Monday, January 15, 2018

Rhoda season 3

Rhoda Season 3 is daring and wonderful and strange. It's arguably the most adult and uncompromising sitcom season of the '70s, and since nothing like it has come along since -- the dissolution of a fairy-tale marriage, told in real time -- it remains one of the most bold and unconventional seasons of any sitcom, period. It's also a bit of a mess. Its aspirations are heady, but they're undermined by self doubts, second thoughts and apparent audience pandering. Beneath the unraveling of Rhoda's marriage is a creative team discovering -- much like Rhoda herself -- that intelligence and conviction only take you so far, and reacting with the same muddled insecurities as their heroine. Season 3 is a world where seemingly everything is falling apart -- before and behind the camera -- but that duality energizes the season as much as it hobbles it, giving it a complexity that's uncommon and startling. It's beautiful chaos: restless and alive in a way sitcoms rarely are.

There are times when the tone varies so drastically from week to week that it's tough to get your bearings. But this is New York City in the mid-'70s, a time when "bearings" are a luxury most people can't afford. It's the Abe Beame era: of fiscal crises and citywide blackouts, of Son of Sam and terrorist bombings. But it's also the hub of the nation's Bicentennial celebration, and the site of the Democratic National Convention; it's still, at heart, a town where people come to party -- and to succeed: "If I can make it there," as Sinatra soon began crooning. It's the land of Dog Day Afternoon and Taxi Driver, but also of Made for Each Other and Annie Hall. (Fittingly, at one point Rhoda's sister Brenda manages an offscreen conversation with Woody Allen.) That's the New York City of Rhoda Season 3, and even the season's unsettling -- frequently uncertain -- shifts in tone seem consistent with a town whose only aim is to keep you off-balance: to make you feel that you're at once thriving, floundering, and suffocating.

Rhoda Season 3 is a season to cherish; it's also a season that audiences of the time hated -- hated for reasons that are tough to fathom if you didn't live through it all. On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, where Valerie Harper's Rhoda Morgenstern had spent four seasons, she'd begun as an overweight smart-aleck who couldn't get a decent guy to give her the time of day, then blossomed into a svelte beauty who -- like her best friend Mary -- couldn't find a man who measured up. In a few short years, she went from belittling herself to belittling the losers she kept being set up with, and we loved her for her candor and resiliency. (From Mary Tyler Moore Season 3, her description of a recent date: "A real zero. I mean, this guy could walk through an electric eye door, it wouldn't open.") And finally, in Season 4's "Love Blooms at Hemples," she found someone worthy, put her heart on the line -- and he didn't reciprocate. We'd waited three years for Rhoda to find love, and instead, she found heartbreak -- or at least, it was as heartbreaking as a sitcom working within a traditional episodic format got at that time. (In other words, the incident, a crushing blow for Rhoda, was never referenced again.)

So when she packed up her trademark head scarves and moved from Minneapolis to New York City in the fall of 1974, and (in the pilot episode of her own series) found love with a divorcé named Joe Gerard, it was -- for a good chunk of the viewing audience -- the "happily ever after" that most of us never got. Rhoda had landed her dream guy: he was tall, dark and handsome -- hell, he was so macho, he owned a wrecking company, and could frequently be found sporting a hard hat and a shirt buttoned just north of the navel. And so Rhoda settled into married life, and Rhoda established itself as a top-10 hit. And finally, Rhoda had it all.

But how do you write a sitcom about a woman who has it all? Married life turned Rhoda into a much more conventional television heroine, and Rhoda into a much more traditional sitcom. No critic at the time was more vocal or insightful than John Leonard in The New York Times, who wrote midway through Rhoda's first season:

Some of us have had qualms about Rhoda from the beginning. Yes, we loved Valerie Harper and Nancy Walker and the wedding. But what was the program going to be about? It hopped around until the wedding in late October. Then it settled down, and is not a place I particularly want to visit. It is, instead, the sort of place I've been trying to get out of for years. It is I Married Joan and it is I Love Lucy, the zany housewife as the white tornado in her own kitchen.

Rhoda worries about the furniture in her apartment. She worries about Joe's old girl friends. She worries about Joe's wanting to stay home and her wanting to go out. She worries about Brenda's involvement with a married man. (That episode could have been rescued. If, faced with the evidence Rhoda had so tediously collected, Brenda had said, “So what?” or, “He's better than nothing,” the program might for a moment have sounded as though it belonged to the 1970's instead of the 1950's.)

Let me make feminist noises. Rhoda should get out of the house and go to work. Her job should be demanding and rewarding. Joe should have to make some compromises. That's what people do when they get married these days, and there's no earthly reason why a sophisticated sitcom can't find the humor in these adjustments, exploit it and instruct us. Instead, the writers and producers of Rhoda have gone to the 1950's vending machine, deposited the small change of themselves, and gotten old yuks in new cans. It's a waste of talent.

Yet when it came to devising decent stories for Rhoda, the writers were stymied. Yes, they could have dug deep into the issues facing a contemporary couple, but there's no way that David Groh, who played Joe, would have been up to the challenge. And Rhoda's window-dressing career -- a leftover from her days in Minneapolis -- was a story-telling dead end; they could hardly give us episodes of Rhoda dressing department-store dummies. So that left the writers with two choices: Rhoda was either going to fixate over trivial matters, which she did for much of Season 1, or the writers were going to look elsewhere for story-lines, as they did through most of Season 2. In Season 2, Rhoda feels like the comic sidekick in her own series. One week is about Brenda quitting her job; then she hunts for a roommate, then convinces Joe to hire her boyfriend Nick. Rhoda's father has an uneasy reunion with a friend, while Rhoda's mother becomes convinced her husband is unfaithful. And through it all there's Rhoda waiting nearby with some witty rejoinder. Mary Tyler Moore, in the first few seasons of her own show, was always focal, even when the writers hadn't yet figured out how to make her funny; Rhoda by Season 2 is funny but no longer focal.

So after Season 2 wrapped, the writers realized they had work to do; how do they get the spotlight back on their star -- and give her a story-line worthy of her talents? So they decide to have Rhoda and Joe separate. It serves multiple purposes: it opens up story-lines, groundbreaking ones; it shifts the focus back to Harper, with a showcase designed to restore her vulnerability and intensity; and it eases Groh off the canvas. (Although creators James Brooks and Allan Burns postured that they were doing this to shake up Rhoda's world, an unnamed insider insisted to TV Guide that the real problem was "they'd hired a lousy actor to play Joe.")

The PR during the summer of 1976 was relentless, as Brooks and Burns tried to prepare the audience for what was coming. Life was too perfect for Rhoda Gerard, they insisted -- there were no good stories left to tell; they wanted back that firecracker we'd all fallen in love with on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the one whose insecurities put her on the offensive. And they maintained that the separation story-line wasn't just for Rhoda, but for the viewers as well; even if the audience had shown no signs of tiring of the series, Brooks and Burns were confident that -- if the show continued down its present path -- they would in time. They'd see that the show lacked focus and relevance, and flee. As it happens, Brooks and Burns gave their audience too much credit; ironically, this was precisely the time when audiences began to shrink away from thinking-man's television. After six years of topicality, viewers wanted escape. They wanted easy laughs and cheap gags. And they probably wanted more of Rhoda Season 2, a season so relentlessly upbeat that its theme song was accompanied by a chorus of chirping children.

