Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Knots Landing season 14

The great soap writer Ann Marcus was first brought aboard Knots Landing in 1981, to shore up the series after a shaky Season 2, and here's what she gave us in Season 3: Karen (Michele Lee, Emmy-nominated that season) coped with the death of her husband Sid; Abby, the vixen (Donna Mills), inserted herself into Val and Gary's marriage (that would be Joan Van Ark and Ted Shackelford); and long-suffering Laura, who'd left her jerk of a husband Richard, decided to return to him out of guilt and obligation.

With the series finally on firm footing, Marcus departed at the end of Season 3, and here's what happened over the following ten seasons, in 300 words or less:

Karen met federal prosecutor M. Patrick "Mack" MacKenzie (Kevin Dobson, added in Season 4), married him, then when the writers couldn't figure out what to do with an intelligent, competent, compassionate woman, spent the next decade being shot, kidnapped, stalked and held hostage. Gary married Abby, inherited a fortune from his late father Jock (from Dallas), divorced Abby, and after he and Valene both suffered through a couple of crazies (for Gary, that was an attempted murderer; for Val, a serial rapist), they ended up back together. Donna Mills wanted off the show and received a send-off at the end of Season 10 so publicized that even The Wall Street Journal wrote it up. Laura's husband Richard left town under a cloud of self-hatred and shame, and Laura found newfound strength and love with charismatic politician and Mack's old law-school chum Gregory Sumner (William Devane, added in Season 5), which lasted until, shortly after giving birth to their first child, Meg, she developed a brain tumor and died. Mack's daughter-that-he-never-knew-he-had, Paige Matheson (Nicollette Sheridan), turned up at the end of Season 7, bedded Greg, nearly wed Greg, but was ultimately (and continually) rebuffed by Greg, who feared he'd hurt her as he did everyone else; her mother Anne Matheson (Michelle Phillips) was added as a regular in Season 11, and ever in need of money, bedded Greg herself in Season 13. Greg, meanwhile, on the verge of death from camaride poisoning (don't ask), received a surprise visit in Season 12 from his never-before-mentioned sister Claudia (Kathleen Noone) and her daughter Kate (Stacy Galina), a dead ringer for his own daughter Mary Frances, who had been shot and murdered before she could die of camaride poisoning (no, really: don't ask).

And now you're caught up.

By episode 16 of Season 13 (a fixed point in time that will become clearer later), we have, living in the Seaview Circle cul-de-sac: Gary and Val in their old home, Mack and Karen next door (where Karen had lived with Sid) -- and two doors down, in Abby's old house, Claudia and (occasionally) her daughter Kate. Greg and Paige are working side by side running the Sumner Group (the high-rise office complex added in 1988 when the more urban L.A. Law started siphoning away viewers). Greg resides at his ranch, Paige in her Sumner Group-paid apartment. As for Anne, the aging debutante with no skills or talents -- well, it's hard to say where she's living: on the streets for a while, but let's not go there. It's a plotline worth forgetting.

A lot of the plotlines from Knots Landing Seasons 6 through 12 are worth forgetting, but as many as the various headwriters got wrong (and there were a string of them: Gary being duped into funding an underground spy network; Val's second husband being blackmailed into murdering Greg; an entire story-line for the show's younger characters, set in a Mexican village; Val developing a "brain virus" and stir-frying her kids' hermit crabs), they typically got just as many plotlines right -- so you forgave them. And the actors remained consistent and strong, with the phenomenal William Devane creating a far more complex character in the tortured Gregory Sumner than ever appeared in any of the other '80s primetime soaps. For much of that time, despite its plotting gaffes, Knots was undeniably entertaining.

And then something awful happened: headwriters Bernard Lechowick and Lynn Marie Latham, who had been overseeing the story-lines (erratically, but efficiently) for five years, left to create the ABC period soap Homefront, and took with them the other two staff writers, James Stanley and Dianne Messina. Knots creator David Jacobs, still locked in an uphill ratings fight with L.A. Law, decided to hire an old Steven Bochco scribe, John Romano, to take over the reins for Season 13. And in just a few weeks, Romano and his team of new writers managed to destroy the show. They showed such a baffling lack of understanding of the series that the core characters became unrecognizable; it was the first time in my (then) 25+ years of TV viewing that I realized how little control the actors have: not over the writers, but over their own ability to portray their characters effectively. If the lines are inappropriate, if the plots are incongruous, then the characters -- no matter how long they've been on the air -- disappear, and the actors (however experienced) cannot find them. Romano and company made every possible mistake: the women were subordinated to the men (a strategy that never worked on Knots), the plots were unlikely in the extreme, compelling rivalries were dissolved without explanation, and new characters were miserably conceived and cast.

