Monday, January 16, 2017

Knots Landing season 4

Knots Landing Season 4 is like a clever puppy you've just brought home from the pound, and criticizing it is a bit like disciplining that puppy: you know there are things you should be taking it to task for, but you're far too interested in seeing what it'll do next.

Years after its original run, Knots Co-Executive Producer Michael Filerman recalled that soap giant Ann Marcus mapped out Season 4 before departing the series at the end of Season 3. No one has ever corroborated that, not even Marcus in her autobiography, so it's likely he was misremembering; nonetheless, in the way it effortlessly juggles half a dozen down-to-earth story-lines, yet manages to remain character- rather than plot-driven (particularly impressive in light of the conceit at its core), it feels very much like a Marcus season.

The conceit at its core? Well, it's a murder mystery. Knots Season 4 makes good use of its regulars, tosses in two of its most memorable supporting players, and near the season's end, embroils them all in a whodunnit, where a good chunk of the cast seems to have motive. But the murder (of rising singer Ciji Dunne, played by Lisa Hartman) isn't telegraphed -- in 1983, believe me, it came as quite a shock -- and the fact that so many of the principals are suspects doesn't feel contrived. The final episodes are less about an investigation than about the way we respond to tragedy: in particular, the blame games we direct both at others and at ourselves.

What's striking about Season 4 is that the structure is so solid that you forgive its failings -- and its failings aren't the usual ones. In other Knots seasons, the writers flail around in search of good ideas; in Season 4, it's consistency of tone that proves elusive. Knots Season 4 doesn't feel much like the show you've been watching for three years. In a TV Guide interview that ran shortly after Season 4 wrapped, producer Peter Dunne explained that his goal had been to "enlarge the situations." The writer of the article elaborated:

Knots Landing had always been what TV people like to call a “what if?” show: of all the Dallas clones, it alone was set not in an exotic landscape peopled by oil barons or wine magnates, but in a suburban setting not too different from the world inhabited by its viewers. “What if this happened to us?” the audience could say. So the conflicts were intimate and familiar. Small scale. There were rules of behavior, as in the old soap operas. It was "how does Richard’s wife cope with his nervous breakdown during her pregnancy," not "how does she deal with the fact he’s just been rubbed out by gangsters on orders from her brother, who wants to inherit his yacht?"

Last season, this changed.

Except it didn't.

It's not the situations that get enlarged in Season 4 -- it's the characters' responses to them. Most of the plots (and they're good ones) -- Val and Gary finalizing their divorce, and him falling off the wagon; Karen opening her heart to a man and marrying him; Richard opening a restaurant, but shielding his business dealings from Laura; Ginger jealous of a new singer commanding Kenny's time -- would fit snugly into Season 3. But in Season 3, the characters would have greeted them with a measure of restraint; in Season 4, restraint isn't in anyone's repertoire.

Dunne came aboard as producer in Season 4, and part of his goal was to take advantage of the series' links to Dallas. With Jock Ewing's will due to be read a few episodes into the new season of Dallas, and Gary an obvious beneficiary, it was an opportunity to tie Knots to its far more popular predecessor. (The network even pushed the sixth episode off Thursday, to the slot following Dallas on Friday night, to goose Knots's ratings.) Up to that point, Knots had mostly avoided piggybacking off Dallas -- in fact, part of what's so satisfying about Season 3 is that there are no crossovers, because the tones of the shows were so different that every time one occurred, Knots would instantly have to adopt Dallas's self-mocking humor. (There's no way you were going to have J.R. guest star, but tell Larry Hagman, "Just take it down a notch, OK?") And as it turns out, Dunne embracing Dallas is less about Gary coming into money (although he comes away with a million a year, he doesn't really use much of it) than it is about entertaining Dallas's cheekier tone, unabashed melodrama and more aggressive storytelling: trying it on for size, keeping what fits -- and seeing if it helps Knots build its audience.

From the series opener, when Val checks into the "Bates Motel" (unsubtle nod to Psycho), to a few episodes later, when -- following an appearance on The Mike Douglas Show to promote her new book -- she signs an autograph for a fan named "Eve" (unsubtle nod to All About Eve), the show seems to have fallen prey to a certain jokiness, as it struggles to find its voice. The publishing angle -- a centerpiece of the early episodes, as Val's tell-all book about the Ewings, Capricorn Crude, becomes a swift best-seller -- seems to want to play as satire; when her press rep suggests a shot of Val staring at a photo of her estranged husband Gary while writing her next book, what else are we to make of it? But while the script is sending up the ruthless side of the publishing industry, Joan Van Ark is playing it straight: asking you to invest in Val's hurt and discomfort. And meanwhile, there's J.R., in a guest shot, undermining her pain by mangling the name of her book for an easy laugh ("What is it again? Crude Porn?"). We're getting mixed messages, and the other ongoing plotline (Karen's determination to bring her late husband's killers to justice) is equally schizophrenic. We get constant reminders that the dangers facing Karen are real -- that the men responsible for Sid's death won't think twice about claiming another victim. But once they're taken into custody, we learn that Karen has been playing everyone like a violin; she managed to get warring criminal elements to turn on each other, and the assistant district attorney and police department to intervene at precisely the right time. The show takes the darkest point in its history -- the death of Sid -- and in bringing his killers to justice, ties it up not just with a neat bow, but with a wink. It's undeniably entertaining, but it's also -- in relationship to the previous three seasons -- a bit odd. How seriously are we to take the new Knots?

Season 3 had ended with Val discovering Gary and Abby in bed together, then packing a suitcase and driving off into the night. Season 4 opens on "A Brand New Day," and the title is apt: it signals a tonal shift. There's a stunning scene in the first episode when Valene, having hired movers to collect Gary's furniture, sends her mama Lilimae off to bed and waits by the living-room window that faces the cul-de-sac, the curtains open, to hear if Gary comes home to Abby, two houses away. She knows that her grand gesture of reclaiming her house is either going to bring him to his senses or prove that he's gone for good. And so she listens; it's a moment that neatly mirrors Gary waiting in that same living room just two episodes earlier, in "China Dolls," to see if Abby came home alone -- while Val watched him slowly slipping away. It's a moment of almost unbearable tension, where words aren't required and action is kept to a minimum. And it's a moment unlike pretty much anything else in Season 4.

