Years after its original run, Knots Co-Executive Producer Michael Filerman recalled that soap giant Ann Marcus mapped out Season 4 before departing the series at the end of Season 3. No one has ever corroborated that, not even Marcus in her autobiography, so it's likely he was misremembering; nonetheless, in the way it effortlessly juggles half a dozen down-to-earth story-lines, yet manages to remain character- rather than plot-driven (particularly impressive in light of the conceit at its core), it feels very much like a Marcus season.
The conceit at its core? Well, it's a murder mystery. Knots Season 4 makes good use of its regulars, tosses in two of its most memorable supporting players, and near the season's end, embroils them all in a whodunnit, where a good chunk of the cast seems to have motive. But the murder (of rising singer Ciji Dunne, played by Lisa Hartman) isn't telegraphed -- in 1983, believe me, it came as quite a shock -- and the fact that so many of the principals are suspects doesn't feel contrived. The final episodes are less about an investigation than about the way we respond to tragedy: in particular, the blame games we direct both at others and at ourselves.
What's striking about Season 4 is that the structure is so solid that you forgive its failings -- and its failings aren't the usual ones. In other Knots seasons, the writers flail around in search of good ideas; in Season 4, it's consistency of tone that proves elusive. Knots Season 4 doesn't feel much like the show you've been watching for three years. In a TV Guide interview that ran shortly after Season 4 wrapped, producer Peter Dunne explained that his goal had been to "enlarge the situations." The writer of the article elaborated:
Knots Landing had always been what TV people like to call a “what if?” show: of all the Dallas clones, it alone was set not in an exotic landscape peopled by oil barons or wine magnates, but in a suburban setting not too different from the world inhabited by its viewers. “What if this happened to us?” the audience could say. So the conflicts were intimate and familiar. Small scale. There were rules of behavior, as in the old soap operas. It was "how does Richard’s wife cope with his nervous breakdown during her pregnancy," not "how does she deal with the fact he’s just been rubbed out by gangsters on orders from her brother, who wants to inherit his yacht?"
Last season, this changed.
Except it didn't.
It's not the situations that get enlarged in Season 4 -- it's the characters' responses to them. Most of the plots (and they're good ones) -- Val and Gary finalizing their divorce, and him falling off the wagon; Karen opening her heart to a man and marrying him; Richard opening a restaurant, but shielding his business dealings from Laura; Ginger jealous of a new singer commanding Kenny's time -- would fit snugly into Season 3. But in Season 3, the characters would have greeted them with a measure of restraint; in Season 4, restraint isn't in anyone's repertoire.
Dunne came aboard as producer in Season 4, and part of his goal was to take advantage of the series' links to Dallas. With Jock Ewing's will due to be read a few episodes into the new season of Dallas, and Gary an obvious beneficiary, it was an opportunity to tie Knots to its far more popular predecessor. (The network even pushed the sixth episode off Thursday, to the slot following Dallas on Friday night, to goose Knots's ratings.) Up to that point, Knots had mostly avoided piggybacking off Dallas -- in fact, part of what's so satisfying about Season 3 is that there are no crossovers, because the tones of the shows were so different that every time one occurred, Knots would instantly have to adopt Dallas's self-mocking humor. (There's no way you were going to have J.R. guest star, but tell Larry Hagman, "Just take it down a notch, OK?") And as it turns out, Dunne embracing Dallas is less about Gary coming into money (although he comes away with a million a year, he doesn't really use much of it) than it is about entertaining Dallas's cheekier tone, unabashed melodrama and more aggressive storytelling: trying it on for size, keeping what fits -- and seeing if it helps Knots build its audience.