After fifteen grueling episodes, Jacobs called it quits. He shut down production, sacked Romano, and hired back Ann Marcus (after a decade away) with a simple request: save us.

And she did.

She did the most amazing salvage job that I had ever (and have ever) witnessed in television history. In this age of blogs and social networking, when every TV series is under intense viewer scrutiny, almost every season of every show seems to be at some point "unrecognizable" and then, six to ten episodes later, "back on track." The merest blip in a show's quality is seen as its unraveling, and the first solid episode seen as evidence that it's been saved. But Ann Marcus took a show she hadn't written for in nearly a decade, with almost an entirely new slate of actors, and restored sense, character, drama, tension and humor practically overnight. She reports in her autobiography Whistling Girl that she had just one week to devise a brand-new set of interweaving stories that would last till season's end, and her colleague Lisa Seidman, who was kind enough to email with me at length as I prepared this essay, concurred: "Ann arrived at the first meeting [with the executive producers and the writers who had been retained] with the game-plan already in place." Marcus passed away last December, so it's impossible to know how much of the show she studied, how many episodes she watched, in the mere days between being handed the assignment and her unveiling her new stories -- but it's akin to a television miracle, because every character instantly regained all the qualities that made you first fall in love with them. Her new story-lines mined Knots' history, restoring plot threads (Val's writing career, which Marcus herself had forged in Season 3) and character dynamics (Greg's grief over the death of his wife Laura) in ways that felt at once fresh, relevant, respectful and resonant.

Marcus and her writing team -- Seidman and James Magnuson -- only had seven episodes remaining in Season 13 to revive the show and prove to the network brass that they deserved a fourteenth season. And they did. The last seven episodes of Season 13, beginning with episode 16, are very good, but they go by fast: they feel like an appetizer to a main course -- and the resulting main course, Season 14, is the tastiest one imaginable. It's the best Knots Landing had been in years -- it's the first time since Season 5 that every plotline works: there are no misfires.

First, and most important: oh, what Knots Landing Season 14 does for the magnificent Michele Lee. Finding a decent plotline for Karen Fairgate MacKenzie had proven a tough task for most of the Knots writing teams. She was, as noted, capable, smart and vivacious -- where's the drama in that? So much easier to just give her a stalker, or have her shot -- or kidnapped -- or held hostage. (In the later years, the writers stop bothering to characterize her altogether: she becomes "the voice of the people," a mouthpiece for whatever societal ills the creative team wants to bring to our attention.) Marcus knows Karen well -- she's the one who unleashed her in Season 3, in the aftermath of Sid's death -- and she understands all that Lee can do, and what it is she does best. And armed with that knowledge, she gifts her the best plot she's had in years: a family drama that splinters her marriage. The introduction of the shady Mary Robeson near the end of Season 13 proves crucial to her plan; Marcus and her team carefully tweak her backstory till they arrive at the one that will have the most impact on Karen: Mary emerges as Laura's birth mother, fresh out of jail and demanding visitation rights with her granddaughter Meg. It's a brilliant story-line; it evokes the series' rich history (Constance McCashin, who'd played Laura, had been a fan favorite, and viewers had long lamented her departure from the show), and by putting her adopted daughter Meg's welfare at stake, it gives Karen something relatable and domestic to play. Her fear for her daughter's safety ("Will she hurt Meg?" she keeps demanding of Greg, as if he'd know) is the kind of panic we all understand -- as opposed to, say, the fear of being kidnapped, or held hostage, or having your dead producer return from the grave and try to murder you. It grounds the character and showcases the actress, beautifully.

