Then Season 13 rolled around, and within a few weeks, I stopped taping it to two VCR's. Was it even necessary to tape it to one? I remember being rather shocked at how quickly my devotion faded into disinterest. It's not like Knots hadn't gone through rough spells; I mean, even then, as I looked back at the history of the show, I was able to spot a half-dozen dry patches -- some of them bone dry. But there had never been anything like the first fifteen episodes of Season 13: a perfect storm of mediocrity. New writers, none with soap experience, let alone an understanding of these particular characters -- and an outgoing team who had left them with nothing to work from, merely a set of unpromising cliffhangers and compromised characters.
It's easy to deride the first two-thirds of Season 13, in which newly-installed showrunner John Romano brings on an entirely new writing crew and, in record time, decimates the show. But my latest rewatch left me with as many questions as responses. So I reached out to James Magnuson, who was brought aboard by Romano at the start of the season, and was one of the two writers retained when creator David Jacobs famously shut down production after fifteen episodes, sacked Romano, and sent out an S.O.S. to legendary soap scribe Ann Marcus. (The other writer retained, Dallas and Falcon Crest vet Lisa Seidman, had joined near the end of the Romano regime. Marcus, Seidman and Magnuson proved such a potent team that all three stayed on for Season 14.) So Magnuson is the only one who was there at the start of Season 13, and also for the masterful late-season overhaul -- and as such, his is a voice very much worth hearing. But lest anyone fear that because I've spoken with one of the season's writers, I'm going to be any more tolerant of those early episodes, have no fear: I'm prepared to trash them.
I have to, right?
Because it's staggering how far afield they go. The law of averages suggests that if you assign a team of writers -- in particular, a team with genuine talent -- to brainstorm a season of a series they're unfamiliar with, they'll at least get a few things right. Knots Landing Season 13 deals a death-blow to the law of averages. Lack of familiarity -- and pressing deadlines -- did the writers in. For Magnuson, "I got on a plane, and four hours later, I was in a room planning story. None of us had seen much of the show, and that was a huge problem. Once I got into it, I was trying to watch previous episodes, but it's pretty hard to absorb twelve seasons." (The new writers were given neither season summaries nor character breakdowns. In an anecdote that's funny only in retrospect, Magnuson recalls that they spotted Laura Van Wormer's 1986 coffee table book, Knots Landing: The Saga of Seaview Circle, and started to study it, brainstorming story-lines, before realizing that much of it had nothing to do with the TV series.) In the end, it seems pretty clear that the new writers studied mostly the second half of Season 12, because so much of Season 13 -- the perceived obligation to do "social issues"; the depictions of Claudia as a victim (undone by family secrets), Kate as sullen and angry, Karen as "the voice of the people" (and the voice of Christmas), and Anne embroiled in screwball capers -- seems a reflection of how the characters and the show were left at the end of Season 12.
At the start of the season, it was Romano, Magnuson and Donald Marcus breaking story. On paper, this was an impressive trio: Romano was an Emmy-nominated vet of Steven Bochco's Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law (Jacobs' joke at the time was that, if he wanted to beat L.A. Law in the ratings, he'd have to raid from Bochco); Magnuson had received an NEA fellowship, written numerous plays and novels, and was then teaching writing at the University of Texas; Marcus had founded the Ark Theater Company in New York City, and served not only as its producer, but as one of its most successful playwrights. As Magnuson notes, the writing team "was sneakily high-brow, but we didn't know this kind of television." And they didn't know Knots.
It's fruitless to go episode by episode through Season 13, and point out all the errors in judgment. Let's just look at a few of the worst-handled characters and relationships.
Take Anne Matheson. Or, as the old joke goes, take Anne Matheson -- please. When reintroduced into the series in Season 11, she had a joie de vivre that was welcome in a season mired in misery. At the top of Season 12, she's reinvented as a screwball heroine, and finally, in an effort to be "relevant," the writers see to it that she loses everything and is left poverty-stricken and homeless. OK, given that there are, like, three Anne Mathesons through the course of Seasons 11 and 12, it's small wonder that the new writers can't quite figure out who she is. But she had certain constants: first and foremost, a core group of characters (Paige, Mack, Sumner and Claudia) who helped define her. So you develop a plot that eliminates that foursome from her life, then strand her with a loudmouth grifter named Benny Appleman for the first ten episodes. The boorish Benny, as Magnuson notes, is "a character out of Hill Street Blues," but he does nothing for Michelle Phillips -- and the actor who plays him, Stuart Pankin, bellows his lines twice as loud as everyone else. When Anne's screwball antics had been successful, early in Season 12, it was because she and her partner-in-crime were simultaneously struggling with an undeniable sexual attraction, a formula that owed much to the great romantic comedies of the 1930's; remove that element, and Anne's just doing "capers" -- and who cares? Benny involves her in a scheme to photograph cheating husbands, a plot that goes nowhere, then he and Anne seize upon the idea of having her pose nude for an upscale magazine, a plot that goes next to nowhere. Finally, Benny parlays Anne's newfound "exposure" into a radio gig, giving advice to the lovelorn, the most unlikely job imaginable. (The writers, apparently unaware of Anne's privileged upbringing and utter lack of empathy, don't see the irony or incongruity in her new career, or realize that there's not a single character in Knots Landing you'd be less likely to take advice from, except possibly Val's hairdresser.) And all the while, she's saddled with Benny, the beached whale. There's a scene where they go out to a fancy restaurant and a waiter places an artichoke in front of him -- and he sniffs it and stares at it and fumbles trying to eat it, like it's his first time in civilization. Ultimately he sticks a fork in it and starts eating it from the bottom, and all you're thinking is, is this a metaphor or what? Yes, please: stick a fork in it.
