're thinking is, is this a metaphor or what? Yes, please: stick a fork in it.

Kate and Claudia have it just as bad. Claudia had come aboard in Season 12 as a master manipulator, Kate as her upbeat and oblivious offspring. Midway through that season, the writers decide to upend both characters: Claudia is unnerved by the appearance of a child she gave up for adoption; Kate becomes gloomy and self-righteous. As noted, it's the latter versions of Kate and Claudia that the new writers seize upon. At the end of Season 12, Claudia sets the police on her long-lost son Steve and they shoot him when he tries to escape. As Season 13 begins, Steve is dead, and Kate tears into her mother. Claudia deflects by asking for pity ("He was my baby, and I gave him away"), but Kate is sullen and unrelenting: "He was your son, and you killed him." Thud. We get episodes of this unappealing dynamic: Claudia begging Kate to love her again, and Kate hammering her with trite and overwrought rejections: "You don't have a daughter. You have lost me, Mother." Finally, after a weak and unconvincing reconciliation, they get their own plotlines, both awful. Kate becomes consumed by a man with whom she has no spark: an oceanographer who has convinced Gary Ewing that they can save the world with tidal energy. (Tidal Energy -- a multi-million-dollar enterprise to harness water -- is actually positioned as the season's big story-line; in the season opener, Gary decides to invest his life savings, and asks Val excitedly, "Where is it gonna take us?" The answer turns out to be "absolutely nowhere," because it's a concept that sounds far-fetched even as it's being explained to us, a plot that's impossible to dramatize except peripherally, and an endeavor that's only likely to impact the core characters if it fails. Tidal Energy: the mind still boggles.) As oceanographer Joseph Berringer, Mark Soper seems incapable of energy or emotion, but it's not entirely his fault: as written, his character is an odd blend of self-interest and disinterest, and Kate's infatuation is mystifying. Meanwhile, Claudia is burdened with another long-buried family secret, this one involving her late mother, her mother's nurse, and Alex Barth, the boy who comes to town to blackmail her. For a time, Claudia replaces Valene as the character whose sole purpose is to be victimized. She barely shows up to work at the Sumner Group for the first dozen episodes; she's too busy quivering at home, fearful what the future might bring.

And then there's Paige and Sumner. Paige gets one nice scene in episode 1, when Linda is mouthing off as ever, and she puts her in her place. But from that point on, her character is all but obliterated. When she goes on a business trip, and upon her return, asks her mother to pick her up at the airport (as opposed to -- oh, I don't know -- someone she actually likes), you're aware that the writers have no idea about their rivalry, or the years of hurt and mistrust that are unlikely to be resolved overnight. As they huddle together under an umbrella, Paige calls Anne "Mom," and gushes about this man she met a day earlier. "It's love, mother," Paige insists, "You should try it sometime." (Anne counters, "Your father and I were in love," and you think: in what parallel universe was that? Was there anyone on the set the day that scene was filmed -- a cameraman, a make-up artist -- who was tempted to say, "You really need to study these characters"?) Paige giggles aloud at the sound of Pierce's name, like a smitten schoolgirl, and things don't get any better when he actually appears, because -- as with Stuart Pankin and Mark Soper -- Bruce Greenwood is a total miscast, who has no chemistry with Nicollette Sheridan. So Paige and Pierce's steamy affair gets off to a tepid start, and to prop it up, the new writers underplay the depth and complexity of Paige and Sumner's relationship -- and by this point in the run, getting these two right is crucial to the texture and continuity of the show. In one underwhelming scene, Greg becomes convinced, mistakenly, that Paige gave confidential information to Pierce and fires her. Paige throws up her hands, shrugs and leaves. As scripted, you'd think she's just another employee to him, and it's just another job to her -- as wild a misreading of the characters as occurs in Season 13. And from there Paige is reduced to Pierce's attaché, and then to the role of damsel in distress, as a crazy lady from Pierce's past arrives to warn her about his "dark side," and little by little, she comes to realize that maybe it wasn't the smartest idea to shack up with a guy she'd known for all of two days. Meanwhile, William Devane is forced to utter arguably the worst line in the show's history, following a brief interaction with Paige that gives him hope for a reconciliation: "I may not be on her bones, but I'm still on her mind." It's crass and flat, and reduces their relationship to crude sitcom humor. (It's a line credited to Rachel Cline, of whom I'll have nothing good to say.)

(As an aside, the "crazy lady from Pierce's past" is named Victoria Broyard, and she is without a doubt the most arbitrarily-drawn character in Knots creation. She is -- from episode to episode, from scene to scene -- whatever the writers need her to be: grieving widow, sultry vamp, mad stalker, avenging angel. Just when you think she might actually be the voice of reason, that everything she's been telling Paige about Pierce all along has been true, even if her tactics were a little extreme, she invites Gary Ewing to lunch and, for no reason, plants a kiss on him.)

