Monday, May 22, 2017

Knots Landing season 1

Knots Landing premiered on CBS in 1979 and remained there till May of 1993; by the time it went off the air, it had become the second longest-running drama series in network history. Creator David Jacobs conceived of four married couples living in a cul-de-sac in Southern California. CBS countered, "If we're going to do domestic drama in primetime, let's try something a little more high-stakes, with a bit more sweep," so Jacobs set aside Knots Landing for a spell. Instead, he gave CBS the saga they wanted, the oil-driven Dallas (that paean to American greed and grit) -- and once Dallas blossomed into a hit, CBS suggested he revisit Knots Landing, remodeling it as a spin-off. Jacobs complied with relative ease, taking two of the characters featured at the top of Dallas's second season, Lucy Ewing's parents, and -- with just a few appearances in Season 3 -- advancing their story enough that they could resettle in Southern California, becoming one of the four couples in the cul-de-sac. The pilot fell quickly into place.

Knots Landing was given a midseason launch in December of 1979 and a 13-episode order. (Back when shows ran uninterrupted from September to March, without reruns, December was considered mid-season.) Dallas had begun as a five-part miniseries -- standalone episodes that established the core characters and their relationships -- then slowly, once it was picked up for a second season, went serialized, and Jacobs adopted that approach once more: conceiving the first season as self-contained episodes with the occasional continuing thread. By the end of Season 1, the eight principals would hopefully be well defined and developed.

But what was the tone of the show to be? Dallas, by the time Knots premiered, was in the midst of one of its best seasons (the one that culminated in J.R.'s shooting) and had established a larger-than-life world where insults were hurled with as much glee as malice, and threats were never empty. Jacobs' inspiration for Knots was something else entirely: it was Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage, the Swedish filmmaker's groundbreaking look at the dissolution of a relationship over a 10-year period. A six-part miniseries that aired in the spring of 1973 (and was later condensed for theatrical release), Scenes took an unflinching look at issues ranging from adultery to assault. It was such a sensation that the streets of Sweden were empty on Wednesday nights: everyone was at home watching TV. (It was the kind of cultural phenomenon that was duplicated here when the fourth season of Dallas got underway in the fall of 1980.) Social historians speculated that the series was a contributing factor to Sweden's rising divorce rate, as it had taught couples how to face their marital troubles and articulate their grievances.

And so, a few years after Scenes From a Marriage took Sweden by storm, American audiences were treated to a show that approached its level of intimacy and insight. In the pilot episode, a daughter returns home and proceeds to wreak havoc on the family unit -- in particular, the parents' marriage. The script is careful not to overflow into melodrama, or tread the tropes of soap opera; there are no excesses in the writing or the playing. And the exposition -- this is a pilot, after all, introducing a host of characters -- is beautifully disguised, much of it delivered during an argument between the two parents, who offer the sort of conflicting memories and pronouncements typical of a lifetime spent together. A simple recitation of the dialogue doesn't begin to do the episode justice, but I can't not recount a portion of it. The wife has urged the husband not to be drawn into the daughter's drama. She tries to reason with him, firmly but without fury: "She's not helpless. For her sake, you must not allow her to manipulate you like this." And only when he's unmoved does a discussion about their daughter turn into a fight: a fight in which, notably, neither party raises their voice. The husband begins by digging in:

-- Why do you have to be so tough on her?
-- Because you never are. You think she's just perfection. Well, believe me, she does have just a few little faults. One of them is she wants everything.
-- What does that mean: everything?
-- Well, four years ago, she's just dying to be Mrs. Jeff Maitland III. She threw over everything, quit school, grabbed him up --
-- She grabbed him up?
-- and married him. Then she wanted a baby. Now she parks the baby for a week at a time. Then she wanted to go back to school. Now she's playing hooky from school. She thinks she can reverse field anytime she wants. Well, she can't.
-- How can you possibly condone what he did? Fooling around with one of her friends? What kind of humiliation do you expect her to take from him, and still go on with the marriage?
(a pause)
-- Exactly the kind I took from you.
(another pause)
-- That was twenty years ago. Don't you ever let it go? Don't you ever forget?
-- Oh, I forget most of the time. When I remember -- when sometimes I do remember about you and Margaret, it hurts just as much as it did then. And I hate you for it just as much as I did then.
-- Well, that's stupid -- and destructive --
-- That's right. I don't see that Jeff's behavior is that much different from yours. And I wonder if Nancy hasn't given him more reason. I married a man. She married a boy. If he's still a boy after four years of marriage, maybe it's partly her fault.
-- Kate, what about the baby? She doesn't want the baby.
-- If I got rid of a baby every time I thought I didn't want it, we wouldn't have much of a family.
-- You don't mean that.
-- Don't presume to tell me what I mean! I'm 46 years old, I've born three children. Some of the time in those pregnancies, I wanted out. It's the body that makes the baby and hangs onto it for nine months. Why don't men understand that sometimes women just want out?

The episode takes on infidelity, incompatibility, abortion and abuse without breaking a sweat. It was probably the best one-hour pilot that network TV had seen up to that point.

Unfortunately, that wasn't Knots Landing. That was ABC's Family, which premiered to a 40 share in the spring of 1976. That was Family, which (like Dallas) began as a miniseries, and which -- in its first crop of episodes alone -- had taken on teen pregnancy, the plight of the elderly, and the rise in suburban crime: using those issues to focus in on the family unit, revealing resentments simmering beneath the surface. That was Family, on which David Jacobs had served as story editor from the middle of the second season through the end of the third.

Because Knots Landing had a near record-breaking run, because it continues to turn up in syndication cycles around the globe, and because its fan base has remained passionate, it's nice to imagine it was somehow "significant" or "groundbreaking." It's nice to imagine that Jacobs -- at a time when most hour-long series were cop shows, murder mysteries, or period pieces -- pioneered the first contemporary domestic drama, one that was candid and uncompromising in its look at the challenges facing the American family (without, à la Eight Is Enough, coddling the audience into submission). But actually, he'd already schooled on a series that did just that.

And thus, the most surprising thing about the first season of Knots Landing isn't so much what it achieves as how long it takes to get there -- how long it takes Jacobs to find the proper tone, given that he'd come from a show that had established that very tone in episode 1: where characters are self-aware enough to resist talking in circles, as they do on soap operas, and where they're rounded enough to avoid falling into the traps of melodrama. A show that refrains from characters who are cloying or conclusions that are too convenient.