Kate and Claudia have it just as bad. Claudia had come aboard in Season 12 as a master manipulator, Kate as her upbeat and oblivious offspring. Midway through that season, the writers decide to upend both characters: Claudia is unnerved by the appearance of a child she gave up for adoption; Kate becomes gloomy and self-righteous. As noted, it's the latter versions of Kate and Claudia that the new writers seize upon. At the end of Season 12, Claudia sets the police on her long-lost son Steve and they shoot him when he tries to escape. As Season 13 begins, Steve is dead, and Kate tears into her mother. Claudia deflects by asking for pity ("He was my baby, and I gave him away"), but Kate is sullen and unrelenting: "He was your son, and you killed him." Thud. We get episodes of this unappealing dynamic: Claudia begging Kate to love her again, and Kate hammering her with trite and overwrought rejections: "You don't have a daughter. You have lost me, Mother." Finally, after a weak and unconvincing reconciliation, they get their own plotlines, both awful. Kate becomes consumed by a man with whom she has no spark: an oceanographer who has convinced Gary Ewing that they can save the world with tidal energy. (Tidal Energy -- a multi-million-dollar enterprise to harness water -- is actually positioned as the season's big story-line; in the season opener, Gary decides to invest his life savings, and asks Val excitedly, "Where is it gonna take us?" The answer turns out to be "absolutely nowhere," because it's a concept that sounds far-fetched even as it's being explained to us, a plot that's impossible to dramatize except peripherally, and an endeavor that's only likely to impact the core characters if it fails. Tidal Energy: the mind still boggles.) As oceanographer Joseph Berringer, Mark Soper seems incapable of energy or emotion, but it's not entirely his fault: as written, his character is an odd blend of self-interest and disinterest, and Kate's infatuation is mystifying. Meanwhile, Claudia is burdened with another long-buried family secret, this one involving her late mother, her mother's nurse, and Alex Barth, the boy who comes to town to blackmail her. For a time, Claudia replaces Valene as the character whose sole purpose is to be victimized. She barely shows up to work at the Sumner Group for the first dozen episodes; she's too busy quivering at home, fearful what the future might bring.
And then there's Paige and Sumner. Paige gets one nice scene in episode 1, when Linda is mouthing off as ever, and she puts her in her place. But from that point on, her character is all but obliterated. When she goes on a business trip, and upon her return, asks her mother to pick her up at the airport (as opposed to -- oh, I don't know -- someone she actually likes), you're aware that the writers have no idea about their rivalry, or the years of hurt and mistrust that are unlikely to be resolved overnight. As they huddle together under an umbrella, Paige calls Anne "Mom," and gushes about this man she met a day earlier. "It's love, mother," Paige insists, "You should try it sometime." (Anne counters, "Your father and I were in love," and you think: in what parallel universe was that? Was there anyone on the set the day that scene was filmed -- a cameraman, a make-up artist -- who was tempted to say, "You really need to study these characters"?) Paige giggles aloud at the sound of Pierce's name, like a smitten schoolgirl, and things don't get any better when he actually appears, because -- as with Stuart Pankin and Mark Soper -- Bruce Greenwood is a total miscast, who has no chemistry with Nicollette Sheridan. So Paige and Pierce's steamy affair gets off to a tepid start, and to prop it up, the new writers underplay the depth and complexity of Paige and Sumner's relationship -- and by this point in the run, getting these two right is crucial to the texture and continuity of the show. In one underwhelming scene, Greg becomes convinced, mistakenly, that Paige gave confidential information to Pierce and fires her. Paige throws up her hands, shrugs and leaves. As scripted, you'd think she's just another employee to him, and it's just another job to her -- as wild a misreading of the characters as occurs in Season 13. And from there Paige is reduced to Pierce's attaché, and then to the role of damsel in distress, as a crazy lady from Pierce's past arrives to warn her about his "dark side," and little by little, she comes to realize that maybe it wasn't the smartest idea to shack up with a guy she'd known for all of two days. Meanwhile, William Devane is forced to utter arguably the worst line in the show's history, following a brief interaction with Paige that gives him hope for a reconciliation: "I may not be on her bones, but I'm still on her mind." It's crass and flat, and reduces their relationship to crude sitcom humor. (It's a line credited to Rachel Cline, of whom I'll have nothing good to say.)
(As an aside, the "crazy lady from Pierce's past" is named Victoria Broyard, and she is without a doubt the most arbitrarily-drawn character in Knots creation. She is -- from episode to episode, from scene to scene -- whatever the writers need her to be: grieving widow, sultry vamp, mad stalker, avenging angel. Just when you think she might actually be the voice of reason, that everything she's been telling Paige about Pierce all along has been true, even if her tactics were a little extreme, she invites Gary Ewing to lunch and, for no reason, plants a kiss on him.)
Within a few episodes, the core characters become unrecognizable. It's not just that the writers don't know the characters: at one point -- when Benny refers to Karen MacKenzie as "Mrs. Fairgate" -- you realize they don't even know their names. Co-executive producers David Jacobs and Michael Filerman had been hands-off for years, and Jacobs has since announced that he was dealing with medical issues at the time -- but when you hire a new headwriter with no knowledge of the characters, and apparently don't check the scripts or watch the dailies, that's unforgivable. (James Stanley, who'd been script editing since Season 9, was held over as a supervising producer to make the transition smoother, even though he was heavily involved in the launch of ABC's Homefront. But clearly he and Romano didn't gel, because his one script that season, episode 2, bears none of the hallmarks of his style, and within another week, he's gone.) But Romano has to shoulder most of the blame. He had no experience with soaps, and no knowledge of Knots -- and he hired writers with those same deficiencies. Both Magnuson and Donald Marcus (who returns to the series midway through Season 14) will turn out splendid scripts under Ann Marcus, scripts that not only demonstrate prowess, but reveal an identifiable writer's style. Their talents aren't in question; they just needed someone familiar with the genre to guide them, who could provide a fertile training ground and a secure, nurturing environment -- and Romano wasn't that person. (In addition to Romano's lack of soap experience, Lisa Seidman -- when I interviewed her in 2015 -- recalled another issue. Romano was not just overseeing the writers, but "dealing with production, and often times, the writers were on their own, trying to come up with story. It was very difficult getting John to sit with us for any stretch of time.")