Within a few episodes, the core characters become unrecognizable. It's not just that the writers don't know the characters: at one point -- when Benny refers to Karen MacKenzie as "Mrs. Fairgate" -- you realize they don't even know their names. Co-executive producers David Jacobs and Michael Filerman had been hands-off for years, and Jacobs has since announced that he was dealing with medical issues at the time -- but when you hire a new headwriter with no knowledge of the characters, and apparently don't check the scripts or watch the dailies, that's unforgivable. (James Stanley, who'd been script editing since Season 9, was held over as a supervising producer to make the transition smoother, even though he was heavily involved in the launch of ABC's Homefront. But clearly he and Romano didn't gel, because his one script that season, episode 2, bears none of the hallmarks of his style, and within another week, he's gone.) But Romano has to shoulder most of the blame. He had no experience with soaps, and no knowledge of Knots -- and he hired writers with those same deficiencies. Both Magnuson and Donald Marcus (who returns to the series midway through Season 14) turn out splendid scripts under Ann Marcus, scripts that not only demonstrate prowess, but reveal an identifiable writer's style. Their talents aren't in question; they just needed someone familiar with the genre to guide them, who could provide a fertile training ground and a secure, nurturing environment -- and Romano wasn't that person. (In addition to Romano's lack of soap experience, Lisa Seidman -- when I interviewed her in 2015 -- recalled another issue. Romano was not just overseeing the writers, but "dealing with production, and often times, the writers were on their own, trying to come up with story. It was very difficult getting John to sit with us for any stretch of time.")

Magnuson, looking back on that period, is both candid and congenial, and wonderfully clear-headed. Although he concedes that the Romano era was a "painful" one that "left its scars," he still recalls the hopefulness he felt early on: when the cast members welcomed the new writers to the set, and when William Devane complimented him on a scene he wrote for Michele Lee in his first script, "Eye of the Beholder." (Magnuson is responsible for the few scenes in the first half-dozen episodes that actually work, including Karen's speech to her studio audience about the dangers of fighting violence with violence, and her visit to the home of a young boy who's died, whose father offers up a halting monologue about the challenges of raising children.) He argues, rightly, that the Romano-era failings have less to do with the writers' abilities and more to do with their unfamiliarity with the show and the genre. But he recognizes that that unfamiliarity proves fatal: "It was crazy to get thrown in on a show we'd never seen, and have to write all those episodes. We lacked the background for that show -- we were all playing catch-up." Unaware of the characters' rich, shared histories, the writers compartmentalize them; for the first seven episodes, the core characters each get someone new to play opposite, then go into their own little worlds, interacting only sporadically. Knots had always woven its story-lines so that the characters had the most potential for interaction, often in surprising ways; the top of Season 13 isolates them much more than we'd ever seen. We lose all sense of a community.

But back to Rachel Cline, because I really want to tear her work to shreds. (Is that necessary? "Not necessary," as Anne Matheson once said: "Fun.") And again, Cline is not untalented; in the years following Knots, she became a highly-regarded novelist. But her Knots work is woeful; she is, without question, the staff writer who turns out the worst episodes in the show's fourteen-year run. Cline joins as Story Editor for episode 5, and pens the next episode, "Business With Pleasure." Her grasp of domestic drama is spotty at best, but that's a problem that infests the entire Romano crew. They don't seem to understand what distinguishes it: why exactly a genre best remembered as two women talking across the kitchen table became so addictive. During the Romano era, "domestic drama" actually comes to mean people talking about household items. Here's an exchange between Mack and Karen, from "Business With Pleasure":

Mack: The coffee is cold.
Karen: Pop it in the microwave for a second.
Mack: Oh, I don't like that.
Karen: The microwave? Why not?
Mack: Radiation. I feel like I'm drinking those little rays.
Karen: That's crazy. Did you read that somewhere?
Mack: No, I think that. What I did read is that they can be very dangerous for you if you're wearing a pacemaker.
Karen: You don't have a pacemaker.
Mack: What if we have a guest? What if somebody drops by who has a pacemaker? Think about it.

Better yet, let's not think about it. It's like a scene from the great soap parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (you can hear Louise Lasser doing Mack's lines) -- except this isn't intended as parody. Later, Mack and Karen have a lengthy conversation about who should take Claudia her mail; a few episodes after that, they have a spat because Karen mixed two boxes of cereal together in his bowl. (There was a little left at the bottom of one of the boxes, and she didn't want to waste it.) The brilliance of Knots Landing -- as with the best domestic dramas -- is that the mundane tasks were always a backdrop (and more often than not, an outlet) for issues of real importance. If Val helped Karen stretch a sweater that seemed tight, it wasn't about the sweater: it was about Karen's insecurities, after spending time away from her family and coming back to find so much changed. If Mack and Karen started squabbling about trivial matters -- like what color the living room should be painted, and which way the toilet paper should come off the roll -- it wasn't about paint chips and toilet paper; it was about Mack having a midlife crisis. (As I mentioned in my Season 6 essay, that season's headwriter, Richard Gollance, would always ask, "What is the scene about?" There had to be something simmering subtextually that the actors could play.) Romano and his scribes seem to think that domestic drama means writing about "ordinary" things -- recycling and carpooling -- with nothing going on beneath the surface. For them, soap opera begins and ends with two women sitting around the kitchen table talking.