From the series opener, when Val checks into the "Bates Motel" (unsubtle nod to Psycho), to a few episodes later, when -- following an appearance on The Mike Douglas Show to promote her new book -- she signs an autograph for a fan named "Eve" (unsubtle nod to All About Eve), the show seems to have fallen prey to a certain jokiness, as it struggles to find its voice. The publishing angle -- a centerpiece of the early episodes, as Val's tell-all book about the Ewings, Capricorn Crude, becomes a swift best-seller -- seems to want to play as satire; when her press rep suggests a shot of Val staring at a photo of her estranged husband Gary while writing her next book, what else are we to make of it? But while the script is sending up the ruthless side of the publishing industry, Joan Van Ark is playing it straight: asking you to invest in Val's hurt and discomfort. And meanwhile, there's J.R., in a guest shot, undermining her pain by mangling the name of her book for an easy laugh ("What is it again? Crude Porn?"). We're getting mixed messages, and the other ongoing plotline (Karen's determination to bring her late husband's killers to justice) is equally schizophrenic. We get constant reminders that the dangers facing Karen are real -- that the men responsible for Sid's death won't think twice about claiming another victim. But once they're taken into custody, we learn that Karen has been playing everyone like a violin; she managed to get warring criminal elements to turn on each other, and the assistant district attorney and police department to intervene at precisely the right time. The show takes the darkest point in its history -- the death of Sid -- and in bringing his killers to justice, ties it up not just with a neat bow, but with a wink. It's undeniably entertaining, but it's also -- in relationship to the previous three seasons -- a bit odd. How seriously are we to take the new Knots?
Season 3 had ended with Val discovering Gary and Abby in bed together, then packing a suitcase and driving off into the night. Season 4 opens on "A Brand New Day," and the title is apt: it signals a tonal shift. There's a stunning scene in the first episode when Valene, having hired movers to collect Gary's furniture, sends her mama Lilimae off to bed and waits by the living-room window that faces the cul-de-sac, the curtains open, to hear if Gary comes home to Abby, two houses away. She knows that her grand gesture of reclaiming her house is either going to bring him to his senses or prove that he's gone for good. And so she listens; it's a moment that neatly mirrors Gary waiting in that same living room just two episodes earlier, in "China Dolls," to see if Abby came home alone -- while Val watched him slowly slipping away. It's a moment of almost unbearable tension, where words aren't required and action is kept to a minimum. And it's a moment unlike pretty much anything else in Season 4.
In Season 4, the sort of understatement that had been a hallmark of Season 3 (in standalones like "One of a Kind" and serialized episodes like "Expose" and "China Dolls") is no longer the order of the day. The acting beats get huge, the direction frenzied. When Karen's daughter Diana is told her kidneys are failing, she doesn't just react badly; she rips her dialysis tube out of her arm. When Laura has to face the possibility that Richard skipped town after committing murder, she doesn't just throw things; she overturns shelves. Big shelves. When Gary discovers Abby's been scheming behind his back, and takes to drinking to drown his self-pity, he doesn't just confront her at Ciji's recording session; he practically hurls himself against the glass between the studio and the booth, wailing. Fistfights break out in the very first episode (Val's old friend Rusty threatens Gary, "I'm gonna kill you" -- that's the kind of ripped-from-the-heart dialogue the season thrives on, and it's set to edgy music that seems less Knots Landing and more Rebel Without a Cause), and they continue throughout the season; after a while, it feels like an episode isn't complete if Gary hasn't been verbally attacked or sucker-punched. There are slaps and shoving matches and an awful lot of shouting on staircases.
In a late-season scene that's emblematic of the new house style, Ciji is berating Val for a tell-all book she's drafted about the dissolution of her marriage; she backs her across a room and practically pins her against the door. And then Val, her hands fluttering wildly around her head (like a madwoman swatting imaginary flies, or perhaps driving away invisible demons), somehow connects with Ciji, knocking her clear across the room, where she hits her head on a strategically-placed coffee table. The scene is there because it's that blow to Ciji's head that will incriminate Val in her murder. In previous seasons, a shouting match and a shove would have sufficed (they don't really have the verbal ammunition for more), but in the animated world of Season 4, the actresses are forced to traverse the length of the set and back. (The only thing more awkward than that scene is the one three episodes later, when Val has to reenact the fight for authorities. It takes a lot, in the early years of Knots, to make Van Ark look bad -- she's typically incandescent -- but as she wanders about the room, stuttering in a manner both halting and manic, you can't tell if it's a character in turmoil at reliving a painful memory or an actress in disbelief at having to justify the looney-tunes staging.)
