Well, it is and it isn't. In many ways, it's a lot like Season 6: a season that puts Valene into an unimaginable situation (there, newborn twins that she's told are stillborn; here, an attempt on her life she can't prove), and relies on Joan Van Ark to sustain it for nearly twenty episodes. And if you look to the "why did the ratings rise" question -- well, there are several reasons. First the Valene story wasn't one common to nighttime soaps (or daytime soaps, for that matter): one principal forging the "perfect crime" against another. (Young and the Restless headwriter Bill Bell had had a good run with that sort of story in the early '80s, as Vanessa planned a suicide that would implicate her daughter-in-law Lorie Brooks in her "murder," but it was a far cry from the love triangles, shady business dealings, and underworld-tinged drama that dominated '80s soap opera.) Second, the three final episodes of that story arc, which set up and resolved a murder mystery (who killed Jill?), had the good fortune to air just after February sweeps, when Knots's chief competition L.A. Law was in reruns. And any additional audience that the show acquired during those weeks was inclined to stick around for the final spate of episodes, as folks were naturally curious how the show would dispense with fan favorite Donna Mills, who had announced her intention to leave after nine years. Small wonder the ratings rose.
So no, Season 10 isn't the season to end all seasons. It benefits from one strong story-line, some fortuitous scheduling, and some tailor-made "buzz" at season's end. But to its credit, there's always something worth watching. There are also some hurdles to clear before the season can get underway in earnest. Showrunners Bernard Lechowick and Lynn Marie Latham were coming off a season in which the show had gotten back to basics: returning to character-based drama after a few years of underground spy networks and assassination plots -- but Season 9 had ultimately been undone by mobster mayhem. In the first few episodes of Season 10, they need to wrap up the gangster story-line -- and man, the scenes spent doing so are dire. The writers do Michele Lee and Kevin Dobson no favors, because they strand them in the most outrageous narrative (their children are being held captive by drug dealers, and Mack is dispatched to Mexico to rescue them), and then force them to deliver lines that are miserably overwrought. Michele Lee drops her voice an octave lower than usual, and clings to each word for extra emphasis, as she intones, "I know what it's like to want to kill someone." That's episode 1. By episode 2, she's taken to shrieking "I want my family back" while slapping her chest, as she threatens Abby, "You are not going to call the police, and Gary is not going to call the police, and I am not!" And when Val, home from the hospital, senses that Karen doesn't seem quite herself, Karen breaks down: "It's Michael! They have my baby! They have my baby! They have my baby!" -- three times, and the first time she pronounces "baby" with the emphasis on the second syllable -- as Mack had done earlier, screaming to a dying gangster, "Where are my childREN?" (It's a weird acting tic we haven't seen much of since Season 2, when Earl Trent was taken to pronouncements like "I am a wriTER.") It's probably Lee's worst set of performances in the show's 14-year history, but you don't blame her. You pity her. What else is she supposed to do with crap like that?
In an effort to counter the heavy-handedness of the mobster melodrama, the writers insert bits of humor elsewhere, but they feel jokey and ill-advised. In the Season 9 cliffhanger, Jill had referred to Val as "Poor Val," always -- as she saw it -- begging for sympathy and attention, and that moniker becomes a running gag through the first few episodes of Season 10. It's one character's observation that the writers like so much, they start acting as if everyone has been saying it for years. A mere ten minutes into the first episode, Abby hears about Valene's apparent suicide and murmurs, "Poor Val." For a while, it seems like every character utters "Poor Val"; at one point, Mack and Michael duet on it. When Val comes home from the hospital, she even has to act piteous, so she can be fully reduced to catch-phrase caricature. At a party at Karen's, she's afraid to leave the kitchen -- because she's convinced that everyone's talking about her (which they are). So she steels her courage, and makes her way through the sliding door to the dining room with a platter of food -- and drops it all. There's no reason she overturns the tray; oh, the writers posture that her nerves do her in, but basically, she comes crashing through the door so that everyone can think "Poor Val," like a silent Greek chorus. But "Poor Val" isn't the only clumsy bit of humor; in the season premiere, Lechowick manages a meta-reference to Donna Mills' love of eyeliner, which lands with a thud. He even gives Val a crazy-cute roommate in the psych ward, there for comic relief, and to make pronouncements that are either all-seeing or certifiable. (She's a forerunner of the crazy-cute roommate Val will be saddled with later in the season, when her aunt Ginny comes for a visit and hangs around a couple of years.)
It takes three episodes for the writers to calm down -- to get past the mob melodrama and stop overcompensating with gags -- but once they do, the season takes off. And it's grounded by this one story-line. Jill tried to kill Val, by forcing her to take an overdose of pills and forging a suicide note. But Val lived -- and now, because Jill covered her tracks so well, no one will believe her story. That's pretty much all you need to know to enjoy Season 10. It's Jill vs. Val, as they circle each other like vultures, and each time they reach a new understanding, they get a few weeks off, and other plotlines take over; the writers, who might well have resolved the story in five episodes, cleverly stretch it to nearly twenty. It's the rare story sustained as much by its conception as by its execution, but that conception is so intriguing that you keep tuning in, wondering, "How will it end?" Even when you're aware of the story-telling glitches, you don't give up on it; you're never even tempted. Let's look at the some of the best and the worst of the Jill-Val story-line.