I'm jumping ahead, but it would be remiss of me to bring up domestic drama and not discuss "Holiday on Ice" (Cline's second script): the Christmas Eve party at the MacKenzies that's a series low point. ("Holiday on Ice" was, for a long time, the lowest-rated Knots Landing episode at, although that's probably because I voted about thirty-seven times.) It starts with a montage set to The Messiah, in which the cast trims the tree, watches football, samples the food -- without one interaction that feels specific to these characters. It's as if all the season's plotlines vanish because it's Christmas. (Yes, because families always leave their baggage at the door at holiday gatherings.) We get Bobby spraining his ankle, and a fight between Meg and Betsy about Meg's missing front teeth. And a football game on the front lawn that could be any people on the face of the planet, that seems to be pridefully announcing, "See: they're just like everyone else!" -- as if genericism is a virtue. And then there's a power outage, and as they wait for the electricity to return, Karen coerces everybody into singing Christmas carols while holding flashlights. Joan Van Ark and Nicollette Sheridan duet on "Jingle Bells," and when they get to "laughing all the way," the forced gaiety as the two of them shout "Ha ha ha!" is painful. Meanwhile, Jason, Mack, Gary and Pierce argue over the proper pronunciation of "Wenceslas," before Michele Lee launches into a rendition of Barry Manilow's "Because It's Christmas" to a prerecorded track of herself. And she doesn't just sing it; she wails it. (When she gets to the part about how "tonight belongs to all the children," she points to Meg and the twins, in case we were uncertain which ones the children were.) As the camera pans from one set of gritted teeth to the next, you haven't seen a cast so united in their hatred of music since Lilimae pulled out the autoharp.

Beyond the writing team's inability to script domestic drama, they're equally stymied by the salacious aspect of soap-opera writing. The characters, over the first fifteen episodes, don't necessary have a lot of sex -- they just talk about it a lot, and with the unlikeliest people. Val has a scene in which she obsesses over whether Kate and Joseph are doing the deed -- although she's never been that close to Kate, and barely knows Joseph. (She tries to draw Gary into the conversation, and he's visibly, reasonably horrified.) Then Karen gets to have a talk with Frank about how his new girlfriend Debbie (her Open Mike assistant) wants more than just a physical relationship, as if that's something Karen and Frank would ever discuss. In "Business With Pleasure," Paige lures Greg's assistant Mort into a closet (so she can lock him in and steal some Sumner Group files) by telling him she left her underwear in there. (Her underwear. In the closet.) There's an "ick" factor to the Romano-era episodes, and nothing is worse than Kate wondering why Joseph seems unresponsive -- not realizing it's because he was born without emotions -- and grilling her Uncle Greg about what turns him on in bed. He squirms visibly in his seat, but his discomfort doesn't alleviate our own. "Do you like women to touch you?", she asks her uncle, in what should be a low point in taste for the series. But it's not, because an episode or two later, Greg quizzes Claudia on why she's so anxious that Joseph leave town -- and when she responds, "Because my daughter deserves somebody wonderful," Greg replies, "Yeah, but I'm her uncle." When was the last time the show indulged in a good incest joke? -- oh wait, that's right: never. It's so perverse that Kathleen Noone has no idea how to respond. Neither do we.

At the time David Jacobs shut down production, in November of 1991, seven episodes had aired, which he described as "uniformly awful." They are. He then went on to characterize the following seven, which had been filmed but not yet aired, as "uniformly inconsistent." At the time, it seemed disingenuous -- he could hardly call the next set of episodes "lousy" and expect us to tune in, so they had to be "inconsistent." It turns out that "inconsistent" is pretty close to the truth. Episode 8, Magnuson's "House of Cards," is a bottle episode in which Mack, Karen, Jason and Meg are held hostage in their home by Linda's killer, Brian Johnson; it's the first episode of the season that's even marginally successful. It temporarily liberates us from the mischaracterizatons of Claudia, Kate, Anne and Paige, and the tedium of Gary and Sumner's "fight for control of tidal energy" -- and because Magnuson can focus on a handful of characters whose personalities he understands, he gets to show what he can do. (Giving credit where it's due, the transformation of Brian Johnston from sexual adventurer to dangerous fugitive -- and the acting showcase it provides Philip Brown -- is one of the team's few success stories, and Lar Park-Lincoln does desperate and defenseless quite well. Linda was not a character I was fond of, and I was not sorry to see her go, but I quite like her during her three-episode stint in Season 13.)

And from there, Donald Marcus takes the reins for two episodes and launches into a flurry of course-correcting. Magnuson recalls that it's around that time that Jacobs realized his franchise was failing, and started demanding changes. And the writers themselves were aware that certain story-lines -- Tidal Energy, in particular -- were floundering. (Magnuson concedes that they knew instantly that the chemistry between Greenwood and Sheridan wasn't there -- which begs the question, how did he get cast?) So in episodes 9 and 10, there's a clear attempt to weed out what's not working and to up the ante: first and foremost, by having Tidal Energy's first test run be a disaster, and a potential ruin to Gary. And when that happens, Pierce turns out to be unstable, and Joseph a flake. (Basically, they're revealed to be exactly how they'd unintentionally come across in the first seven episodes.) The writers start to ease off the ill-conceived new arrivals, to make room for the core characters. In episode 9, Val gets a note from Lynette, a new character whom she'd been teaching to read (that's how they'd managed to both compartmentalize and waste Valene and do a turgid look at a social issue: adult illiteracy), and that plotline is put to bed. In episode 10, they write off Benny and Debbie. In episode 11, Jason leaves town, and two episodes later, Joseph follows. Although the newfound focus on the core characters results in only a half-dozen good scenes, that's a handful more than we've had to date. As Gary considers taking out a mortgage on his ranch (to pay the additional expenses on Tidal Energy), we get some lively exchanges: between Mack and Gary, then Gary and Val, and finally Val and Karen. They discuss issues of urgency and weight, with some semblance of a backstory.