And instead, along comes Season 3, a watershed moment in adult television. Let's put the season in perspective for a second. CBS, the land of smart sitcoms, was just losing its dominance in the Nielsens: ABC's Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley had risen to the top of the ratings heap, supplanting such stalwarts as All in the Family, M*A*S*H and Maude; two days after Rhoda Season 3 ended, ABC's Three's Company premiered, and jiggle TV soon ruled the airwaves. That Rhoda Season 3 is so ambitious is particularly impressive given that it aired in an 8 PM timeslot; it's CBS's assault on the dreaded Family Viewing Hour, going boldly where no sitcom had gone. (Imagine Lucy divorcing Ricky, or Rob Petrie deciding to dump Laura, or Samantha Stephens realizing she'd be better off without Darrin.) And audiences rejected the premise out of hand, registering their disapproval by changing the channel -- and the ratings tanked. (David Groh even started to get hate mail for "leaving Rhoda.") And oh sure, there were some (myself included) who thought that Rhoda's separation was the best thing to happen to the series, who felt -- regardless of any gaffes committed along the way -- that it lent it urgency and weight, and elevated Harper's performances to a level no other sitcom actress of her time was remotely matching. But we were, at that time, a silent minority.

Forty years later, viewed from a distance, Rhoda Season 3 is the miracle you don't see coming: the transformation of a solid but bland sitcom into something ferociously unpredictable and achingly real. Time has done wonderful things to Season 3. First and foremost, the tone and structure no longer startle; the use of an episodic format to tell a continuing story-line no longer feels unfamiliar and strange. At the time, TV Guide complained that the show couldn't decide if it was a sitcom or a soap. Today shows don't need to decide. Friends and How I Met Your Mother neatly walked the line between sitcom and soap for ten years. Nowadays, it's commonplace for sitcoms to feature dynamic story-lines: even ones infused with disillusion and grief. The sense of loss and pain that runs through much of Rhoda Season 3 -- and inspires Valerie Harper's most striking performances -- doesn't seem jarring anymore; it certainly don't seem out of place within a sitcom format. And now that four decades have passed, no one's over-romanticizing Rhoda's marriage, or posturing that Joe was "the one." No one's shocked or dismayed by the subject matter either; what was once controversial is now commonplace. (When Groh passed away in 2008, obituaries simply noted that he was best remembered as Rhoda's husband, whom she'd eventually divorced. No big deal.) Now it's easier to see that the lasting relationship is between Valerie Harper and Julie Kavner's characters. You want a happy ending? How about having a sibling you're that close to? Rhoda and Brenda: there's your love story.

The cast changes in Season 3 seemed disorienting in 1976. Nancy Walker had been wooed away by ABC, and so Rhoda's mother and father were (temporarily, as it turned out) written off: embarking, after the first episode, on a cross-country road trip. In the fall of 1976, you turned to ABC and watched The Nancy Walker Show (and then, after that bombed, Walker's midseason replacement Blansky's Beauties), and there was the puzzling sight of Rhoda's mother -- that perpetual thorn in her side, the woman who was happiest when she was micro-managing her daughter's life -- off doing something else. You had that odd, weekly reminder of what was missing. Now she's out of sight, out of mind; if anything, we take comfort in the fact that while Rhoda was going through the worst year of her life, Nancy Walker was off crashing and burning in two series. As bad as Rhoda's life got that season -- well, Walker's was probably worse.

With Nancy Walker and Harold Gould gone, and David Groh demoted to recurring, it meant at least a few new characters were needed to pick up the slack; otherwise it was all Rhoda and Brenda, all the time. Ron Silver joins the cast in episode 3 as neighbor Gary Levi, a wimp in wolf's clothing. He's designed as an irritant who'll soften into a confidante -- just like Rhoda herself in the pilot episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show -- and his transformation is tied to Rhoda's own seasonal arc. In the earliest episodes, when Rhoda is adrift, Gary's on the receiving end of some of her best jabs. She boosts her self-esteem by taking down his. ("I'm gonna go take a shower," he announces to Rhoda and Brenda in one of his first appearances. "Does anybody want to join me?" -- to which Rhoda quips, "Sorry, Gare, I never rub-a-dub-dub with a schlub.") And then, once Rhoda gets back on her feet and no longer needs a target, the writers lighten up on Gary's affectations. Silver's a marvel, but he's dutiful and unassuming, and it's easy to take his work for granted. The one time an episode focuses in on Harper and Silver, in Charlotte Brown's knockout farce "Meet the Levys," the two actors click like they've been working together for years; the audience howls with pleasure at watching their characters one-up each other. And the problem with Gary is that he never gets another showcase that strong; after that episode, he's eased back into the ensemble, but he's eased back a touch too far. It would have been interesting to see how Gary would have fared if they'd let him keep a bit of his edge, but you get the sense that the writers feel they've been audacious enough and need to play it safe for a while.

Anne Meara is -- well, Anne Meara, and she's marvelous. It's too bad the writers didn't seem to know it. She's Sally Gallagher, divorced airline hostess, whom Rhoda meets at a singles weekend in episode 4, when the two of them end up as bunkmates and neither has the confidence to come out of their cabin. Sally's been through everything Rhoda's experiencing -- she's Ethel to Rhoda's Lucy. She's also a strong presence: exactly what Harper needs. Nancy Walker and David Groh didn't have much in common in the acting department, but they were both immovable objects to Valerie Harper's irresistible force. They allowed her to go a little crazy. Meara takes over that role in Season 3, and beautifully; Sally and Rhoda convince as instant friends. At her best, she has a "take no prisoners" attitude: brittle and defensive, tossing off one-liners in Meara's best manner. But then, like Gary, she's softened -- in her case, given a weakness for arrogant men. Did someone insist that she needed to be needier, so she'd be more "likable"? Rhoda and Brenda have enough issues in the self-esteem department; by weakening Sally, they render her redundant -- and sadly, she's gone by episode 14. (The internet is full of statements like "viewers didn't take to her" -- I have no idea if that's true, but if so, why were the writers letting the audience dictate story? And that said, if Sally felt a little brassy for 1976 -- when wise-ass characters were expected to be the brunt of their own jokes -- she seems spot-on in 2017.) And with Meara gone, the show feels underpopulated. In the season's penultimate episode, Beverly Sanders returns as Rhoda's best friend Susie, whom she'd played intermittently for the first two seasons, and it's the season's nadir. Rhoda and Susie have a pajama party and make crank calls, and there's no tension in the performances or topicality in the script. Meara is missed.

But at least after Sally disappears, a couple of new players are added to the mix, both invaluable. In episode 5, Nick had offered to take Rhoda and Brenda out on the town, and brought along a buddy of his: lounge lizard Johnny Venture. Michael DeLano infused Johnny with the breezy vulgarity of every Vegas showman (and the costumer decked him out with more jewelry than the show windows at Tiffany's), but he was charming and charismatic -- and a perfect foil for Harper. When he's invited back midseason, you instantly see the wisdom. And late in the season, Brenda has a first date with a sweet bumpkin named Benny Goodwin, and as with DeLano, the chemistry is there, and the actor (Ray Buktenica) is swiftly promoted to recurring. And by that point, Rhoda has embraced a new format more emblematic of the MTM house style, and more familiar to its team of writers. It's no longer a series about an extended family, but about a blended one: six damaged but undaunted souls, searching for solace in a city steeped in chaos.