Is it a coincidence that the pilot for Knots Landing also features a daughter returning home to wreak havoc on a family, with the mother begging the father to see her for what she is? Probably. But more notable is the fact that the pilot is not very good. Neither is the second episode. Knots Landing requires patience. (And admittedly, lots of great shows don't hit their stride for several episodes, sometimes until the second or third season -- but those shows aren't aspiring to be another Scenes From a Marriage, from a writer coming off the next best thing.) And it's not just that the Season 1 episodes vary wildly in quality; they vary wildly in style and substance. Small wonder, as the writers chosen to contribute scripts are a mystifying lot. When Dallas premiered with its five-part miniseries, Jacobs penned two episodes, and two of the others were by writers -- Art Lewis and Camille Marchetta -- who'd continue with the show when it was picked up for a second season. But Knots Landing Season 1 is littered with free-lancers who'll never return to the series, most of them with few or no credits to their name. And the few seasoned pros -- Clyde Ware and Jack Turley -- had nothing in their resumés to suggest they'd be suitable. (When the season first aired, I recognized Turley's name from Lost in Space; I guess you could classify Lost in Space as a domestic drama, but it would be a stretch.) Obviously, all the episodes went through Jacobs' typewriter before reaching the set, but wouldn't it have been better to have a few writers with experience on staff, and what's more, a few with some understanding of the format and tone? Because oh, how that tone teeters from episode to episode.

Every time a Dallas character turns up for a ratings-driven cameo (J.R. in episode 2, Lucy in episode 6), Knots broadens its acting style to accommodate them. Larry Hagman and Charlene Tilton were crossing over from a top-10 series; you weren't going to ask them to rethink their roles. (It's doubtful Tilton would know how.) But you're aware of a mismatch in tone that throws Knots off its game. Hagman's episode sets up a battle between the Knots residents and J.R., who's engaged in off-shore drilling; it's the kind of hokum that Dallas thrived on, and sometimes, the Ewings of Texas aren't required for Knots to engage in an Old West showdown. In episode 7, a biker gang targets and terrorizes the cul-de-sac: tossing garbage onto their lawns, egging their houses, pouring oil in the street. The episode culminates in a full-scale brawl where Knots Landing's model citizen Sid Fairgate -- elsewhere a reservoir of reason -- beats up one of the gang members, then declares, in a sort of epiphany, "I feel great! I feel terrific!" In domestic drama, apparently, there's nothing so awful that a little violence can't solve it.

Some episodes are pure soap opera, as when Sid's ex appears, after twenty years, to win him back. As if serving up the sudsiest cliches of the genre, "Civil Wives" ends with two women -- Sid's wife and his ex -- going at each other across the kitchen table, with lines that stoop to the banalities of daytime drama: "I want you to know, you didn't win. I lost. I moved too fast. Next time you may not be so lucky." You practically expect an organ to punctuate each line: "You versus me -- that was a fair fight -- you didn't have to make it dirty." (The episode sets back the women's movement about twenty years.) The following episode succumbs to all the same cliches and conventions, as the cul-de-sac's youngest wife, Ginger, is being sent anonymous gifts that remind her of an incident from her past. (Cue organ music.) She's surrounded by a freak show (the fellow teacher who lives with his mother, the school janitor auditioning for an early draft of Sling Blade) and suspects them all -- but ultimately, she discovers it's the mother of the boy who got her pregnant when she was in her teens, who's sending her reminders of the child she aborted. (The child's father died shortly after, in Vietnam.) And although an effort is made to speak to the lingering pain of abortion (and the women's shared sense of loss), the stench of soap opera runs roughshod over it, as the mother lashes out at Ginger, "You killed my grandchild, and you killed my son!"

Even the best episodes occasionally fall prey to cheap theatrics. In episode 5, Val Ewing's mother Lilimae turns up, played by Julie Harris. It's a good Jacobs script (far superior to his pilot) that keep pointing to the direction he wants to take Knots, as Lilimae's return prompts each of the women in the cul-de-sac to reflect on -- and in some cases, re-examine -- their relationships with their own mothers. (A couple of those plot snippets turn into full episodes over the following seasons. You start to feel Jacobs painting a broader canvas than you'd expected, and you're encouraged.) And when Valene's animosity towards her mother resurfaces, Joan Van Ark and Julie Harris tear into each other, in as virtuosic an acting display as Knots Landing will see in its first few years. But once we launch into flashbacks of their backstory from Dallas -- replete with a teenaged Valene running through the dark woods, baby in tow, trying to stave off J.R.'s henchmen -- it all feels a bit overdone and foolish. And at the end, when Val tells her mother "I love you" as she drives off, it feels like a tacked-on happy ending; is it really that easy to get beyond decades of hurt? (The third season's fourth episode will answer the question: no.) Through most of its first season, Knots is a show practically thirsting for identity.

In fact, for an idea that had been percolating for years before it made its way to the small screen, the first season of Knots is strangely skeletal. Of the eight characters, only five of them seem well-formed when we meet them, and two of those -- Val, the country girl, and Gary, the surly middle Ewing -- had already been introduced on Dallas. The men fare far better than the women. Car dealer Sid Fairgate, the calm center of every storm: the husband, father and friend who doesn't have all the answers, but will always be there with a solution. Lawyer Richard Avery, the upwardly-mobile wannabe, always looking for an angle: the kind of weasel who'll take you to a three-martini lunch, then bill you for it. And hotshot record producer Kenny Ward, with his perfectly coiffed hair and shirt buttoned just north of the navel: the guy who loves his wife, but hasn't decided how he feels about being married. They're types, but they're good ones, consistently drawn, and even the worst of the free-lancer writers have no trouble nailing them.

But these women -- who are they? It's staggering how ill-defined Karen, Laura and Ginger are in the early episodes. Constance McCashin, who played Laura Avery, has admitted in interviews that there was basically no conception of her character when the show went into production (surprising given the role was written for her). She's the lucky one. Jacobs' pilot introduces Karen Fairgate (played by Michele Lee) as a shrew, resentful of the arrival of her husband's daughter Annie and barking orders at him: "Either she goes tomorrow or I do -- with the kids!" In interviews, Jacobs, asked to account for Karen's shrieking through most of the pilot, postured that since the show was a spin-off of Dallas, everyone would wonder who "the J.R." was, so he designed the pilot to suggest that Knots' villain-you-love-to-hate might be Karen. It's a lovely story for those who believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Tidal Energy. There's no reason to think this wasn't exactly how Jacobs imagined Karen, and she's screechy-awful. If I were Valene and Gary Ewing, moving in next door to this harridan, I'd book the next flight back to Dallas. (Val and Gary consider it.) Small wonder that Variety labeled the pilot "trashy domestic drama" that retains "the raunchy behavior patterns and bad taste of the original," probably not the response that the man who imagined himself paying homage to Ingmar Bergman was looking for. (Unlike Scenes From a Marriage, the pilot episode of Knots Landing did not ignite cultural changes in American society, but it's said the purchase of ear-plugs increased dramatically during the first commercial break.) And yes, there's a glorious scene where Valene, who's never seen the ocean, gets her first look and, removing her shoes, runs joyously through the water. It will become one of the show's iconic moments, but it's not what lingers by the end of the first episode. What lingers is a land where people yell a lot.

