Monday, November 20, 2017

Knots Landing season 2

Previously, on Knots Landing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's called Season 3.


Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 1, which establishes the characters and struggles to set the tone; Season 3, in which the show 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; Season 13, an epic fail, then an epic save; and Season 14, in which the great soap writer Ann Marcus, who'd guided the series during a critical time in its history, gives it a glorious send-off.

6 comments:

  1. Season 2 contains the first episode of Knots I ever saw: Moments of Truth.

    Yes....that was my first KNOTS episode. As a young kid, I guess you could say that I was drawn to the melodrama and the cliche action, especially since I was already drawn to DALLAS and its over-the-top antics. I began watching sporadically from there on out but it wasn't until season 3 that it really took off for me.

    I would say the biggest flaws of Season 2 for me fall towards the infidelities and also with the character of Sid:

    1) Adultery:
    -You seem to have a knack at nailing things that I've never really dwelled upon. It's crazy how much infidelity is touched upon in Season 2 and in many ways, it sort of covers the season in a sheen of filth. Gary is probably the worst case for me...and it is hard to watch these episodes because I am someone who really grew to love the strong and stoic but often charming man he became as the series went along. Here, he is an insufferable, whiny, weak shell of a man who wants to shack up with a woman who may exude a certain NY glamour but has the personality of a weak Gin Martini.

    -Abby and Richard: "Why Richard?" is a very good question but I always thought that perhaps Abby liked the idea of perhaps appearing stronger over the weak man that Richard was. Still, I think they just sort cobbled the idea together.

    -Kenny & Ginger: Yes. The double standard that Kenny is portrayed happening is absolutely appalling and it certainly doesn't endear him to the audience or make you care about him...and you barely care about the two of them as it is. I don't think you brought it up but they also had the unbelievably tacky crossover abomination known as KRISTIN where Kenny just HAD to sleep with Kristin and it leads to Ginger serving him divorce papers.

    The one aspect of infidelity that I didn't really mind (and perhaps because it didn't really occur until season 3) was that of Laura and her boss Scooter Warren. It is one relationship that is quite charming to watch and you also revel in watching Constance McCashin blossom as Laura does. You see a certain slyness and snarky demeanor creeping out that only becomes more delicious as the series goes on.

    2) SID: I'll go ahead and say it...I am not a big Sid fan. I feel like he was a very bland character and was written with too many saint-like qualities and an obtuse mindset that often made me get annoyed with him in many scenes. MAN OF THE HOUR has to be one of the worst showcases for any lead character in the history of Knots...it makes Sid so deplorable in how self-righteousness and holier-than-thou attitude towards his "betrayal" that it makes me long for Lilimae trying to cover Joshua's death or Val frying hermit crabs. I don't blame Don Murray for wanting to leave and I believe that him choosing to do so helped the series in so many ways. It's crazy how much the show seems to falter without him after his death because to me, it seemed like such relief and the possibilities seem so much more intriguing (and that could be more in retrospect).

    Season 2, for me, remains an entertaining season and one I'd rather watch over such seasons as 1, 8, 11, and 13 but it is still a very uneven, off-kilter season.

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    1. "Personality of a weak Gin Martini" made me roar -- so apt! Thank you for that.

      I too quite like the pairing of Laura and Scooter, but of course, as you said, they wait a season-and-a-half before hitting the sheets -- and only do so once Laura is convinced that communication with Richard has broken down. Although I trashed "More Than Friends" (the return of Earl Trent), I rather like the subplot, where Scooter's wife is convinced that her husband and Laura are having an affair (even though they're not). It takes the show's premise and gives it a fun twist: showing how the looser morals of the day lead people to suspect affairs even where none exist. (I love it that all of Laura's colleagues, too, think she and Scooter are getting it on -- and I love the fact that Laura and Scooter DO flirt all the way through Season 2, but it doesn't mean anything. That's just standard behavior for 1980.) More of those kinds of variations-on-a-theme would SO have benefitted Season 2, instead of going the same obvious route over and over, by having the husbands cheating. As you said, it "covers the season in a sheen of filth." Whereas in Season 3, with its affair done right, there's no sheen of filth at all: if anything, Val and Gary and Abby -- while the affair is going on -- seem more fascinating and vital than ever.

      I think Sid is pretty well-served in Season 1, but Season 2 does him no favors. (It's consistent with how pretty much everyone is characterized by their worst qualities, but Sid probably comes off worst of all -- certainly after "Man of the Hour.") I agree: best thing that could have happened to the show was Don Murray leaving.