Magnuson, looking back on that period, is both candid and congenial, and wonderfully clear-headed. Although he concedes that the Romano era was a "painful" one that "left its scars," he still recalls the hopefulness he felt early on: when the cast members welcomed the new writers to the set, and when William Devane complimented him on a scene he wrote for Michele Lee in his first script, "Eye of the Beholder." (Magnuson is responsible for the few scenes in the first half-dozen episodes that actually work, including Karen's speech to her studio audience about the dangers of fighting violence with violence, and her visit to the home of a young boy who's died, whose father offers up a halting monologue about the challenges of raising children.) He argues, rightly, that the Romano-era failings have less to do with the writers' abilities and more to do with their unfamiliarity with the show and the genre. But he recognizes that that unfamiliarity proves fatal: "It was crazy to get thrown in on a show we'd never seen, and have to write all those episodes. We lacked the background for that show -- we were all playing catch-up." Unaware of the characters' rich, shared histories, the writers compartmentalize them; for the first seven episodes, the core characters each get someone new to play opposite, then go into their own little worlds, interacting only sporadically. Knots had always woven its story-lines so that the characters had the most potential for interaction, often in surprising ways; the top of Season 13 isolates them much more than we'd ever seen. We lose all sense of a community.
But back to Rachel Cline, because I really want to tear her work to shreds. (Is that necessary? "Not necessary," as Anne Matheson once said: "Fun.") And again, Cline is not untalented; in the years following Knots, she became a highly-regarded novelist. But her Knots work is woeful; she is, without question, the staff writer who turns out the worst episodes in the show's fourteen-year run. Cline joins as Story Editor for episode 5, and pens the next episode, "Business With Pleasure." Her grasp of domestic drama is spotty at best, but that's a problem that infests the entire Romano crew. They don't seem to understand what distinguishes it: why exactly a genre best remembered as two women talking across the kitchen table became so addictive. During the Romano era, "domestic drama" actually comes to mean people talking about household items. Here's an exchange between Mack and Karen, from "Business With Pleasure":
Mack: The coffee is cold.
Karen: Pop it in the microwave for a second.
Mack: Oh, I don't like that.
Karen: The microwave? Why not?
Mack: Radiation. I feel like I'm drinking those little rays.
Karen: That's crazy. Did you read that somewhere?
Mack: No, I think that. What I did read is that they can be very dangerous for you if you're wearing a pacemaker.
Karen: You don't have a pacemaker.
Mack: What if we have a guest? What if somebody drops by who has a pacemaker? Think about it.
Better yet, let's not think about it. It's like a scene from the great soap parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (you can hear Louise Lasser doing Mack's lines) -- except this isn't intended as parody. Later, Mack and Karen have a lengthy conversation about who should take Claudia her mail; a few episodes after that, they have a spat because Karen mixed two boxes of cereal together in his bowl. (There was a little left at the bottom of one of the boxes, and she didn't want to waste it.) The brilliance of Knots Landing -- as with the best domestic dramas -- is that the mundane tasks were always a backdrop (and more often than not, an outlet) for issues of real importance. If Val helped Karen stretch a sweater that seemed tight, it wasn't about the sweater: it was about Karen's insecurities, after spending time away from her family and coming back to find so much changed. If Mack and Karen started squabbling about trivial matters -- like what color the living room should be painted, and which way the toilet paper should come off the roll -- it wasn't about paint chips and toilet paper; it was about Mack having a midlife crisis. (As I mentioned in my Season 6 essay, that season's headwriter, Richard Gollance, would always ask, "What is the scene about?" There had to be something simmering subtextually that the actors could play.) Romano and his scribes seem to think that domestic drama means writing about "ordinary" things -- recycling and carpooling -- with nothing going on beneath the surface. For them, soap opera begins and ends with two women sitting around the kitchen table talking.
I'm jumping ahead, but it would be remiss of me to bring up domestic drama and not discuss "Holiday on Ice" (Cline's second script): the Christmas Eve party at the MacKenzies that's a series low point. ("Holiday on Ice" was, for a long time, the lowest-rated Knots Landing episode at tv.com, although that's probably because I voted about thirty-seven times.) It starts with a montage set to The Messiah, in which the cast trims the tree, watches football, samples the food -- without one interaction that feels specific to these characters. It's as if all the season's plotlines vanish because it's Christmas. (Yes, because families always leave their baggage at the door at holiday gatherings.) We get Bobby spraining his ankle, and a fight between Meg and Betsy about Meg's missing front teeth. And a football game on the front lawn that could be any people on the face of the planet, that seems to be pridefully announcing, "See: they're just like everyone else!" -- as if genericism is a virtue. And then there's a power outage, and as they wait for the electricity to return, Karen coerces everybody into singing Christmas carols while holding flashlights. Joan Van Ark and Nicollette Sheridan duet on "Jingle Bells," and when they get to "laughing all the way," the forced gaiety as the two of them shout "Ha ha ha!" is painful. Meanwhile, Jason, Mack, Gary and Pierce argue over the proper pronunciation of "Wenceslas," before Michele Lee launches into a rendition of Barry Manilow's "Because It's Christmas" to a prerecorded track of herself. And she doesn't just sing it; she wails it. (When she gets to the part about how "tonight belongs to all the children," she points to Meg and the twins, in case we were uncertain which ones the children were.) As the camera pans from one set of gritted teeth to the next, you haven't seen a cast so united in their hatred of music since Lilimae pulled out the autoharp.