The writers take a while to get a handle on Karen, and Lee does too; often her reactions seem shrill and strident: too much for the moment. She and Don Murray have chemistry, but when they go at it, it's always her thrusting and him parrying -- and he's so laid back, and so secure in his beliefs, that Karen just raising her voice makes her seem overly aggressive. Her best episode is the tenth, staff writer Rob Gilmer's "Small Surprises," in which Karen learns she's pregnant. Much of it is carefully modulated, and some of it genuinely bracing, as when Sid, early on, negates Karen's ability to consider an abortion by outing her pregnancy to their daughter Diana. In moments like this, Knots understands (as Family did) that we're often cruelest to the ones we love most; we know how to push their buttons, to get what we want, and occasionally, we all need a "win." But the episode, good as it is, is still undercut by outbursts in which both Karen and Michele Lee overact in their worst manner. "I don't feel like being judged right now," she growls, but there's no judgment coming from Don Murray; it's just another case of Karen going off on Sid because that's how the writers manufacture discord in the Fairgate household. Karen is at her best being supportive, or gently intrusive, or passionate about causes that matter -- not just to her, but to us -- and through the first season, the writers start to figure her out.

At least Karen, from the start, has fire -- and a brain; Ginger, in the pilot, is a dumb bunny. We learn she teaches kindergarten, and it feels like a joke; is this really who's shaping young minds in Southern California? Ginger isn't even included in some of the early episodes -- she and Kenny are basically set up to be expendable, and that's how they'll continue to be till Season 4, when they're well-used and then discarded -- and when she appears, she's mostly defined in response to her husband. But as a foil for Kenny, she's well-defined, the young wife longing for a stable marriage and a family, but wedded to a player. In the season's sixth episode, the A-plot, like several in the first season, is bland (this one addresses why Lucy doesn't come live with her parents in Knots Landing -- Tilton answers the question the moment she opens her mouth and can't gel with the rest of the cast), but the B-plot is excellent, as Kenny throws a party for the band he's producing, and expects Ginger to accept all the ogling and advances that come with being a young wife in the music industry. She objects to the "managers and musicians with their hands all over me" and storms out, but Kenny doesn't go after her; he's got a party to host, and busies himself at the mirror: undoing a shirt button to see if he likes it, and then, when he decides he does, undoing another. Ginger gives the series its first whiff of feminism in her bid for self-respect, but notably, as much as the show admires Ginger, it doesn't judge Kenny for decrying sexual conformity: for feeling it's the product of another era, a bygone from when sex was for procreation and not for pleasure.

Jacobs reveals that an early plot called for Kenny to pimp out Ginger to his boss, for his own advancement, but he couldn't get it past the network. But that sort of plotline, a husband egging on his wife to make nice with a colleague, becomes a B-plot for Richard and Laura in episode 2. Once again, the A-plot, this one guest-starring J.R., is weak, full of the kind of hyperbolic dialogue that would have been right at home on Dallas (J.R. to Gary: "I'll break ya -- again"), but the B-plot has some power, as Laura runs into a one-night stand, and passes him off to Richard as an old friend. When Richard encourages her to rekindle their friendship to land him some business, we're left wondering just how far Laura is willing to go to help her husband, and just how far Richard expects her to go. The story-line allows for ambiguity, and invokes some of the salaciousness of Dallas without sensationalizing it. The ending is a bit pat, and diminishes Laura by having her dotingly declare, "Oh Richard, I love you so much," as if she's Nora in the doll's house -- but it's the first time you start to glimpse what the show could be.

You get another glimmer, via Laura, two episodes later. When one of her dalliances leaves her visibly shaken, and Richard notices, she covers by declaring she was attacked: the victim of a serial rapist who's been targeting the women of Knots Landing. Laura has a wonderful monologue about her mother's death when she was 12, and how she's been struggling since then to find affection and affirmation from others -- in particular, other men. "The Lie" is very much a product of its time, and as a result, it's a hazier episode now than it was in 1980. From a modern perspective, it's clear that even if Laura lied about the identity of her attacker, she was in fact assaulted by the man she hooked up with. But law enforcement didn't view it that way then, nor did the writers, and neither does Laura herself. She was simply promiscuous, things got a little rough, and she paid the price. But as with her B-plot in episode 2, it raises questions about the boundaries of the new sexual freedom. (This aspect of Laura's personality will quickly be toned down, and by the second half of the season, her penchant for infidelity will be transferred onto Richard. Was the network more comfortable seeing a man with a roving eye?)

One of the fascinating aspects of Season 1 is that the lead couples are clearly Sid and Karen, and Gary and Val, but it's mostly through the other characters that Knots starts to fall into place. And it's not just the other couples: it's also Sid and Karen's oldest kids, Diana and Eric. Claudia Lonow and Steve Shaw are Season 1's secret weapon. They're not adorable, precocious, or even well-groomed; they're about the most believable teenagers we'd seen on American television. (Jacobs based his next show, Secrets of Midland Heights, around a group of equally awkward adolescents.) Lonow is a marvel: her hair a rumpled, curly mess; her face naturally settling into a pout. And Shaw -- in his infatuation with Ginger in episode 6, and his tentative romance of her younger sister a few episodes later -- is shy and sweet, endearing without being precious. Jacobs hits all the right notes with these two. Both are dealing with the standard teen issues -- trust, peer pressure, "the first time" -- and often, they're doing it on their own, because their parents are trying so hard to be trusting and enlightened that they're not giving them the guidance they need. And worse, they're coming of age while seemingly everyone in the neighborhood looks on. (Karen and Ginger, two characters who rarely interact one-on-one, have a nice exchange late in the season, where they gossip -- and Karen frets -- about Diana and her new boyfriend.)

As the season progresses, the cul-de-sac itself takes on a real presence. At the end of "Small Surprises," Karen comes home from the hospital, having miscarried, and as she and Sid pull into the driveway, their neighbors are outside, either awaiting her return or simply on hand to witness it. Seaview Circle isn't just a community where neighbors are always there to lend a shoulder; it's a community where they're always there, period. Ultimately, you come to see what distinguishes Knots Landing from Dallas and from Family. Season 1 is about the awkwardness of human interaction at a time when the restraints are looser, in a setting where the confines are closer. It touches down at the tail end of the sexual revolution, in a claustrophobic cul-de-sac, and asks, how does the institution of marriage survive? In some ways, it presages the internet age, with its easy access to infidelity that's both titillating and terrifying. "Good fences make good neighbors," the expression goes, but what happens when the fences come down?

Throughout the season, you see how sexual liberation has altered attitudes, mores and even behavior. In the pilot, it feels like everyone in the cul-de-sac is coming on to everyone else. In episode 3, a teacher with an unorthodox manner of engaging his students proves a point by kissing Karen at a PTA meeting; later, he joins a couple of the parents at a diner, where he and Karen flirt in front of Val. (Although Valene looks uncomfortable, the script makes it clear that she'd better get used to it: in Southern California, flirting is the new "hello.") When Laura goes out of town in episode 8, Richard wastes no time cozying up to Sid's ex; while Kenny's away in the following episode, the policeman investigating Ginger's stalker case decides to hit on her. And in the episode after that, Karen and Sid let Diana and her boyfriend make out in the bedroom upstairs while they're downstairs playing poker with the adults. And make no mistake: Karen and Sid are meant to be seen as good, responsible parents -- but they remember what it was like to be young, and don't expect their kids to abstain till marriage, or even hold out for "the right one," as TV parents would have done five years earlier (and will do again in five years' time, once Reagan conservativism has permeated the airwaves).