And as always happens when a family comes under attack from the outside, cracks appear on the inside. Mack always had a vigilante streak: in his law practice, he routinely took matters into his own hands. Here, faced with the possibility of a felon having visitation rights to his daughter, he again goes rogue -- but without confiding in Karen. Mack's used to going off half-cocked; why would he think twice when his family's welfare is at stake? Karen, at her worst, is self-righteous and judgmental -- she's the last person he'd confide in. It's a family crisis that shuts down communication: exactly the kind of down-to-earth story-line Lee and Dobson desperately needed -- and through it all, we're struck by Karen's muted terror at seeing her marriage fall apart, and her powerlessness to prevent it. (Season 3, the saga of Karen's instant widowhood, gives Lee the showier showcase, but in its own quiet way, this is no less stunning a piece of sustained acting. I would go so far as to label it Karen's best story-line since Season 3; Season 5 has a gutsier one, Season 11 a timelier one, but here we get to the heart of Karen Fairgate MacKenzie: the woman so assured and so determinedly right that she scares off the people who mean the most to her.) And it's a plotline where the writers remember -- as in all good Knots stories, and as in all of Season 14 -- that however grim the situation, there's humor in the ways we cope. As Karen dresses for Meg's visitation hearing, determined to make a good impression, she agonizes over whether or not to wear a scarf. "On or off?" she keeps asking Mack, as if he's some sort of fashion guru -- and when he suggests she seems a little tense, Karen fires back, in hushed hysteria: "Well that's just great: the judge is gonna think I'm some kind of a neurotic!" And so Mack does his best to appease her, and manages to calm her nerves -- until finally, resigned to expecting the worst but hoping for the best, Karen's left with just one question: "On or off?"

The wonders Marcus, Seidman and Magnuson work on some of the characters. They transform Claudia, who had always been a problem. She joined the show in Season 12 as a conniver, a master manipulator, but as often befalls those types of characters, she hijacked too many plotlines too quickly, and the writers needed to dial her back. And they did so in the laziest way possible: by making her a victim. ("Then the audience will like her better...") So they gave her a long-lost son she'd given up for adoption, conceived when she slept with her mother's lover. (Oh, dear Lord.) That was Season 12. Then Romano's team appears in Season 13, apparently only studies the last couple of episodes, and goes, "Oh, OK, so she's a victim: got it," and do it to her again: this time, she's blackmailed for a sordid secret, that she euthanized her mother. (Oh, sweet Jesus.) Marcus goes, "Enough! You've got Kathleen Noone, one of the most formidable and versatile actresses in the business; build her a great character." And she does. Four episodes into Marcus's regime, Greg finds himself unable to run the Sumner Group anymore -- and Claudia, the anthropology professor, steps in. She's transformed instantly into a businesswoman, and Marcus understands viewers well enough to know that it won't matter to the audience that Claudia has had no corporate training: the actress is great at taking charge -- she has the bearing of a natural leader. If she seems convincing in her new role, the audience won't question the steps taken (or skipped, in this case) to get her there.

Then, in Season 14, the masterstroke: Marcus and her team bring back a character from two seasons earlier, con artist and gigolo Nick Schillace. He'd previously been an ally of Anne's, but here he's placed in Claudia's orbit -- and she discovers that, for all her "business-only" posturing, she's quite pleased to have a handsome Italian showing up at her door with flattery and flowers. Claudia's goals have always been simple: see to her daughter's future, and secure a place at the Sumner Group. The possibility of more pleasurable pursuits has hardly entered her mind, but we understand intuitively that it's a part of her life she regrets neglecting. We like this softer side of Claudia; so does she -- and so, when Nick announces a few episodes later that he's contemplating a move to New York, she knows she has to act. In a great interweaving of story-lines, she uses Mack and Karen's situation with Mary Robeson to her advantage, exploiting Mack's need for a million dollars (to set up a sting) to dip into Sumner Foundation funds and set up Nick with his own restaurant. A few episodes later, as Claudia's double dealings are uncovered, Karen insists she's "a neighbor, a friend," Mack defends her as "the only one trying to help me," while Paige brands her "a shark" -- and all of these things are true. Claudia is no longer easily categorized as "a conniver" or "a victim" -- she's become as multi-dimensional as the other characters. So much so that even as you're appalled by her tactics, you can't help but admire her bravado and her exquisite timing when, just as Paige is about to prove that she stole a half a million dollars, Claudia sees to it that the money mysteriously reappears. She even has a ready-made explanation that she delivers with just the right blend of moral righteousness and martyrdom.