Beyond the writing team's inability to script domestic drama, they're equally stymied by the salacious aspect of soap-opera writing. The characters, over the first fifteen episodes, don't necessary have a lot of sex -- they just talk about it a lot, and with the unlikeliest people. Val has a scene in which she obsesses over whether Kate and Joseph are doing the deed -- although she's never been that close to Kate, and barely knows Joseph. (She tries to draw Gary into the conversation, and he's visibly, reasonably horrified.) Then Karen gets to have a talk with Frank about how his new girlfriend Debbie (her Open Mike assistant) wants more than just a physical relationship, as if that's something Karen and Frank would ever discuss. In "Business With Pleasure," Paige lures Greg's assistant Mort into a closet (so she can lock him in and steal some Sumner Group files) by telling him she left her underwear in there. (Her underwear. In the closet.) There's an "ick" factor to the Romano-era episodes, and nothing is worse than Kate wondering why Joseph seems unresponsive -- not realizing it's because he was born without emotions -- and grilling her Uncle Greg about what turns him on in bed. He squirms visibly in his seat, but his discomfort doesn't alleviate our own. "Do you like women to touch you?", she asks her uncle, in what should be a low point in taste for the series. But it's not, because an episode or two later, Greg quizzes Claudia on why she's so anxious that Joseph leave town -- and when she responds, "Because my daughter deserves somebody wonderful," Greg replies, "Yeah, but I'm her uncle." When was the last time the show indulged in a good incest joke? -- oh wait, that's right: never. It's so perverse that Kathleen Noone has no idea how to respond. Neither do we.
At the time David Jacobs shut down production, in November of 1991, seven episodes had aired, which he described as "uniformly awful." They are. He then went on to characterize the following seven, which had been filmed but not yet aired, as "uniformly inconsistent." At the time, it seemed disingenuous -- he could hardly call the next set of episodes "lousy" and expect us to tune in, so they had to be "inconsistent." It turns out that "inconsistent" is pretty close to the truth. Episode 8, Magnuson's "House of Cards," is a bottle episode in which Mack, Karen, Jason and Meg are held hostage in their home by Linda's killer, Brian Johnson; it's the first episode of the season that's even marginally successful. It temporarily liberates us from the mischaracterizatons of Claudia, Kate, Anne and Paige, and the tedium of Gary and Sumner's "fight for control of tidal energy" -- and because Magnuson can focus on a handful of characters whose personalities he understands, he gets to show what he can do. (Giving credit where it's due, the transformation of Brian Johnston from sexual adventurer to dangerous fugitive -- and the acting showcase it provides Philip Brown -- is one of the team's few success stories, and Lar Park-Lincoln does desperate and defenseless quite well. Linda was not a character I was fond of, and I was not sorry to see her go, but I quite like her during her three-episode stint in Season 13.)
And from there, Donald Marcus takes the reins for two episodes and launches into a flurry of course-correcting. Magnuson recalls that it's around that time that Jacobs realized his franchise was failing, and started demanding changes. And the writers themselves were aware that certain story-lines -- Tidal Energy, in particular -- were floundering. (Magnuson concedes that they knew instantly that the chemistry between Greenwood and Sheridan wasn't there -- which begs the question, how did he get cast?) So in episodes 9 and 10, there's a clear attempt to weed out what's not working and to up the ante: first and foremost, by having Tidal Energy's first test run be a disaster, and a potential ruin to Gary. And when that happens, Pierce turns out to be unstable, and Joseph a flake. (Basically, they're revealed to be exactly how they'd unintentionally come across in the first seven episodes.) The writers start to ease off the ill-conceived new arrivals, to make room for the core characters. In episode 9, Val gets a note from Lynette, a new character whom she'd been teaching to read (that's how they'd managed to both compartmentalize and waste Valene and do a turgid look at a social issue: adult illiteracy), and that plotline is put to bed. In episode 10, they write off Benny and Debbie. In episode 11, Jason leaves town, and two episodes later, Joseph follows. Although the newfound focus on the core characters results in only a half-dozen good scenes, that's a handful more than we've had to date. As Gary considers taking out a mortgage on his ranch (to pay the additional expenses on Tidal Energy), we get some lively exchanges: between Mack and Gary, then Gary and Val, and finally Val and Karen. They discuss issues of urgency and weight, with some semblance of a backstory.
But even as the writers are revamping their story-lines, even as they restore focus, there doesn't seem to be a clear plan for moving forward. According to Magnuson, the writers would devise one set of story-lines, and then Romano would return from meeting with Jacobs and Filerman at their Burbank offices, and "the whole focus of the show would change." (It felt "like we were being whipsawed.") The first seven episodes had been characterized by sort of a bullish wrong-mindedness; episodes 11 through 15 feel tentative and half-hearted, like the writers don't dare commit to anything, as if they're questioning every move they're making. (Mack and Karen spend three episodes agonizing that Greg wants to tell Meg that he's her father -- then decide that, oh, maybe he doesn't.) After a few episodes where the exchanges seemed to be getting sharper, everything gets fuzzy and flat again. Gary losing the ranch -- and having to watch it be auctioned off -- should be heartbreaking, but we don't get one decent payoff; Karen's decision to quit her TV show is relegated to a throwaway scene. And the show remains hobbled by the writers' limited familiarity with the characters' backstories. Yes, having Anne and Sumner get involved in episode 11 is better than stranding her with Benny, watching him hawk inflatable Anne Matheson dolls (yes, that happens), but as scripted, their coupling has no consequences; Paige doesn't get to weigh in, nor does Claudia, nor Kate. And when Val moves back into her old home on Seaview Circle, there's the potential for a scene of huge emotional impact -- if, say, she were to wander from room to room, recalling and reacting to scenes from her past. Instead, she flashes back to the pilot, when Richard welcomed her to the cul-de-sac, and then has a moment of déjà vu when Alex shows up at the front door. Alex: Claudia's blackmailer, who will never interact with Valene again, and who is, at this point, a completely irrelevant character. And you think, my God: the writers still don't know the series or the genre well enough to do flashbacks effectively.