The first nine episodes of Season 3 are the best string of episodes in the series' run. There's nothing remotely close. In the season opener, Charlotte Brown's "The Separation," Rhoda and Joe are looking to purchase an apartment, and he sabotages the sale. (The writers recognize that it's those kind of watershed moments when emotions run highest.) Rhoda and Joe get into it; she feels him drifting, and it terrifies her. At the height of the fight, he announces he needs some air and heads for the door. She responds, instinctually, "Joe, you walk out that door now, don't --" and he interrupts, raising his voice, "Don't come back? Is that what you were going to say?" And she backpedals instantly, alarmed by his intensity: "Who was going to say such a thing? There are many ways to end that sentence," and improvising and stammering like mad, continues, "Don't, uh, forget to pick up some milk. Don't, uh, c-cross against the light. Don't talk to strangers. Don't ... do this to me." But Joe is no longer weighing his options; he's already decided to move out -- and the best he can manage before he goes is a perfunctory "You gonna be OK?" Rhoda's response is a classic: "Of course not." And those three words pretty much set up the season. She's not "gonna make it after all," like her best friend in Minneapolis -- or at least, the show is making no promises. Hell, it can't even assure us she's going to be all right. We're in uncharted territory.

"The Separation" features the first in a string of startlingly raw performances by Valerie Harper. However much Rhoda rallies through the course of the season, her hurt and fear and resentment are always simmering beneath the surface. (Sometimes Harper's performances are so edgy -- often at the unlikeliest times -- that you're left dumbstruck by their audacity.) The first few weeks of Season 3 nail every moment: Joe's departure, Gary's arrival, Sally's introduction, Johnny's intrusion. And then, in episode 6, Brown sends Rhoda and Joe to a marriage counselor, where they air every grievance, including their dissatisfaction with their sex life.

Rhoda: It was fine after the separation. But for a couple of months before, it was not so fine. Right, Joe?
Joe: What do you mean "Right, Joe?" You saying it's my fault?
Rhoda: No.
Joe: Look, Rhoda, I work hard. I come home, I'm very tired. I don't have time for all that kissing. (To the counselor) She wants me to kiss her for nine years.
Rhoda: I do not want to be kissed for nine years. I just don't want to feel like I've been taken captive by a pirate ship.
Joe: Hey, you're nuts. I never had that complaint before.
Rhoda: Or after?
Joe: Hey, I wasn't gonna say after.
Rhoda (defiant): OK, I'm very sorry!
Joe (angry): Well, I'm sorry too!
Rhoda: So am I.
Joe: Fine.
Rhoda: Good.
Joe: Terrific.

Even the truces are tense. Ultimately, Joe admits he's unsure he wants to be married at all, and Rhoda asks the obvious question: "Then why did you marry me?" And the writers have a ready-made answer: "You made me." And indeed it's true. As the writers had scripted it early in Season 1, Joe had wanted to live together; it's Rhoda who'd pressed for a wedding. And the writers use that here to explain why the marriage is failing. Harper's reaction is a classic -- furious and mortified: "You swore that you would never throw that up to me." It gets a huge laugh -- even Jim Brooks, in the audience, responds with his trademark honk. But it's laughter cloaked in pain, like so much of Season 3. And to see how far the show has come in a half-dozen episodes, you only need to compare it to a similar line in Season 2's "Rhoda's Sellout," in which Joe complains that Rhoda is always getting her pride hurt -- like that time she suggested eggs for breakfast, and he countered with cereal, and she took it personally -- and she insists, "You promised you'd never throw that up to me again." In Season 3, Rhoda is fighting for her marriage; what a relief after Season 2, when her most pressing problem was the breakfast menu.

And mind you, those early episodes aren't all turmoil and tears. Even as Rhoda's marriage is falling apart, she's rediscovering her capacity for spontaneity, for daring, for joy. As the eighth episode of the season begins, Michael Leeson's "Rhoda Questions Her Life and Flies to Paris," Rhoda is fixating over something Joe said in therapy: that she's become dull. (Brenda: "If you're dull, I must be dead.") Rhoda fears he may be right: "Maybe I have settled down too much. Do you realize in two years of married life, I went from a black negligee to flannel pajamas with horsies on them?" The script carefully counters Rhoda's ruminations with bright exchanges and clever bits: the first meeting between Gary and Sally; the first encounter between Sally and Rhoda's doorman Carlton; and -- in a very funny running gag -- the supporting cast, one by one, mistaking Rhoda's pancake batter for a breakfast shake, and helping themselves. (Once you've heard Julie Kavner bemoan, "I drank pancake," you're unlikely to forget it.) Finally, Rhoda and Brenda decide to shake up their lives; each will write down three things they've always dreamed of doing, but haven't had the nerve. (Brenda: "Does 'fettuccini' have two t's?" Rhoda: "I don't know. I spelled it with one.") And when they have to choose one of their fantasies, and act on it, Rhoda winds up with "go to Paris for the weekend." As she weighs the pros and cons of spending so much money on something so frivolous, Brenda and Sally are there to act as audience surrogates, dragging her out of her comfort zone. And indeed she does go, and has a marvelous time; there's even a terrific button when she returns. Brenda's fantasy had been to call Woody Allen, whose phone number she'd gotten from a co-worker. When Brenda meets her sister at the airport and announces that she made the call, Rhoda can't wait to hear more: "What did he say?" And Brenda admits, "He thought it was really stupid that you went to Paris for just a weekend." Cue the closing credits, as the audience claps and cheers.

As noted, the first nine episodes of the season are Rhoda at its best. And the remaining fifteen are scrappier. At their worst, they're still superior to most everything in the first two seasons, because Harper unleashed can enliven even the most turgid scenes. But whether it's due to network interference, declining ratings or audience feedback, the writers back away from the subject matter, and start to intersperse more traditional sitcom plots -- and although Rhoda's life remains in turmoil, it's less from the pain of separation than from the screwball scenarios that befall most sitcom heroines: Nick drops his accordion on her foot and breaks her toe; she's mistaken for a hooker and arrested; she develops an allergic reaction and blotches appear on her face. She even manages to host a rotten party. Some of it is admittedly entertaining, but when you alternate between this and the separation anxiety, it makes for a pretty strange mix. There are tactical errors, too. In addition to the stumbles with Gary and Sally's characters, the writers wallow too long in Rhoda's self-pity, then offer up a pair of episodes that tease the possibility of a reconciliation with Joe. (It's exactly the wrong time, midway through the season, to give the audience false hope.) And ironically, although there are far fewer Brenda-centric episodes in Season 3 than in Season 2 (and although several are winners, notably Leeson's "An Elephant Never Forgets" and Brown's "Nose Job"), they feel a bit like an intrusion. With Rhoda's life so fascinating again, and Harper on fire, why are we turning elsewhere for stories? (And that said, you succumb to the best of them, because it's not just Harper who ups her game in Season 3: Julie Kavner's a marvel. Instead of being merely adorably self-deprecating, as in the first two seasons, she has moments when she seems as vivid and disturbing as Harper.)

Rhoda Season 3 ultimately wants to be many things: insightful character drama, raunchy crowd-pleaser, and tight ensemble comedy. By midseason, the series feels like it's furiously multitasking -- and frequently flailing. But it's a season multitasking much like its heroine. Neither Rhoda nor the writers seem to know which way to turn next; the only thing you can count on is that Harper will hold it all together -- both the contemporary story-lines and the more commonplace ones -- with furious determination. When Rhoda is mistaken for a hooker, and the cop tries to cart her off, she grabs onto her sofa and drags it halfway across the living room -- but Harper doesn't just go for laughs. She lets you see why she's resisting arrest: because in the crime-infested cities of the mid-'70s, you do anything you can to avoid spending a night in jail. And when Rhoda winds up in the ER with the broken toe, and struggles to get triaged and treated, Harper makes it clear that underneath her fierce facade is the fear that -- as with her marriage -- things won't go the way she hopes. (As she admits to Joe early in the season, less self-pityingly than prophetically, "I am not a lucky person.") You see her simultaneously fighting for her dignity and steeling herself for defeat. Harper suffers humiliations large and small in Season 3, but she's rarely been more vibrant; she's once again the star of her own series, and she seems game for anything.