In Season 4, the sort of understatement that had been a hallmark of Season 3 (in standalones like "One of a Kind" and serialized episodes like "Expose" and "China Dolls") is no longer the order of the day. The acting beats get huge, the direction frenzied. When Karen's daughter Diana is told her kidneys are failing, she doesn't just react badly; she rips her dialysis tube out of her arm. When Laura has to face the possibility that Richard skipped town after committing murder, she doesn't just throw things; she overturns shelves. Big shelves. When Gary discovers Abby's been scheming behind his back, and takes to drinking to drown his self-pity, he doesn't just confront her at Ciji's recording session; he practically hurls himself against the glass between the studio and the booth, wailing. Fistfights break out in the very first episode (Val's old friend Rusty threatens Gary, "I'm gonna kill you" -- that's the kind of ripped-from-the-heart dialogue the season thrives on, and it's set to edgy music that seems less Knots Landing and more Rebel Without a Cause), and they continue throughout the season; after a while, it feels like an episode isn't complete if Gary hasn't been verbally attacked or sucker-punched. There are slaps and shoving matches and an awful lot of shouting on staircases.

In a late-season scene that's emblematic of the new house style, Ciji is berating Val for a tell-all book she's drafted about the dissolution of her marriage; she backs her across a room and practically pins her against the door. And then Val, her hands fluttering wildly around her head (like a madwoman swatting imaginary flies, or perhaps driving away invisible demons), somehow connects with Ciji, knocking her clear across the room, where she hits her head on a strategically-placed coffee table. The scene is there because it's that blow to Ciji's head that will incriminate Val in her murder. In previous seasons, a shouting match and a shove would have sufficed (they don't really have the verbal ammunition for more), but in the animated world of Season 4, the actresses are forced to traverse the length of the set and back. (The only thing more awkward than that scene is the one three episodes later, when Val has to reenact the fight for authorities. It takes a lot, in the early years of Knots, to make Van Ark look bad -- she's typically incandescent -- but as she wanders about the room, stuttering in a manner both halting and manic, you can't tell if it's a character in turmoil at reliving a painful memory or an actress in disbelief at having to justify the looney-tunes staging.)

But that's Season 4 in a nutshell. The basic confrontations are sound. The way they're pitched and staged is a complete break from the style of the first three seasons. But it is a style you recognize, from the histrionics of daytime dramas and the excesses of Dallas and Falcon Crest (and in fact, it's not nearly as outrageous as those). Season 4 is when Knots Landing fully morphs from nighttime drama into primetime soap; not coincidentally, it's the first time the show goes completely serialized. Knots is changing before your eyes, straying far from its Scenes From a Marriage-inspired roots -- but the characters remain so beguiling, and the Season 4 story-lines are so engrossing, that you willingly succumb. Although it takes a good fifteen episodes for the creative team to solidify the tone -- to weed out the self-referentialism, campiness and melodrama that were staples of other soaps and forge the kind of heightened realism that would come to define Knots in the mid-'80s -- the structure of the season is so solid that your impatience never outweighs your interest.

Amusingly, the least likely character benefits most from the new approach: Ginger. Kim Lankford walks off with every scene she's in. Everyone else kicks it up a notch for Season 4; Lankford kicks it up ten. The youngest and always the blandest of the four Knots housewives, Ginger -- from the minute Ciji comes into her life -- turns into the cul-de-sac's grande dame. Every time she watches her husband fawn over his new protégé, or has to endure Ciji's unintentional digs (informed that Ginger too is a singer, Ciji suggests, with misplaced enthusiasm, "You should sing back-up for me"), she sucks in her cheeks further than anyone since Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. Many fans find Diana's medical "Emergency" to be the season's low point, but its smackdown between Ginger and Ciji goes a long way towards redeeming it. When Ciji inadvertently debuts a song Ginger had intended for herself, Ginger lets her have it: "You don't care who you use or who you hurt." And Ciji, who later in the season will be reduced to professional victim, isn't taking it: "If I like a song and it's good for me, I'm gonna sing it." Ginger warns her, "I'll get you for this" and with a violent flick of her wrist, tosses the music in Ciji's face, before striding off. The Season 3 solution to the annual question "what shall we do with Ginger" was "as little as possible." (It's actually a solution that worked nicely.) The Season 4 answer is "turn her into Margo Channing, with Ciji as Eve Harrington." At times (mostly when she's watching Ciji sing, and hating her), Lankford widens those Bette Davis eyes till she resembles nothing remotely human -- but even then, she's monstrously marvelous.

The reimagining of Ginger in Season 4 is sensational. Other characters prove more problematic. It's understandable: it's not just Dunne who was coming aboard for Season 4; with the exception of Executive Story Editor Diana Gould, who'd been there since Season 2, the entire writing staff was new. And although creator David Jacobs and Michael Filerman were still involved (as opposed to the start of Season 13, when a new team took over, unsupervised), it's still a significant shake-up. And there are some obvious growing pains.

Most of the characters -- including Karen, Kenny, Richard and Lilimae -- seem spot on. Abby, on the other hand, never comes into proper focus. In Season 3, when she went after Gary, it was tied to the show's best MacGuffin: a methanol business she and Gary were trying to start up. The two shared a love of risk and a desire for advancement; they were also bound not only by sexual attraction, but by genuine affection. Season 4 doesn't quite know what to do with Abby, other than "Gary inherits money, and Abby uses it to screw over their friends." What made Abby so compelling as a character was the joy she took in her own accomplishments; you forgave her transgressions, because she was a bright woman determined to succeed in a man's world -- and when things went her way, her delight in triumphing was contagious. (When she pulls off a brilliant bluff in Season 3's "Acts of Love" and secures financing for their methanol deal, she's so irresistible Gary sleeps with her.) Abby doesn't get that in Season 4. The season doesn't give her a project that fires her imagination; she's stuck with a couple investments Gary initiated, for which she has no real passion. (The problem will be remedied, big-time, in Season 5.)