The Good: Attempted Murder, She Wrote. In Season 6, when Val's babies were stolen, it fell to others to hunt for them; Val's story was her response to the loss. Here she gets to be an active participant in seeking justice. And yet, even as Val sets out to punch holes in Jill's alibi, the writers are careful not to turn her into a super-sleuth. She stumbles: sometimes out of fear, other times out of desperation -- and one time from over-confidence. It's a very good story-line for Van Ark: the last good one Lechowick and Latham gift her. There are built-in ironies, starting with the parallels with Season 6 that keep everyone, at first, from taking Val's claims seriously: "They all think: I went crazy when my babies were stolen, and now I've gone crazy again." And there are nice variations along the way. Val is more rash than she should be, and jumps to some false conclusions -- and at one point, her actions scare off a key witness. (She approaches the man Jill claims is her alibi for the night in question. But in her eagerness to expose Jill's story, she comes on too strong; the man is suspicious, and denies any involvement with Jill. And as a result, Val is convinced she's right, when in fact she's wrong.) It's a clever twist, too, that the moment that ultimately liberates her from fear is a chance meeting between Jill and the twins that Val (incorrectly) assumes was deliberate. Van Ark doesn't get the depth of material she got in Season 6; when Val lost her newborns, the story jumped from emotional beat to emotional beat, and gave her her most stunning showcase. That's not Lechowick and Latham's style; they leap from plot point to plot point, and carry the characters along with them. But every now and then, Van Ark gets a juicy set-piece, which she throws herself into with abandon -- as when, following Jill's death, she goes for a jog and collapses against a tree, as sobs of relief unexpectedly turn into gales of laughter. As with most of Lechowick and Latham's work in Season 10, it's a bit calculated for effect, and a little arch, but Van Ark clearly doesn't mind. She seems to love what she's being asked to do -- and that's more than enough.
The Bad: Talk to the (ranch) hand. There's only one big way in which the Jill-Val story goes awry, and that's Gary and Jill's breakup. The writers can't justify it, so they force it. Part of Jill's "perfect plan" was to find some poor schlub in San Francisco who would be so honored by her coming on to him that he'd be easy prey. She'd take him up to her room, ply him with sleeping pills, and let him think they spent the night together. He would become her alibi for why she couldn't have been in Knots Landing that night terrorizing Val. So when Gary, Val and Karen go to San Francisco on a fact-finding expedition, and some obnoxious guy says that nobody saw Jill that night after 8 PM (first of all, how does he know that "nobody" saw her after 8 PM – did they all get together afterwards and take a poll?), she decides she needs to use that ready-made alibi and come clean to Gary about her "affair." Her logic is nebulous at best; chances are if she just told Gary that she'd gone to bed early, and spoken to no one, he would've moved on -- which it seemed like he had every intention of doing. (She is still playing the "victim" card very well at that point – arguing that Val, with her senseless and baseless accusations, is the one persecuting her.) But instead, she confesses to the affair she never had -- without thinking that it might do more harm than good. As it does -- and to an extent that no one could've predicted. Because Gary, upon hearing that Jill slept with someone, decides to break up with her -- despite how many times he's been unfaithful to the women he's been with (including Jill herself, less than a year earlier). She says, reasonably, that they should talk about it, and that totally sets him off. He goes into a tirade in which he admits that, heaven knows, he isn't perfect either (understatement of the '80s), but he insists that he never had the gall, after being unfaithful, to say "let's talk." But of course, that's what Gary has said to every woman he's cheated on, ever since Val found him and Abby in bed, and he begged her for four episodes, "We need to talk." And then, apparently, Gary's outraged hypocrisy wears him out, because he and the writers just give up at that point: "I'm not blaming you. I'm not saying it's your fault. I'm not saying it's my fault. I don't want to try anymore. That's the point. I don't care. Not enough. Not the way I should." Their break-up never feels convincing, neither her "confession" nor his supersized response. It feels plot-dictated; the writers need them to separate at that point in the story-line, so they do.
The Good: Austin's Power. As Jill's alibi starts to crumble, her ability to cover her tracks -- and to keep Mack, Gary, Frank and even Peggy on the defensive -- is not only convincing, but oddly exhilarating. The writers make Jill work in the same way that Abby has worked the last nine years; you can't help but admire her determination to maintain control of the narrative, and how frequently she succeeds. And this is where Teri Austin shines, because you're looking at a would-be murderess here, but Austin keeps Jill's reactions so sharp that at times you're strangely sympathetic. Her wickedness, as Abby's had been, proves unexpectedly appealing; you even enjoy her actions when she continues to play mind games with Val -- as when she phones her up, knowing Gary is there (Val hangs up on her, of course, as Jill knows she will), and then, when Gary grills her about it, denies ever making the call. She delights in perpetuating the impression that Val has gone off the deep end, and even though Valene is our heroine, we don't mind. We applaud Jill's cleverness. And occasionally, her ability to outrun her pursuers is more than just impressive -- it's almost made to feel triumphant, as when she reclaims the proof from Mrs. Bailey's apartment that she forged the letters from Ben, and she doesn't just shred them: she fires up a wok and burns each letter, one by one, as flames consume the screen. She even does it all while wearing a wide-brimmed black hat. (In the post-Travilla years, does anyone in Knots Landing still wear a hat?) It's outrageous and oversized, but Teri Austin's concentration is so intense, and her commitment so fierce, you're mesmerized by the moment. (She even calls Mack as she's burning the evidence, to see exactly what he has on her -- no multi-task too great.) Austin is a revelation throughout Season 10: you had no idea she was so capable of commanding the screen, but she takes this meaty story-line and runs with it, and as much as you should be loathing her and hoping she's brought to justice, she makes the game of cat-and-mouse tremendously appealing.