And here's where the story of Season 13 gets weird. By episode 14 or so, Magnuson remembers, Romano had already been let go, "so no one was running the show -- we were just writing it." It was by that point a rudderless ship, one that quickly started to take on water. And into an environment already "fraught and vexed" came a command from on high: "David Jacobs had met [1984 Olympic gymnast] Mary Lou Retton, and wanted us to put her in the show. So we were scratching our heads trying to think, 'How in the world are we going to do this?'" They ultimately decide to give Meg a talent for gymnastics, which proves as dull as it sounds. But the Retton anecdote begs a couple of questions. First, how insane is Jacobs' gesture? (Your show is in turmoil, so you offer a cameo to a former Olympic gold medalist?) And second, how starved for story-lines must the writing staff have been that they don't just devote a few scenes to it, but three episodes? Three. (Laura's funeral only got two.) By this point, the plotting has lost any sense of flow or purpose, and the placement of scenes feels random, like they're just trying to take the filmed footage and fill 46 minutes as best they can. (Magnuson describes an atmosphere so desperate, "we were bouncing off the walls.") In "Torrents of Winter," Gary's about to lose his ranch, and he's howling at Pierce over his betrayal -- and the next scene is Karen waking up Mack in the middle of the night because she's decided to let Meg take more gymnastic lessons; the show hasn't seen such an insane juxtaposition of scenes since we flip-flopped between Mary Frances's funeral and Meg's new goldfish. In "Letting Go," the A-plot finds Gary going back to work at the ranch he just lost (even though everyone, including the audience, knows it's a lousy idea), then deciding it's a lousy idea; the B-plot has Frank thinking he won the lottery, then realizing, no, he didn't. The story-lines -- both big and small -- seem hellbent on going nowhere, eerily appropriate for a writing staff feeling cut off at the knees.
With Knots Landing in the direst straits of its thirteen-year run, Jacobs shut down production after episode 15 and implored soap giant Ann Marcus, who hadn't been with the series since Season 3, to come back and save it. In her autobiography, Whistling Girl, Marcus reveals that she was given one week to study all the episodes she could, immerse herself in backstory, and come up with a bible to take them through the remainder of the season. She met the deadline without breaking a sweat. (Seidman: "Ann arrived at the first meeting -- with David Jacobs, Michael Filerman, Jim Magnuson and myself -- with the game-plan already in place. I remember how impressed I was by her story sense." Magnuson: "It was remarkable what she did.") Let's remind ourselves where the series had left off: in the most recent episode, Gary had gone back to work, then quit; Meg had met Mary Lou Retton; and Frank hadn't won the lottery. (In the unfilmed sixteenth episode, Marcus recalls that one of the key plotlines was about carpooling.) So given her starting point, let's not shy away from hyperbole here: what Marcus accomplished is one of the greatest salvage jobs in the history of television. Within a few scenes, she restores interest; within a few episodes, she restores greatness. And further, she reboots the characters and story-lines without undoing the structure already in place -- i.e., without resorting to a "Dallas dream season." It's amazing, really, how much she manages in the first episode alone.
First off, just two scenes in, we get the best-remembered plot: Val's commission to write a tell-all book about Greg Sumner. (Of course Marcus would turn to Val's writing career; she was the one who masterminded A Family in Texas back in Season 3.) It's an inspired idea that involves pretty much all the characters in one "umbrella" story-line -- plus it restores Val's drive and dignity, which we haven't seen in almost three years. Marcus basically reboots Val's character to how she'd left her in Season 3. Midway through Season 4, under new producer Peter Dunne and his writing team, Valene had regressed into a woman who couldn't let go of the past; it made the three leading ladies (Karen, Val and Abby) archetypal -- what one critic once referred as "earth, wind and fire" -- but it also trapped Valene in the role of professional victim. But once Abby left, and that trio was dismantled, Val's victim status was no longer needed for balance; why prolong it? (And besides, Marcus never wrote weak women.) As Valene launches into research for the Sumner bio, her enthusiasm and single-mindedness bring to mind the vigor with which she pursued the publication of A Family in Texas. Early on, Val is out to dinner with Gary, Mack and Karen, all of whom are expressing reservations about the Sumner bio (including the very real consideration that Meg is going to be exposed and scrutinized), but Val refuses to be cowed: "I cannot believe that we're all so afraid of this man. We have let him bully us and bankrupt us. He has threatened people's lives -- he even took our ranch away from us -- and still, after all that, I'm not allowed to simply tell the truth and write about him?" Welcome back, Sweetpea.
With Val's book commissioned, Marcus goes to work on Claudia and Kate, two characters who've never been written consistently or effectively; she pretty much rebuilds them from the ground up. Claudia first. Marcus had been in the soap world for decades; she knew what Kathleen Noone was capable of -- and she certainly didn't need to be cowering in a corner, at the mercy of some sleazeball kid. Within a few scenes, Claudia turns the tables on Alex, her tormentor, and asserts her authority -- and the blackmail plot, which had been draining the life from the series for half a year, is eliminated instantly when she comes clean to Greg about her "dark secret" (she euthanized Ava Gardner's character -- good for her), and he gets it and gets over it. And then she's back to work, and Marcus doesn't strand her over at the Foundation, where she'd spent the latter half of Season 12; she brings her right into the action. From her decades doing soaps, Marcus understands how to showcase characters -- and in particular, how to do so with Claudia. Don't bring her on as a master manipulator, or as a victim -- don't lead with her worst qualities. Noone is a formidable actress: show her character at her strongest -- show what she has to offer the series. And then you can show how her priorities and her vulnerabilities trip her up. It's a plan that will continue well into Season 14. (And that's not to say that Marcus doesn't find a use for Alex; transformed from a slimy blackmailer into a wannabe go-getter, forever in over his head, he lands a job at the Sumner Group -- and with Sumner, Paige, Claudia, Alex and Mort working there, we get a nice workplace rhythm going again.)