But that's Season 4 in a nutshell. The basic confrontations are sound. The way they're pitched and staged is a complete break from the style of the first three seasons. But it is a style you recognize, from the histrionics of daytime dramas and the excesses of Dallas and Falcon Crest (and in fact, it's not nearly as outrageous as those). Season 4 is when Knots Landing fully morphs from nighttime drama into primetime soap; not coincidentally, it's the first time the show goes completely serialized. Knots is changing before your eyes, straying far from its Scenes From a Marriage-inspired roots -- but the characters remain so beguiling, and the Season 4 story-lines are so engrossing, that you willingly succumb. Although it takes a good fifteen episodes for the creative team to solidify the tone -- to weed out the self-referentialism, campiness and melodrama that were staples of other soaps and forge the kind of heightened realism that would come to define Knots in the mid-'80s -- the structure of the season is so solid that your impatience never outweighs your interest.
Amusingly, the least likely character benefits most from the new approach: Ginger. Kim Lankford walks off with every scene she's in. Everyone else kicks it up a notch for Season 4; Lankford kicks it up ten. The youngest and always the blandest of the four Knots housewives, Ginger -- from the minute Ciji comes into her life -- turns into the cul-de-sac's grande dame. Every time she watches her husband fawn over his new protégé, or has to endure Ciji's unintentional digs (informed that Ginger too is a singer, Ciji suggests, with misplaced enthusiasm, "You should sing back-up for me"), she sucks in her cheeks further than anyone since Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. Many fans find Diana's medical "Emergency" to be the season's low point, but its smackdown between Ginger and Ciji goes a long way towards redeeming it. When Ciji inadvertently debuts a song Ginger had intended for herself, Ginger lets her have it: "You don't care who you use or who you hurt." And Ciji, who later in the season will be reduced to professional victim, isn't taking it: "If I like a song and it's good for me, I'm gonna sing it." Ginger warns her, "I'll get you for this" and with a violent flick of her wrist, tosses the music in Ciji's face, before striding off. The Season 3 solution to the annual question "what shall we do with Ginger" was "as little as possible." (It's actually a solution that worked nicely.) The Season 4 answer is "turn her into Margo Channing, with Ciji as Eve Harrington." At times (mostly when she's watching Ciji sing, and hating her), Lankford widens those Bette Davis eyes till she resembles nothing remotely human -- but even then, she's monstrously marvelous.
The reimagining of Ginger in Season 4 is sensational. Other characters prove more problematic. It's understandable: it's not just Dunne who was coming aboard for Season 4; with the exception of Executive Story Editor Diana Gould, who'd been there since Season 2, the entire writing staff was new. And although creator David Jacobs and Michael Filerman were still involved (as opposed to the start of Season 13, when a new team took over, unsupervised), it's still a significant shake-up. And there are some obvious growing pains.
Most of the characters -- including Karen, Kenny, Richard and Lilimae -- seem spot on. Abby, on the other hand, never comes into proper focus. In Season 3, when she went after Gary, it was tied to the show's best MacGuffin: a methanol business she and Gary were trying to start up. The two shared a love of risk and a desire for advancement; they were also bound not only by sexual attraction, but by genuine affection. Season 4 doesn't quite know what to do with Abby, other than "Gary inherits money, and Abby uses it to screw over their friends." What made Abby so compelling as a character was the joy she took in her own accomplishments; you forgave her transgressions, because she was a bright woman determined to succeed in a man's world -- and when things went her way, her delight in triumphing was contagious. (When she pulls off a brilliant bluff in Season 3's "Acts of Love" and secures financing for their methanol deal, she's so irresistible Gary sleeps with her.) Abby doesn't get that in Season 4. The season doesn't give her a project that fires her imagination; she's stuck with a couple investments Gary initiated, for which she has no real passion. (The problem will be remedied, big-time, in Season 5.)