The Bad: "Hey, I got a social disease!" Jill's story starts to break down when the man she "slept" with in San Francisco contracts syphilis, and turns up at her office to blast her for giving it to him. (He, of course, got it from his cheating wife; nothing happened between him and Jill.) And even though Jill insists they used protection, Gary become suspicious of Jill's story when she doesn't catch it: "If she slept with him," he wonders out loud to Mack, "and he had it, why didn't she get it?" You know, this is not a hard topic to properly research; it's not an underground communications center with the ability to manipulate electronic information: something you figure is so "out there," you can make up most of it, and the audience won't quibble. It's a social disease. They're common. Sorry to tell you, Gary, but not everyone who sleeps with someone with syphilis develops syphilis, especially if they use protection. But the writers apparently think we don't know that -- maybe they themselves don't know that, or maybe they just think it sounds so salacious, they don't care -- but they posture that if you're exposed to VD, you get VD. There are a lot of great clues uncovered along the way that implicate Jill; this is not one of them.
The Bad: Look Who's Stalking. Given that Gary's reasons for breaking up with Jill were spurious as best, you're momentarily impressed with how well she handles it. She goes to look for an apartment, finds one, and when the landlady says she can move in right away, she sighs with resignation; she seems accepting of Gary's decision, and you're strangely proud of her. She's acting like an adult. Then two scenes later, she's back at Gary's, lying that her landlady won't have the apartment ready for another week, and secretly working on her wedding invitations. And an episode after that, she's twirling around in her wedding dress. There's no descent into madness: it's more like a plunge. It's all a bit odd, because Jill keeps plowing forward with her wedding arrangements (she announces the engagement and upcoming nuptials to seemingly half of Knots Landing), but she doesn't seem to have any plan for getting Gary back -- except at one point, she decides if she injures him, she could tend to him. We're meant to think that Jill is having some sort of psychotic break -- clinging to a fantasy that she and Gary will reunite -- but it's never convincing. Does she really think that by refusing to relocate -- by coming up with more and more lame excuses why her new apartment isn't ready yet, and then, once she does leave, showing up at the ranch every fifteen minutes, unannounced -- she's going to endear herself to Gary, who'll welcome her home with open arms? Jill is so proactive and focused in covering her tracks, her passivity and lack of logic where Gary is concerned seem baffling. We're meant to excuse a lot of Jill's behavior with "well, she's going crazy," but that just reeks of lazy writing.
The Good: In-Val-id Evidence. The Val-Jill story-line moves, inexorably, from a place where no one believes Val to one where no one believes Jill, which is neatly symmetrical and obviously satisfying. Yet if you look closely, there's an odd disconnect, because at the end of the day, there's not a lot of hard evidence against Jill -- and certainly by the time they've found nothing in Mrs. Bailey's apartment, and once Jill has passed a lie detector test and had a qualified psychiatrist vouch for her, you'd think maybe one of the principals would have second thoughts about her guilt. But they don't. On the surface, it's illogical that the more evidence that points in Jill's favor, the more the core characters dig in that she's guilty. But it's satisfying on an emotional level. (In a neat twist, the writers let us see how the story looks to outsiders: not just Jill's psychiatrist, but her secretary as well, and ultimately, the detectives investigating Jill's death -- and to them, Jill seems perfectly normal, and the denizens of Seaview Circle seem like stalkers, abusers and nutjobs.) And ultimately, it's Jill's realization that no one believes her anymore -- not that she could be found guilty in a court of law, but that she's lost the trust of people she once considered friends, and that nothing she can say or do will change their minds, or get Gary to come back to her -- that leads her to plan her revenge, and that brings the story to a satisfying conclusion.
The Good: Kill Jill. The episode leading up to Jill's death is a muddle, with Lechowick and Latham so intent on surprising the viewer with the discovery of Jill's body that they're forced to omit key events and exchanges leading up to it. But once Jill is found dead in Gary's trunk, we move on to a three-episode arc that does exactly what it needs to do: convince us that one of the series regulars has committed murder. Had this come any later in the Lechowick-Latham run, when their string of steady surprises had taught us to doubt the evidence of our own eyes, it wouldn't have worked -- but at this point, we're not yet wise to their tricks. When a policeman informs Mack that there's one thing for sure, "the body in question did not die through natural causes," we believe him. When Abby poses two possibilities -- Gary killed Jill to protect Val, or he was stupid enough to cover up if Val did it -- we believe her, particularly after what we all went through at the end of Season 4. And when Mack announces to Karen, after hearing Gary's alibi, "He did it," we believe him. This much seems clear: one of the core characters committed murder. At first, when the only suspects are Gary and Val, we figure that whichever of them did it will get off on a technicality -- but once Frank is thrown into the mix (a character who is far more expendable), we think, well, maybe not: maybe someone is heading to prison for a long time. And although the ultimate solution turns out to be pretty far-fetched, requiring a spate of coincidences of timing and behavior, Lechowick and Latham wisely see to it that it's unraveled by the show's most credible narrator, Karen, who has a lightbulb moment, then grows so intent on proving her case that she's willing to lock herself in a trunk to do so. If Karen tells us this is what happened, we're not about to question it -- or its improbability. Lechowick and Latham bring to a close this long story-line, which began in the final block of Season 9, with both the gritty drama that's required and the cheeky irreverence that they favored.