The middle third of the season is a muddle, but the writers eventually find their way back. Two-thirds of the way through, in Brown's "The Ultimatum," after months of trying to save her marriage and maintain her sanity -- all while dealing with her sister's insecurities and her neighbor's demands, her best friend's neuroses and her own failing business -- Rhoda comes unglued. It's the first few minutes of the episode, but it's sixteen episodes into the season, and the pressure has been mounting. Racing to finish a deadline, and dealing with distraction upon distraction, Rhoda's nerves are on edge. When Carlton buzzes up, she implores him, her voice shaking, "Carlton, please. Please don't let this be a dumb thing. I mean, I can't handle it now. I cannot." And when it is indeed a dumb thing -- a reminder about proper use of the trash shoot -- she screams into the intercom: something raw and piercing and primal. (Compare it to a scene that season on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, when Mary lets loose in similar fashion. The set-up: she's taking a bath, and Lou, Murray and Ted intrude and won't leave. When Mary screams, it's played as comedy, and there's nothing more at stake than her modesty. Rhoda sounds like she's fighting for her sanity -- and it's unnerving. Small wonder audiences hungry for escapism defected to Little House on the Prairie and The Captain and Tenille.)

In "The Ultimatum," we see the last of Joe. For months, he's been calling the shots: dating his wife once a week, and otherwise, leading a bachelor's life. Rhoda can't stand still any longer. She reaches a point where she's prepared to take a stand: either he gives her more time, or she starts seeing other men. She's bluffing, of course, but when he calls her on it, she knows she has to make good on her threat. In a typical sitcom contrivance, it's her marriage counselor who, upon hearing of her new arrangement, asks her out and becomes her "first date" -- but the surprising part is, she has a nice time. She sees a way forward. And from there, the season proceeds towards its finale with greater assurance. The episode quality remains uneven, but every few weeks, we get another glimpse of Rhoda getting on with her life -- and that (momentarily) sets things right. The week after "The Ultimatum" features the first return of Johnny Venture, who sets his sights on Rhoda, plying her with chocolate and trinkets and flattery, all to no avail. Finally, in the episode's final moments, he pulls her in for a surprise kiss. And instead of fighting him off, she yields, leaning into it -- and when he walks away, slinging his coat over his shoulder with the air of a job well done, her lips curl into a half-smile that's both dazed and delighted. A few episodes later, she has her first date (with Brenda's boss), and although she fears he might have expectations she's not prepared to meet, he proves the perfect gentleman: walking her to her door after dinner, explaining that he's sensitive to her situation and not about to press her further -- leaving her to lament, after he goes, "I was gonna ask him in." And by the time the season finale hits, and Rhoda is reconnecting with her wild side in an impromptu trip to Vegas, the transformation of the series and its heroine are complete.

But back to "The Ultimatum," because it's the essence of what sets Rhoda Season 3 apart from -- well, just about everything. The writers have, through the course of the season, eased Joe off the canvas. But there'll be no "final goodbye" -- heaven knows how the audience would react to that. Better that they simply prove that the show has a future without him, which they do, and continue along. But still: it would be nice to commemorate and punctuate the moment when Rhoda decides to move on. So where does she turn? To her best friend Mary, of course. She reaches her on the phone, in her Minneapolis apartment, as Mary emerges from the shower. They start with a little banter -- don't they always? "Rhoda? I can't hear you -- I've got this towel wrapped around my head." "Ah, Mare, still trying to look like me." But then Rhoda gets to the point, and updates her friend, and lets her know she's counting on her: "I really need some clear thinking. You always know what to say. You always see a problem and cut right through to the nub. So whaddaya think, Mare? Tell me my life isn't over. Tell me I can get along without Joe." On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary would have said something wise, the kind of thing you need a friend to say in a crisis. But in Rhoda Season 3, the best she can offer is the kind of useless pap that friends really do say: first stalling for time ("Rhoda, Rhoda"), then parroting, in an overly emphatic way, Rhoda's own words: "Your life isn't over. You can get along without Joe." Reassurance has never sounded so empty. The camera fastens on Harper's face. There's a pause, a perfect pause, then Rhoda sighs, "Still got the touch," with a ruefulness that pretty much epitomizes the intrepid, incisive Season 3. It's perhaps the saddest moment in a wonderfully sad season, and another dazzling turn by Harper, who plays Rhoda with a combination of toughness and terror that's unlike anything I've seen on the small screen. No quick fixes for Rhoda Morgenstern: nothing to soothe the pain; nothing to ease the loneliness. Forget those Minneapolis winters; New York is the coldest town of all.

Do you enjoy these in-depth looks at hit shows? If so, I delve into WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4, pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons. Or if you have a preference for dramas, check out my write-ups of Judging Amy Season 6, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Cold Case Season 4, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Baker's Dozen: The Best of 2017

My annual year in review, following overviews of 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

I gave up on a whole lot of shows in 2017: Preacher, NCIS: Los Angeles, The Magicians, This Is Us, Ray Donovan, Riverdale. There were bad creative moves that seemed to drag on endlessly, or a string of sub-par episodes that wore me down. Typically, when I do these year-end posts, I start with a quick round-up of the series I watched: the trends I noted, risks I respected and mistakes I lamented. And then I devote the rest of the essay to "the year's best," arranged by genre. But doing that sort of overview of 2017 stumped me. Shows seemed either toweringly good or thumpingly disappointing -- there was so little middle ground -- and I really didn't want to devote multiple paragraphs to series that gave me little pleasure. So I'm revising my format: eliminating the negative, as Johnny Mercer put it, and accentuating the positive.

And so, here are thirteen shows that represent the very best of my TV viewing in 2017. (As always, I do not purport to have watched every series that aired this past year; these are merely the ones I was drawn to, that didn't disappoint.) Some are just getting underway, and show enormous promise; others are nearing the end of their run, and going out in style. All were extraordinarily entertaining.

In alphabetical order, my best of 2017:

The A Word (BBC, Sundance): Last year, I called it TV's "Best Family Drama," but in truth, Series 1 was more about a boy on the autism spectrum, and the effect his disorder had on those around him -- at least that was the story-line that most sparked our interest. The scenes between Joe and his parents Alison and Paul (Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby, ideally matched) were riveting, but when we left the Hughes household and drifted elsewhere in the Lake District -- next door, to where his uncle's marriage was failing, or across town, to where his grandfather was courting the local music teacher -- the story-lines felt strangely disconnected. How did those relate to the "premise"? In Series 2, creator Peter Bowker managed to weave Joe's story into a broader tapestry. He wasn't content to merely examine the hurdles of raising an autistic child; he reminded us that -- even under the best circumstances -- family dynamics are tough, relationships are tough. (Hell, in case we didn't know it already, cancer is tough. Caregiving is tough.) Series 2 was about the challenge of staying focused and holding on to hope, in the face of life's distractions and difficulties. In its boldest story-line -- the unraveling of Alison and Paul's marriage -- The A Word recognized how decades of intimacy take their toll. They come with the burden of responsibilities and expectations that wear you down -- and after a while, it's hard to tell the difference between a marriage that requires work and a marriage that's no longer working. "It's taken me two years to get to where you were with Joe," Alison cried out to Paul, after he admitted that he hates his son's autism, and the fact that he'll be struggling his whole life: "Two years not to see it as a problem that I had to take on and solve. You were the accepting one. When I finally get to where I think you are, you've moved." But of course, we at home understand that -- in her haste to get on top of the situation -- Alison has misread it: it's Paul who's taken two years to catch up with Alison. The couple have fallen out of sync -- yet they remain so close that they can't regain perspective. Season 2 of The A Word got at big themes: our need to feel useful and appreciated, even at the expense of those we're trying to comfort; how strangers can make us feel better about ourselves than the ones who love us most; the way we try to relive our pasts and repair our mistakes, through our children and through our relationships. And how hard it is to rebuild trust. It was the rare series to admit that, as selfless as we'd like to imagine ourselves, we all want something out of every situation -- we're only human, we're impossibly fragile, and sometimes, we just need a "win." In its sophomore year, The A Word spoke to our shared humanity: that mixture of fragility and fortitude that cuts across age, gender, race and orientation. It truly became a "family drama": the best of 2017.