There's not much joy in what Abby is doing. There's also not much love; she doesn't seem to give a rat's ass about Gary. She gets far too many close-ups where we're meant to go, "That wicked woman. So consumed with getting her hands on Gary's money." (When J.R., in yet another guest shot, sizes her up -- "You want to be Queen of the Ewings" -- she tells him she'll settle for Princess. Ugh.) There's a wonderful scene late in the season when Gary is starting to fall apart -- he sees that he and Abby are hurting the people he cares most about -- and he begs her to sit down and talk it out. (It's some of Ted Shackelford's best work in a season in which he's particularly brilliant.) She promises to do so the next day -- but the next morning, when he awakes, she's off to a meeting. And there's no follow-up. And the point is, of course, that Abby has no intention of talking things through with Gary, but it's a tactical error on the writers' part. We need to see her concern for what he's going through: at the very least, her willingness to listen. The writers use Abby's dismissal of Gary as the final straw that drives him back to the bottle, but it would have been better -- certainly more consistent with the way Abby was presented in Season 3 -- if they'd had that conversation, but it still wasn't enough to keep him from drinking. (By the way, I referred to some of the early-season underscoring as sounding like Leonard Rosenman's music to Rebel Without a Cause. When Gary finally takes his first gulp of liquor, and again when Val learns that Gary has been drinking and visibly crumbles, the music is straight out of Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo. The jagged, unsettling and overblown music -- consistent, it must be noted, with the style of the playing -- is a great part of what sets Knots Landing Season 4 apart from its predecessors.)
Really only one thing redeems Abby in Season 4, and that's the addition of Clayton Landey as her lawyer James Westmont. Landey is one of the unspoken heroes of Knots Landing; as he gazes at Abby with those admiring eyes, impressed by her head for business and her gift for self-preservation, we can't help but be impressed too. He does wonders for her late in Season 4, and all through Season 5. Abby has a couple nice moments in Season 4: when she sees Ciji's manager Chip hustling for publicity, and recognizes a kindred spirit; when she fluffs her hair just before visiting Gary in the drunk tank, as if a carefully coiffed 'do will help get him back on his feet; and when, after giving Diana one of her kidneys, she lashes out at Karen, who's been bashing her all season: "If you want to show your gratitude, save a whale in my name." But by and large, the new writers -- in Season 4 at least -- can't quite get a handle on what makes Abby so fascinating.
The character of Valene suffers in a different way. At the start of Season 4, after a few episodes bemoaning the demands of being a published author, Val emerges with newfound assurance. She embarks on a cross-country book-signing tour, and upon her return, admits, "It made me feel stronger, gave me confidence." Three episodes later, she reconnects with an old friend, and he starts pursuing her: another ego boost. A few episodes after that, they jet off to New York, where she offers up a toast: "To a new life, starring Valene Ewing and a cast of thousands." The evolution of Val even impacts her wardrobe. Gone are the country-girl trappings: the barrettes and hair ribbons, the puff sleeves and flowery prints. She adopts a more sophisticated look -- so much so that when she and Karen sit down for their weekly coffee klatches, she starts to look like Karen's worldly friend. (She comes off a bit like Jessica Walter in Season 3's "Reunion," as an old college chum of Karen's turned high-end fashion designer.)