Ultimately, the saga of Val and Jill is water-cooler story-telling at its best. Oh, there are gaffes both big and small, but the premise is so persuasive, and so well sustained, that they don't matter much. For all Lechowick and Latham's triumphs in Season 9 (Laura's death, Val and Gary's custody fight, Olivia's romance with Harold and the devastation of her mother's betrayal), the Jill-Val story-line in Season 10 -- and the particular way it unfolds -- is clearly nearer to their hearts. Season 9 had shown the team fully capable of scripting the sort of character-rich story-lines that were Knots' stock-in-trade; with Jill and Val in Season 10, they prove that they can infuse those story-lines with their own brand of calculated cleverness -- without undercutting the characters. (It's precisely what they couldn't manage in Season 8, their first time at bat.)
And Season 10's other story-lines? Well, instead of working our way through the season (as we typically do), let's just -- as with the Jill-Val story-line -- take a look at its good points and its bad points, and see how they stack up.
The Good: Paige and Sumner. Oh, how beautifully this relationship works -- it works so well that it will become the focus of the final five seasons. Paige and Sumner become the "will they/won't they" couple, and who would have imagined in Season 9, when Paige's interest in Greg seemed so one-sided (and moreover, just another move to put her in her place, after her ego had raged so out of control in Season 8), that the writers would weave such a charming romance. But the chemistry is there, and the relationship feels rooted in character: her youthfulness invigorates him, while his gravitas prompts her to invest her heart. After a few episodes, Paige is summoned East for her grandfather's funeral, and tells Greg, "Get ready, I'm going to say the L word." (The L word, for those too young to know, was "liberal," which George Bush had used against Michael Dukakis to get himself elected President in 1988). But in her case, the "L" word is "love," as in "I love you," and although Paige assures Greg he doesn't have to say it back, he does -- and means it. And then he shatters her dreams by proposing to Abby while she's out of town. As a result of being in love, Paige has grown less jaded than when she first arrived in Knots Landing, nearly three years earlier; when she comes home and discovers her world has collapsed, your heart goes out to her. And as she begs Greg for answers -- "Why are you doing this? What are you afraid of? Are you afraid that I'm going to leave you? Are you afraid that I'm going to die, or that you're going to die?" -- you realize you'd like the answers to some of those questions too.
The Bad: Abby and Sumner. Something goes wrong with a story that should have been a slam-dunk. Abby and Greg had been circling each other for five years; their coupling in Season 10 should have felt inevitable. But there's a disconnect before their pairing even gets underway. Lechowick and Latham are so determined to have Greg's proposal to Abby be a surprise -- they're so intent on letting us think that he's going to propose to Paige till the last possible minute -- that they can't let us inside his head, to understand what's motivating him. Ted Melcher, Greg's publicist, has told him that if he wants to run for mayor, he can't afford to be in a relationship with Paige. Soon after, he picks up a photo of his late wife Laura and stares at it -- but what is he thinking? That she'd be happy for him? Embarrassed that he's taken up with a girl half his age? Crucially, we don't see him put the photo down, to register his response. We can't, because his state of mind has to be a surprise. But once Paige asks him -- begs him -- to tell her why he's moved on with Abby, we realize that we ourselves don't know the answer, because we haven't been permitted to know. Greg clearly doesn't need to marry Abby in order to dump Paige, or even to win the election -- so why does he? (Or does he truly think a lavish wedding will so goose his publicity, and a ready-made family so endear him to voters, that they'll give him the edge he needs to win?) And once Greg has proposed, they continue to pussyfoot around the question of "why." While Abby ponders the proposal, Greg woos her: the two prepare burgers and fries, and Greg takes Abby's son Brian to the arcade, seemingly charming Abby (and us) with his down-to-earth manner -- as if the Abby we know would really be won over by an embrace of middle-class values. It's precisely the wrong approach to make them convincing as a couple. Let them discuss all the people they're going to screw over, and get so overheated, they end up in the sack. But don't turn them into Ozzie and Harriet. Eventually, Abby and Sumner become a believable married couple, but those first steps are awful and misjudged.