Cardinal (CTV): Effortlessly blending personal and procedural story-lines, in a snowbound setting at once serene and unsettling, Cardinal was a detective series that basically got everything right. Based on Giles Blunt's award-winning mystery Forty Words for Sorrow, the first in his series of novels to feature protagonists John Cardinal and Lise Delorme, it found the detectives investigating the murder of a young girl in the fictional town of Algonquin Bay, in Northeastern Canada. In tone and pacing, it felt more like an HBO drama than a CBS procedural, serving up a story-line that prized character over carnage, and trusting the viewer to study and savor the details. The set-up: Cardinal, a police officer whose obsession with solving a local disappearance has gotten him removed from the homicide squad, is reassigned to the case when the body surfaces. He's teamed with a new partner (Delorme), unaware that she's actually been sent to investigate him, for possible connections to a local drug dealer. Cardinal didn't go the common route of making its lead character an upstanding cop undermined by a crooked Internal Affairs unit; on the contrary, from the first episode, it was clear that Cardinal had something to hide. And Delorme's role wasn't merely adversarial; despite the instructions from her highers-up, she soon came to realize that Cardinal's heart was in the right place -- but that didn't deter her from trying to get at the truth. What emerged was an uneasy but effective alliance, as the two detectives strove to maintain their distance, even as they discovered how well their investigative skills meshed. Cardinal himself was not the larger-than-life creation common to TV detective dramas; he kept his emotions in check, and that allowed for a rare level of ambiguity. As played by Billy Campbell, in an astonishingly subtle yet persuasive performance, Cardinal was a character whose steeliness could easily be mistaken for secrecy, whose guardedness could be taken for guilt. But guilty of what? The hollows of his face betrayed a man with something to hide and everything to lose. He was clearly an admirable officer, unwavering in his quest to bring a killer to justice -- but still we kept thinking: is he telling us everything he knows? (Wonder of wonders, when his secret was revealed, it was not only surprising but satisfying; it seemed to flow logically from everything we'd seen and been told about his character through the course of the season.) A rock-solid success: moody and atmospheric, but equally aware of the pleasures to be found in old-fashioned detective work, and in old-fashioned star power.

Grantchester (ITV, PBS): This heady original (part murder mystery, part character drama -- in proportions equally and exquisitely balanced) has made my "best of" list every season it's aired, and Series 3 was the strongest of the lot. It's a season that played us for fools: the saga of Sidney and Amanda seemed like a dead-end story-line -- certainly, backed into a corner, our crime-solving vicar would never give up the priesthood. But of course, at the end of Episode 4, he did just that -- or so we thought. And although his reasons for abandoning his parish turned out to be less clear-cut than we'd imagined, the moment still resonated. In the first season, Sidney had fought to make peace with his wartime experiences; the second season had forced its two protagonists -- the vicar and the copper -- to reconcile their differing views on justice and vengeance. But this latest season gave Sidney his greatest challenge, as he found himself doing battle with a church whose ideologies he'd come to question. Series 3 asked: in times of crisis, do we listen to the church, trust our instincts, or follow our hearts? As Sidney looked around, he saw his congregation clinging to doctrine-driven morality, and miserable, and so -- in the most powerful episode of television I saw in 2017 -- he lashed out at the archdeacon: "We're hypocrites! We stand up there and we preach in certainties. 'If you behave like this, you'll be rewarded. If you don't, you'll be punished.' We tell people to lead a perfect life, and when they don't, we are the cause of their suffering." For Sidney -- whose curate was so shamed by his sexuality that he attempted suicide; whose housekeeper was so certain of the sanctity of marriage that she let her errant husband fleece her of her savings; and who himself had been made to feel remorse for seeking happiness with a divorced woman -- how could he continue preaching God's word? As in previous seasons, the characters were beautifully served, the structure expertly fashioned, and the traps lovingly set. The saddest thing about Granchester now? The fact that, as it's likely not returning for another series, it becomes a show of somewhat narrower scope: the story of Sidney and Amanda, and their ill-fated romance. I had always anticipated that would be a chapter of a much larger story; what we're left with instead is an exquisite miniature -- but no less exquisite for being more tightly defined. Grantchester Series 3 accorded all its principal characters equal dignity, while careful not to over-romanticize them: the Geordie-Cathy-Margaret triangle was surprisingly even-handed; Phil's betrayal of Geordie was tempered by his devotion to his job; and even Mrs. Maguire's rotter of a husband Ronnie had a sympathetic reason for returning. As in Series 2, story-lines came to a head in the penultimate weeks, then creator Daisy Coulam restored order in an understated yet supremely satisfying finale. Even long-suffering Leonard (Al Weaver, a standout this season, and the character who's grown most since we met him) was rewarded a moment of happiness. Ave atque vale, Grantchester. I thought we'd have more time together, but I remain awed by your artistry.

The Great British Bake Off (Channel 4): I went back-and-forth about including this one on my "best of 2017" list. Is a slice of reality TV -- even one as tasty as the Bake-Off -- really in the same league as the best in scripted programming? But then, Series 8 of Bake-Off wasn't just a continuation of a long-running franchise; it was a shake-up -- and a smart one. I'd begun to despair for the Bake-Off; it had started to succumb to the sort of ratings-grabbing gimmicks that had marred other reality shows: picking contestants for personality rather than skill set, and choosing themes that made for good ad copy (e.g., "Alternative Ingredients"), but too often yielded uninteresting results. The banter was feeling too scripted, the innuendo too insistent. All that changed in the new season. By the time we got to Episode 1's showstopper – which, fittingly, was "illusion cakes" -- the magic was back; the challenge of producing cakes that "appear to be some other object" yielded such marvels as Sophie's champagne in a bucket, Steven's BLT sandwich, and Liam's pancakes with syrup. After that, there was hardly a week when you didn't gasp at the inventiveness of at least a few of the bakers, and there were surprises both in performance (Kate's Sticky Toffee Apple Caramel Cake, which snagged her an unexpected Star Baker) and presentation (the technical challenge of molten chocolate puddings, for which the bakers' start times were staggered so their goods could be sampled upon completion). It was a splendid cast that, as the season played out, provided all the elements of good drama: the bright-eyed fan-favorite (Liam, the 19-year-old with a flair for flavors) whose elimination was met with cries of anger and despair; and conversely, the stalwart straggler (Stacey, the former schoolteacher) who lasted longer than anyone expected or wanted. (There was even the requisite gay heartthrob Tom, who -- following his ouster -- tweeted a beefcake pic that left a good chunk of his fan-base swooning.) And ultimately, the series came down to a showdown between Steven, the marketer who came out of the gate strong, but sometimes stumbled (who can forget the painful melting of his "hot-air balloon" meringue centerpiece in the penultimate episode?), and Sophie, the stuntwoman who played it slow and steady, and rarely faltered. The new presenters, Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig, proved the most congenial of hosts -- ad-libbing gracefully and effectively. (And there was still the requisite innuendo, often from the least expected quarters, as in Julia's phallic snail sculpture during bread week, or Steven's proclamation during Forgotten Bakes that "No one wants a hot nut in their face." Hell, there was wordplay that professional screenwriters couldn't have scripted better, as when Kate literally dropped a clanger.) Channel 4 knew it wasn't going to secure ratings as high as the show enjoyed on the BBC. But given that they'd budgeted to break even around 3.5 million viewers per episode, and wound up with 8.9 million in Live Plus 7 (making it the network's most-watched series in six years), it can only be considered an artistic and a commercial triumph -- and one well worth celebrating.