This sense of sexual freedom is the best thing about the first season of Knots Landing. It's not there to generate "buzz" or goose the ratings; it's simply, for better or worse, what the world has become. And the new code of conduct extends beyond sex. In episode 11, Diana discovers that her boyfriend has stolen money from her father to get his motorcycle repaired. And she's ready to ditch him, but Sid intervenes. In a speech that turns the traditional-father role on its ear, he argues she should give the guy another chance: "Betrayal is a terrible thing, but I want to tell you something -- and I hate to say this, but it's true: betrayal's not all that rare. I mean, it happens to everybody -- sometimes, even people that love each other very much. Husbands and wives are unfaithful sometimes, businessmen cheat their partners, and friends betray secrets. When you find out, it always hurts, but it doesn't mean it's the end of a marriage or the end of a partnership or the end of a friendship. Sometimes people forgive." In Knots Landing, people expect to be cheated on; if you're going to embrace a looser morality, you have to expect and accept the consequences.

Episode 11, entitled "Courageous Convictions," is the season's high point. It's written by Rogers Turrentine, a disciple of Larry Gelbart and veteran screenwriter Howard Browne (and exactly the sort of person who should be writing Knots Landing), yet it's a largely unheralded episode: the splashier ones -- Laura's date-rape, Karen's pregnancy, Gary hitting the bottle at season's end -- get more attention. But "Courageous Convictions" is the episode that gets to the heart of life in Southern California. On the surface, Knots Landing celebrates its setting, a coastal community in Greater Los Angeles. (It's there in the sunshine, the fashions, the food they consume and the drinks they order, the excursions to the beach and the backyard BBQ's.) But so did half the 1979 primetime line-up; most shows then filmed in (and were set in and around) Los Angeles, and they understood well both the look and the lifestyle. Most TV shows "got" Southern California; hell, Barnaby Jones "got" Southern California. But Knots understood that nowhere else does the gulf between the rich and the poor seem wider: that it's possible to presume, as you stare at the million-dollar mansions in the Hollywood Hills, that you're the only person in the city who hasn't made it big -- and so you keep pressing your way into the upper classes before you're absorbed into the lower ones. Everyone on Knots is struggling to better their station, hustling to improve their standing (everyone, of course, except Sid, because he's Sid). Because in Southern California, it sometimes feels like the most miserable place to be is stuck in the middle.

And so in "Courageous Convictions," Richard has made some lousy investments and owes money to all the wrong people. He holds a barbecue to hit up his neighbors, and begs Laura to ask her father to bail them out (and not for the first time). As Richard is drowning in debt, Laura reminds him how they got there: "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 he tries to correct her -- "striving for something better" -- she gets in the last word: "Richard, you're always looking for the shortcut, and it's always getting us in trouble." Laura ultimately does borrow from her father, and writes Richard a check, but it comes with strings: from now on, she'll manage the money, and what's more, she's going to look for a job. The writers use Richard's financial woes to embrace the part of the sexual revolution they'd been overlooking: the rising tide of female equality and empowerment, the re-entry of women into the workforce, in a way the country hadn't seen in a generation. And Richard concedes to Laura's demands, but not before admitting, "I hate being ordinary," exquisitely capturing a malaise endemic to Southern California. "Courageous Convictions" isn't just about what people will do to get out of trouble; it's about what people will do to get out of the middle. It takes on both class and sexual warfare, ultimately pitting them against each other, in a way that American audiences hadn't seen.

At its best, Knots Landing Season 1 encapsulates a sexual freedom emblematic of its time, and a middle-class malaise specific to its setting. And it explores them with an acting style that's naturalistic and theatre-based, as Family did so well. But although the series is steadily improving as it reaches the end of Season 1 (the final four episodes are among its best), you recognize the challenges that lie ahead. In an age and an arena where people are allowed to flirt and even cheat without guilt, and where even betrayal will be forgiven, where do you mine the drama? At the end of Season 1, Ginger is convinced, rightly, that Kenny is having an affair. The episode stresses, it's not going to go the traditional route, where Ginger "learns of her husband's deception." Ginger is no longer the airhead we met in the pilot. She gets that Kenny is a player; it's not something she likes about him, but it's something she accepts. The question the script asks isn't "when will Ginger find out?" -- it's "when will she have had enough?" When will she decide that her needs -- for constancy, security, a family -- trump his? But that's a tougher question to dramatize, unless the writers are prepared to show months of daily indignities (hardly possible in a one-hour drama splitting its focus among eight people). So the show goes where shows have always gone: she catches her husband in flagrante delicto -- and then she decides she's "had enough." And you're left thinking: what's the point of creating contemporary characters if you're just going to fall back on the same old contrivances?

And that's the dilemma that Knots faces as it reaches the end of Season 1. Now that you've re-imagined married life in a way that speaks to present-day audiences, how do you update the story beats as well? Once characters have grown comfortable with the flirting and even the promiscuity, 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 the writers be able to rein them in? The end of Season 1 finds the writers on an exciting yet 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?

To be continued, in Season 2...


Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 3, in which the show finally masters the challenges inherent in its premise; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; 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 the great soap writer Ann Marcus, who'd guided the series during a critical time in its history, returns for one last glorious hurrah.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Knots Landing season 8

If you've never watched Knots Landing Season 8, here's the season in a nutshell. Paige is dead! No, not really. Anne is dead! No, not really. Sylvia is dead! No, not really. Jill is dead! No, not really. Sumner's dead! No, not really. Ben is dead! No, not really. The headwriters trot out the same twist over and over, never recognizing that by the second or third time, it's like the proverbial boy crying wolf, and we cease to believe a word they say. But fortunately, beyond that one tired device, Season 8 is full of felicities: sturdy plots for the veterans, skilled acting turns by the newcomers, balanced plotting, and down-to-earth, character-driven story-lines.

No, not really.

Season 8 is a misfire of epic proportions, in which Bernard Lechowick and Lynn Latham, newly installed as headwriters, work so hard to be clever, they lose sight of everything else. Knots was being moved up an hour that season, to a 9 PM timeslot where it would square off against ABC's Dynasty spin-off, The Colbys, and NBC's formidable sitcoms Cheers and Night Court, so there was very much a sense that the show had something to prove. And indeed Season 8 is a show that tries very hard; it just tries all the wrong things, and so unsubtly that the effort shows. It underuses the characters that viewers care about most, shifts far too much emphasis to newer ones who lack the requisite empathy or acting chops, and worst of all, clings pridefully to all its bad choices. You keep expecting course corrections that never come; in fact, in some cases, the writers don't even allow for course corrections, boxing themselves in with reveals that can't be undone. There's no way you could argue that Season 8 is worse than the fifteen episodes John Romano massacres at the top of Season 13. But that's a new showrunner and new writers coming onto a series with which they had little familiarity. Knots Landing Season 8 still has its creator, co-executive producer and producer very much involved, and headwriters who'd been scripting for over a year. And yet it not only goes off on impossibly bad tangents, it refuses to cut its losses. It's the most tone-deaf season.