The Bad: Nice Abby. Olivia tried to commit suicide late in Season 9, and for a while, it seemed like Abby had changed her ways. Her daughter's brush with death, for which -- make no mistake -- Abby was responsible, apparently forced her to rethink her priorities. (Twice, Greg asks her to help him with a slightly shady deal he's putting together, and she tells him, "It's not right.") The plan, from the writers' point of view, is to catch us off-guard -- to have us thinking Abby has turned over a new leaf, so that when she returns to her old ways, it's a surprise. Unfortunately, Nice Abby -- or even an Abby who isn't relentlessly self-absorbed -- isn't a character Donna Mills remembers how to play. You need to go back to Season 2, when she was actually interacting with characters like Val and Ginger without an ulterior motive, to see the last time Abby wasn't ruled by self-advancement. Mills can't remember how to play that old Abby: scenes like her telling Julie Williams how nice her hair looks don't ring true. And either the writers see it and instantly adjust for it, or they don't really give her a chance to "sell" it, because all the while she's making nice, characters are questioning her motives, wondering "What's she up to?" (and no one more so, strangely, than Mack). So we're stuck questioning her motives too, and as a result, there's no surprise when she goes all Mr. Hyde on us.
The Bad: Evil Abby. Nice Abby was unconvincing, but her "return to form" is handled even worse. Lechowick tries to replicate what had worked in Season 7, in his own "Phoenix Rising," when Abby, after a dozen episodes of inactivity, asserted herself and took control. But here she's not "taking control": she's screwing over family and friends. Apparently Olivia's attempted suicide made no impression on her, because now she's decided to frame her daughter's boyfriend for drug possession -- a scheme that, whether it's exposed or not, is only going to cause Olivia more pain. And meanwhile, having discovered oil on Lotus Point, she's going to defraud her business partners by purchasing the property out from under them: a plot twist left so ambiguous that it seems the result of a hasty rewrite. On the surface, the plotting seems to suggest that the drugs found on Lotus Point were left there when the dealers were unloading boats at the top of Season 10 -- and that sometime after that, Abby discovered oil and decided to defraud her partners. But there's one key line, about how workers struck oil "during the expansion of the marina," that suggests a different scenario: that Abby discovered oil during Season 9 (prompting her to simulate a new, kinder personality) and later had someone plant the drugs (knowing it would be blamed on the dealers) -- thus forcing the closure of Lotus Point and allowing her to purchase the property outright. That reading of the text is supported by the fact that, in the same episode where we discover she's "gone rogue" again, she's planting cocaine in Harold's locker; are we meant to think that, perhaps, it's not the first time she's planted cocaine? It's a key plot point that's poorly revealed -- some of it in a voice-over "flashback" of scenes we've never seen before (like Olivia announcing that Harold's been arrested for drug possession), suggesting a hasty rewrite and a resultantly awkward edit. It's only if Abby discovered oil first, then plotted to shut down Lotus Point by having drugs planted, that the story-line makes sense -- otherwise, it's a pretty lame and ludicrous coincidence. But if she did discover oil and plant drugs to defraud her partners, then that's going way beyond the boundaries of forgivable behavior, even for Abby. Evil Abby or a bad coincidence -- which is worse?
The Good: Wicked Abby. Abby doesn't really start to work in Season 10 until she and Greg come home from their honeymoon, and we see her doing all the things she does best: micro-managing his candidacy, prompting him to take custody of his daughter, covering her tracks when Sumner asks to meet with the head of Murakame (her own dummy corporation), even spilling coffee on Karen as they both interview to be on the Coastal Commission. (It's mean, but funny, and Donna Mills, as ever, walks that line immaculately.) But as much as you enjoy how she stays one step ahead of Karen and Paula's investigation into Murakame, you feel the noose tightening around her neck, and you wonder: is this the end of the road for Abby? The writers let it slip in episode 23 that Abby could get five to ten years for fraud and possible embezzlement; they set the trap early on that she's going down, and it's remarkable in retrospect that everyone in 1989 fell for it, including The Wall Street Journal, who reported in a story that ran the day of the season finale that Abby would be leaving town a poorer lady than when she arrived. But of course, Abby walks away with so much more, including the position as trade ambassador to Japan that Greg wanted, a white stretch limo, and a song on her lips. (She even gets a hilarious speech in which she feigns concern for our "fragile wetlands.") Although there's some murkiness in the episodes leading up to Abby's final bow, the departure itself turns out to be a great bluff, followed by a great send-off.
The Good: The Williamses, part 1. One of the first scenes in Season 10 takes place over breakfast at the Williamses; Julie is practicing for her spelling bee as Pat gives Frank a haircut. As good as they'd been in Season 9, Frank and Pat Williams had been mostly a mystery to be solved; now, in Season 10, you start to believe they're going to become a part of the Knots landscape -- and you're pleased. Lynne Moody and Larry Riley have their acts down pat, and Lynne Moody is the strongest addition to the cast -- in terms of pure acting ability and individuality -- since Alec Baldwin, three years earlier. They're used splendidly in the first few episodes of the season. It's perfect that it's Frank, with his policeman's instincts, who's the first to believe Val's story -- and to assure her, from years of experience that he can't disclose, that Jill is unlikely to come after her again. When Frank goes to the bank and gets Pat to look through Jill's financial records, you see what his law enforcement background and her current connections can do when used properly. And Julie's spelling bee turns into an unexpectedly touching story, when her parents have to talk her into throwing the competition she's worked so hard at, because the winner will be photographed, and -- being in WITSEC -- they can't afford that publicity. Yet at the same time, Julie's dilemma reveals the limitations that the WITSEC story-line is placing on the Williams family; are they going to be stuck looking over the shoulders for all time? How much will that limit their story-telling usefulness? So you're delighted when the first time we take a break from the Val-Jill saga, it's to focus on the Williamses, and specifically, to put the WITSEC story behind them. Although the episode itself (Lechowick's unsubtly-titled "Sex and Violence") plays a bit like a campy caper, as Mack role-plays as a film director to ensnare an actor who's blackmailing them (Peggy is particularly annoying), you can't help but support the underlying impulse. The Williamses can't really shine until they're out from under the WITSEC cloud. Let's put that plotline to bed, so their characters can move on.