And then Marcus takes aim at Kate. There's a knock at the door, and in walks an old chum from Kate's pro tennis circuit, Vanessa Hunt (Felicity Waterman, in skirts the size of dish cloths). And suddenly the sullen ingenue who had been such a drag on the first two-thirds of the season is gone. Vanessa does exactly what the arrival of Anne Matheson did in Season 11 -- she restores a little irreverence to a season that had been taking itself so damn seriously. As Kate and Vanessa do calisthenics on the floor and dish old boyfriends (including Joseph, quickly relegated to a forgettable footnote in Kate's personal life), you feel a new Kate emerge, one with both a sense of humor and a sense of self-awareness. And at the same time, as Vanessa takes advantage of her old friend, moving into her apartment and moving in on her turf, we get a flustered, self-deprecating side of Kate that looks particularly good on Stacy Galina. As Alex and Kate head out on their first date, Alex stops to admire Vanessa's obvious attributes (Vanessa manages to be clad in nothing but a towel) and tells Kate, "Good-looking girl." And Kate, feeling her own self-esteem dwindle, mutters, "Yah, she's OK..." Kate had been so solemn and sanctimonious for a year; now, suddenly, she's fun, easily frazzled and occasionally insecure -- qualities we can relate to. (Once Marcus gives her a nurturing nature, at the top of Season 14, the character feels fully formed.)
That's all in the first episode: three characters transformed, and promising story-lines launched. Onto the next episode, as the cold open reignites the tension between the Matheson women. Anne tries to hurry Sumner out of her apartment before Paige arrives for a breakfast date (to thank her for giving Kate a job at her radio station, which happened while we weren't looking). But no such luck. Paige shows up while Greg's still dressing, and the three regard each other uncomfortably before he makes his exit. (He kisses Anne on the cheek, then blows a kiss Paige's way: shameless as ever.) Anne asks Paige, with delicious double meaning, "You don't mind if we go out? -- I mean, to pick up some juice and croissants. I just got a really late start." Paige keeps her emotions in check: "So I noticed" -- and Anne, terribly pleased with herself, smiles, "I noticed you noticed." (Lisa Seidman, who wrote that episode, would write most of the Paige-Anne scenes the following season. She had the touch.) And the triangle is back on, with a fresh dynamic.
After the title sequence, Sumner gets wind of Valene's new book and dismisses it as "the funniest thing I've heard since Gary Ewing decided to save the world with tidal energy." (Tidal Energy has already been relegated to a punchline.) And pretty much everything starts clicking: the Sumner bio, which results in a slew of great scenes, including a rare one between Joan Van Ark and Bill Devane, in which he undermines their first interview by blowing smoke in her face; the quadrangle with Alex, Claudia, Kate and Vanessa; and the increasingly awkward triangle of Anne, Greg and Paige. As opposed to the chaotic and ultimately oppressive nature of the Romano era, Magnuson remembers this period as "orderly" and "fun," the careful interweaving of story-lines "a little bit like putting cranberries and popcorn on a thread for Christmas ornaments." And Seidman -- who's since enjoyed an astounding career in the industry, including lengthy stints as associate headwriter of Days of Our Lives and The Young and the Restless -- also remembers an angst-free atmosphere, one both calmed and enlivened by Marcus's steady hand: "Jim, Ann and I would meet and discuss each episode in broad strokes. I've always said Ann's taught me more about structure and story-telling and character than anyone else in the business."
CBS had Winter Olympics coverage that season, which meant that, a mere two weeks into the "new" episodes, Knots was going to be taking a three-week hiatus; Marcus understood that the show needed to go out with a bang -- and it does. Pierce aims a rifle at Sumner, Paige and Anne; he fires -- and we go to a who-got-shot cliffhanger, where the possible victims are three of the leads. It's exactly what's needed -- and the production team pulls out all the stops: the "next on Knots Landing" montage is a full 55 seconds -- no dialogue, just stark images to reel in the viewer. In two episodes, Knots has regained its must-watch status, and it wasn't just audiences who took notice; critics saw it too. At Entertainment Weekly, Ken Tucker cheered the cliff-hanger as "classic Knots," and asked, "So how has the revising of Knots been faring?" His answer: "Not badly at all. Who’d have thought, at the start of this drab season, that Knots ’92 would include such amusing suspense, or the promise of good old weekly coffee-jag sessions at Karen’s house, or the spectacle of Val and Greg on the verge of doing the wild thing?"
Get ready, 'cause it's only getting better. The first episode of the Marcus makeover (Magnuson's "Baths and Showers") was good; the second (Seidman's "Denials") was better. The third, associate producer Joel Okmin's "Dedicated to the One I Love," is a classic: the best episode since "The Unknown" over a year earlier. After the first half of the season had so compartmentalized the core characters, "Dedicated" pulls them all into one story-line. It's Paige who's been shot, and that leaves everyone raw and running scared, especially Sumner (the bullet was meant for him), who lashes out at Claudia for trying to console him, then at Val for daring to psychoanalyze him:
Sumner: Doing a little research, Valene? This should be great for the book. Chapter 12: They Shoot Moguls, Don't They?
Val: I'm really sorry about Paige.
Sumner: Are you genuinely sorry, or are you just trying to soften me up so I'll confess all my sins?
Val: I know you want everyone to think that you're a horrible man: that you have no emotions and that you don't ever hurt. But sometimes I get the feeling that you hurt even more than everybody else. Am I right? (She turns to leave.)
Sumner: Valene, think you know all about me, huh? (With an angry leer) Maybe should we should get to know each a little better...
Meanwhile, Karen offers support to Anne, who's sitting alone in the waiting room:
Karen: I brought you some tea. The warmth... it'll help.
Karen: Gets to be a long night, doesn't it? This... limbo. Worst thing in the world.
Anne (resentful): What do you know? You haven't got a clue.
Karen: I went through this with my first husband. I know exactly what you're going through.
Her posture stiffens, and she walks away, sorry she made the effort. (Karen got the life Anne wanted -- twice; after all this time, Anne is still not over it.) Unbowed, Karen returns home, where Gary has made her some tea. They're both exhausted, and she's numb with worry. The lines come haltingly, in short spurts -- and in between, there are knowing and appreciative looks.
Gary: OK, I've heard how Paige is, and how Mack is. Now I wanna know about you.
Karen: I'm fine.
Karen (after a pause): Sid was a long time ago. I laid his ghost to rest.
