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.

11 comments:

  1. Thirty four paragraphs on what sounds like one of the worst seasons imaginable is pretty good going. As a prize, you win a Knots Landing season eight boxed set, complete with extended scenes, deleted scenes, and a commentary on every episode by Lechowick and Latham.

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  2. Where do I even begin? Season 8 is one of those years where I didn't realize how much I disliked many things about it until many years after I first saw it.

    There was a poster on the Knots Landing website whose name escapes me currently but he used to say something to the effect that the first seven years of Knots Landing were like a complete novel and then season 8 almost feels like the start of something completely different. It's hard to exactly pinpoint but I think a lot of it had to do with how season 7 just sort of fizzled out at the end. It felt like a fast moving train for so long but it became a meandering plodding beast.

    The highlights are Olivia on drugs and I do enjoy Anne which most people typically agree on but the misfires are certainly questionable. Jean Hackney is probably one of the worst storylines in the show's history, right up there with Tidal Energy or the Danny/Amanda/Gary/Val quadrangle.

    Douglas Sheehan should've just left town with Lisa Hartman (which they were sure eager to kick her to the curb as she is instantly forgotten after the misguided affair). Ben never used to be high up on my list and I do think a lot of it was how my memory was tarnished of him after watching his "exit". I also find it quite laughable that the moment he comes home from being with Cathy, he promptly finds a note from Jean Hackney....oh how you probably now wish you had become Cathy's tour manager!

    You have Peter starting off with such frequent domination and then by the end of the year, he seems to become more boring and then is promptly killed. Sylvia is randomly killed offscreen after a rather lifeless attempt at creating drama with those damned letters, and of course, Paige is EVERYWHERE!

    And then there's Phil Harbert. A kidnapping so boring and lifeless aside from a few decent moments during Karen's escape that it really felt inconsequential. By the time they kill off Phil in episode 8, you almost forget that he was even in the episode by the time you get more than half way through it. The kidnapping of Karen felt tacked on, pre-packaged, and ill conceived.

    I could probably go on and on, but it's true that this season was a misstep that was mostly corrected the following year. It also makes season 7 feel like Edward Albee at times.

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    1. You're right: it pains me to say it, but Season 8 makes Season 7 look like frigging Shakespeare. I (obviously) don't care much for Season 7, but at least it tries to tell an interesting story. Season 8 doesn't do that at all: instead, it tries to tell a story in an interesting manner, making it -- as Lechowick and Latham would so often do -- all about the writers. Sometimes, it even seems determined NOT to tell a story, as when they skip over key events, as with Sylvia's death, as you noted, or the big confrontation between Ben and Sumner. Just maddening.

      Like you, I've soured considerably on Season 8 since it first aired. Originally, I was aware that Dallas and Falcon Crest were having infinitely better seasons, and that Knots had lost its water-cooler status. (My friend Barry Moss, the great casting director, was a huge Knots fan, and he and I would often compare notes the day after an episode aired: until "No Miracle Worker," we had absolutely nothing to say to each other about Season 8.) But it didn't infuriate me as it does now. But of course, a good part of what's galling about Season 8 is the manipulation of the viewer, and you don't fully see it until the second time through.

      All that said, I do know some folks love Season 8, and I hope a few of them swing by here and leave some thoughts. I never pretend, heaven knows, that my opinions are "definitive" or "the final word"; it would be fun to hear what folks who DO respond to Season 8 find particularly satisfying.

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  3. Considering the he'll that Val went through in season 6 and 7...I could understand having her be more backgeound..but I do wish her writing took more of a dominant focus then this secret agent stuff. Oddly, the biggest fall out from this Jean Hackney plot was the breakdown of Val and Laura's friendship that carries over into the start of season 9.

    I liked that Val was calmer and not so over the top..and I wish the Lathams kept this version of Val over the victim aspect that started at the end of season 9. Two scenes stood out in season 8...the one where she's retelling a car accident she had when it was raining/snowing...and also when she had the realization that Ben wasn't coming back.

    Sadly..i think this out of character story for Ben was a way to write him out so that Gary and Val would reunite down the road. Val and Ben fit much better then Val and Gary ever did..imho. I would have rather seen them trying to work on the marriage and maybe having them decide at season end that it wasn't going to work then had him move away..but it would have been too scenes of a marriage for the Lathams.

    I liked Paige...but not in her first season.. I liked that the abby vs Paige groundwork was laid out in this season.

    I think season 8 was a transition year...shedding the old KL and embracing a new KL. Do i think the Lathams did a good job...no..but it's an interesting year..and the ground work was laid out for future story (i.e. abby earning Jill the 1st Mrs Ewing never goes away).

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    1. Hey Jayson, so glad you stopped by: it was actually you asking me, in response to another post, if I'd be writing up Season 8 that prompted me to fast-track it. I knew it was not one of my favorite seasons, but I wasn't prepared to dislike it as much as I did on my latest rewatch. So much bothered me -- the overuse of Paige, Peter and Jean Hackney, as well as the steady flow of fake-outs and flashbacks -- that I have a feeling the point I made up front got lost along the way: that I really do find the core characters engaging once again, after they seemed so chilly and unfamiliar in Season 7. As you said, it is absolutely a transitional season, and so many of its flaws are addressed and resolved in the opening episode of Season 9. I just wish Lechowick and Latham hadn't been so concerned with masterminding an "impressive" first season, and had just told some good stories, as they do -- so well -- over the next few years.