But even as the writers are revamping their story-lines, even as they restore focus, there doesn't seem to be a clear plan for moving forward. According to Magnuson, the writers would devise one set of story-lines, and then Romano would return from meeting with Jacobs and Filerman at their Burbank offices, and "the whole focus of the show would change." (It felt "like we were being whipsawed.") The first seven episodes had been characterized by sort of a bullish wrong-mindedness; episodes 11 through 15 feel tentative and half-hearted, like the writers don't dare commit to anything, as if they're questioning every move they're making. (Mack and Karen spend three episodes agonizing that Greg wants to tell Meg that he's her father -- then decide that, oh, maybe he doesn't.) After a few episodes where the exchanges seemed to be getting sharper, everything gets fuzzy and flat again. Gary losing the ranch -- and having to watch it be auctioned off -- should be heartbreaking, but we don't get one decent payoff; Karen's decision to quit her TV show is relegated to a throwaway scene. And the show remains hobbled by the writers' limited familiarity with the characters' backstories. Yes, having Anne and Sumner get involved in episode 11 is better than stranding her with Benny, watching him hawk inflatable Anne Matheson dolls (yes, that happens), but as scripted, their coupling has no consequences; Paige doesn't get to weigh in, nor does Claudia, nor Kate. And when Val moves back into her old home on Seaview Circle, there's the potential for a scene of huge emotional impact -- if, say, she were to wander from room to room, recalling and reacting to scenes from her past. Instead, she flashes back to the pilot, when Richard welcomed her to the cul-de-sac, and then has a moment of déjà vu when Alex shows up at the front door. Alex: Claudia's blackmailer, who will never interact with Valene again, and who is, at this point, a completely irrelevant character. And you think, my God: the writers still don't know the series or the genre well enough to do flashbacks effectively.

And here's where the story of Season 13 gets weird. By episode 14 or so, Magnuson remembers, Romano had already been let go, "so no one was running the show -- we were just writing it." It was by that point a rudderless ship, one that quickly started to take on water. And into an environment already "fraught and vexed" came a command from on high: "David Jacobs had met [1984 Olympic gymnast] Mary Lou Retton, and wanted us to put her in the show. So we were scratching our heads trying to think, 'How in the world are we going to do this?'" They ultimately decide to give Meg a talent for gymnastics, which proves as dull as it sounds. But the Retton anecdote begs a couple of questions. First, how insane is Jacobs' gesture? (Your show is in turmoil, so you offer a cameo to a former Olympic gold medalist?) And second, how starved for story-lines must the writing staff have been that they don't just devote a few scenes to it, but three episodes? Three. (Laura's funeral only got two.) By this point, the plotting has lost any sense of flow or purpose, and the placement of scenes feels random, like they're just trying to take the filmed footage and fill 46 minutes as best they can. (Magnuson describes an atmosphere so desperate, "we were bouncing off the walls.") In "Torrents of Winter," Gary's about to lose his ranch, and he's howling at Pierce over his betrayal -- and the next scene is Karen waking up Mack in the middle of the night because she's decided to let Meg take more gymnastic lessons; the show hasn't seen such an insane juxtaposition of scenes since we flip-flopped between Mary Frances's funeral and Meg's new goldfish. In "Letting Go," the A-plot finds Gary going back to work at the ranch he just lost (even though everyone, including the audience, knows it's a lousy idea), then deciding it's a lousy idea; the B-plot has Frank thinking he won the lottery, then realizing, no, he didn't. The story-lines -- both big and small -- seem hellbent on going nowhere, eerily appropriate for a writing staff feeling cut off at the knees.

With Knots Landing in the direst straits of its thirteen-year run, Jacobs shut down production after episode 15 and implored soap giant Ann Marcus, who hadn't been with the series since Season 3, to come back and save it. In her autobiography, Whistling Girl, Marcus reveals that she was given one week to study all the episodes she could, immerse herself in backstory, and come up with a bible to take them through the remainder of the season. She met the deadline without breaking a sweat. (Seidman: "Ann arrived at the first meeting -- with David Jacobs, Michael Filerman, Jim Magnuson and myself -- with the game-plan already in place. I remember how impressed I was by her story sense." Magnuson: "It was remarkable what she did.") Let's remind ourselves where the series had left off: in the most recent episode, Gary had gone back to work, then quit; Meg had met Mary Lou Retton; and Frank hadn't won the lottery. (In the unfilmed sixteenth episode, Marcus recalls that one of the key plotlines was about carpooling.) So given her starting point, let's not shy away from hyperbole here: what Marcus accomplished is one of the greatest salvage jobs in the history of television. Within a few scenes, she restores interest; within a few episodes, she restores greatness. And further, she reboots the characters and story-lines without undoing the structure already in place -- i.e., without resorting to a "Dallas dream season." It's amazing, really, how much she manages in the first episode alone.