The odd thing is, if you were placing wagers, you'd swear ten minutes into the first episode that the show was righting itself. Season 7 had been a coarse and crass affair, masterminded by one of the Dallas writers, David Paulsen, who had little understanding of the characters and seemingly no regard for the affection between them that had always distinguished Knots from its sister soaps. As Season 8 starts, the characters you loved come back. The writers restore the warmth: stressing Mack's devotion to his wife Karen (whom he'd demeaned through much of the previous season) and re-establishing the bond between Val and Ben, which had unaccountably come undone. Val and Ben even get a chance to verbally shed their Season 7 personas. She insists in the first episode, "I don't know what happened to [the woman I used to be] -- I don't know where she is," admitting how badly she'd been mischaracterized, and he brushes off his recent, out-of-character affair by insisting, "I've been stupid." (As an obliteration of a year of bad story-lines, it's only a touch more subtle than Bobby Ewing, that same month, assuring Pam, "None of that ever happened.")

More to the point, you sense, as Season 8 commences, that even the characters who find themselves at odds -- like Abby and Gary Ewing, then in the midst of a messy divorce -- genuinely like one another. Season 8 asserts, as Knots always did, that people can have differences without being at each other's throats. There's a lightness of touch, a playfulness, that feels inviting and familiar. (It doesn't hurt that Travilla is no longer doing the costuming, after two seasons of overdressing the cast in Dynasty cast-offs. On Dynasty, the look was consistent with the camp tone; on Knots, which kept it real, it made the ladies look stiff, matronly and foolish.) In Season 7, Abby had been hunting for a way to dispose of her husband's mistress, Jill Bennett; in Season 8, as Gary decides to run for State Senate, Abby assumes the role of political wife, instantly gaining the upper hand. When she starts turning on the charm at the end of one of his campaign speeches -- schmoozing the crowd with "Hello!" and "I'm Mrs. Ewing" and "Thank you for coming," gleefully putting Jill in her place -- it beats any over-the-top catfight that Season 7, no doubt, would have put them through. And when Gary, filming a political ad, breaks into gales of laughter because he can't get the copy right, you think, "Oh my God, Ted Shackelford is so frigging charming." And you think, "I love these people." You think what you're supposed to think while watching Knots.

So after a season in which they seemed lost, the core characters instantly return home in Season 8. What a shame the new headwriters have no idea what to do with them. What a shame they apparently feel they're not interesting enough to carry their own show, so they subordinate them to a character of their own making. Her name is Paige Matheson, and she is played by a model turned actress named Nicollette Sheridan, who is handed the meatiest plots of the season, but has neither the instincts nor the skill to pull off a fraction of what's required of her. But somehow, that fact seems to go unnoticed by the powers-that-be, who keep expanding her role and praising her to the high heavens. They set her up with a cover story in TV Guide, where her role is described thusly: "It’s the kind of coy, wait-until-next-week role that can either expand or shrink, depending on how she’s doing and how the audience is responding. So far, so good." And producer Lawrence Kasha is quick to commend her: “Obviously, we’re writing her up, or else she’d be on the train to nowhere.” Somewhere, in some alternate universe, there is a far better version of Season 8 where the train to nowhere pulled into Knots Landing and there was a ticket with Sheridan's name on it.

Sheridan, it must be noted, will ultimately become a fine actress, able to hold her own against the show's most formidable veterans. But in Season 8, her first full season, she still can't say one line convincingly, or master even the most straightforward statements. "It must be awful for you," she tells her step-brother Michael, whose mother Karen has been kidnapped, but as delivered, the tone feels gently mocking. Referencing Mack's whirlwind romance with her mother Anne, she admits, "I think about it all the time," sounding mostly distracted. When Sheridan's meant to come off as vulnerable, she seems whiny; when she's written as a victim, she seems like she's playing the victim. Seven episodes in, Michael, who's growing infatuated, describes his relationship with Paige as "more than sexy" (trust me: it's much, much less), but you don't have a clue what she thinks about him, because Sheridan is still incapable of honing in on an emotion.

Horrifyingly, The Nicollette Sheridan Hour doesn't just feature her in the role of Paige Matheson; she also plays her own mother Anne in flashbacks. Ponder on that: while breaking story for Season 8, at least five people of talent and discernment said, "Let's take an unproven ingenue, whose first and only prior acting credit was ABC's short-lived Paper Dolls (which basically brought that network to its knees in 1984), and give her a dual role." One would like to believe that there was something in the drinking water at Lorimar in the summer of 1986, but the Dallas and Falcon Crest writers both turned out sensational story-lines that season, so Knots has no excuse -- particularly since Sheridan had already appeared in a few episodes at the end of Season 7, so the Knots scripters knew exactly how limited her talents were. But the creative team, ignoring all evidence, decides to further enlarge Sheridan's role by telling a chunk of their season in flashback (because really, there's nothing more riveting than twenty-year-old exposition), traveling back in time to when Mack and Greg Sumner were college chums, and Mack had his great romance with society deb Anne Matheson. Who? Well, to understand fully who Anne Matheson is, you need to engage in your own flashback, to a scene from Season 4, when Mack -- who's stepped out on Karen when she thought they were building a committed relationship -- admits to her that he got scared, because he's never been in love with anyone before. It's a wonderful -- and memorable -- scene, and it helps answer the question of who Anne Matheson is.

She's a retcon.

So in plotting out Season 8, you give Mack a daughter he never knew he had, from a woman that viewers have been assured never existed -- both roles played by the same no-talent. And then you flash back to Mack's summer of love a few times each episode, and show us how the romance began, happened and fell apart. The flashbacks are in a baffling order, and they intrude at the strangest times. Mack will be agonizing over Karen's disappearance, and suddenly he'll have a flashback about Anne. Or Karen will hand him something, and instead of taking it, he'll go into a reverie. Some of the flashbacks don't seem to be anyone's in particular; they're just thrown up on the screen, filtered in brown, like newsreel footage, and they keep stopping the story dead in its tracks. The first flashback we're shown is Mack and Anne's break-up, so after that one, you feel you're pretty much up-to-speed -- but they continue throughout the season, and they're stultifying. They don't reveal aspects of Mack and Greg's friendship, or how their personalities were forged: things that viewers might actually care about. They're solely concerned with Mack's romance with a woman who, until the season began, didn't exist. And they weigh down a season that -- due to its new timeslot and competition -- needs to be light on its feet, at its most involving and invigorating. The flashbacks were actually promoted at the time as one of the season's big hooks, but it's a hook with no bait on it.