Howards End (BBC): "I don’t intend to correct him, or to reform him. Only connect." And with those words, Margaret Schlegel justified her decision to marry widower Henry Wilcox in the latest adaptation of E.M. Forster's classic. It wasn't entirely faithful to the use of -- or underlying meaning behind -- Forster's famous epigraph (as it appears in the novel), but it served its purpose quite nicely. It reeked of a clarity and freshness of approach that marked Kenneth Lonergan's adaptation, in a production directed with intelligence and restraint by Hettie MacDonald that was, for my money (and with apologies to The Crown), the best costume drama of 2017. I have trouble imagining a better adaptation of Howards End. Oh, of course, it lacked the panache of the 1992 film, which wore its craftsmanship on its sleeve. But putting people and ideas ahead of pomp reaped enormous dividends. It restored the focus to the relationship between the bohemian Margaret Schlegel (Hayley Atwell) and the buttoned-down Henry Wilcox (Matthew Macfadyen), and let Forster's themes shine through vividly. It was all there: its country in overdrive, where technological and urban overgrowth dilute all sense of commonality and community; the backdrop of women struggling to establish their independence, both personally and politically; the widening wealth divide that justifies its inequities by making the poor to blame for their own misery and misfortune. (And tossing in the issue of race, as this adaptation did, made the themes seem more relevant than ever.) And against it all, the Wilcox and Schlegel clans: the former pragmatic, patriotic and materialistic; the latter idealistic, intellectual, curious and almost aggressively kind. And poor Leonard Bast, the insurance clerk on the very bottom rung of the middle class, facing social and economic desolation. Most of the coincidences and contrivances of the plot were Forster's, not Lonergan's, and in fact, one of the weaker aspects of the novel -- the never-quite-convincing attraction that Margaret develops for Henry -- was in good part ameliorated by the atypical casting of Macfayden, one of the small screen's most likable actors, who -- while retaining his character's stiff, staid and chauvinistic demeanor -- managed a twinkle in his eye that was undeniably appealing. The absence of soapy contrivances -- the will they/won't theys and heaving bosoms and comforting platitudes -- meant it was unlikely to be popular with the Downton Abbey set; the subtlety of the scene-setting (the occasional motor car speeding past a horse-drawn carriage told us pretty much everything we needed to know, and eloquently) might not have satiated viewers expecting Merchant Ivory excesses. But there has to be an audience still awed by the power of honest emotion, superbly acted, and Howards End delivered in spades. The climax, in which Margaret forces Henry to confront his sexual hypocrisy, was as well-played as anything I saw in 2017 -- as indeed, if Howards End is done right, it should have been. A magnificent adaptation of Forster's novel, and a meticulously observed drama of class and sexual warfare.

iZombie (CW): In an age where social media seems, at times, to have forged a generation with the attention span of infants, so many shows seem to wrestle with the question of pacing -- i.e., how fast do we need to go to hold our audience's interest? Right from the start, iZombie has moved at a frothy fury you couldn't imagine it sustaining -- but not only do its creators sustain it, season after season, they top it. They treat each season like it's the end of the world -- and by the end of Season 3, you felt, maybe it is. Given that most of the episodes have a procedural element, it's astounding how many ongoing story-lines Season 3 managed to juggle -- and not merely gracefully, but buoyantly. With the regrettable demise of Agent Carter in 2016, iZombie remains the only comic-book adaptation still at the top of its game. Super-showrunner Greg Berlanti should take a look at this series -- hell, he should take twenty looks, and then he should take notes. Whereas his quartet of superhero shows have ultimately blanded themselves out, cannibalizing each other for ideas and leaving audiences to pick at the bones, iZombie creators Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero keep raising the stakes to riotous extremes that never overwhelm the story-line. The decision to turn the entire city of Seattle into a zombie enclave at the end of Season 3 was a bold and exciting one; it's so wonderful to see a genre show like this surprise its audience and shake up the status quo -- and make it all deeply character-driven, not a reboot that occurs because someone "rewrote history" or "broke time." A couple of casting bits further elevated this season above previous ones: first, the promotion of Aly Michalka to series regular, and second, the departure of Steven Weber, a fine actor whose hamminess (and story-line) had grown tiresome, replaced in turn by Andrea Savage, all stylish restraint, then by Jason Dohring, all devilish swagger. And by loosening the story-telling constraints, and freeing themselves from the "case of the week" format, Thomas and Ruggiero could get crazier and more daring. As white nationalists began hunting down zombies -- even as the principals engaged in more bed-hopping than in the previous two seasons combined -- we were treated to both the weightiest season and the headiest. Offhand, I can't think of another series derived from a comic book or graphic novel that better stands up to repeat viewings: most are slaves to the sort of hoary contrivances that don't bear scrutiny. But iZombie Season 3 was a whirlwind of a ride that became even more wonderful the second time around, when you could fully appreciate how well the storylines were woven, how successfully the bluffs were sustained, and -- in the case of the seasonal mystery -- how deftly the clues were dropped. It was the year's giddiest pleasure.

Life in Pieces (CBS): I was a child of the '70s; I was raised on sitcoms filmed in front of a live studio audience. But if I have a preference for multi-camera over single-camera comedies, it's not just nostalgia. My main objection to the newer crop of sitcoms that became dominant a decade ago -- filmed single-camera with no laugh track -- is that I don't find them particularly funny; I find them clever. And as Stephen Sondheim once said, it's always better to be funny than clever. Life in Pieces is the rare single-camera comedy that manages to be both: funny and clever -- oh, and also inventive, insightful and dizzyingly original. It's a multi-generational family comedy, but with a twist: each episode consists of four short stories, each centered around a different branch of the family. On paper, it sounds like a gimmick, but it's genius. Let's start with what it means in practical terms: if a story isn't working, it'll be over in five minutes, and then you'll be onto something new; conversely, if a story is working, you're going to get the very best five minutes of it. But creator Justin Adler's gambit isn't just successful on a practical level; it's a creative goldmine. The sketch-com format doesn't make it less substantial than the traditional family sitcom -- on the contrary, it broadens its scope and deepens its insights. It allows Adler and his (splendid) staff of writers to embrace details of family life that might not easily stretch to 22 minutes -- but that can certainly keep us amused and engaged for four or five. It zeroes in on rich, previously unmined material that other sitcoms would reject because there's "not enough there." The Thanksgiving episode -- which included matriarch Joan's determination to escape her kitchen duties, teenage Samantha accidentally eating a pot-laced brownie just before family dinner, and an electric carving knife gone rogue -- was a series high point, and easily the funniest half hour of television I saw in 2017. The cast -- headed by Dianne Wiest and James Brolin -- is indelible and irreproachable; they've long since honed the aspects of their personalities most likely to generate laughs, and mastered the shorthand so common to extended families, where each member fills a familiar and essential role, allowing even the most oddball scenarios -- as they ripple through the cast and rattle the dynamics -- to yield universal truths. Sometimes the four stories are unconnected, sometimes they collide unexpectedly, and on occasion, they merge at a family gathering in the final segment; the format of Life in Pieces suggests so many possible variations, the series shows no signs of exhausting them. (How many shows can tell a story from the point of view of a household appliance -- a household appliance, it should be noted, in a recurring role -- and make it at once hilarious and moving?) In 2017, Life in Pieces was a series bursting with confidence, secure in the strengths of its ensemble, the talents of its writing staff, and their shared ability to generate and maximize laughs.