First off, just two scenes in, we get the best-remembered plot: Val's commission to write a tell-all book about Greg Sumner. (Of course Marcus would turn to Val's writing career; she was the one who masterminded A Family in Texas back in Season 3.) It's an inspired idea that involves pretty much all the characters in one "umbrella" story-line -- plus it restores Val's drive and dignity, which we haven't seen in almost three years. Marcus basically reboots Val's character to how she'd left her in Season 3. Midway through Season 4, under new producer Peter Dunne and his writing team, Valene had regressed into a woman who couldn't let go of the past; it made the three leading ladies (Karen, Val and Abby) archetypal -- what one critic once referred as "earth, wind and fire" -- but it also trapped Valene in the role of professional victim. But once Abby left, and that trio was dismantled, Val's victim status was no longer needed for balance; why prolong it? (And besides, Marcus never wrote weak women.) As Valene launches into research for the Sumner bio, her enthusiasm and single-mindedness bring to mind the vigor with which she pursued the publication of A Family in Texas. Early on, Val is out to dinner with Gary, Mack and Karen, all of whom are expressing reservations about the Sumner bio (including the very real consideration that Meg is going to be exposed and scrutinized), but Val refuses to be cowed: "I cannot believe that we're all so afraid of this man. We have let him bully us and bankrupt us. He has threatened people's lives -- he even took our ranch away from us -- and still, after all that, I'm not allowed to simply tell the truth and write about him?" Welcome back, Sweetpea.

With Val's book commissioned, Marcus goes to work on Claudia and Kate, two characters who've never been written consistently or effectively; she pretty much rebuilds them from the ground up. Claudia first. Marcus had been in the soap world for decades; she knew what Kathleen Noone was capable of -- and she certainly didn't need to be cowering in a corner, at the mercy of some sleazeball kid. Within a few scenes, Claudia turns the tables on Alex, her tormentor, and asserts her authority -- and the blackmail plot, which had been draining the life from the series for half a year, is eliminated instantly when she comes clean to Greg about her "dark secret" (she euthanized Ava Gardner's character -- good for her), and he gets it and gets over it. And then she's back to work, and Marcus doesn't strand her over at the Foundation, where she'd spent the latter half of Season 12; she brings her right into the action. From her decades doing soaps, Marcus understands how to showcase characters -- and in particular, how to do so with Claudia. Don't bring her on as a master manipulator, or as a victim -- don't lead with her worst qualities. Noone is a formidable actress: show her character at her strongest -- show what she has to offer the series. And then you can show how her priorities and her vulnerabilities trip her up. It's a plan that will continue well into Season 14. (And that's not to say that Marcus doesn't find a use for Alex; transformed from a slimy blackmailer into a wannabe go-getter, forever in over his head, he lands a job at the Sumner Group -- and with Sumner, Paige, Claudia, Alex and Mort working there, we get a nice workplace rhythm going again.)

And then Marcus takes aim at Kate. There's a knock at the door, and in walks an old chum from Kate's pro tennis circuit, Vanessa Hunt (Felicity Waterman, in skirts the size of dish cloths). And suddenly the sullen ingenue who had been such a drag on the first two-thirds of the season is gone. Vanessa does exactly what the arrival of Anne Matheson did in Season 11 -- she restores a little irreverence to a season that had been taking itself so damn seriously. As Kate and Vanessa do calisthenics on the floor and dish old boyfriends (including Joseph, quickly relegated to a forgettable footnote in Kate's personal life), you feel a new Kate emerge, one with both a sense of humor and a sense of self-awareness. And at the same time, as Vanessa takes advantage of her old friend, moving into her apartment and moving in on her turf, we get a flustered, self-deprecating side of Kate that looks particularly good on Stacy Galina. As Alex and Kate head out on their first date, Alex stops to admire Vanessa's obvious attributes (Vanessa manages to be clad in nothing but a towel) and tells Kate, "Good-looking girl." And Kate, feeling her own self-esteem dwindle, mutters, "Yah, she's OK..." Kate had been so solemn and sanctimonious for a year; now, suddenly, she's fun, easily frazzled and occasionally insecure -- qualities we can relate to. (Once Marcus gives her a nurturing nature, at the top of Season 14, the character feels fully formed.)

That's all in the first episode: three characters transformed, and promising story-lines launched. Onto the next episode, as the cold open reignites the tension between the Matheson women. Anne tries to hurry Sumner out of her apartment before Paige arrives for a breakfast date (to thank her for giving Kate a job at her radio station, which happened while we weren't looking). But no such luck. Paige shows up while Greg's still dressing, and the three regard each other uncomfortably before he makes his exit. (He kisses Anne on the cheek, then blows a kiss Paige's way: shameless as ever.) Anne asks Paige, with delicious double meaning, "You don't mind if we go out? -- I mean, to pick up some juice and croissants. I just got a really late start." Paige keeps her emotions in check: "So I noticed" -- and Anne, terribly pleased with herself, smiles, "I noticed you noticed." (Lisa Seidman, who wrote that episode, would write most of the Paige-Anne scenes the following season. She had the touch.) And the triangle is back on, with a fresh dynamic.