While Mack is engaging in retconned memories, his wife Karen has been kidnapped. In 2017, as I write this, it probably doesn't sound like such an awful idea: giving the show's leading lady a plotline where she's abducted, and can really show her acting chops. But this was 1986, a year after Dynasty did much the same thing, to critical mockery, audience apathy, and sliding ratings. If you want to know why Knots Landing's ratings fell 30% at the start of Season 8, don't blame the new timeslot. Don't blame the Colbys competition. Blame the kidnapping of Karen Cooper Fairgate MacKenzie, because I was there watching in 1986, as were my friends, and we were aghast. "Let's take a story that was the ruin of a higher-rated serial, and do it up right!" Except they don't. Because with Karen's disappearance, Lechowick and Latham are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They can't have all the characters stop what they're doing, as they should, to fret about and hunt for Karen, because that would grind the show to a halt. But at the same time, they can't have the characters not talk about her. So they give her cursory mentions that seem odd and insincere, and Karen's kidnapping -- which should be focal -- ends up seeming strangely disconnected and a little surreal. It's been weeks our time since Karen disappeared -- really more like months, since the story-line's been going on since the previous spring, and now it's October -- but Abby's still posturing to Gary that Karen is off somewhere "licking her wounds" over a business setback, as if that's remotely consistent with her character. Meanwhile, Laura, one of her closest friends, offers up this nugget, in terms of Karen's disappearance: "I just try not to think about it." Fair-weather friend much?

As it turns out, Karen's kidnapper -- an old friend of Mack and Greg's who, again, never existed until this season -- has peculiar reasons for kidnapping her, which Lechowick and Latham strain to make convincing, and once he's grabbed her, he's so sloppy about covering his tracks, he might as well be wearing a T-shirt that says "I'm With Karen." In a move the writing team will resort to often during their tenure on Knots, they have a character comment on the absurdity of a story-line, as an effort to preempt the audience from doing so. (It's Val in Season 11, thrust into a hurried marriage with Danny for plot purposes, telling Karen repeatedly, "I can't believe how fast this is happening.") We'll make note of them as the season goes along, but here's the first instance: Greg tells the kidnapper, "You're more stupid than I thought, and that's pretty stupid." He's written stupid so that he'll bungle things up and reveal his identity; it's sloppy writing, but Lechowick and Latham hope that by having a character reflect on it, we'll forgive it. Ultimately, Sumner is dragged into the Karen kidnapping story when he learns who the culprit is, but says nothing. Why doesn't he just turn him in? So that Lechowick and Latham can keep the story in play for another five episodes: so Greg can get in deeper and deeper, until Mack is convinced he masterminded the kidnapping. (Why would he have Karen abducted? It's never made clear, because there's no reason he would.) Greg's involvement in Karen's kidnapping, which is nonexistent but comes under suspicion, is pretty much how Joshua's death was handled in Season 7: a straightforward scenario stretched into an imagined whodunnit. You watch, and you're aghast that the writers are making the same mistake again.

Back to Paige for a minute, because I've already spent more time on Karen, Mack and Greg than the entire season does. As Kasha notes, they keep "writing her up," and by the second block, they move past developing her and create a mystery around her: cutting to a shot of her grave and leaving the viewer to wonder if this young woman is truly Paige Matheson. It's an awful idea, because what the writers don't seem to understand is that if this woman is an impostor, then the storyline is even less compelling. It wasn't all that interesting that Mack had a daughter, but someone pretending to be the daughter Mack never knew he had? -- then really, who cares? (Falcon Crest, that same season, could get away with roughly the same idea -- someone impersonating a key character's daughter -- but that someone was played by Kim Novak.) And when Paige, confronted with the evidence of her death, counters that she faked it, the writers still won't let it go, raising the question of whether she went on the lam after a car accident, as she insists, or a boating accident, as reported in the newspapers -- as if the more questions that swirl around Paige, the more fascinating she becomes.

Mostly, you keep wondering what the veterans must be thinking, confronted with this novice -- but the way the season is set up, the rest of the cast (all infinitely more talented and experienced) have to continually praise her or treat her with kid gloves. Until Karen takes the gloves off, and then we get one of the season's few good scenes. Lechowick and Latham by now are up to their second "dead, but not really" moment, as it turns out that Anne, who Paige assured us had passed away, is really alive. And Karen gets wind, and tears into Paige, saying pretty much everything you yourself have wanted to say all season. Paige arrives at the MacKenzie house, and Karen comes down the staircase, cornering her like a trapped animal: "You had to know we'd find out. About you. You had to know we'd find out about your mother. Didn't you think it was gonna happen? What were you doing? Were you just waiting for all hell to break loose?" And with no pause between sentences, Karen picks up the ugliest red tchotchke ever, and plows on: "What color is this? Because if you say it's red, it must be blue. Was the sun shining today? -- 'cause if you say the sun was shining, it must've rained." And finally, slowing down the pace, zeroing in on her target: "I don't know who you are. I only know I don't believe one word you say."

Great acting: that's how it's done.

And Sheridan stands there with virtually no expression on her face.

While the showrunners are giving Sheridan a welcome second only to Cleopatra's arrival in Rome, we get introduced to another character, Jean Hackney, who I guess -- if we're keeping the Egyptian similes going for a second -- would be Knots' equivalent of the Ten Plagues. As with Mack's retconned romance, Ben Gibson gets his own rewrite. The freewheeling journalist turned dedicated family man has a secret past: he used to dabble in espionage. And he's blackmailed into returning to the fold by one Jean Hackney, who runs a lingerie shop as a cover, and has a penchant for leopard-print kerchiefs: two reasons -- quite apart from the implausibility of her story-line -- not to take her seriously. "I don't do this spy stuff anymore -- I never really did," Ben informs her early on, in a writer's Freudian slip that gives lie to the whole story-line. But from episode 1, Ben is dragged back into espionage work, something as foreign to Knots Landing's roots and strengths as -- well, as most of the previous season's story-lines.

And ironically, it's a plotline for Doug Sheehan that does nothing for Doug Sheehan. Sheehan was one of the most successful bits of casting in Knots history. Having established in Season 4 that Val would always be in love with Gary, the writers needed someone to take her mind off him in Season 5 -- and Sheehan fit the bill perfectly. He had charm, and they had chemistry. (You want to see what the wrong choice would have been like in the role, check out Jon Cypher in Season 4: a solid actor who does nothing for Joan Van Ark, except give her one of her worst moments on the show, when she cries out that she loves him, and you don't believe it for a second.) Ben was always there, with his self-deprecating "aw shucks" manner, ready to tickle the ivories or blow on a bagpipe: whatever it took to bring a little joy into Valene's life. (His sense of decency and sense of humor had been among Season 7's few saving graces.) So in Season 8, you give him a plotline that calls for none of those qualities: that reduces him to an automaton taking orders: mostly angry, sometimes edgy, and always fearful. And because it's a "secret mission," Sheehan is pretty much cut off from the rest of the cast, with no opportunities to show his aforementioned charm and humor.

In fact, Ben's story-line isn't ultimately about Ben at all. It's about Jean Hackney, mystery woman. In any other season, her character would have been fleshed out a little; evil characters on Knots typically had at least one scene where their motives became clear, if not sympathetic. But as with so much of Season 8, Jean is designed as a "mystery" -- her plans aren't to be revealed until it's time, late in the season: after Lechowick and Latham have milked her story-line for as many surprises as they can. Till then, she's there simply to give Ben marching orders, by making threats against his wife and children. (If this were sci-fi, she could just as easily have been played by a computer bank: you know, like the kind Gary stumbled upon in Empire Valley. Or a robot. Somewhere, in yet another alternate universe, there's a far better version of Season 8 where Jean Hackney is played by a robot.) So how do they make her into a more intriguing character? Since they won't reveal her motivations, they increase her airtime. She turns up at Val's home, posing as a kooky old friend of Ben's from college. A few episodes later, assuming yet another persona, she fakes an auto accident that she blames on Sumner, and tries to flirt her way into his bed. Some of this might be palatable if Hackney were played by an actress of both command and comic prowess, who could seem at once menacing and mercurial: whose machinations you found, despite yourself, quite enjoying. But Wendy Fulton is a competent actress who has neither fire nor flair. I'm not saying the role of Jean Hackney is a good one -- I believe it's an ill-conceived mess -- but if they're going to throw so much story-line to her, Fulton was exactly the wrong actress to cast.