But the "new" Valene proves unsustainable -- or more to the point, she proves useless; she remains at arm's length from the rest of the season's plotlines. The writers (as Filerman notes in that same interview) soon wise up to the fact that the triangle -- Val, Gary and Abby -- has potential to be more than a one-season wonder. So Val devolves into the person she'll remain for the rest of the Peter Dunne era: the character who, however much she achieves, will always be vulnerable to Gary. Mack, who's barely been around the cul-de-sac a few months, hammers home the point for the viewer: "I think you're in love with this guy Gary Ewing, and you always will be," and she concedes, "He's a weakness. He is to me what alcohol is to him." It's a reversal of how she's been written (and played) in the first two-thirds of the season -- you never once believe that their plan was to give Valene all this independence, then show it was a sham. You recognize it as a course correction, but you instantly see the wisdom in it.
As noted, a common response to Season 4 is "I like it all except Diana's surgery." In truth, the show threatens to fall apart a few episodes before that, and all through its middle section -- it just doesn't. The first seven episodes -- encompassing Karen and Mack's burgeoning relationship, the dissolution of Gary and Val's marriage, and Gary's investment plans -- are rock-solid in concept, if not in execution. The eighth, "Man in the Middle," chooses to center on Chip, and as good as Michael Sabatino is (and that's very good, just about the only Knots "bad boy" to play slick and ruthless and still have you love him), it feels a bit early in the season to be throwing an episode to a new supporting player. In the next episode, the record executive Abby is wooing professionally turns out to be an old friend of Val's, and you cringe at the contrivance. And then we're on to the two-parter about Diana needing a new kidney, and Abby being the only suitable donor. In one sense, the kidney two-parter is awful: fairly bursting with cliché. On the other hand, it neatly addresses several problems that could've plagued the series. It allows for a quick reconciliation between Mack and Karen (who'd split in the previous episode) instead of putting us through a protracted one later in the season. And it shows Gary's devotion to Abby after earlier episodes had him waffling so much, begging Val for a second chance even as he was forging a new life with Abby and her kids. (If we can't see Abby's love for Gary, at least we can see his love for her.)
After Diana's kidney, we're right on to "Block Party," in which free-lancer Sara Ann Friedman, who'd written two lovely episodes in Season 3 (the Christmas episode, "One of a Kind," and Sid's home-movie farewell, "Letting Go") seems to think she's still writing for Season 3 and does a character study that stops the season dead in its tracks. "Block Party" gets a bad rap, and admittedly it feels like it lasts about three hours, but I'm not sure it's a bad episode. It's a chance to get to know Mack better through his strained relationship with his father, and it brings the full cast together in one story-line for about the first time all season. It's a reasonable pitch for an episode, and mostly it suffers because it turns up midway through a season that has built its reputation on not doing standalones like "Block Party." (In one sense, it feels just like Season 4: there's a fistfight in a bar that seems to go on forever.)
And shortly after that, we get a trio of episodes about Mack and Karen tying the knot. Because there's no real impediment to their happiness (we pretty much accepted them as a couple about twenty minutes into the season, and any lingering doubts were assuaged when Mack rushed to Karen's side in "Emergency"), the writers -- all of them free-lancers, and novices, and maybe that's part of the problem -- fall back on clumsy, artificial conflicts. Mack proposes to Karen -- except her old boy-friend Teddy turns up and distracts her. Mack and Karen plan a lavish wedding, but things get so out of hand that they elope to Vegas. (And some of the jokiness that had invaded the show early in the season seeps back in, as their witnesses turn out to be a cigar-chomping gambler and a red-headed Amazon with giant teeth, and Mack and Karen are left to giggle their way through the ceremony.) And when they return home, eager to start their new life together, Karen's eldest son Eric rebels against being stripped of the responsibilities he's adopted since his dad died, and Mack and Karen are too obtuse to understand what he's upset about.