After the title sequence, Sumner gets wind of Valene's new book and dismisses it as "the funniest thing I've heard since Gary Ewing decided to save the world with tidal energy." (Tidal Energy has already been relegated to a punchline.) And pretty much everything starts clicking: the Sumner bio, which results in a slew of great scenes, including a rare one between Joan Van Ark and Bill Devane, in which he undermines their first interview by blowing smoke in her face; the quadrangle with Alex, Claudia, Kate and Vanessa; and the increasingly awkward triangle of Anne, Greg and Paige. As opposed to the chaotic and ultimately oppressive nature of the Romano era, Magnuson remembers this period as "orderly" and "fun," the careful interweaving of story-lines "a little bit like putting cranberries and popcorn on a thread for Christmas ornaments." And Seidman -- who's since enjoyed an astounding career in the industry, including lengthy stints as associate headwriter of Days of Our Lives and The Young and the Restless -- also remembers an angst-free atmosphere, one both calmed and enlivened by Marcus's steady hand: "Jim, Ann and I would meet and discuss each episode in broad strokes. I've always said Ann's taught me more about structure and story-telling and character than anyone else in the business."

CBS had Winter Olympics coverage that season, which meant that, a mere two weeks into the "new" episodes, Knots was going to be taking a three-week hiatus; Marcus understood that the show needed to go out with a bang -- and it does. Pierce aims a rifle at Sumner, Paige and Anne; he fires -- and we go to a who-got-shot cliffhanger, where the possible victims are three of the leads. It's exactly what's needed -- and the production team pulls out all the stops: the "next on Knots Landing" montage is a full 55 seconds -- no dialogue, just stark images to reel in the viewer. In two episodes, Knots has regained its must-watch status, and it wasn't just audiences who took notice; critics saw it too. At Entertainment Weekly, Ken Tucker cheered the cliff-hanger as "classic Knots," and asked, "So how has the revising of Knots been faring?" His answer: "Not badly at all. Who’d have thought, at the start of this drab season, that Knots ’92 would include such amusing suspense, or the promise of good old weekly coffee-jag sessions at Karen’s house, or the spectacle of Val and Greg on the verge of doing the wild thing?"

Get ready, 'cause it's only getting better. The first episode of the Marcus makeover (Magnuson's "Baths and Showers") was good; the second (Seidman's "Denials") was better. The third, associate producer Joel Okmin's "Dedicated to the One I Love," is a classic: the best episode since "The Unknown" over a year earlier. After the first half of the season had so compartmentalized the core characters, "Dedicated" pulls them all into one story-line. It's Paige who's been shot, and that leaves everyone raw and running scared, especially Sumner (the bullet was meant for him), who lashes out at Claudia for trying to console him, then at Val for daring to psychoanalyze him:

Sumner: Doing a little research, Valene? This should be great for the book. Chapter 12: They Shoot Moguls, Don't They?
Val: I'm really sorry about Paige.
Sumner: Are you genuinely sorry, or are you just trying to soften me up so I'll confess all my sins?
Val: I know you want everyone to think that you're a horrible man: that you have no emotions and that you don't ever hurt. But sometimes I get the feeling that you hurt even more than everybody else. Am I right? (She turns to leave.)
Sumner: Valene, think you know all about me, huh? (With an angry leer) Maybe should we should get to know each a little better...

Meanwhile, Karen offers support to Anne, who's sitting alone in the waiting room:

Karen: I brought you some tea. The warmth... it'll help.
Anne: Thanks.
Karen: Gets to be a long night, doesn't it? This... limbo. Worst thing in the world.
Anne (resentful): What do you know? You haven't got a clue.
Karen: I went through this with my first husband. I know exactly what you're going through.

Her posture stiffens, and she walks away, sorry she made the effort. (Karen got the life Anne wanted -- twice; after all this time, Anne is still not over it.) Unbowed, Karen returns home, where Gary has made her some tea. They're both exhausted, and she's numb with worry. The lines come haltingly, in short spurts -- and in between, there are knowing and appreciative looks.

Gary: OK, I've heard how Paige is, and how Mack is. Now I wanna know about you.
Karen: Me?
Gary: Yeah.
Karen: I'm fine.
Gary: Karen?
Karen (after a pause): Sid was a long time ago. I laid his ghost to rest.
Gary: Yeah, I know, but sometimes ghosts come back, and if this one didn't, fine -- but if it did, I want you to know I'm here.
Karen: It was the same thing: the spine. I told Mack that Paige was strong, I even convinced myself what happened to Sid... wouldn't happen to her.
Gary: And it won't. They know so much more now. There's so much more they can do.
Karen: You're right. I know.
Gary: But that doesn't make the fear go away, does it?
Karen (smiling): It's late.

Gary, the most unreliable man in Knots Landing, has always been there for Karen: when Abby conned her out of her inheritance, when the bullet was lodged in her spine, when her producer came after her. And yet, as much as Karen welcomes Gary's company, she's not ready to let him see how scared she is -- and so, as much as Gary wants to console her, he finds himself falling back on the usual platitudes. It's a lovely scene about the value and the limitations of friendship. (They're seated at the kitchen table. That's how you write a kitchen-table scene.)

Later, in the hospital cafeteria, Anne and Mack have what might be their first real heart-to-heart. Mack, of course, starts by going off on Greg:

Mack: I'll never understand what you and Paige see in him. He's nothing but a self-indulgent, self-righteous jerk.
Anne: That jerk used to be your best friend, remember?
Mack: "Was" being the operative word.
Anne (sighing): Well, I can't speak for Paige, but I like him. And there haven't been too many knights in shining armor breaking down my door recently, you know?
Mack: But Greg Sumner?
Anne: I've done a lot worse.
Mack: I hope that doesn't include me.