Gary: Yeah, I know, but sometimes ghosts come back, and if this one didn't, fine -- but if it did, I want you to know I'm here.
Karen: It was the same thing: the spine. I told Mack that Paige was strong, I even convinced myself what happened to Sid... wouldn't happen to her.
Gary: And it won't. They know so much more now. There's so much more they can do.
Karen: You're right. I know.
Gary: But that doesn't make the fear go away, does it?
Karen (smiling): It's late.
Gary, the most unreliable man in Knots Landing, has always been there for Karen: when Abby conned her out of her inheritance, when the bullet was lodged in her spine, when her producer came after her. And yet, as much as Karen welcomes Gary's company, she's not ready to let him see how scared she is -- and so, as much as Gary wants to console her, he finds himself falling back on the usual platitudes. It's a lovely scene about the value and the limitations of friendship. (They're seated at the kitchen table. That's how you write a kitchen-table scene.)
Later, in the hospital cafeteria, Anne and Mack have what might be their first real heart-to-heart. Mack, of course, starts by going off on Greg:
Mack: I'll never understand what you and Paige see in him. He's nothing but a self-indulgent, self-righteous jerk.
Anne: That jerk used to be your best friend, remember?
Mack: "Was" being the operative word.
Anne (sighing): Well, I can't speak for Paige, but I like him. And there haven't been too many knights in shining armor breaking down my door recently, you know?
Mack: But Greg Sumner?
Anne: I've done a lot worse.
Mack: I hope that doesn't include me.
And right on cue, "Dedicated to the One I Love" starts to play overhead. But the sound of "their song" doesn't rekindle warm memories of their one summer together, as it did in Season 8; it prompts them to become rueful and self-critical. It forces them to reexamine all the mistakes they've made since.
Anne: I'm sorry about the way things turned out.
Mack: It wasn't your fault. Your parents...
Anne: I should have stood up to them.
Mack: It wouldn't have made a difference.
Anne: I was a lousy mom.
Mack: Anne, you were young. You did the best you could.
Anne: I should've spent more time with her. There were nannies, friends. Later on there were boarding schools. She has every reason in the world to resent me -- and to punish me.
And ultimately, in a rare moment of selflessness, Anne realizes she can't continue to hurt her daughter by dating Greg. She has to draw a line in the sand. (Marcus is shrewd: she knows the triangle has more story potential, but not yet. She'll resume it later in the season -- when the stakes are much higher.)
Sumner: I just spoke with my guardian angel.
Anne: What did your guardian angel say?
Sumner: My guardian angel said that Paige is going to be OK.
Anne: My guardian angel won't even talk to me.
Sumner: Why is that?
Sumner: Of us?
(She nods, and he smiles with understanding.)
Anne: It's been fun, Greg, but I can't do this anymore.
Not a lot happens in "Dedicated," yet everything happens. Once again we're getting character-driven scenes that the actors can sink their teeth into. Marcus has already gone to work on Val and Claudia and Kate; this episode digs deep into the others: Karen and Gary, Anne and Mack and Greg. And the new kids on the block. There's a lot of Alex, and a lot of Vanessa, and they were only introduced six and two episodes ago, respectively. But they're used shrewdly: in an episode charged with regret, they provide the counterpoint. If youth knew; if age could. As Anne and Sumner are haunted by every decision that led them to this moment, their assistants are taking advantage of their newfound status by recklessly ignoring all the rules. (Vanessa uses Anne's absence from her radio show to do her first on-air piece, then she and Alex have sex on Sumner's desk. Of course they do; what could be more forbidden or riskier than that?) They provide the perfect contrast to the three adults waiting anxiously at the hospital, who've been so ravaged by time.
The sense of helplessness that permeates "Dedicated to the One I Love" carries over into the next episode. Sumner keeps watch at Paige's bedside, as she struggles with paralysis that may or may not be temporary:
Sumner: We're gonna lick this thing. All I know is you're going to be walking again -- not to mention skiing, and maybe a little croquet.
Paige: Your money doesn't fix everything.
Sumner: Oh yeah? Tell me one thing my money doesn't fix.
(His face falls, then he recovers -- and then it falls again.)
Sumner: Sometimes you play a little rough, babe.
Paige: Your money didn't save her, and it's not going to save me.
Sumner: Hey, everything's gonna be all right. Did I ever tell you my Stalin joke?
Paige: Greg, please...
Sumner: One night Stalin decides to stay late...
Paige: You have to turn everything into a joke.
Sumner: You have to turn it into something.
Paige: Then turn it into something. I dare you. Tell me you love me.
Which of course he can't, even though he does. (For the record, the two great life-lessons I've learned from four decades of Knots viewing are "Never worry about anything that's replaceable" and, when facing illness or tragedy, "You have to turn it into something." Oh, and given the choice between money and power, pick power, because "in the end, power is much more fun" -- although that one seems unlikely to be relevant to my life anytime soon.)
I haven't yet mentioned the transformation that Pierce undergoes in the final seven episodes -- but it's no less remarkable than the makeovers that Val, Claudia and Kate receive. When David Jacobs previewed the new story-lines in January of '92, he noted that "Pierce works better for us as a villain." Marcus understands that he doesn't just work better as a villain; he works better as a fruitcake. As the Marcus episodes start to air, Pierce's hair gets shaggier, his eyes begin to bulge out of their sockets, and that smooth smile widens into an eerie smirk. (This is where the casting of the actor finally works.) And then, with Paige in the hospital, Marcus takes an anecdote from Pierce's past -- one that it doesn't seem like the Romano writers had any intention of following up on (it was just a means of casting doubt on his character) -- and turns it into a story-line. In "Sea of Love," Pierce kidnaps Paige and they sail away on his yacht; his only objective, he says, is to have "one clean moment with you." And Marcus takes this incident from Pierce's past -- a pregnant girlfriend named Margaret that he may have taken out to sea and killed -- and runs with it. Bit by bit, crazed Pierce starts to believe that Paige is Margaret -- he's buying her Margaret's favorite perfume, and insisting she take her seasick pills (Paige doesn't suffer from seasickness, but Margaret did), and then he's talking about the baby they're expecting. And Paige, horrified, realizes that not only were the rumors true about Pierce's role in Margaret's death, but that history is about to repeat itself. Marcus actually follows through on Romano's plotlines better than he ever did; she makes unresolved, seemingly unpromising threads pay off.