There's not much joy in what Abby is doing. There's also not much love; she doesn't seem to give a rat's ass about Gary. She gets far too many close-ups where we're meant to go, "That wicked woman. So consumed with getting her hands on Gary's money." (When J.R., in yet another guest shot, sizes her up -- "You want to be Queen of the Ewings" -- she tells him she'll settle for Princess. Ugh.) There's a wonderful scene late in the season when Gary is starting to fall apart -- he sees that he and Abby are hurting the people he cares most about -- and he begs her to sit down and talk it out. (It's some of Ted Shackelford's best work in a season in which he's particularly brilliant.) She promises to do so the next day -- but the next morning, when he awakes, she's off to a meeting. And there's no follow-up. And the point is, of course, that Abby has no intention of talking things through with Gary, but it's a tactical error on the writers' part. We need to see her concern for what he's going through: at the very least, her willingness to listen. The writers use Abby's dismissal of Gary as the final straw that drives him back to the bottle, but it would have been better -- certainly more consistent with the way Abby was presented in Season 3 -- if they'd had that conversation, but it still wasn't enough to keep him from drinking. (By the way, I referred to some of the early-season underscoring as sounding like Leonard Rosenman's music to Rebel Without a Cause. When Gary finally takes his first gulp of liquor, and again when Val learns that Gary has been drinking and visibly crumbles, the music is straight out of Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo. The jagged, unsettling and overblown music -- consistent, it must be noted, with the style of the playing -- is a great part of what sets Knots Landing Season 4 apart from its predecessors.)

Really only one thing redeems Abby in Season 4, and that's the addition of Clayton Landey as her lawyer James Westmont. Landey is one of the unspoken heroes of Knots Landing; as he gazes at Abby with those admiring eyes, impressed by her head for business and her gift for self-preservation, we can't help but be impressed too. He does wonders for her late in Season 4, and all through Season 5. Abby has a couple nice moments in Season 4: when she sees Ciji's manager Chip hustling for publicity, and recognizes a kindred spirit; when she fluffs her hair just before visiting Gary in the drunk tank, as if a carefully coiffed 'do will help get him back on his feet; and when, after giving Diana one of her kidneys, she lashes out at Karen, who's been bashing her all season: "If you want to show your gratitude, save a whale in my name." But by and large, the new writers -- in Season 4 at least -- can't quite get a handle on what makes Abby so fascinating.

The character of Valene suffers in a different way. At the start of Season 4, after a few episodes bemoaning the demands of being a published author, Val emerges with newfound assurance. She embarks on a cross-country book-signing tour, and upon her return, admits, "It made me feel stronger, gave me confidence." Three episodes later, she reconnects with an old friend, and he starts pursuing her: another ego boost. A few episodes after that, they jet off to New York, where she offers up a toast: "To a new life, starring Valene Ewing and a cast of thousands." The evolution of Val even impacts her wardrobe. Gone are the country-girl trappings: the barrettes and hair ribbons, the puff sleeves and flowery prints. She adopts a more sophisticated look -- so much so that when she and Karen sit down for their weekly coffee klatches, she starts to look like Karen's worldly friend. (She comes off a bit like Jessica Walter in Season 3's "Reunion," as an old college chum of Karen's turned high-end fashion designer.)

But the "new" Valene proves unsustainable -- or more to the point, she proves useless; she remains at arm's length from the rest of the season's plotlines. The writers (as Filerman notes in that same interview) soon wise up to the fact that the triangle -- Val, Gary and Abby -- has potential to be more than a one-season wonder. So Val devolves into the person she'll remain for the rest of the Peter Dunne era: the character who, however much she achieves, will always be vulnerable to Gary. Mack, who's barely been around the cul-de-sac a few months, hammers home the point for the viewer: "I think you're in love with this guy Gary Ewing, and you always will be," and she concedes, "He's a weakness. He is to me what alcohol is to him." It's a reversal of how she's been written (and played) in the first two-thirds of the season -- you never once believe that their plan was to give Valene all this independence, then show it was a sham. You recognize it as a course correction, but you instantly see the wisdom in it.

As noted, a common response to Season 4 is "I like it all except Diana's surgery." In truth, the show threatens to fall apart a few episodes before that, and all through its middle section -- it just doesn't. The first seven episodes -- encompassing Karen and Mack's burgeoning relationship, the dissolution of Gary and Val's marriage, and Gary's investment plans -- are rock-solid in concept, if not in execution. The eighth, "Man in the Middle," chooses to center on Chip, and as good as Michael Sabatino is (and that's very good, just about the only Knots "bad boy" to play slick and ruthless and still have you love him), and as skillful as the scripting is (the first by Richard Gollance, who'll prove a gift to the series), it feels a bit early in the season to be throwing an episode to a new supporting player. In the next episode, the record executive Abby is wooing professionally turns out to be an old friend of Val's, and you cringe at the contrivance. And then we're on to the two-parter about Diana needing a new kidney, and Abby being the only suitable donor. In one sense, the kidney two-parter is awful: fairly bursting with cliché. On the other hand, it neatly addresses several problems that could've plagued the season. It allows for a quick reconciliation between Mack and Karen (who'd split in the previous episode) instead of putting us through a protracted one later on. And it shows Gary's devotion to Abby after earlier episodes had him waffling so much, begging Val for a second chance even as he was forging a new life with Abby and her kids. (If we can't see Abby's love for Gary, at least we can see his love for her.)