The Bad: The Williamses, part 2. Unfortunately, once the Williamses' WITSEC plot vanishes, so do they. (In the episode after Mack informs Pat and Frank, "It's over," they don't even appear. It really is over for them.) They're useful in wrapping up the Jill-Val story-line, Frank with his cop training and Pat with her medical knowledge, but otherwise, their characters disappear for episodes on end. In the second block of the season, they start to get a story-line: Julie has been injured horseback-riding at Gary's ranch; Frank lashes out at Pat for taking her there and putting her at risk. Frank's anger starts to drive a wedge between the couple, at the same time she's developing feelings for Gary. (Moody is marvelous as ever in the scene in which she confesses to Karen about her crush on Gary.) It's pretty obvious where the story-line is heading, and Pat and Gary get a particularly nice scene together when he's out on bail, following Jill's murder, and she makes him laugh by refusing to soft-pedal his predicament. But in the first episode of the third block, the writers drop the story unceremoniously, and Frank and Pat reconcile. (Although I'm unconvinced that Lechowick and Latham had the skill to ease gracefully into a relationship between Gary and Pat and have her reemerge with her dignity and viability intact, if it had given Moody more screen-time and spared us the blight that was "Sally's friend," I would have shipped them to the high heavens.) Moody complained at the time that the writers didn't have the guts to "go there" -- that an interracial couple was deemed too controversial; Knots had, by this point, become so socially conservative, nine years into the Reagan-Bush era, it was hard to believe its initial impulse was to explore the new freedoms of the sexual revolution. Does anyone really believe it's a coincidence that, after voicing her disappointment, Moody was instantly marginalized, and her character killed off a year later? (Lechowick and Latham finally pursue an interracial romance two seasons later, with Moody's onscreen daughter Julie and the MacKenzies' foster son Jason. The message seems to be, it's cute when impulsive kids to do it, but adults should know better. It is not a proud moment in the series' history.)
The Bad: Michael, Ellen & Johnny. Oh God, now we're going to give Pat Petersen his requisite plotline of the season. Do these ever work? Well, no, but they're not always this ineffectual. The story-line starts by undoing everything that was charming about the character of Johnny Rourke in Season 9. Three episodes into Season 10, he drops the brogue. ("What happened to your accent," Michael asks. "Too tired to make the effort," Johnny replies, speaking for the writers.) So the writers undo his backstory, which was about the only novel thing about him. Who knows: maybe Peter Reckell hated doing the accent; maybe they had complaints from the Irish-American community. But once you lose that, Johnny the grifter is a much more commonplace character. And then, to find him a story-line (any story-line), you entangle him with Michael and his would-be girlfriend Ellen. (Or maybe to give Petersen a story, they keep Reckell on the show. If it were an interesting question, I'd wonder about it.) Michael meets a girl at school, and in the very next scene, is smitten with her. No season would be complete if Michael didn't fall head over heels with some girl after meeting her twice -- unless it's Season 9, where his plotline is about not falling in love with a nice girl who thinks he's great. Anyway, he introduces his latest crush to Johnny, and she's so instantly taken that, even as Michael continues prattling away, she doesn't hear a word he says. She's too busy staring at Johnny. So you pretty much know where this story's going -- except it goes to even duller places than you'd dreamed, as Johnny steals the computer program that Ellen and Michael created, and sells it to Sumner, and -- oh God, it's a computer program: who cares? Notably, the series' other young couple, Olivia and Harold, have almost nothing to do in Season 10, but they get by on their chemistry and her new "take no prisoners" attitude with her mother -- and every now and then, the writers manage to weave them into an existing story-line, as when Harold helps Mack and Karen wrap up the "who murdered Jill" mystery. There's a scene where Harold and Olivia are babysitting for the MacKenzies and discuss having kids; it's essentially a time-killer, but a very pleasant one -- as opposed to everything with Michael and his new non-girlfriend, which is a waste of space.