      I believe Doug Sheehan had originally signed for three years, which is why they gave him a possible write-off at the end of Season 7. And then, I guess he agreed to stay one more year, which is why they wrote him a big farewell that lasted all of Season 8. But it's a strange send-off. As you said, the Jean Hackney story, which dominates the season, ultimately has little impact on the core characters, except a brief frostiness between Laura and Val. I too loved Val and Ben; I thought they were a lovely couple, and sometimes I'm quite sorry the show got so consumed with ultimately reuniting Val and Gary that it couldn't let her move on. And yes, indeed, I much prefer this version of Val, in Season 8, to the "Poor Val," "village idiot" character she becomes by Season 11. Thank goodness the original Val gets restored, if only briefly, when Ann Marcus returns late in Season 13.

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    2. Also, the Paige character coming to the cul de sac could have been much bigger and involved more of the cast then it did. She seemed like a young Abby in season 8..or was written to be..with her seducing Michael. I think that could habe caused more problems for Mac/Karen. Also..other then one scene of Lillimae voicing that Paige didn't seem truthful..there was no other comments from the cul de sac gang like Ben, Val, or Laura. Season 3 was great because all the residents knew abby and Gary were having an affair except for Val (though Val had a feeling). I could habe seen Val try to reach out to her at first..seeing a tortured person..and quickly seeing she was more Abby then Olivia.

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    3. That would have been great. Similarly, it would have been interesting for Abby to see Paige interacting with Olivia, feel that something was "off," and come to Mack or Karen with her suspicions. I found it unconvincing that Abby would instantly welcome Paige, thinking she'd be a good influence on Olivia. Based on what? I think the writers felt that by having so many of the core characters embrace Paige, we'd embrace Nicollette -- but as you note, one of the great things about Knots Landing was that, as welcoming as people could be, they could also be deeply suspicious. (It's what makes the Williamses' story work in Season 9.) Maybe if the other actors had been allowed into Paige's story-line, she wouldn't have seemed -- as I described her in my Season 9 write-up -- like "visiting royalty."

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  4. I just did a re-watch of Knots, and I am firmly not a season 8 fan. I almost hate to admit because there are things that I love about every season, but I stalled out for awhile with this one because I was bored. Exception: Abby beating down the bathroom door with a hammer was brilliance. I think season 8 ranks right up there with season 13 as one of my least favorite seasons. Where do I begin? Big Brow Jean, Spy Bean, all those flashbacks, dumb Phil being Karen's kidnapper and the almost mocking contrivance of that story. And Paige. Oh Paige. There was too much Paige all at once. I think that's the reason why Paige never grew on me. When they dialed her back and turned her into the "heroine", she never felt sincere to me. Honorable mention: The informant priest Spy Ben met with and his epic disappearance with the bus, Dumb Phil getting hit by the car and flying straight into the air and one shoe flying across the street, Sumner making a "That was gun in my pocket" joke, and Abby burying that body in her Italian high heels. Season 8 wasn't all bad :)

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    1. So good to hear from you again, Pamela. You know, in all these years, I have never done a "front to back" rewatch of Knots -- and at this point, I don't think I'd have the patience! Like you, I think Season 8 is about as bad as it gets. I was emailing with a friend the other day, doing one of those "ranking the seasons" exercises we all love to do, and I actually put Season 8 below Season 13, which is tantamount to heresy. And like most, I think the first 15 episodes of Season 13 are an abomination, but it least, when they bring in Ann Marcus to overhaul it, the season improves noticeably, and some of the plots -- like Val's Sumner bio, and the way that Laura is woven back into the story-line -- are quite good. But Season 8 just keeps going on and on with the same ghastly story-lines, way past their expiration dates.

      I didn't get to include this in my essay, but in retrospect, it's almost a miracle that Lechowick and Latham manage to course-correct (and so successfully) the moment Season 9 begins -- because, as I recall, the top of Season 9 was filmed directly after Season 8 wrapped, as there was an impending Directors Guild strike (ultimately averted), and Lorimar wanted to get a half-dozen episodes in the can ASAP. Given that they didn't have the customary "summer hiatus" to look at what had worked and what hadn't, and carefully plot their next moves, can you imagine if Lechowick and Latham had just launched into Season 9 giving us "more of the same"? We might have gotten five seasons of spy stories and informant priests...

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    2. I completely agree with you about season 8 being lower on the ranking last than season 13! I was just thinking the very same thing as I did my re-watch. Season 13 does have some stuff there.

      It's interesting to note that Latham/Lechowick gave us both seasons 8 and 9. I am, for the most part, a fan of their episodes. HOWEVER, after watching it again, I can understand why some of the actors and some of the audience may have been turned off by then (Shudder to think 5 more seasons of spy stories and informant priests). I think it's a waste that they really don't know what to do with Valene other than make her do dumb things.

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