After Diana's kidney, we're right on to "Block Party," in which free-lancer Sara Ann Friedman, who'd written two lovely episodes in Season 3 (the Christmas episode, "One of a Kind," and Sid's home-movie farewell, "Letting Go") seems to think she's still writing for Season 3 and does a character study that stops the season dead in its tracks. "Block Party" gets a bad rap, and admittedly it feels like it lasts about three hours, but I'm not sure it's a bad episode. It's a chance to get to know Mack better through his strained relationship with his father, and it brings the full cast together in one story-line for about the first time all season. It's a reasonable pitch for an episode, and mostly it suffers because it turns up midway through a season that has built its reputation on not doing standalones like "Block Party." (In one sense, it feels just like Season 4: there's a fistfight in a bar that seems to go on forever.)

And shortly after that, we get a trio of episodes about Mack and Karen tying the knot. Because there's no real impediment to their happiness (we pretty much accepted them as a couple about twenty minutes into the season, and any lingering doubts were assuaged when Mack rushed to Karen's side in "Emergency"), the writers -- all of them free-lancers, and novices, and maybe that's part of the problem -- fall back on clumsy, artificial conflicts. Mack proposes to Karen -- except her old boy-friend Teddy turns up and distracts her. Mack and Karen plan a lavish wedding, but things get so out of hand that they elope to Vegas. (And some of the jokiness that had invaded the show early in the season seeps back in, as their witnesses turn out to be a cigar-chomping gambler and a red-headed Amazon with giant teeth, and Mack and Karen are left to giggle their way through the ceremony.) And when they return home, eager to start their new life together, Karen's eldest son Eric rebels against being stripped of the responsibilities he's adopted since his dad died, and Mack and Karen are too obtuse to understand what he's upset about.

But laced through the underwhelming stories devoted to Mack and Karen's wedding are far better plotlines: the fallout from Val's new manuscript being leaked; the burgeoning friendship between Laura and Ciji; Gary's downward spiral; and the noose tightening around Ciji's neck -- all of them wonderfully entertaining. As noted, you could argue that all the episodes from "Man in the Middle" to "A New Family" are problematic, but Season 4 doesn't put you in the mood for an argument. It's too diverting. And once Ciji is murdered, the series becomes so bracing that you're left feeling the season has done everything right, even when it was getting so much wrong. It focuses so successfully on Val's efforts to save Gary from self-destructing, and Laura's suspicions about Richard, that it encourages you to overlook the obvious suspect. "Solving the mystery" remains secondary to the character dynamics, and so the reveal of the killer -- which we'll get early in Season 5, and which is pretty much what you'd expect -- doesn't feel like a letdown.

Season 4 shows Peter Dunne and company ramping up the acting choices, but the situations, by and large, are as penny-plain as they'd always been, and the mismatch, though not necessarily jarring, is noticeable. In Season 5, they'll solve it, magnificently, by truly "enlarging the situations" enough that the new layer of acting artifice seems at one with the story-lines.

They'll also figure out, more successfully, how to weave pretty much everyone into one tapestry. The general take on Season 4 -- what a lot of folks profess to love about it, and in fact, what both David Jacobs and Michael Filerman beam with pride about most -- is that it brings all the characters together in one storyline. But that's an illusion; in fact, they seem more compartmentalized than ever. There's a general "meeting place" -- Richard's restaurant -- which gives the deceptive impression of community, and at the end, all involved have a stake in the resolution of Ciji's murder. But the specifics of the plotting -- Gary's investments, which link folks to him, but not to each other; Gary and Val's breakup, which forces their friends to choose sides; Chip's machinations, which rely on the folks he's conning not sharing information; even the interrogations and suspicions that consume the final spate of episodes -- keep the characters splintered. In Richard's final episode, the season's penultimate, he and Karen share a lovely scene; she's come over to his house (where he's cleaning the gutters) to get some legal advice. As she's leaving, he calls out to her, "How does it feel being married again?", and she flashes a broad smile -- and you realize they haven't talked in ages. She asks about Laura, noting that she's been giving her space since Ciji died, and you realize, too, that Karen and Laura -- whose conversations in episodes like Season 3's "Best Intentions" had been among the series' highlights -- have barely had an interaction all season. And later in that same episode, there's a nice scene between Kenny and Richard, and again, you realize how the plotting has kept them apart.

That episode, "The Burden of Proof," written by Diana Gould, is arguably the only episode in Season 4 that feels like the "old" Knots; even the music reverts back to its gentler roots, including the theme most associated with Richard and Laura. Ironically, it takes the imminent departure of Richard -- the self-appointed "most unpopular guy in Knots Landing" -- to bring everyone together. But that's fitting. As Season 4 ushers in a more outrageous style of playing, Richard is the one character who steadfastly refuses to go there. He remains indelibly tied to an image of Knots that's fading. In Season 1's "Courageous Convictions," Laura had summarized the world of Richard Avery: "We've got a house we can't afford, we've got furniture that we don't own, closets full of junk we don't need -- we're always stretching," and when Richard corrected her ("striving for something better"), she was quick to counter: "You're always looking for the shortcut, and it's always getting us in trouble." He ultimately admitted, "I hate being ordinary." As the writers pave the way for Knots' upscale turn in Season 5, with cocktail parties and posh fundraisers replacing PTA meetings and backyard BBQ's, Richard remains the one character forever tied to the show's middle-class roots -- and, more to the point, to a certain middle-class mediocrity. He had to go -- but before he does, he gives us one last look at where it all began. And after that, the transformation of Knots Landing accelerates.

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 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, and an epic save; 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.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Till We Are Asked to Rise: the year in review

My annual year in review. 2013 found me enthralled by Elementary and The Killing, puzzling over some of CBS's scheduling moves, and taking a nostalgic tour of Vermont with a Newhart rewatch. In 2014, I savored Grantchester and Peter Capaldi's first season of Doctor Who, and binged the works of Stephen Poliakoff and Richard Armitage. Last year, I took on everything from The Mentalist to The Man in the High Castle, from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to Limitless to Gypsy. As in earlier posts, I do not purport to have watched every great show on television this past year; this is not a "best of 2016" list. These are simply the shows I watched, the trends I noted, the risks I respected, and the mistakes I lamented.