But laced through the underwhelming stories devoted to Mack and Karen's wedding are far better plotlines: the fallout from Val's new manuscript being leaked; the burgeoning friendship between Laura and Ciji; Gary's downward spiral; and the noose tightening around Ciji's neck -- all of them wonderfully entertaining. As noted, you could argue that all the episodes from "Man in the Middle" to "A New Family" are problematic, but Season 4 doesn't put you in the mood for an argument. It's too diverting. And once Ciji is murdered, the series becomes so bracing that you're left feeling the season has done everything right, even when it was getting so much wrong. It focuses so successfully on Val's efforts to save Gary from self-destructing, and Laura's suspicions about Richard, that it encourages you to overlook the obvious suspect. "Solving the mystery" remains secondary to the character dynamics, and so the reveal of the killer -- which we'll get early in Season 5, and which is pretty much what you'd expect -- doesn't feel like a letdown.
Season 4 shows Peter Dunne and company ramping up the acting choices, but the situations, by and large, are as penny-plain as they'd always been, and the mismatch, though not necessarily jarring, is noticeable. In Season 5, they'll solve it, magnificently, by truly "enlarging the situations" enough that the new layer of acting artifice seems at one with the story-lines.
They'll also figure out, more successfully, how to weave pretty much everyone into one tapestry. The general take on Season 4 -- what a lot of folks profess to love about it, and in fact, what both David Jacobs and Michael Filerman beam with pride about most -- is that it brings all the characters together in one storyline. But that's an illusion; in fact, they seem more compartmentalized than ever. There's a general "meeting place" -- Richard's restaurant -- which gives the deceptive impression of community, and at the end, all involved have a stake in the resolution of Ciji's murder. But the specifics of the plotting -- Gary's investments, which link folks to him, but not to each other; Gary and Val's breakup, which forces their friends to choose sides; Chip's machinations, which rely on the folks he's conning not sharing information; even the interrogations and suspicions that consume the final spate of episodes -- keep the characters splintered. In Richard's final episode, the season's penultimate, he and Karen share a lovely scene; she's come over to his house (where he's cleaning the gutters) to get some legal advice. As she's leaving, he calls out to her, "How does it feel being married again?", and she flashes a broad smile -- and you realize they haven't talked in ages. She asks about Laura, noting that she's been giving her space since Ciji died, and you realize, too, that Karen and Laura -- whose conversations in episodes like Season 3's "Best Intentions" had been among the series' highlights -- have barely had an interaction all season. And later in that same episode, there's a nice scene between Kenny and Richard, and again, you realize how the plotting has kept them apart.
That episode, "The Burden of Proof," written by Diana Gould, is arguably the only episode in Season 4 that feels like the "old" Knots; even the music reverts back to its gentler roots, including the theme most associated with Richard and Laura. Ironically, it takes the imminent departure of Richard -- the self-appointed "most unpopular guy in Knots Landing" -- to bring everyone together. But that's fitting. As Season 4 ushers in a more outrageous style of playing, Richard is the one character who steadfastly refuses to go there. He remains indelibly tied to an image of Knots that's fading. In Season 1's "Courageous Convictions," Laura had summarized the world of Richard Avery: "We've got a house we can't afford, we've got furniture that we don't own, closets full of junk we don't need -- we're always stretching," and when Richard corrected her ("striving for something better"), she was quick to counter: "You're always looking for the shortcut, and it's always getting us in trouble." He ultimately admitted, "I hate being ordinary." As the writers pave the way for Knots' upscale turn in Season 5, with cocktail parties and posh fundraisers replacing PTA meetings and backyard BBQ's, Richard remains the one character forever tied to the show's middle-class roots -- and, more to the point, to a certain middle-class mediocrity. He had to go -- but before he does, he gives us one last look at where it all began. And after that, the transformation of Knots Landing accelerates.
Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 1, which establishes the characters and struggles to set the tone; Season 3, in which the show ultimately masters the challenges inherent in its premise; Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; Season 8, in which the characters return, but the plotting goes haywire; Season 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years; Season 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; and Season 14, in which the great soap writer Ann Marcus, who'd guided the series during a critical time in its history, returns for one last glorious hurrah.