The women are particularly strong in Season 14; as Seidman notes, "Ann was a strong woman herself -- as am I -- so we were going to write women true to our own beliefs." But then, every character is at their best in Season 14; it's a good part of what makes it so rewarding. The characters are so on target, the plots seem almost self-generating -- like the reignited battle for Greg between mother Anne and daughter Paige. At the end of Season 13, Anne discovers she's pregnant with Greg's baby; at the start of Season 14, she convinces him to marry her by playing up their mutual failings as parents. Here's Anne arriving at Paige's office to break the news of her engagement, in the first of two crackling scenes written by Seidman:

Anne: Who's that?
Paige: My new assistant.
Anne: How did he know I'd been away?
Paige: Everyone knows you've been away. You should know by now there are no secrets in Knots Landing.
Anne: Well, I guess not. You know too?
Paige: Know what?
Anne: Don't be coy, Paige. It doesn't become you. That Greg and I spent some time alone together.
Paige: You mean, he took off and you chased him...
Anne: Well, believe me, he wasn't that difficult to catch.
Paige: Well, why don't you get to the point, mother...
Anne: I invited you to dinner because I have some very exciting news I wanted to share with you.
Paige: What, you and Greg got matching tattoos?
Anne (after a pause, firmly): Greg and I got engaged.
Paige: Engaged?
Anne: Yah -- as in "Here Comes the Bride..."
Paige: Well... Congratulations?
Anne: Thank you. You may kiss me on the cheek if you like.
Paige: Are you kidding?
Anne: Look, Paige, I stepped aside when I thought Greg wanted you. I can't help it if you dropped the ball.
Paige: Dropped the ball? What do you think this is: a football game?
Anne: I got Greg because I wanted him, and I did something about it.
Paige: Let me ask you something: does "love" enter into this?
Anne: I told you: we're getting married.
Paige: But did he tell you, "I love you Anne. I want to spend the rest of my life with you, Anne."
Anne: Why should I answer that?
Paige: Oh, don't be coy, Mother. It doesn't become you.
Anne: Maybe dinner's a bad idea.
Paige: If you were planning on asking me to be your maid of honor, it is.
Anne: I was going to ask somebody who'd be happy for me.
Paige: Like your creditors?
Anne: I'll cancel the reservation.
Paige: Good idea.

Decades of hurt, rivalry and resentment poured into one scene -- and the next one, moments later, is even more brutal, as Anne reveals she's pregnant, and lords that over Paige's head, while Paige remains stoic and sarcastic. (Anne: "Maybe you'll have a cute little sister you can tell all your secrets to." Paige: "What fun.")

And then, in the final scene of the following episode, Anne discovers that she was never pregnant to begin with. (It's one of the series' great "gotcha!" moments.) And the lengths to which she goes to ensure that Greg doesn't find out until after the wedding (he doesn't) and that he stays with her even after he does find out (he does) serve to humanize Anne. Like Claudia, Anne had appeared on the scene with a one-note agenda: willing to go to any lengths to get her hands on money. And as with Claudia, the Season 12 writers soon decided she needed more vulnerability and did it with the subtlety of a sledgehammer: in Anne's case, by making her homeless. (Like taking a woman with no scruples and putting her out on the streets would somehow make her "likable.") Marcus makes her sympathetic by revealing the very real insecurities that would, in fact, plague a forty-something former socialite raised only to be beautiful. And Michelle Phillips takes that scenario -- being in sexual competition with her own daughter, and all that comes with it (the fear of losing her looks, of being unloved) -- and runs with it, giving the kind of multi-layered, moving performance that was unthinkable just a season earlier.