      I don't disagree that parts of Season 2 are entertaining -- I think I'm particularly hard on the season, but it's because the mistakes are such rookie mistakes: "We're doing a soap, and it's the tail end of the sexual revolution. Let's have all the men cheat on their wives!" I'm always flabbergasted that they thought that was a good idea -- three of the four men being unfaithful, without build-up or motivation. No one, of course, ever sets out to do a bad season of a TV series, but I'm dumbstruck, when I watch Season 2, that no one considered how awful that made the characters look: both the cheating husbands and the wives putting up with them. I mean, you're professional writers -- this is sort of Soap Writing 101.

      I'm so sorry I never got around to speaking with Ann Marcus before she passed away. I'm obviously a fan, and I would have loved to have learned her methodology in terms of plotting out a season. I do feel that, with both Season 3 and the tail end of Season 13, you sense an effort not just to write good stories, but to right mistakes that had been made. Certainly, as I noted in my last paragraph here, Season 3 seems to correct so many of the errors of judgment in Season 2 (just as Season 14 addresses so many of the issues in Seasons 11 through 13). I would have loved to have found out whether she did that consciously, or whether it was instinctual.

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  2. Season 2 is quite an oddity isn't it? Even with the music (as I remember, was it a strike that caused the generic out of place score this year?) You've done such a great job in articulating some of the issues that plague the season, specifically the lack of character motivation and the plotting that drives the characters. We think Season 7 is cold and manipulates character towards plot? Check out Season 2.

    Do you remember any more about JACOBS essentially apologising after the season two finale aired? I actually enjoyed the finale, but it was the little things that pulled it over to the good side for me. The claustrophobia of the cul-de-sac rearing it's head (as it does so many times in 1-4, when used effectively), Richard and Karen teaming up, and the consequences of Gary's betrayal - with Abby experiencing her first situation she attempts to wriggle out of.

    I felt HITCHHIKE was a particularly clever 2-parter. It accomplishes one of the things that Knots does so well, which was painting its characters in shades of grey. A promiscuous girl does not deserve to be sexually assaulted, and Conchata Ferrell does such a nice job in her role as a protective mother, so much so that you respect her actions throughout. It also doesn't shy away from the fact that KNOTS is an upper middle class show, and subtly uses that difference to add some nuance and commentary to the case without being heavy handed. The way that the rape accusation affects the children, KLM (with consequences lasting until the end of the season) and his neighbours (particularly Richard) is classic KNOTS, and you see glimpses of potential coming through.

    As you rightly noted, Gary is done a particular disservice in Season 2. With hideous lack of motivation behind it to render any understanding or sympathy towards its audience. What's most supremely irritating about this is that they didn't need to work hard to find that motivation for the auto parts stuff, and to tweak some the episodes to make it work. Gary needs that excitement, he still needs to prove he is worthy to his brothers. I buy that he, combined with the guilt of falling off the wagon in Season 1, wants to boost business by slightly questionable means. I also buy that Gary feels suffocated by Val, and wants more than his now quiet cul-de-sac life - but Gary's affair with Trudy still makes no sense. It is so woefully unmotivated that it makes absolutely no sense at all. The scene you called out - when Gary tells Judy outside KLM that he wants to see her again - still makes me cringe, and ask one big question - why!?

    I agree with everything you said about Abby. Laura's journey is done mainly well. The character becomes more fascinating, simultaneously gaining her independence, but willing to overlook her marriage falling apart. The episode where Is this the year where she mentions "she just doesn't care" that she sees Richard go over to Abby's when she looks out the window? There's no resolution, no magical solution, they just continue in this undefined rut. Yes it's not particularly strong in terms of resolution, but it's very true to life. People stay because they are too scared to leave. It's what makes the continuation of this pressure-cooker situation and the subsequent breakdown in season 3 all the more fascinating.

    As you mentioned, all of this is essentially re-written, and done right in Season 3. In fact, to fully appreciate what a well written show Season 3 is, view it in comparison with Season 2. They should be used in a masterclass somewhere - the before and after of good writing.

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    1. I might have been unclear: it wasn't the final episode of the season that Jacobs disparaged; it was the cliff-hanger specifically. The interview I remember best was when he was comparing it to the end of Season 3, and noted that the Season 2 cliff-hanger was precisely the wrong move for a show that was trying to be realistic and character-driven -- but that he felt the final scene of Season 3 was spot-on.