The Bad: Aunt Ginny. We go from Julie Harris to Betsy Palmer; need I say more? Oh, maybe a little more. It's hard to say why the writers feel a need to add a faux Lilimae to Valene's household (it's not like Julie Williams couldn't have handled all the baby-sitting chores), but maybe they felt it was time for Val to have a sounding-board again. But that's all Aunt Ginny is: a sounding-board, and a hyper-annoying one at that. The addition of Julie Harris worked in Season 3 (aside from the fact that she was five-time Tony Award winner Julie Harris) because of the baggage she and Val shared. At her best, she was a thorn in Val's side; at her worst, she was a painful reminder of some of the worst times of her life. As precious as Lilimae could be in her first season, twanging away on the "the prettiest girl I ever did see" until the entire cul-de-sac wanted to hack off their ears, there was that undercurrent of tension between her and Val that grounded everything. With Virginia, she's just Val's crazy aunt -- did the show really need one of those? She's barely introduced, and she's already a fruitcake: setting Val up with her computer technician, she tells her, "In the second century, Danny was a scribe, and you were a vestal virgin, and against the express wishes of the high priestess, he taught you to write." (Worst past-life reading ever: if Danny was around in the second century, he was also a serial rapist -- talk about burying the lede.) And because they've now added Betsy Palmer to the cast, they feel obliged to give her a story-line, so she becomes our "way in" to the Okmin Industries scandal the following season -- which basically means that it's DOA.
The Good: Mack and Paula, part 1. Mack has a midlife crisis early in the season; it's plot-dictated -- since his office-partner Jill will soon be written off, Mack needs a new career, or else he'll be sitting alone at work, talking to himself. So given that, they have him question his current position as the Governor's special investigator, feeling that he's lost touch with the kind of cases that really matter. As he plays hooky from the office, he and Karen start to drive each other crazy, because she's just lost Lotus Point, so they're both at home: arguing over paint colors and which way the toilet paper should come off the roll. So he heads to the mountains -- at her insistence -- and meets a forest ranger named Paula Vertosick. (There's a painfully funny scene where Paula finds herself giving a lecture to an audience of one: Mack.) Ultimately they sit down to drinks, and although he makes it clear that he's married, it doesn't stop Paula from flirting and inviting him back to her cabin. And then, in one of those typical Lechowick-Latham fake-outs, Mack makes his way to her room, steps inside, and -- no, it's his own bedroom at home, where Karen is fast asleep. Mack was tempted, and did the right thing. In fact, he not only did the right thing, but by getting away and being reminded how much he had to lose, he got his priorities in order. It's a brief but effective story-line -- that should have ended there.
The Bad: Mack and Paula, part 2. But as the writers are breaking story on the final block, they think, "Melinda Culea was so good, and had such chemistry with Kevin Dobson -- what say we bring her back?" So she returns, now teaching at Michael's college, and gets involved with Karen trying to protect the environment. And Mack can't stop thinking about her. But as often happens, it's hard to take the chemistry from one story-line and transplant it to another. (Just ask Ted Shackelford and Lisa Hartman, who spark in Season 4 and can't recapture it in Season 5.) Once Paula is in Knots Landing, she becomes an open book, and soon, Mack is no longer fascinated by a mystery women; he's crushing on the girl next door, who -- however you look at it -- is just a less interesting version of his wife. In episode 23, Paula -- exasperated that Mack keeps coming on to her -- tells him to grow up. We should get so lucky. By episode 24 he's having extended fantasies about her: fantasies designed to fool the viewer. (He'll come home, and Paula will be there, and she'll kiss him -- and then we'll see it's all in his head.) They fool us once; the next two times, they just annoy the crap out of us. And one time, Mack is daydreaming about Paula, then snaps out of it when she appears -- and when she enters, her first few lines are the same as they were in the fantasy, which makes no sense. (Apparently, Mack isn't just a lech, he's a clairvoyant lech.) Naturally, while Mack is indulging in his reveries, Val and Karen get into a conversation about fantasizing, and Karen -- apparently suffering from early dementia -- says, "Mack doesn't even look at other women." It's an odd story that serves only to makes Mack look bad, although it doesn't do the writers any favors either. When Paula's hot-water heater bursts, she has to stay with the MacKenzies, and she and Mack keep running into each other half-naked in the upstairs hallway: the first of a lot of contrived excuses to get Mack and Paula into uncomfortably close quarters.
The Bad: The final hour. Abby leaves town in the penultimate episode; Lechowick and Latham determine that -- with so many in the press wondering "Will the show survive without Donna Mills?" -- it's important to get her departure out of the way early on, and prove that Knots will be just fine without her. It's a great idea in theory, but they don't have the tools to execute it properly. They get so focused on Abby's departure, they forget to figure out what happens after that, and the season goes out on a dispiriting, undernourished low. They settle on two strategems: bringing the Mack-Paula story-line to a boil -- an impossible task considering it was never even simmering, let alone beginning to boil -- and following through on the Murakame plotline without Abby. The latter is a wild miscalculation. They don't understand that, for the audience, the Murakame story-line was a MacGuffin. We didn't care what happened to the actor Abby hired; we didn't care who killed Abby's lawyer. All we cared about was: how will it affect Abby's departure? Once she's gone, lingering questions become meaningless -- but undeterred, Lechowick and Latham devote most of the season finale to Paige's effort to unravel the Murakame mystery. In the season's final shot, she's caught between two men -- Sumner and his publicist (and Abby's co-conspirator) Ted Melcher -- uncertain whom to trust. That's our season-ending freeze-frame, and it's devoid of suspense. There's nothing we know about Sumner to suggest he's capable of murder; there's nothing we know about Melcher to suggest he isn't. It's a no-brainer choice on our part, and therefore a rotten cliff-hanger. In terms of these sorts of season-ending shots -- the heroine caught in events beyond her control -- it's not a patch on Val's slo-mo turn at the end of Season 6, nor Maggie's at the end of Falcon Crest Season 6, when seemingly half the cast plunges into San Francisco Bay. And as for the other story-line, Mack and Paula: well, Lechowick and Latham decide that to balance out the woefully melodramatic aspects of Paige's story-line, they'll go for comedy in this one. But it's not character comedy; it's gags. And gag-worthy. Mack and Karen set out on a roadtrip -- with Paula tagging along -- and there's one mishap after another: Karen breaks her ankle, and has to be left at the hospital; rains wash out the roads, forcing Mack and Paula to stay at a seedy motel with only one room available; and then (in the season's low point) Mack, trying to change a flat in the rain, is sprayed by a skunk and starts ripping off his clothes -- merely so he can end up half-naked in a hotel room with Paula. (Ooh, the sexual tension!) As bad as Kevin Dobson's material was at the top of the season, when he was threatening half of Mexico and screaming at gangsters, this is so much worse. Sprayed by a skunk. Oh, the stench of this story-line...