Madam Secretary (CBS): Did any show face greater hurdles in 2017 than Madam Secretary? When the series debuted in 2014 (and in particular, when it found its stride at the top of Season 2), it served up fictionalized accounts of actual global conflicts -- and because we were, at that time, in a period of relative peace and renewed prosperity, the onscreen political tensions felt invigorating but unthreatening. But the events of November 8, 2016, threw Madam Secretary into chaos: its ongoing story-line about its own presidential election had to be curtailed, because no scenario could have been as outrageous or unnerving as the one that played out in real life. And once, in January of 2017, creator Barbara Hall and company suddenly had to substitute a half-season's worth of new story-lines, they had to adjust for a world on edge, in which no one had the energy to focus on both real-life and scripted politics, and in which seeing a fictional President still committed to humanitarian issues felt genuinely painful, a reminder of what had been lost. It left Hall -- a showrunner known for mapping out long-term story-lines meticulously -- running on instinct and adrenaline, and substituting "quick fixes": standalones and shorter story arcs. (Such were the talents of her writing team that there was no noticeable dip in quality.) By the summer hiatus, they'd absorbed the new political climate and come to better understand the needs of their viewing audience, and as Madam Secretary headed into Season 4, it managed a subtle but effective reinvention. It's retained its topicality; in fact, its targets have been clearer than ever. (The Season 4 premiere, which took on both the myth of "fake news" and the rise of politically-driven propaganda, was a particularly biting effort by Hall, and the continued interference by Russia throughout the season -- aided by a congressman who had turned traitor -- was clearly ripped from the headlines.) But at the same time, the series has become a comforting look at how responsible people deal with issues of consequence. In Season 4, Elizabeth's successes -- even, as in 2017's moving winter finale, her successes that come with a price -- remind us that there's still the potential for progress, provided we elect leaders who prize people over politics. Madam Secretary doesn't understate the challenges of diplomacy in a world where cyber warfare has become the weapon of choice, nor does it minimize the very real threats we face in preserving our democracy against enemies outside and within -- but it's also been careful to offer up hope when we need it most. (A high-ranking politician crossing party lines to call out treason is the sort of thing we seem increasingly unlikely to see in real life, but Madam Secretary served it up as a promise that sanity will someday be restored.) A shout-out to Sebastian Arcelus (as Jay Whitman, Elizabeth's senior policy advisor), who in 2017 was gifted both personal and professional story-lines that increased his airtime and showcased his range; when it came time for chief of staff Nadine Tolliver to depart, the choice of a replacement (which, as this series does exquisitely, didn't happen overnight, but required the kind of thought you dream politicians give to all decisions, large and small) felt inevitable yet supremely satisfying. Madam Secretary, in Season 4, remains the gold standard in network television.

Man in an Orange Shirt (BBC): Novelist Patrick Gale's contribution to BBC's Gay Brittania series of special programming (commemorating the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1957) contrasted two love stories, two generations apart. The one, a romance between former soldiers in the years following World War II: Michael, the bowler-hatted banker who chooses to live a lie, and Thomas, the open-faced artist, who lives without pretense and is pilloried for it. The other, a turbulent courtship set in the present, between Michael's grandson Adam, addicted to sex and terrified of commitment, and Steve, the architect eager to forge a life with him. The two dramas -- the one comprising the first episode, the other the second -- were linked by the figure of Flora, who in the past (as played by Joanna Vanderham) married Michael, and who in the present (as played by Vanessa Redgrave) had assumed the responsibility of raising her grandson Adam. In one of the miniseries' most striking scenes -- drawn from an incident in the lives of Gale's own parents -- Flora learns the truth about her husband when she discovers love letters between him and Thomas. And as wives did in those days, she decides she's willing to look the other way, for the social acceptability and security that marriage affords her. But if you're Adam, who grew up with a grandmother who buried decades of resentment behind a facade of respectability, you fear -- despite whatever rights society accords you -- that you'll never feel right about yourself, or be comfortable in your own skin, or be able to sit still after an intimate encounter long enough to appreciate it. The strength of Man in an Orange Shirt lay in its understanding that legislative victories don't wipe away centuries of shame and repression: that even for LGBT millennials able to walk down the street holding hands, or marry, or adopt children, many are carrying generations of baggage -- not just the judgment of disapproving relatives, but a self-loathing that's inbred, that some of us can shed more easily than others. In the miniseries' final moments, it falls to Adam's grandfather Michael, through a letter we'd seen him pen to Thomas seventy years earlier, to free his grandson from his deep-rooted unhappiness. It falls to the man reared at a time when his feelings had to be hidden to teach his grandson about freedom and integrity: qualities that can't be legislated or rewarded, but only experienced and earned. It was a vivid reminder that we're often bravest – truest to ourselves – when we have the most to lose.

Mindhunter (Netflix): "It's been five years since [J. Edgar] Hoover died," we're told early on, "and [the FBI is] still recruiting accountants and lawyers." It's 1977; the very nature of crime has changed, and the FBI needs to change as well. The old methodology of "means, motive and opportunity" is no longer sufficient in an age when motive has become elusive, and so FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) -- working alongside psychologist Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) -- begin to interview imprisoned serial killers, in order to understand how they think, and to see if that knowledge can be applied to ongoing cases. In screenwriter Joe Penhall's adaptation of the true crime book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, the trio of Ford, Tench and Carr have their work cut out for them: challenging the FBI's resistance to the very notion of psychological profiling; making the practice accessible and appealing to local law enforcement; and, in the case of all three characters, extrapolating data while dealing with their own personal dramas. It wasn't just the serial murderers who had demons that needed exorcising; all three leads faced issues too private or painful to disclose -- from Carr keeping her sexuality cloaked from her colleagues to Tench and his wife wrestling with the challenges of raising a traumatized adopted child. But above all, there was Holden Ford, so very much a product of his time. Mindhunter didn't just capture an era when motive had become elusive, but when definitions of masculinity had as well. It zeroed in on the years when the media had begun to blame traditional masculinity for everything from heart disease to the Vietnam War, ushering in what came to be known as "the sensitive male" -- the character etched in the public consciousness in Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People, the back-to-back Oscar winners from 1979 and 1980. Ford returned from Vietnam to face a new sort of battle: one in which old images of masculinity were being tested -- and Ford was the ideal test subject. For all his military background and FBI training, there was something supplicant and pliable about him -- and something guarded too, as if he were anxious to explore the new freedoms, but reluctant to reveal too much of himself. He was caught between ideologies: fiercely intelligent yet impressionable, eager to engage but equally eager to please. And monomaniacal: unable to maintain an unimpassioned distance from the subjects he studied, including himself. Ford was forever scrutinizing himself and self-correcting, and Groff perfectly captured an era when men were second-guessing their bearing and their behavior -- at a time when the FBI was questioning the success rate and sustainability of its methods. Groff's performance was aggressively thoughtful, effortlessly unassuming and compulsively watchable: one of the year's very best.