      Regarding "Hitchhike" -- I actually took a lot of notes on it as I was rewatching, and then didn't get around to using them. But in an early draft, I did refer to it when discussing "State of Mind" and its assertion that women weren't to be judged for their number of sexual partners -- I thought it was effective when that same point was made during "Hitchhike": that the world had changed so much that the girl's promiscuity could no longer be used against her. In fact, in this sexually liberated world, she could use it to her advantage. I like that aspect of "Hitchhike" very much, and I quite like Don Murray's performance. But there are elements that bug me. The contrivance of Diana and her friends singing "If My Friends Could See Me Now" as Sid is being carted off by the police, no doubt thinking the very same thing, is a little on-the-nose for my tastes. Diana's speech midway through about how "we're all sick" makes me cringe. And my biggest gripe is Ruth Cox, as the girl who accuses Sid of rape. I find her an appalling actress, who doesn't seem to understand the concept of a private persona and a public one. She plays everything equally broadly, and when she's asking "Don't you believe me?" in such a coy and forced manner -- and then sitting on the policeman's desk, giggling and laughing away -- I don't believe for a second that anyone could take her accusations seriously. And her big scene near the end where she breaks down and admits the truth is painful; Michele Lee stares at the floor for most of it, as if she's too embarrassed to watch.

      I love how you basically fixed the Gary story-line by supplying motivation that apparently never occurred to the writers: just brilliant. It really is astounding how the characters are dragged along by the plot. As you said, a precursor to Season 7 -- or perhaps, as you say, even worse.

      It's funny when you say "to fully appreciate what a well written show Season 3 is, view it in comparison with Season 2." I actually went back to my Season 3 essay this past week and added several new paragraphs of praise. After binging Season 2 earlier this fall, and then rewatching Season 3 this past month, I realized I wanted to delve into a little more detail about Season 3, in particular about how much of the previous season it addresses and solves. Most of all, I was struck by how inviting the characters seem in Season 3, right from the start, after seeming so odious or dense in Season 2. As you and I have said, the story-telling aspect of Season 3 is odd (as I see it, the Marcuses were charged with doing standalones, like Season 1 and the latter half of Season 2, but couldn't resist adding serialized elements, but it's a very awkward and disorienting effect), but oh my: how well the characters are served, particularly the more problematic ones like Richard.

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  3. Abby's arrival shakes the show up.. hence all the messiness. It was like her arrival threw the perfect marriage concept out the window and the characters (plus show) went crazy.

    I watched the season opener originally.. and it was interesting that both Karen/Abby teamed up to get Sid out of trouble.. Karen being nosy while Abby using reverse psychology/sexual wiles to get the job done. It was the only time both of them teamed up for a common good... Sid.

    And I think she focused on Richard because she wanted someone to control and dominate.. like she had felt being married to her ex husband. Of course, she realized that wasn't enough to satisfy her thirst of control and power so she moved on to greener pastures (Gary).. but she had to bide her time because of her brother Sid then her ex husband coming back into the picture.

    And the mob aspect plays out like the biker gang element in season 1.. only for more episodes LOL

    And you are correct that to make a show more serialized/soapy.. you need writers with experience in doing that (hence why Gossip Girl and the new Dynasty have struggled with serialized elements).

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    1. The decision to switch to serialized story-telling at the top of Season 2 is still a bit of a mystery to me; I really don't know if that was Jacobs' plan all along (I posture that it was in my Season 1 write-up, but now, watching Season 2 again, I'm not so sure), or if the ratings surge over at Dallas prompted him to do so, or if he was pressured by CBS *due* to Dallas's ascendance to the top of the ratings heap. But as you said: man, if you're going to go for soap opera, get some people who have a feel for the genre, and some experience with it. Season 2 has always felt to me like they go serialized with all the wrong people at the helm; and Season 3 feels like Jacobs and Filerman are almost determined *not* to go serialized, despite having the perfect person (Ann Marcus) to do it for them. As you noted under my Season 3 write-up (and I so agree), Season 3 is when Jacobs' original vision for the show is finally achieved. And the show's slow evolution, through the course of that season, from episodic drama to serialized soap doesn't diminish the impact of the three main story-lines -- it enhances it. As I mentioned to TV Reviews above, I went back recently and enlarged my Season 3 write-up a bit, because -- as much as I've always liked it -- rewatching Season 2 gave me even greater appreciation for it.

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