Looking over my 2016 blog entries, I see that I hardly wrote about any series that are currently airing. I wrote nostalgia pieces: three about Knots Landing, three about classic Doctor Who. Early in the year, I penned an appreciation of Mike & Molly, which was wrapping up its six-season run (splendidly), and a farewell to The Flash and Arrow, which weren't wrapping up their runs, but which had driven me away. Was my ignoring the current crop of shows a mark of how little they were firing my imagination, or was I so overwhelmed by all the solid series airing that I didn't want to take time away to write them up? Was 2016 a good year or a bad one?

I'm still not sure.

Disappointing Returns: Gilmore Girls, Indian Summers, Poldark, Zoo

But as I attempt to figure it out, let's start with the series that disappointed, because there were an awful lot of them. Indian Summers and Poldark had both managed brilliant first series in 2015, edging close to soap opera without ever succumbing: Indian Summers by embracing the politics of the era as much as the personal drama; Poldark by holding to a brisk, no-nonsense directorial style that seemed at one with Poldark's own demeanor. In Series 2, they re-emerged as soaps, and both were thrown off-balance: Indian Summers by introducing -- and focusing so heavily on -- Alice's sadistic husband Charlie (Blake Ritson); Poldark via a series of stultifying fights between Poldark and Demelza and by reigniting the show's love triangle in a way that reflected badly on all three characters. Poldark so missed the mark that Luke Norris's Dr. Dwight Enys wound up assuming the mantle of romantic leading man.

Over at Elementary, John Noble, in a season-long stint as Sherlock's father, indulged in line readings that got slower and more slurred over time. After a while, it became painful to see Jonny Lee Miller start a scene with him -- nervy energy intact -- and within about four lines, watch Noble suck the life out of him. The series then teased the return of Natalie Dormer without delivering, and ushered in Season 5 with little of its customary vigor or momentum. Penny Dreadful, coming off a glorious second season, did one of those "let's split up the team" story-lines of which I've never been fond (including a lifeless excursion to the Wild West), barely reassembled the regulars in time for a battle, then basically threw in the towel. I had always thought of Penny Dreadful as an ensemble show, but articles I read after the finale revealed that creator John Logan had come to see it as a story about Eva Green's character, so the question apparently became "how many times can you put her through the wringer," and the answer, I suppose, was "three." And my guiltiest pleasure of 2015, Zoo, lost track of what made it so damned entertaining. It had featured five of the most ordinary people on the planet, rising to the challenge of combatting an animal population in revolt; because the characters were so penny-plain, they (and we) could be mesmerized by the simplest of attacks: a bear overturning a Parisian apartment; bats shutting down a research lab in Antarctica. In Season 2, the team became all but super-powered: cruising the planet in a stadium-sized plane, each member equally versed in combat, medicine and computer hacking. The CBS ads even started to refer to the team as "five scientists," disregarding backstory, misunderstanding the show's appeal.

As for Gilmore Girls, it was a four-part reunion -- and a return to the series for its creators, Daniel and Amy Sherman-Palladino -- that left me so dispirited that I penned a whole piece about it: where it went wrong, and why, and its eerie similarity to the current political climate.

DOA from the UK: Victoria, Class

Two new shows, both from the UK, stood out as "what not to do" primers. ITV's Victoria cast Jenna Coleman, fresh off Doctor Who, as the 19th-century British queen, in the years immediately following her ascendancy to the throne. Too bad so little of it had to do with the real life of Queen Victoria. 2016 was the year when politicians were no longer held accountable for the lies they told, as long as they said them with authority, and repeatedly, so I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when Victoria writer and creator Daisy Goodwin admitted that ITV had charged her with doing something to please the Downton Abbey crowd, and so, under the guise of a biography of Queen Victoria, she had created her own set of upstairs/downstairs story-lines. As interviewers pressed her about the actual plots, she confessed that while they weren't necessarily true, while the details surrounding the characters weren't entirely (or sometimes even remotely) accurate, she had in fact read a lot of the history of the period. The implication was that since she knew what was fictional, the audience shouldn't worry much about it. In real life, the young queen saw her Prime Minister Lord Melbourne as a father figure; in Victoria, it was a schoolgirl crush verging on womanly adoration, but the script nailed the key details -- you know, like that they knew other each -- so any further efforts at historical accuracy would probably have just gotten in the way. What's remarkable is that, basically starting with a clean slate, Goodwin still couldn't make the characters interesting; the rulers were just as dull as the servants. It was the bland leading the bland.

And over at BBC, with no Doctor Who this year (except a leaden Christmas special that served up showrunner Steven Moffat's worst script), we got YA author Patrick Ness's Class as compensation. It was set in the same school where the Doctor's granddaughter had briefly studied, and to which Doctor Who itself returns on occasion. Current Doctor Peter Capaldi was gracious enough to make an appearance in the first episode; beyond that, there were few similarities, and little to get excited about. Class was a tedious affair with actors who looked 30 playing teenagers: most of the characters so ill-defined that, after a while, they felt interchangeable. The girl who, in the pilot, was such a wallflower that she was doing the decorations for the school dance ended up, a few episodes later, shagging the school jock; the youngest, brainiest member of the troupe became a trained warrior in about six minutes, merely by asking one of her elders, "Teach me how to fight." Plotlines were insanely stagnant: in one episode, brainy warrior's dead father appeared and said "Take my hand," and thirty minutes later, she was still debating whether to take it. In the next episode, wallflower slut spent about twenty minutes not killing her errant father. The relationships boiled down to basics like "I love you more than you love me" and (the ever-popular one on superhero-type shows) "I love you, but I'm afraid of you." I haven't read any of Ness's novels, but surely he has more to say than that. Class was made available for streaming every Saturday morning on BBC Three; by week three, I found I was awaiting it with as much enthusiasm as I would a high-school homework assignment.

Strong Returns: Agent Carter, NCIS: Los Angeles, Legends of Tomorrow

So what shows returned strong?