Ozark (Netflix): An awful lot of critics carped about Ozark -- they were looking for something with the psychological underpinnings of Bloodline, or the moral ambiguities of Breaking Bad, or even the bleak evocation of setting that informs crowd-pleasers like Longmire or Justified. Ozark, critics complained, was a lot of plot but not much else. But when did we start to dismiss and devalue the virtues of plot? Ozark is a hodge-podge of characters and carnage, a crime thriller with a touch of hillbilly gothic, but it's never less than inviting and frequently invigorating. And it's bolstered by a plot that's not only ideally suited to Jason Bateman's strengths, but that plays to our perception of who Bateman is. The teen idol of the '80s was never cut from the same comforting cloth as his contemporaries: the Michael J. Fox clones that littered the airwaves for a decade or so. There was always something disturbingly rebellious about Bateman -- he was a little too smark-aleck, a touch too smooth-talking. Beneath his bright-toothed grin was something mercurial and almost menacing. Stardom came in the series that was designed as Valerie Harper's comeback vehicle, the 1986 sitcom Valerie. By the third episode, the writers already had the onscreen Bateman persona down pat. His teenage character Willie has been using profanity around the house; when his mother (Harper) threatens to wash his mouth out with soap, he decides to challenge her and see just how serious she is. (She ends up doing exactly what she promised.) But that image of Batemen stuck: the risk-taker who'll take things as far as he can, undaunted by propriety. (Accurately or not, Valerie has come to be remembered as the show where, after one season, the seasoned Emmy-winning Best Actress was forced out to make way for the rising kid star. Even in 1987, you didn't cross Jason Bateman.) Here he's Marty Byrde, a financial analyst living in the suburbs of Chicago, whose side hustle is laundering cash for a Mexican drug cartel; in need of laundering an incredible amount of money in a short time, he uproots his family to the Ozarks, where small businesses are ripe for the picking and the Feds are less likely to look for shadily acquired revenue. Through ten episodes, Marty talks himself out of every predicament -- whatever the threat, he has an answer and an angle. And because it's Jason Bateman, you don't necessarily believe he'll prevail, but you believe he'll keep scheming till the very end, and that -- however messy the plotting becomes, as he exploits friends and strangers to further his latest short-term objective -- his quick wits will always be worth watching. So you go along with Ozark, delighting in how Marty keeps stemming the rising tides. Whether he can manage it for another season remains to be seen.

The Punisher (Netflix): My husband and I quickly tired of Netflix's adaptations of Marvel superhero books. After a while, they felt hobbled by an unfortunate sense of déjà vu: crime-fighters battling the bleakness and corruption of New York City, with the ever-present underworld organization The Hand on hand -- plus the equally ubiquitous Rosario Dawson. The Punisher dared to be different. Oh, there was plenty of action -- this was, after all, the story of a Marine veteran who, following the murder of his family, had become an avenging vigilante -- but ultimately, the series became a surprisingly emotional exploration of profound pain and grief -- and Jon Bernthal proved more than up to the challenge. And although the series had a clear narrative thrust -- a military conspiracy that most of the participants were either looking to expose or cover up -- creator and showrunner Steve Lightfoot (who had Hannibal to his credits, but no superhero shows, and perhaps that made all the difference) understood how to keep his approach fresh and varied. There was a flexibility to the story-telling that these sort of shows rarely achieve; at times, the series seemed to defy categorization. In its early episodes, as Frank fell in with a former NSA analyst, it developed elements of an antagonistic buddy comedy: Bernthal and Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Oscar and Felix. Then there were a series of capers -- bloody and brutal ones, but capers nonetheless -- following which Lightfoot sidelined Frank in order to better serve the supporting cast. (Ben Barnes, Amber Rose Revah, Daniel Webber and Jason R. Moore: they were a uniformly strong group, and their characters got richer and their performances livelier as the series went along.) And as we neared the climax of the season -- at that point where secrets were exposed and alliances shifted -- Lightfoot chose to isolate us in one setting and frame it in a Rashomon-like format that juggled time and perspective. But the series' story-telling sleights of hand were just part of its appeal; it was also free of the annoying tropes that tend to litter these kinds of shows: the sort of plotting that depends on people being dense -- or refusing to listen to the advice of others, or being too proud to see what's right in front of them -- to sustain itself. In The Punisher, no one stayed in the dark for long; if we were given information ahead of the characters, we knew to cherish it, because it wouldn't be long before they discovered it too. (The series was grounded by a trio of appearances by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Deputy Director of the CIA. The actress has long excelled at playing characters who always seem to be on their guard and on their game. Those were qualities that distinguished all the characters in The Punisher.) For a series that began with a construction crew dismissing Frank as "not all there," and that at times made his obsession border on the psychotic, The Punisher proved to be one of the sanest of superhero stories: where motivations were vivid and clear, where characters were shrewd, and where the actors -- knowing they were doing a genre show that often inspired over-the-top theatrics -- dared to keep it real.

Unforgotten (ITV): Newfangled procedurals -- that combine old-fashioned detective work and up-to-date forensic science -- aren't as ubiquitous in the UK as they are here. There was a time, from roughly 2002 to 2010, when the network airwaves were cluttered with CSI spin-offs and clones. A series would have to have a damn good hook to re-engage this procedural-weary TV viewer. And indeed, Unforgotten makes a stale genre feel fresh again. Writer Chris Lang retained the format of Series 1 and expanded on it for Series 2. Right from the start of the season, even as the cold case was warming up, we met clusters of friends and family members, and became engaged in their personal stories -- without knowing, as yet, who among them might be connected to the crime. And by the time the police came calling, we'd become so engrossed in their lives that seeing them disrupted -- and potentially destroyed -- became deeply distressing. The case was a powerful and timely one, dating back some thirty years: the murder of a Conservative Party consultant who disappeared in 1990, whose remains were found in a suitcase buried in the River Lea. But it was the four actors whose characters were ultimately deemed suspects who commanded our attention, and they were a stunning set: Mark Bonnar as Brighton-based barrister Colin Osbourne, in the final stages of adopting a daughter with his husband Simon; Rosie Cavaliero as pediatric nurse Marion Kelsey, who's grown overly protective of a young patient with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma; Badria Timimi as teacher Sara Mahmoud, passionate about giving a second chance to students failed by the system; and Lorraine Ashbourne as Cotswolds DI Tessa Nixon, trying to go gently into retirement. A special nod to Bonnar, who had a banner year, with recurring roles not just in Unforgotten, but in Apple Tree Yard, Catastrophe and Porridge. His work on Unforgotten (for which he won the Scottish BAFTA) was probably the single best guest appearance I saw in 2017. He had two big set pieces: the first, in which he learned that a 30-year-old accusation -- one that had so broken him that he had been institutionalized -- had been a set-up and a lie, and burst into sobs of relief and regret; and the other, in which he came clean about his past, so persuasively describing a childhood cut short by abuse -- the rage and powerlessness that it inspired, and a lifetime spent struggling to heal -- that he altered the outcome of the case. More than anyone, Bonnar embodied the themes that consume Lang in Unforgotten: the ways we spend our lives trying to reinvent ourselves, and the sad futility of running from our pasts. The plotting was full of twists, including a stunning one midseason that turned the case on its ear, and although the elegant jigsaw-puzzle of a solution that Lang devised -- equal parts Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock -- isn't the sort of thing he'll be able to manage every season, it's exactly what you want from a show in its sophomore year. Darkly dramatic, wildly entertaining, and at the end of the day, unforgettable.

Honorable mention: NBC's The Menendez Murders; ABC's American Housewife; BBC's Against the Law, Broken and Three Girls; ITV's Little Boy Blue; Starz' American Gods; and CBC's Schitt's Creek. Not on the very top tier of my TV viewing in 2017, but highly worth watching.

Enjoy reading about TV's best? Check out two similarly-styled posts: The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching and Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss. Or if you enjoy detailed looks at hit shows, check out my write-ups of Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Judging Amy Season 6, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. Or if you have a preference for sitcoms, I delve into Rhoda Season 3 and WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4, pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.

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 ultimately masters the challenges inherent in its premise; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 6, which boasts one of the series' best story-lines, and 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 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.