So let's add up Season 10. On the plus side, the saga of Val and Jill -- plus Paige and Greg's pairing; wicked Abby's departure; Mack and Paula's first meeting; and the early successes with the Williamses. On the debit side, Greg's "romance" of Abby; Abby's unconvincing "nice" persona and her unfortunate "evil" one; the tedium of Michael and Ellen and Johnny; the cloying Aunt Ginny; Mack's obsession with Paula; the ultimate underuse of the Williams family; and the season's final hour.
And there we have the wonderful paradox of Season 10. A simple tally of story-lines reveals five good ones and eight bad ones -- not, on the face of it, a desirable ratio. But Val and Jill's extended showdown is so prominent for the first nineteen episodes, and Abby's farewell so dominates the final nine, you don't remember much else. Those two story-lines are so weighty, they tip the scales in the season's favor.
But that's only part of the story. At the top of this essay, I described three reasons for the season's ratings uptick, but there's a fourth that can't be overlooked: the full flowering of the Lechowick-Latham "house style," a style that -- when it worked, as in the all-important Jill-Val story-line, or in the lead-up to Abby's departure -- was highly addictive. It invited new viewers. It appealed not just to long-time fans, who came looking for character-driven drama, but to those thirsting for something different: who took more to story-lines with the occasional wink to the audience, or an element of the outrageous, or a love of surprises for their own sake. It won over people who wouldn't be caught dead watching a soap, but didn't mind watching a show that admitted it was a soap, and even joked about it. The reduction of Val to "Poor Val" in Season 10 is very much a part of that, as is Abby grading Paige on the "Abby scale," and Karen comforting Pat that "everyone gets a crush on Gary at some point"; it was a lightly self-mocking tone that admitted that the characters were only characters -- and sometimes, no more than "types." And it was an approach that was never afraid to pull a character out of a scene, to offer up commentary or comedy or both, as when Karen -- after getting news of Gary's arrest -- serves up an aphorism ("Anyone is capable of murder"), mocks it with an aside ("I don't even believe that"), turns it into a character beat ("Maybe I do"), then finally rejoins the action ("Oh, this is awful").
Crucial to this new approach is the creation in Season 10 of Sumner Group underlings Mort and Bob, the corporate world's answer to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: there to insure, if audiences prove resistant to some of the soapier aspects of the plotting, that the voice of the writer can always be heard, gently editorializing. In some ways, the Lechowick-Latham approach was reminiscent of the string of "Road" pictures that Bing Crosby and Bob Hope made for Paramount in the 1940s and '50s, which spoofed some of the more popular film genres of the day, with in-jokes and fourth-wall breaking and a level of self-awareness that audiences found irresistible. (Within a few seasons, when the Lechowick-Latham sensibility has run amuck, Mort and Bob will have gone so meta that they'll be referencing the show's timeslot and chief competition.) And indeed, in the use of pastiche that Lechowick and Latham initiate in Season 10's "Straight Down the Line" (which features Mack and Paula fighting their attraction while watching a string of '40s flicks, then -- by the end -- turns into a film noir itself, with Abby as the femme fatale), they reinforce the notion of Knots as a genre-fluid series, one quite capable of effectively aping other genres -- and more important, one that you don't need to be a rabid soap fan to enjoy.
Two of the most polarizing figures in Knots history, Lechowick and Latham solidified an approach in Season 10 that was breezy, irreverent and (at a time when traditional nighttime soaps were on the decline) welcoming -- and undeniably tied to the series' ratings rise. (It was an approach they could never seem to sustain for more than twenty episodes at a time, and when they went awry, they went brutally awry -- but that's a topic for another essay.) And that fractional ratings uptick, which resulted in a tidal wave of publicity that established Knots, in the critical community at least, as the best of the '80s primetime soaps -- the one that so reengaged its audience that it bucked the trend of declining ratings -- has become a big part of the series' mythology. Even when Season 10 isn't a terribly good season, it's an awfully important one.
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 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 Ann Marcus, who'd guided the series during a critical time in its history, gives it a glorious send-off.