Sophomore series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend fully found its footing, with an uncanny knack for reading its audience. The split between besties Rebecca and Paula (the ever-brilliant Rachel Bloom and Donna Lynne Champlin, currently the best double-act on TV) got resolved just before it overstayed its welcome (and with a moving reconciliation to boot), and just as we started to lament the loss of Santino Fontana, and his usefulness to the narrative, the appealing Scott Michael Foster arrived with the promise of shaking things up. Season 2 has already treated us to two endlessly rewatchable musical numbers: the season opener's spoof of abstract symbolism, "Love Kernels," and the third episode's delirious send-up of Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," with a gowned and bejeweled Bloom invoking a dozen tuxedoed professors to explain "The Math of Love Triangles." (Even if you're not a viewer, seek out those two numbers on YouTube.) NCIS: Los Angeles adjusted for Daniela Ruah's real-life pregnancy far better than last time: sidelining her in a way that still permitted interactions with the rest of the cast, and taking advantage of her absence to shuffle the team dynamics; with an eager Bar Paly returning for a few episodes, and both Eric and Nell getting their turns in the field, the series felt reinvigorated. Not bad for a show in its eighth season. And Ray Donovan showed that all it needed to return to form was to get rid of that God-awful Finney family; once they were eased off the canvas at the end of Season 3, the series snapped back to life, and head honcho David Hollander showed a flair for story-telling that had eluded him during his first season in charge.

Marvel's Agent Carter transplanted its leads from New York City to Los Angeles, and proved a heady mix of Hollywood hedonism and female empowerment. (You've got to love a show that understands that only in Tinseltown, where looks triumph over logic, could the villainess successfully hide a six-inch scar behind a peek-a-boo bang.) Season 2, with its trio of charismatic leads (Hayley Atwell, James D'Arcy and Enver Gjokaj, the latter finally stepping out of his sad-sack seclusion), was amiable without being arch, cheeky without being campy. And so of course it was cancelled. But taking its place as a solid superhero series was the much-improved Legends of Tomorrow, which came off an enervating first season (in which the ragtag team sailed through time in search of one dreary villain, who defeated them week after week) only to see its showrunners right every error in judgment during the summer hiatus. Some shrewd casting shake-ups tightened the dynamics (with the charismatic Caity Lotz repositioned as team leader), while a new, broader mission nicely varied the story-lines. I gave up on Arrow after Felicity's miracle cure (hot on the heels of its Holocaust homage); Flash lost me through one too many contrivances and world-saving pep talks. So it was a pleasant surprise when Legends returned, renewed and refurbished, to fill the comic-book void. Daredevil, too, was arguably stronger in Season 2; it didn't boast the bravura writing staff that enlivened Season 1, but the merciful absence of Vincent D'Onofrio (for most of the season anyway) made for less cringe-worthy moments. And Jon Bernthal was sensational; I was reminded why, during the first two seasons of The Walking Dead, I kept rooting for Shane.

The Year's Best

So let's dive right into my favorites of 2016, with completely random categories that mean something only to me.

Best Family Drama: The A Word (BBC One/Sundance). Morven Christie took time away from Grantchester, and she was a revelation. In Grantchester, as 1950's socialite and art historian Amanda Kendall, Christie is never less than wonderful (and in Series 2, became an almost tragic figure, as a bad marriage replaced her natural ebullience with empty regret), but as a lady of upper-class upbringing, she keeps her character's feelings carefully in check. In The A Word, set in the present-day Lake District, she's Alison Hughes, the mother of an autistic child wrestling as much with her own demons as with the proper rearing of her son, and her emotions keep bubbling to the surface. They bubble till they overflow. A nervous jumble of neuroses, fears and unreasonable expectations, Alison Hughes is a well-meaning mother, but she's also the worst kind: the kind who makes her child's accomplishments, or lack thereof, all about her. And to Christie's great credit, she's not afraid to let her character be awful. She doesn't ask for your understanding, but she makes Alison so desperately devoted to helping her son lead a "normal" life, and wears every disappointment so nakedly on her face, that you can't help but sympathize with her. Christie was paired with Lee Ingleby, giving -- like her -- an eye-opening performance, neatly distinct from his best-known role as Sergeant John Bacchus in George Gently, here an insightful rather than inciteful presence. But then, there was stellar work all around, from a cast that also boasted Christopher Eccleston, Greg McHugh, Vinette Robinson, Molly Wright and Max Vento. I can think of no greater praise than to say they truly felt like a family: the most compelling one of 2016.

Best Sci-Fi Drama: Humans (Channel 4/AMC). It was a very good year for sci-fi. HBO's Westworld was toweringly brilliant, even when episodes felt needlessly super-sized. Stranger Things was spiky, scary fun, with a knockout neurotic turn by Wynona Ryder. 11.22.63 was an engrossing adaptation of the Stephen King novel, with strong performances by James Franco and Sarah Cadon, and a solid adaptation by Bridget Carpenter that suffered only from the (legitimate) need to deviate from its source. And Ashley Pharoah's The Living and the Dead (practically buried alive by the BBC) was an original blend of horror, fantasy and sci-fi starring the ubiquitous (in 2016, at least) Colin Morgan. But Humans had them all beat, and yet what distinguished it most in Season 2 weren't the sci-fi elements: its look at AI servants ("synths," as they're called here, short for synthetics) introduced into a futuristic society. Instead of going bigger in its second season, as so many series do, Humans dug deeper, using the half-dozen synths who had gained "consciousness" (i.e., emotions) to explore the very meaning of being human. It let us experience again, through fresh eyes, all our first times: our first kiss, our first love, and our first heartbreak. The rush of taking risks and the anguish of loss and betrayal. The way we mask our pain, and the strength we find to face it. And the beauty of being part of something bigger. Season 2 juggled seven or eight plotlines, deftly; there wasn't a character that didn't seem crucial, or a performance that didn't seem vivid. And the set-piece at the end of the season, which basically blew up the world as we know it, was both invigorating and terrifying. I adored writers Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent from their first MI-5 script; it's wonderful seeing them emerge as a creative force to be reckoned with.