Ultimately, Anne's story in Season 14 becomes a cautionary tale, as she finds herself with the money and status she's been craving ever since she lost her fortune, but yoked to a man who reminds her, cruelly and continually, that it's "a marriage of convenience -- my convenience." But just because Marcus strands Anne in a loveless marriage doesn't mean she's about to strip away her dignity. Late in the season, after a half-dozen episodes of trying to get back in Greg's good graces, of trying to convince herself that she's still attractive and desirable, Anne has had enough."You think you'll ever make love to me again?" she asks Greg, and he has a ready-made reply: "I don't know. The heart wants what the heart wants, and at the moment, it doesn't want you." And that's the last straw. Anne gets out of bed, dresses to the nines, and informs Greg she's going shopping. Isn't it a little late for that? "What I'm shopping for is open all night." Her self-respect is worth more to her than money or status. She pops in to see Nick at his restaurant, and toys with him just enough to remind herself how much she has to offer. And then she returns home, her self-esteem restored, finally ready to unload on Greg:

Greg: How was shopping?
Anne: Fine.
Greg: Find anything you like?
Anne: I wouldn't be here if I had. (She starts to strip down.) What are you staring at?
Greg (laughing, as if the question were rhetorical): You.
Anne: What for? You want something? You see something you like? Anything I can do for you?
Greg: Just being sociable.
Anne: Then be sociable by yourself, OK? 'Cause you know, I gotta tell you something: up till now, I've been ready.
Greg: Ready for what?
Anne: Anything. Everything. Ready to make you happy. Ready to make you a nice home. Ready to make you proud in public. Drive you nuts in bed. But you didn't want that. OK. But you know, because I'm the one who knows what you're missing, I'm also the one who knows what a loser you are. (Closing the bathroom door behind her) So if you'll excuse me, it's hard to strip naked in front of a loser.

And Greg stares at the closed bathroom door with that mix of loathing and self-loathing that Bill Devane pulled off better than just about anyone in the business. It's a savage little scene, and it comes just one episode after Karen and Mack have their own big blow-up, where he regards her with that same look of shamed contempt. Season 14 doesn't get bogged down or defined by the callousness that seeps into several of its relationships; on the contrary, the pervading mood is warm and welcoming. But Knots Season 14 cuts deep. It's been a long time since the series so reflected its Scenes From a Marriage roots, but as she proved in Season 3, Marcus knows how to dramatize the damage that spouses can inflict on each other, while prizing the institution of marriage enough to ensure that the damage isn't permanent.

All of the characters become relatable and compelling in Season 14 in a way they haven't been in years (or haven't been at all), as they fight for their families, or face the realities of growing old, or worse, the prospect of growing old alone; it's a far cry from underground spy networks, Mexican drug cartels and dreams of saving the world with tidal energy. I asked Seidman: was there a conscious decision to ground the actors again, in character-based drama that made them seem at once "real" and sympathetic -- or was it just natural brilliance on the part of the writers? Her graceful and generous answer: "It was Ann's natural brilliance."

With the characters so well-served, the actors respond -- across the board -- with outstanding performances. For Noone, Galina, Sheridan and Phillips, it's their best work on the show; for the long-timers -- Lee, Dobson, Shackelford and Devane -- it's their strongest showing in years. In particular, the decision to kill off Valene, once Joan Van Ark elects not to return for Season 14, does wonders for Shackelford, who delivers his rawest scene work since Season 4. And his playing opposite Stacy Galina has charm and assurance; it's surprisingly effective, given how their story-line forces the actors to rethink their relationship. The Gary-Kate coupling is clearly a last-minute creative decision; with Val gone, all the stories are mapped out except Gary and Kate's, so the writers pair them. On paper, the coupling feels calculated, but onscreen, it's lovely. You understand the attraction. To Kate, Gary is the one who's been looking after her ever since her tennis career evaporated; she feels a connection -- and a closeness. To Gary, Kate -- particularly once she starts caring for the twins at the top of Season 14 -- embodies many of the qualities that first attracted him to Val: her nurturing nature, her empathy and compassion, even that breezy optimism that too often seems out of place in a cynical world. That said, the writers know that -- given the age difference -- however gently they ease into the relationship, we'll have our doubts. So they don't ease in at all; they jump in, commencing the coupling at the most inappropriate time (right before Val's memorial service) -- then give us a month to ruminate before they return to it. And in case we're initially thrown for a loop, they make it clear that we're not the only ones; in the following episode, Kate self-flagellates over her lack of self-control:

Kate: I came into his bedroom, and he was cleaning out Val's closet, and he was sitting on the edge of the bed. I don't know, I just felt so bad for him, you know? -- so I was trying to comfort him and -- I don't know, I still can't believe it.
Paige: You made love with Gary right before Val's --
Kate: Yeah.
Paige: Oh my God.
Kate: Almost.
Paige: What?!
Kate: We were going to.
Paige: Oh, thank God!
Kate: I would've.
Paige: But you didn't.
Kate: No. He stopped, not me.
Paige: Well, you've always liked Gary. I mean, when someone's in trouble, and they're suffering, you want to comfort them. There's nothing wrong with that.
Kate (in disbelief): What??
Paige: Well, there's nothing wrong with the feeling.
Kate: What about the doing? Isn't there anything wrong with that?
Paige: But you didn't.
Kate: Right, right, but I was on my way -- I mean, no thanks to me. Wife not buried yet? Pht, that's not a problem. Is that her bed? Let's do it in there! I was gonna do it. See, I would've done it!

It's the characters' remorse at their initial indiscretion -- and in Kate's case, her very funny, frazzled remorse -- that makes us more receptive to the relationship. (Shrewdly, Marcus -- knowing she's going to pair Kate with Gary, a man more than twice her age -- doesn't make her seem older by making her more serious, which would go against the grain of everything she's done for Kate since taking over in Season 13. She ages her by making her more self-aware.) And it's Gary's mix of guilt and masochism -- constantly pulling away from Kate, refusing to even consider a relationship that might help him through a dark time -- that makes us think, "Why shouldn't these two characters have a shot at happiness?" (And in case we're still averse to May-December romances, the writers see to it that the one character who voices an objection is Sumner, who's been in and out of one himself for four years, and Kate is quick to point out the hypocrisy.) Seidman notes: "Ann had no hesitation about Gary and Kate, although I think I did. But she overruled me." Marcus overruled her, no doubt, because she knew Shackelford and Galina could pull it off, and exactly what she could do to help.

One of the great ironies of Knots Season 14 is that even as the actors are doing some of their best work, their airtime is being limited. Getting Knots renewed for a fourteenth season had required deep budget cuts. Seidman confirms that there wasn't the money for an array of guest artists, but that that was barely an issue, as Marcus -- as she had done in Season 3 -- preferred to let the drama come from within. More vexing was that each principal had to be written out of three or four episodes, and that, according to Seidman, was "insane ... a big part of our day-to-day story discussions." The cast absences are one of the things most folks remember about the season, and it is indeed unfortunate -- but it's handled skillfully and, on occasion, cannily. The episodes are sculpted to allow for the actors' absences, and sometimes the absences themselves impact the story-lines. When Mack is thrown in prison in episode 10, under suspicion for the death of Mary Robeson, he's MIA (it's Dobson's first episode off), and we see the whole episode through the toll it takes on Karen (which includes his stubborn refusal to see her). And again, two episodes later, when Mack jumps bail to go to Florida to solve Robeson's murder, Dobson's written out, and Karen's left to fend for herself and to imagine what he's up to. The payoff comes in the following episode, when Karen and Mack have the row to end all rows, over his inability to confide in her; the following morning, as she stands at the front door, bags packed and cab called, she tells him, "This was the biggest challenge we ever faced, and you shut me out." Couples in soaps always engage in hyperbole, but here, it rings true, because we've been watching through Karen's eyes, and shutting her out is precisely what Mack did. And worse, by the actor's absence, he shut us out too, and that's even less forgivable: it puts us firmly in Karen's camp. The writers use the budget demands to generate story, and even to dictate where our sympathies lie. It's remarkable.

One of the other remarkable things about Season 14: how densely plotted it is. It doesn't waste any time. I always think of Ann Marcus seasons as having slow builds, but there's no time in Season 14 for slow builds. (The writers were given only nineteen episodes; Seasons 6, 7 and 8 had thirty.) Seidman recalls, "We consciously upped the pace because we knew we had limited time to tell the story." So the plotlines are stacked on top of each other, and come to a head sooner than you expect. The pacing feels swift, but never frantic. Seidman writes the fifth episode of the season, "Love and Death," which includes both Val's memorial service and Anne and Sumner's wedding. It also manages to squeeze in a brand-new story-line, complete with new recurring characters, as Paige, still hurting over Greg, meets former major-league ballplayer Bill Nolan (David James Elliott), who's pitching the Sumner Group the idea of building a new sports complex. Bill flirts with Paige, she rebuffs him, he persists, she beds him, and then Sumner -- rethinking his impending nuptials -- turns up at Paige's (using his company key), walks in on them making love and resigns himself to marrying Anne. It's lightning speed, it's all payoffs, but it's so firmly rooted in character that you don't question it.