The first five episodes of the Marcus makeover are all about re-engaging the audience; the final two look to Season 14. You can see Marcus determining how she wants the characters positioned in the season ahead. As we reach the final episodes, Anne and Paige resume their combativeness and competitiveness. Claudia begins to assume more responsibilities at the Sumner Group (subbing for an absentee Greg), while forging a deal with Vanessa to break up Kate and Alex. And Val becomes embroiled with a new character, Mary Robeson, who claims to have some relation to Sumner's late wife Laura, and seems uncomfortably interested in their daughter Meg. (Mary is played by Maree Cheatham, whom Marcus knew well from her time headwriting Days of Our Lives; Marcus wrote her the part, and she's marvelous: a force to be reckoned with, more than able to hold her own against Joan Van Ark and Bill Devane.) These are all stories that are intriguing in and of themselves, but that will bear fruit, beautifully, the following season.
But the most resonant story is reserved for Sumner. At the end of "Sea of Love," he and Mack had boarded Pierce's boat and saved Paige, but once they got back to shore, Greg had disappeared. When we see him next, he's in his office at the Sumner Group, sprawled on his sofa, crumpling papers and tossing them into the trashcan. Claudia enters looking for a contract the board of directors is preparing to sign -- it's the papers in his hand. She tries to impress upon him the seriousness of the deal they're finalizing, the revenue it'll bring in and the jobs it'll create, but he's in his own world: "You know, we can live on acorns. The squirrels have proven that. I'm gonna go commune with a squirrel." And when we see him next, he's at Laura's grave, placing a single red rose on her headstone: "I got the message, Red. I'll get back to you."
After all the promises that Greg made to Paige at the hospital ("we're gonna lick this thing"), he's now ignoring and avoiding her, and no one understands why. Karen drives out to the ranch to see where his head is at; even Anne tries to talk sense into him -- but he brushes them both off. Finally, Paige tracks him down; she finds him in his living room playing the video Laura left for him before she died: "All I know is, I really want to see you again... and that I want to be with you again." He reveals to Paige that while he was saving her, he saw his wife: "I saw Laura in the water. When I was drowning, I saw this white light, and behind this white light was my wife. And she held up her hand, and she said, 'Go back.' She said, 'You shouldn't be here now' -- she just told me to go back." Paige tries to reassure him: "And now you're back, just like she wanted." And Greg admits, "I'm not sure I want to be back. I'm not sure I don't want to be with Laura."
Since Laura died, Greg has been second-guessing every decision, pulling back from every relationship that might have meant something to him -- and masking his uncertainty and pain with false bravado. His recent brush with death has left him tired of the act, tired of the effort -- and more conflicted than ever. Since losing Laura, has anything he's done truly mattered? And so, in the following episode (the season finale), Mack, Karen, Paige and Claudia are summoned to Greg's office, where he announces he's quitting. He's giving away the company: a third to Paige, a third to Claudia, and a third to Meg, with the understanding that Karen and Mack will act as her trustees. It's a riotous shake-up of the series' status quo, one ripe with possibilities, and as always with Marcus, it's a moment that feels firmly rooted in character. Headwriters Bernard Lechowick and Lynn Latham had created the high-rise Sumner Group in Season 10, in an effort to ape L.A. Law; the following season, they'd made it an ever-more-focal backdrop. But it's Marcus who figures out how to make the Sumner Group more than just a setting; she turns it into an actual story-line -- ultimately, by early in Season 14, giving all the characters a stake in its success. And it begins here, with Sumner handing over the reins of the company. Add in a great cliff-hanger with Anne, a sturdy if predictable one with Paige, and the ultimate unveiling of Mary Robeson's backstory, which is slowly realized through the episode's final half-hour, and you've got yourself a splendid season finale.
The end of Season 13 finds the show riding a huge wave of creativity and confidence. (Magnuson, looking back on a roller coaster of a year that took him from the depths of degradation to the heights of exhilaration, summarizes it, with gratified exhaustion, as "a wild ride.") It's astounding to think that, a dozen episodes earlier, Anne was relegated to scenes with Benny; Gary, Joseph and Pierce were trying to save the world with Tidal Energy, with Paige and Kate cheerleading from the sidelines; and Sumner's big story-line was arranging a meeting between Meg and Mary Lou Retton. Now, energy and inspiration restored, Knots is once again addictive: well worth watching live and taping to two VCRs (well, if you're slightly daffy). Looking back, it's unsurprising that the first fifteen episodes of Season 13 are as awful as they are; it's not even that surprising, given Marcus's talents, that she rights the ship. What's most remarkable is how quickly she does it, and with how little fuss. Marcus salvages a show that seemed on its last legs, and reveals that reports of its imminent death were greatly exaggerated. And thank heavens, she agrees to stay on for another season. The end of Season 13, for all its felicities, is ultimately about cleaning up someone else's mess; Season 14 is about letting Marcus tell exactly the stories she wants to tell. It's been eight years since the show had a headwriter so committed to the integrity of the characters and so consistent in their story-telling. In some ways, the best is yet to come.
Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 1, which establishes the characters and struggles to set the tone; Season 2, which pretty much mucks up everything; Season 3, in which the show finally masters the challenges inherent in its premise; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 5, the show's annus mirabilis; Season 6, one of the series' best story-lines, and perhaps its greatest acting showcase; Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; Season 8, in which the characters return, but the plotting goes haywire; Season 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years; Season 10, the year the ratings rose; Season 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; Season 12, a shot of pure adrenaline that soon fades; and Season 14, in which Ann Marcus, who'd guided the series during a critical time in its history, gives it a glorious send-off.