Best Crime Drama: The Night Manager was taut and atmospheric, although Tom Hiddleston was more believable as a wiseguy than a thug. Marcella was tart and compulsively watchable, even when her medical issues seemed more convenient than convincing. The Fall, sadly, took a dive in Season 3; the first two episodes promised to bring the series's subtext to the fore (the lead detective's sexual appetite -- and the power she wielded to satiate it -- being, in their own way, as disturbing as those of the serial killer she was hunting), but the season soon dissolved into a desert of talk, due to star/producer Gillian Anderson and new regular Krister Henriksson. (Both their characters spoke in deliberately languorous, dispassionate tones; it came to seem criminal that Jamie Dornan -- who often single-handedly sustained our interest -- continued to receive under-the-title billing.) With Unforgotten on hiatus, the best crime drama I saw in 2016 ended up being a 2013 miniseries that ITV brought back briefly for a return run: its three-part murder mystery The Ice-Cream Girls (based on the novel by Dorothy Koomson), which I had missed the first time around. Lovingly adapted by Kate Brooke and deftly directed by Dan Zeff, it charted the troubled reunion between two women who, seventeen years earlier, had been accused of stabbing their schoolteacher. While the drama played out in the present, the events of that summer unfolded in flashback. Both the young actresses (Georgina Campbell and Holli Dempsey) and their older counterparts (Lorraine Burroughs and Jodhi May) were well-matched, and Burroughs and May -- the former so fragile she always seemed seconds away from shattering, the latter so defeated she seemingly had nothing left to lose -- fully conveyed the tragedy of lives spent marginalized and promise left unfulfilled.

Best Soap: NBC's This Is Us. It goes under "best soap" and not "best family drama" because, make no mistake: this isn't us -- this isn't anyone. No family ever turned so many disasters into memorable catchphrases, pithy life-lessons or holiday traditions; no primetime drama ever sprang so many secrets, surprises and medical emergencies between commercial breaks. This Is Us featured the whiniest set of triplets since The Band Wagon: wah wah, I'm adopted; wah wah, I'm fat; wah wah, no one takes me seriously -- but then, the entire extended family was filled with the most loathsome set of characters ever to populate a soap. Logic dictates that when you're devising a drama, at least a few of the people should be likable; it takes guts to dream up a multi-generational family where, of the two admirable men, one is dying and the other is dead. But that doesn't means This Is Us didn't work. It did, consistently. Its downbeat design is key to its success. Its canvas is so overstuffed with insecurity, hurt, fear and disillusion that creator Dan Fogelman is able to turn enough of it around -- once it's all simmered, stewed, and more often than not, boiled over -- to serve up the steady promise of hope, companionship and redemption. This Is Us pulls something positive out of every worst-case scenario; it's Murphy's Law with a smiley face. The first ten episodes were beautifully structured and admirably played (with Milo Ventimiglia particularly strong, grounding it from the grave) -- and the only question is: can they sustain it, or like most soaps these days, will the audience start to tire even before the writers do, once the format becomes predictable?

Best Reality/Informational Programming: John Oliver, with his Last Week Tonight, became a force for good during a troubling election season. Adam Ruins Everything continued to expand its supporting cast and broaden its continuity without losing any of its impish humor or marvelous ability to educate as it entertains; its look at the criminal justice system managed to be as moving as it was deft and funny, and its examination of the myths of "going green" was a particular eye-opener. But nothing on TV this past year gave me, my husband, and our miniature schnauzer more pleasure than the series on Channel 4 with the most innocuously self-explanatory title: Coastal Walks With My Dog. It was a mere two episodes, cross-cutting between three sets of humans and their canine companions, each exploring a different section of England and Wales's rugged coastline. It could have been instantly forgettable, the most puerile of pitches, but it proved so refreshingly unpretentious that it offered up a three-pronged delight: an Animal Planet-style focus on some adorable pets and their loving relationships with their owners; a Travel Channel-worthy brochure of places that you might never visit in your lifetime, but could and should (and mixed in with the stunning vistas were histories of each area, and a look at its commerce, culture and more colorful inhabitants); and a Health & Lifestyle-type reminder of one of the simplest and most rewarding kinds of exercise: the perfect antidote for folks tiring of their treadmills, StairMasters and MaxiClimbers. It was entertainment at its purest -- and the perfect palate cleanser for a year rife with high-concept programming.

Best Comedy: CBS's Mike & Molly. Yes, of course, there were comedies in 2016 that were cheekier (Silicon Valley), brasher (Chewing Gum), savvier (Veep), more subversive (Lady Dynamite) and more down-to-earth (Mom). But how about funny? How about a show that didn't just impress you with a barrage of clever quips, but actually made you laugh. Out loud -- the way sitcoms used to. Mike & Molly returned for its final thirteen episodes in the spring of 2016, and thank heavens, Executive Producer Chuck Lorre didn't step in for the series finale to upend all that came before it (as he had done, disastrously, a year earlier on Two and a Half Men). Instead, its gifted showrunner, Al Higgins, simply took the show where it needed to go; Molly and Mike left the air as new parents, and Mike & Molly went out at the peak of its powers. Once Higgins assumed the reins at the top of Season 4, once they unleashed Melissa McCarthy (and broadening McCarthy's character allowed the supporting cast to deepen their own, as they no longer had to hit the laughs as hard), there wasn't a misfire, not an episode that didn't amuse. And nine times out of ten, the laughter came in waves, and when the waves cleared, there were tender moments that, happily, never devolved into "special" moments. The show dealt out equal doses of humor and heart. At its best, in those final years, Mike & Molly was funny and boisterous when it wanted to be, and warm and moving when it needed to be, with actors who could make those transitions seamless, who could go from raucous to reflective and back again -- and never more so than in the final story arc that took it to its touching conclusion. And the last episode? Hands down, best sitcom finale since Everybody Loves Raymond.