At the end of the first story block, Hackney reveals, to a colleague and to the viewer, her ultimate plan: she's going to force Ben to kill Greg Sumner. It's supposed to be a Big Reveal -- the whole season is designed as a series of Big Reveals -- but what it does is lock the writers into a lousy story. And the ripple effects of that story-line are unforgivable, because Ben stuck in scenes with Jean Hackney all season means that Joan Van Ark and Julie Harris are rendered plotless. Two-thirds of the way through the season, their characters will be needed to go on the lam with Ben, so they're left to tread water till then. Harris is reduced to baby-sitting -- her character is basically retconned back to Season 3. Van Ark has it worse: she gets a token story-line designed to be inconsequential enough that it can be completely abandoned once she's absorbed into Ben's plot. A studio wants to do a made-for-TV movie based on her first novel. The studio is called Ramilar, an in-joke for viewers who know that Knots is produced by Lorimar, and it's Lechowick and Latham engaging in the sort of juvenile self-referentialism that will come to stain their time on the show. It's a throwaway plot, indulging in every showbiz cliche, including the big Hollywood star who loves the part but wants it entirely rewritten -- and it's a giant waste of Joan Van Ark's talents. Van Ark soldiers through, but it's humiliating to think about and painful to watch. We're sorry: we've given your onscreen husband his own awful plotline; we don't have one left for you.

Two of the season's main story-lines are The Mystery of Paige Matheson and The Deception of Jean Hackney. The third: The Trials of Peter Hollister, the man masquerading as Greg's half-brother, who learns, over the course of Season 8, that it's hard to juggle seventeen story-lines. Peter, played by Hunt Block, was introduced in Season 7 as a man eager for revenge on Galveston Industries, for poisoning the water where his family lived and killing his parents. He has some charismatic moments that season -- in fact, he's one of the best things about it -- because he's used sparingly, and when he does appear (and this is one good thing you can say about Paulsen, who loved his alpha males) he's used strongly. In one scene in a pool, seducing Abby Ewing, he looks and seems like a power player.

In Season 8, they writers decide, as with Paige, to make him focal. But as with Ben, they lose track of what made the character appealing. When he's focused on payback, Block is dynamic. But in Season 8, Greg insists Peter run for State Senate, a job he doesn't want, with responsibilities that aren't interesting. (There's one episode where Abby and Greg fight about what committee he should sit on. And we care why?) He has no passion for politics, and meanwhile, he's having to indulge the whims of his phony mother, kowtow to his half-brother, and sexually satisfy his patron. (And the chemistry between Block and Donna Mills, as Abby, too often seems forced. There's a horrible scene early in the season that's supposed to be sensual and just looks silly, with close-ups of Abby and Peter's eyes and lips and bare shoulders and feet, as they're undressing for lovemaking. If you need to work at it that hard, it's not working.) He spends the final third of the season forced to court Abby's sixteen-year-old daughter Olivia, because she has incriminating evidence on him.

In Season 8, Peter spends his time trying to endure or extricate himself from situations that annoy him; he's never in command of his own story-lines. Some Knots actors were extremely good at making discomfort, even powerlessness, compelling. Michele Lee excelled at that: in fact, she spends most of Seasons 8 and 11 effectively reacting to events out of her control. (Her single best moment in Season 8 might be when she's disparaging the changes Abby has made at Lotus Point and inadvertently insults her son Eric, who notes defensively that one of those changes was his. As he walks away, Lee flashes a look that's at once shaken, sorrowful and self-righteous.) Other actors, like Donna Mills and Hunt Block, were at their least impressive being purely reactive. In Season 8, Lechowick and Latham turn Peter into a character who isn't even invested in his own plotlines: a disconnect that -- like every other miscalculation -- never gets addressed or corrected.

And worse, while Block is visibly suffering through his stories, he takes precious airtime away from everyone else. Ted Shackelford told TV Guide at the time, "For anyone as relatively inexperienced to come on a continuing series and shoulder as much of the plot as Hunt has this year is really unusual. Come to think of it, the guy’s been on more than I have.” Funny, but not so funny. All roads eventually lead to Peter in Season 8; Ben even decides to write an exposé on him. And Laura (who's pretty much wasted throughout the season) gets to be the one to question this particular story-line (and hopefully beat us to the punch), when she interrupts Greg pruning a bonsai tree to inquire, "Why Peter Hollister?" (Sadly, Greg can't give her much of an answer.)

In Peter's worst plot, he's decided to kill the woman posing as his mother. Unfortunately, while he's busy giving her an overdose, she disappears. (It's the season's third "Dead? No, not really" moment.) He begs his sister Jill for some face time, and she agrees, instructing him to meet her on a deserted mountain road. "Why did we have to meet all the way out here?" Peter asks: his turn to go meta, as Lechowick and Latham comment on -- in order to justify -- the absurd setting, chosen solely because it will provide a literal cliffhanger for Jill at episode's end. (For the record, her response is that she doesn't want anyone to see them. I lived in Southern California myself for many years and can safely say that when you're looking for privacy, there are plenty of options besides "deserted mountain road.") So Jill goes over a cliff, clinging to a branch halfway down the mountain before it snaps and she plunges even further, eventually hitting the ground lifeless. (For those keeping count, it's the season's fourth "Dead? No, not really" moment.)

And the next episode begins with fifteen minutes of Peter deciding whether or not to go for help. How does he make that decision? Through flashbacks, of course. As if Mack's reminiscences have somehow been elevating the series, lifting it to new Emmy-worthy heights, we now get Peter reliving seemingly every moment he and his sister have shared in the past two years, in hyper-speed. The sum of these memories, it's suggested, will help Peter decide whether his sister is worth saving. We don't just flash back weeks and months: we revisit things we just saw. We even get two more reruns of Jill holding onto that branch before it snaps. (It starts to grow comic after a while: Teri Austin as Wile E. Coyote.) But of course, nothing in these flashbacks helps Peter decide -- there's no "new information" provided; they're just a time-killer. Ultimately, he makes the phone call that saves her -- and because she's the one person who knows his true identity, that just gives him one more thing to fret about.

There's only one thing that interests Peter in Season 8, and that's spending more time with Paige. Halfway through the season, the writers pair them. It reaps instant rewards: first, because putting those two together halves the number of scenes you have to fast-forward through. And second, because it frees up time for a few other characters to get in a story-line or two.