And right on cue, "Dedicated to the One I Love" starts to play overhead. But the sound of "their song" doesn't rekindle warm memories of their one summer together, as it did in Season 8; it prompts them to become rueful and self-critical. It forces them to reexamine all the mistakes they've made since.

Anne: I'm sorry about the way things turned out.
Mack: It wasn't your fault. Your parents...
Anne: I should have stood up to them.
Mack: It wouldn't have made a difference.
Anne: I was a lousy mom.
Mack: Anne, you were young. You did the best you could.
Anne: I should've spent more time with her. There were nannies, friends. Later on there were boarding schools. She has every reason in the world to resent me -- and to punish me.

And ultimately, in a rare moment of selflessness, Anne realizes she can't continue to hurt her daughter by dating Greg. She has to draw a line in the sand. (Marcus is shrewd: she knows the triangle has more story potential, but not yet. She'll resume it later in the season -- when the stakes are much higher.)

Sumner: I just spoke with my guardian angel.
Anne: What did your guardian angel say?
Sumner: My guardian angel said that Paige is going to be OK.
Anne: My guardian angel won't even talk to me.
Sumner: Why is that?
Anne: Disapproves.
Sumner: Of us?
(She nods, and he smiles with understanding.)
Anne: It's been fun, Greg, but I can't do this anymore.

Not a lot happens in "Dedicated," yet everything happens. Once again we're getting character-driven scenes that the actors can sink their teeth into. Marcus has already gone to work on Val and Claudia and Kate; this episode digs deep into the others: Karen and Gary, Anne and Mack and Greg. And the new kids on the block. There's a lot of Alex, and a lot of Vanessa, and they were only introduced six and two episodes ago, respectively. But they're used shrewdly: in an episode charged with regret, they provide the counterpoint. If youth knew; if age could. As Anne and Sumner are haunted by every decision that led them to this moment, their assistants are taking advantage of their newfound status by recklessly ignoring all the rules. (Vanessa uses Anne's absence from her radio show to do her first on-air piece, then she and Alex have sex on Sumner's desk. Of course they do; what could be more forbidden or riskier than that?) They provide the perfect contrast to the three adults waiting anxiously at the hospital, who've been so ravaged by time.

The sense of helplessness that permeates "Dedicated to the One I Love" carries over into the next episode. Sumner keeps watch at Paige's bedside, as she struggles with paralysis that may or may not be temporary:

Sumner: We're gonna lick this thing. All I know is you're going to be walking again -- not to mention skiing, and maybe a little croquet.
Paige: Your money doesn't fix everything.
Sumner: Oh yeah? Tell me one thing my money doesn't fix.
Paige: Laura.
(His face falls, then he recovers -- and then it falls again.)
Sumner: Sometimes you play a little rough, babe.
Paige: Your money didn't save her, and it's not going to save me.
Sumner: Hey, everything's gonna be all right. Did I ever tell you my Stalin joke?
Paige: Greg, please...
Sumner: One night Stalin decides to stay late...
Paige: You have to turn everything into a joke.
Sumner: You have to turn it into something.
Paige: Then turn it into something. I dare you. Tell me you love me.

Which of course he can't, even though he does. (For the record, the two great life-lessons I've learned from four decades of Knots viewing are "Never worry about anything that's replaceable" and, when facing illness or tragedy, "You have to turn it into something." Oh, and given the choice between money and power, pick power, because "in the end, power is much more fun" -- although that one seems unlikely to be relevant to my life anytime soon.)

I haven't yet mentioned the transformation that Pierce undergoes in the final seven episodes -- but it's no less remarkable than the makeovers that Val, Claudia and Kate receive. When David Jacobs previewed the new story-lines in January of '92, he noted that "Pierce works better for us as a villain." Marcus understands that he doesn't just work better as a villain; he works better as a fruitcake. As the Marcus episodes start to air, Pierce's hair gets shaggier, his eyes begin to bulge out of their sockets, and that smooth smile widens into an eerie smirk. (This is where the casting of the actor finally works.) And then, with Paige in the hospital, Marcus takes an anecdote from Pierce's past -- one that it doesn't seem like the Romano writers had any intention of following up on (it was just a means of casting doubt on his character) -- and turns it into a story-line. In "Sea of Love," Pierce kidnaps Paige and they sail away on his yacht; his only objective, he says, is to have "one clean moment with you." And Marcus takes this incident from Pierce's past -- a pregnant girlfriend named Margaret that he may have taken out to sea and killed -- and runs with it. Bit by bit, crazed Pierce starts to believe that Paige is Margaret -- he's buying her Margaret's favorite perfume, and insisting she take her seasick pills (Paige doesn't suffer from seasickness, but Margaret did), and then he's talking about the baby they're expecting. And Paige, horrified, realizes that not only were the rumors true about Pierce's role in Margaret's death, but that history is about to repeat itself. Marcus actually follows through on Romano's plotlines better than he ever did; she makes unresolved, seemingly unpromising threads pay off.