Best Drama (a three-way tie):

The year began and ended with two sumptuous period pieces -- BBC One's War and Peace and Netflix's The Crown -- but in terms of miniseries, nothing I saw came close to Stephen Poliakoff's Close to the Enemy (BBC Two, available in the U.S. via Amazon Prime/Acorn Media). There were times when I felt the story-telling a bit haphazard, when what I imagined as key relationships didn't seem to be having the intended impact; I should have trusted Poliakoff. Everything came together by the end; as a fan of his work, I found it exceeded even my high expectations. (I realized, after the fact, that any hesitations I had along the way stemmed from my expecting the characters, and the story-telling, to be more rigidly formulaic.) Close to the Enemy touched down in a well-trod period in British history -- the months following the end of World War II -- but touched it with fascinating political ambiguity, asking: when is it best to chase down war criminals, and when is it better to court them, for the information or expertise they might provide? Should the victors be seeking justice, retribution, or something else entirely? Everyone began the drama secure in their moral infallibility -- and no one more so than intelligence officer Captain Callum Ferguson (a lean and lithe Jim Sturgess), charged with convincing a captured jet-engine scientist to come work for the British. By the end, everyone was second-guessing their own actions -- before, during and after the war -- as they wrestled with a society in which friends and colleagues had become rivals and in which enemies made for uneasy allies. The cast was flawless, with old pros Alfred Molina and Lindsay Duncan anchoring it with warmth and gravitas, but also, in performances no less winning, August Diehl, Freddie Highmore, Charity Wakefield, Phoebe Fox, Charlotte Riley, Lucy Ward and Angela Bassett.

CBS's Madam Secretary made good on all the promise it had shown in 2015, when I wrote half an essay about it; the end of Season 2, and the start of Season 3, scored on both the foreign and the domestic fronts. And that cast! A year ago, if I'd been asked to list the standouts, I would have made note of not just the stars -- Tea Leoni (subtly commanding and amusingly withering, often in the same breath) and Tim Daly (a canny combination of strong, shrewd and soulful) -- but also Keith Carradine (POTUS) and Zeljko Ivanek (Chief of Staff). In 2016, all the featured players came into focus: the writers latched onto the traits that made them singular and special, and the actors seized every opportunity accorded them. The Secretary of State's staff -- Bebe Neuwirth, Sebastian Arcelus, Patina Miller, Geoffrey Arend and Erich Bergen -- were splendidly balanced by the trio of younger actors who played her children: Wallis Currie-Wood, Kathrine Herzer and Evan Roe. The kids were a particular revelation: defined so fully, with the variety of interests and temperaments typical of three-child families, that their story-lines felt almost self-generating. Extra mention to Roe, because he and the writers took a standard TV trope -- the rebellious teenage son -- and gave it new dimension. His defiance seemed not merely a result of his age, but his upbringing: awkwardly politicized by his parents' inability to leave their work at the office. If Madam Secretary felt a touch flatter than usual at the top of Season 3, it was through no fault of its own. It's simply that Barbara Hall and company had chosen (at the end of Season 2) to put the fall focus on a fictional U.S. Presidential election that -- as it turned out -- could never have been as outrageous or unnerving as the one that played out in the real world. (Hall wisely wrapped it up, neatly and efficiently, in the first episode of the New Year.) But it's still the best hour of drama that network TV has to offer.

Grantchester (ITV/PBS). I had some concerns at the top of Series 2; although it was wonderful having Reverend Sidney Chambers back on the screen, the first episode left me disoriented. But part of that disorientation, I soon realized, was that I didn't know the ground rules. Grantchester had arrived in 2014 as an original: part murder mystery, part character drama -- in proportions I'd never seen before, equally (and exquisitely) balanced. Series 1 had found Sidney still mired in memories of the Second World War: tortured and self-loathing, looking to others to deliver him from the darkness. I had presumed his wartime experiences would continue to haunt him; I hadn't realized that Series 2 would leave them behind and develop its own six-episode arc. But once I made the adjustment, I settled in quickly, because the new story-line was sensational. It turned out to be, in some ways, even more traumatic, because it involved the bond between Sidney and Geordie: it took on the relationship at the heart of the show. Grantchester in Series 2 took a hard look at its own protagonists, at its very premise, and dared to ask: would, in fact, a priest and a police detective become best mates in 1950's Cambridge? Or would their dissimilar views -- above all, on whether there are moral laws that override man-made ones -- doom any potential friendship? Sidney and Geordie reached an impasse through the season-long story of Gary Bell (heart-wrenchingly played by Sam Frenchum), a young man at the wrong place at the wrong time, sentenced to death for trying to help a friend. As Sidney defended him, consoled him and ultimately mourned him, he was forced to confront a world where authority and decency seem at odds, where vengeance too often masquerades as justice. James Norton continued to dominate -- and devastate -- and his physical assault of Geordie and verbal laceration of Amanda in the penultimate episode were particularly powerful. And it's a hallmark of how assured the series had become that it could recover from both -- without ever feeling pat or rushed -- by season's end.

Grantchester's second series asked: how do we maintain some semblance of morality in an immoral world? If we "go high," how high can we aim without risking not just disappointment, but desolation? And if disappointment and desolation do come, how do we keep them from breaking us? The real world was a horrifying place in 2016. South Sudan's civil war intensified. Terrorists struck in Nice, Istanbul, Cairo, and Orlando. Natural disasters in Taiwan, Indonesia, Italy and Haiti claimed thousands of lives. Russia hacked our Presidential election, and our leadership announced plans to overturn affordable health care. At year's end, Aleppo became (in the words of the U.N. human rights chief) "a slaughterhouse." And through it all we kept asking ourselves: how can we do better? How can we not merely raise our voices, but make a difference? And how do we avoid getting so lost in the injustice and immorality, the chaos and corruption, that we lose the best part of ourselves? Some of the best series in 2016 -- Madam Secretary, Grantchester, Humans, Close to the Enemy -- asked these questions at a time when we most needed to hear them, and offered scenarios that, while in no way holding them up as "solutions," at least gave us examples of how to stand firm, stand tall and stand for something.

2016 was, on reflection, a very good year for TV.