And so, just after the season's midpoint, we get its one great episode: one that, tellingly, doesn't revolve around Paige or Peter. Instead, three of the veterans -- including the youngest and the oldest -- show how it's done, as the ongoing story of Olivia's drug dependence comes to a head. The episodes leading up to it had promised something special -- Abby showing up at Gary's hotel room to ask for advice, then quietly bursting into tears, had been some of Mills' best work to date -- but still, nothing prepares you for the power of the pay-off, "No Miracle Worker." It's a series high point (one of Lechowick's best efforts), much of it a two-hander between Donna Mills and Tonya Crowe. So many memorable scenes. Abby hammering in the bathroom door to get to Olivia, who's locked her out -- and then, when she discovers her daughter flushing her drugs down the john, flinging them furiously in her face. Olivia, wired on cocaine, trying to coax her mother into giving her the car keys -- then, when that approach doesn't pan out, unleashing her fury: smashing her fist against a painting, hurling bric-a-brac to the floor. (As you watch Crowe, utterly convincing as a coked-up teenager aching for a fix, denying her addiction but eager to lay the blame at everyone else's feet, it seems even more criminal that so much of the season has been thrown to Sheridan.) It even finds a stunning moment for Julie Harris, when Abby and Lilimae learn that Olivia has put her brother in harm's way, and Lilimae grabs the phone and demands Olivia call 911. (She's arguably more powerful in that scene than in all the over-the-top thesping she's forced to do, relentlessly, in Season 7. Her fury here is unexpected; it's not where her entire season is pitched.)

"No Miracle Worker" is riveting television, Knots at its best, and then the next episode is back to awful plots that flatter no one, as Ben is coerced into planting a bug in Sumner's office, while Val has her first day on a Hollywood set. Soon it's the end of the second block, and Jean Hackney finally informs Ben that her plan all along has been for him to kill Sumner: something we've known for ten episodes. Consider what this says about Season 8. On the surface, the idea of having Jean Hackney tell us something Ben won't learn for months simply turns one Big Reveal into two. (Lechowick and Latham must have been in heaven when they came up with that idea.) But it's a move that ultimately undercuts the story-line itself, because everything Ben does after we find out his real mission, but before he himself learns it, becomes inconsequential, since we know it's filler. There are two possible takeaways. Either Lechowick and Latham didn't think the middle spate of episodes would stand on their own if we didn't know what was coming next, or they were willing to sacrifice their impact just to double the surprises. Which is worse?

What's inexcusable about the Jean Hackney story isn't how bad it is -- there are plenty of bad Knots Landing stories over its fourteen seasons, and some even stem from noble impulses: it's that the headwriters conceive a plot that's risky at best, that runs counter to the relationship-based drama at which Knots excelled, then leave themselves no way out if it doesn't work. On the contrary: as they plot the season, these are their two roadmarks: we'll learn about Hackney's plan in the final moments of the first block; Ben will find out in the final moments of the second. The entire season is structured around those two reveals, and once they hit them, there's no turning back. There's no opportunity to ask, "Is this working?" -- but then, it doesn't seem that that question ever occurs to Lechowick and Latham during Season 8. They chart their course, mapping out exactly how they're going to beat The Colbys -- and nothing will deter them from that plan. Nothing will go wrong because nothing can go wrong. In that same article about Hunt Block, the actor has one telling anecdote: “Peter’s done some pretty stupid things, like giving an inscribed locket to Olivia. When I raise questions with the producers and writers and ask, 'Why would he do this?’, there’s not much they can tell me. They’re wedded to the plot and where that’ll take the characters.” That pretty much sums up everything that goes wrong in Season 8.

It's not surprising. Lechowick and Latham had schooled under David Paulsen, who -- like his mentor, Leonard Katzman -- mapped out his seasons meticulously. And although they have an understanding of the characters that Paulsen lacked, they haven't yet cultivated the ability to be spontaneous, to check in from time to time on what's working and what isn't. (Hell, even John Romano knew enough to gut Tidal Energy after a dozen episodes.) They set up a maze of a plot to take you through Season 8 -- replete with misdirects and traps and reveals -- and they just run with it, sadly unaware that intrigue doesn't necessarily translate into interest. A little healthy self-reflection would've gone a long way toward salvaging Season 8, but the writers don't seem to second-guess their ideas, before or after they hit the screen.

In the third and final block, Mack saves Ben from having to shoot Sumner. It's the season's climactic set piece, and -- you can't make this stuff up -- it's told in flashbacks. Lechowick and Latham can't even deliver the climax they've been building to for two dozen episodes, because that would deprive them of two more misdirects. So the big confrontation between Ben and Sumner happens off-screen, so we can go through the motions of "Sumner's dead! No, not really" and "Ben's dead! No, not really." (By that point, Lechowick and Latham are like failed magicians, pulling dead rabbits out of hats.) And then the entire Jean Hackney story-line, insanely convoluted by this point, and such a sad departure from what Knots does best, is recounted by Mack to Karen, as he forces us to relive scenes that we're busy trying to forget. Mack begins his story long ago, when nefarious plans were laid by "this gang of financial wizards and thugs," because, of course, that's how any good Knots Landing story begins. Here it's Karen's chance to engage in the running meta-commentary, punctuating Mack's story with observations like "that's insane" and "I just don't believe this -- it's crazy." (Michele Lee thought Karen became "the voice of the people" in Season 12. No, it's here.) When it's all over, Ben is haunted by the experience. He's not the only one. Season 8 has felt like one long nightmare.

There's not much more to say about Season 8. Michelle Phillips turns up as present-day Anne Matheson, and although there's not a sincere, unaffected bone in her body, Mack insists to Karen that she's really "down-to-earth." That notion is borne out by nothing we're seeing, so obviously Mack is drinking the same Kool-Aid that's telling the Lorimar honchos that Sheridan can act, that Block is at his best emasculated, and that Jean Hackney is the greatest literary creation since Falstaff. Mack being played by Anne isn't the least bit convincing, and the best that can be said for it is that it's the only time in the season Lechowick and Latham actually seem to have rethought a story-line, as the intent was for the two to sleep together, but Michele Lee, rightfully, put her foot down. But because we get episodes of build-up, as Mack is sucked into Anne's orbit, and then there's no pay-off, the writers compensate by leaving us with one last Paige Matheson mystery: is Mack really her father? It's the final, riotous miscalculation in a season that thrives on them. If Mack's isn't Paige's father, then what was the point of the whole season? Why did it deserve our time and attention? Why did we have to suffer through seven hundred flashbacks, and an ingenue who seemed to recite her lines phonetically? The ignorance and arrogance of Lechowick and Latham in Season 8 is staggering; they seem to have no idea how their stories impact the audience. They see fooling the viewer as an "win," no matter the cost. They leave Season 8 by exclaiming to the viewer, "Isn't that marvelous? We just wasted your time!"


Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 1, which establishes the characters and struggles to set the tone; Season 3, in which the show finally masters the challenges inherent in its premise; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; Season 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years; Season 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; and Season 14, in which the great soap writer Ann Marcus, who'd guided the series during a critical time in its history, returns for one last glorious hurrah.