The first five episodes of the Marcus makeover are all about re-engaging the audience; the final two look to Season 14. You can see Marcus determining how she wants the characters positioned in the season ahead. As we reach the final episodes, Anne and Paige resume their combativeness and competitiveness. Claudia begins to assume more responsibilities at the Sumner Group (subbing for an absentee Greg), while forging a deal with Vanessa to break up Kate and Alex. And Val becomes embroiled with a new character, Mary Robeson, who claims to have some relation to Sumner's late wife Laura, and seems uncomfortably interested in their daughter Meg. (Mary is played by Maree Cheatham, whom Marcus knew well from her time headwriting Days of Our Lives; Marcus wrote her the part, and she's marvelous: a force to be reckoned with, more than able to hold her own against Joan Van Ark and Bill Devane.) These are all stories that are intriguing in and of themselves, but that will bear fruit, beautifully, the following season.

But the most resonant story is reserved for Sumner. At the end of "Sea of Love," he and Mack had boarded Pierce's boat and saved Paige, but once they got back to shore, Greg had disappeared. When we see him next, he's in his office at the Sumner Group, sprawled on his sofa, crumpling papers and tossing them into the trashcan. Claudia enters looking for a contract the board of directors is preparing to sign -- it's the papers in his hand. She tries to impress upon him the seriousness of the deal they're finalizing, the revenue it'll bring in and the jobs it'll create, but he's in his own world: "You know, we can live on acorns. The squirrels have proven that. I'm gonna go commune with a squirrel." And when we see him next, he's at Laura's grave, placing a single red rose on her headstone: "I got the message, Red. I'll get back to you."

After all the promises that Greg made to Paige at the hospital ("we're gonna lick this thing"), he's now ignoring and avoiding her, and no one understands why. Karen drives out to the ranch to see where his head is at; even Anne tries to talk sense into him -- but he brushes them both off. Finally, Paige tracks him down; she finds him in his living room playing the video Laura left for him before she died: "All I know is, I really want to see you again... and that I want to be with you again." He reveals to Paige that while he was saving her, he saw his wife: "I saw Laura in the water. When I was drowning, I saw this white light, and behind this white light was my wife. And she held up her hand, and she said, 'Go back.' She said, 'You shouldn't be here now' -- she just told me to go back." Paige tries to reassure him: "And now you're back, just like she wanted." And Greg admits, "I'm not sure I want to be back. I'm not sure I don't want to be with Laura."

Since Laura died, Greg has been second-guessing every decision, pulling back from every relationship that might have meant something to him -- and masking his uncertainty and pain with false bravado. His recent brush with death has left him tired of the act, tired of the effort -- and more conflicted than ever. Since losing Laura, has anything he's done truly mattered? And so, in the following episode (the season finale), Mack, Karen, Paige and Claudia are summoned to Greg's office, where he announces he's quitting. He's giving away the company: a third to Paige, a third to Claudia, and a third to Meg, with the understanding that Karen and Mack will act as her trustees. It's a riotous shake-up of the series' status quo, one ripe with possibilities, and as always with Marcus, it's a moment that feels firmly rooted in character. Headwriters Bernard Lechowick and Lynn Latham had created the high-rise Sumner Group in Season 10, in an effort to ape L.A. Law; the following season, they'd made it an ever-more-focal backdrop. But it's Marcus who figures out how to make the Sumner Group more than just a setting; she turns it into an actual story-line -- ultimately, by early in Season 14, giving all the characters a stake in its success. And it begins here, with Sumner handing over the reins of the company. Add in a great cliff-hanger with Anne, a sturdy if predictable one with Paige, and the ultimate unveiling of Mary Robeson's backstory, which is slowly realized through the episode's final half-hour, and you've got yourself a splendid season finale.

The end of Season 13 finds the show riding a huge wave of creativity and confidence. (Magnuson, looking back on a roller coaster of a year that took him from the depths of degradation to the heights of exhilaration, summarizes it, with gratified exhaustion, as "a wild ride.") It's astounding to think that, a dozen episodes earlier, Anne was relegated to scenes with Benny; Gary, Joseph and Pierce were trying to save the world with Tidal Energy, with Paige and Kate cheerleading from the sidelines; and Sumner's big story-line was arranging a meeting between Meg and Mary Lou Retton. Now, energy and inspiration restored, Knots is once again addictive: well worth watching live and taping to two VCRs (well, if you're slightly daffy). Looking back, it's unsurprising that the first fifteen episodes of Season 13 are as awful as they are; it's not even that surprising, given Marcus's talents, that she rights the ship. What's most remarkable is how quickly she does it, and with how little fuss. Marcus salvages a show that seemed on its last legs, and reveals that reports of its imminent death were greatly exaggerated. And thank heavens, she agrees to stay on for another season. The end of Season 13, for all its felicities, is ultimately about cleaning up someone else's mess; Season 14 is about letting Marcus tell exactly the stories she wants to tell. It's been eight years since the show had a headwriter so committed to the integrity of the characters and so consistent in their story-telling. In some ways, the best is yet to come.

Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 1, which establishes the characters and struggles to set the tone; Season 2, which pretty much mucks up everything; Season 3, in which the show ultimately masters the challenges inherent in its premise; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 6, one of the series' best story-lines, and its greatest acting showcase; Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; Season 8, in which the characters return, but the plotting goes haywire; Season 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years; Season 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; and Season 14, in which Ann Marcus, who'd guided the series during a critical time in its history, gives it a glorious send-off.