The brisker pace of Season 14 means that relationships have to unfold seemingly overnight -- there's no time for fifteen episodes of foreplay; the challenge for the writers is to ensure that the couplings feel character- rather than plot-driven. (Seidman recalls, "We struggled with making Paige sleeping with Bill seem believable" -- a struggle that totally pays off. Seidman and Magnuson take pains to show Paige's pain at losing Greg; of course she'd fall into the arms of a handsome stranger to avoid attending his wedding -- and to bury her grief.) Season 14 becomes a bit of a master class in making sudden pairings convincing. Claudia and Nick run into each other in episode 4 -- two characters who have had only the most fleeting of interactions up to that point in the series -- but given his way with women, and her susceptibility to flattery and need for companionship, it's unsurprising when a shared bottle of wine that night leads to much more. In episode 5, Gary returns from Florida, having watched his wife die in a blaze, and Kate consoles him by holding his face and kissing his forehead and cheeks -- and despite himself, Gary gets caught up in his need for comfort and human contact. The next thing you know, they're in a lip-lock. And late in the season, Nick's colleague Vanessa meets Paige's ex, Tom Ryan. She's felt unsafe since Nick threatened to expose her past, and a rugged cop is a ready-made protector; he's been pining after Paige since mid-season -- and that energy has to go somewhere. Small wonder that, within an episode, they're hitting the sheets. All these couplings emerge quickly, but the groundwork has been laid, in terms of our understanding of the characters: their goals, their needs and their natures. (Season 2, the last time the series moved this fast, couldn't make one instant pairing convincing. Season 14 nails them all.)

And although Season 14 moves along at a nice clip, the faster pace still permits a healthy dose of humor; in fact, it seems to encourage it. And not the kind of thought balloons, subtitles and music montages that had yielded the laughs in Season 12, but genuine character humor. In the aforementioned "Love and Death," Paige and Bill "meet cute," as -- in his first meeting with the Sumner Board of Directors -- Bill mistakes Paige for Claudia's office assistant, and suggests, "Maybe your girl can run out and get me some coffee." He admits to having a real sweet tooth, so Paige hands him a coffee cup and proceeds to dose it with serious sugar. "Hope that's sweet enough for you," she coos, before settling into her seat at the head of the boardroom table.

Later, we have Anne visiting Mack in his office, hoping he'll bring Paige to the wedding. (She wants her daughter there when Sumner is declared legally off limits.) All nerves, anxious to get that ring on her finger, she lets it slip about her false pregnancy, to Mack's disbelief:

Mack: Does Sumner know?
Anne: No.
Mack: No. You're not pregnant, but the man who's going to marry you thinks you are, and all you're concerned about is whether Paige is coming to the wedding or not...
Anne: You know, I don't criticize your life, Mack.

At the wedding, Kate helps Anne into her dress, then joins her mother in the pews:

Kate: She looks great. She has the most beautiful white suit on.
Claudia (too loud): She's wearing white?!?!
Kate: Shh! Mom! (Looking at her) Why are you wearing black? What are you, in mourning?
Claudia (resigned): Yes.

While over at Paige's, Bill is persisting, Paige is resisting:

Bill: So: you got a bedroom, or does the couch pull out?
Paige: Yah, I got a bedroom. Why? You gonna paint it?

And speaking of moving things along, when Greg decides to go through with the wedding, here's how it goes down: he shows up at the church, where a panicked Anne is growing increasingly certain that she's been stood up, takes one look at her and (as always with Greg) revealing nothing, simply says, "You look great, babe. Whaddaya say, you wanna get married?" And Anne responds, with breathless relief, "Why not?" End of episode. No marching down the aisle. No rings. No vows. No need. The drama has occurred; we can move on: swiftly and confidently.

Knots Season 14 brings back two popular supporting players (the aforementioned Nick Schillace and Tom Ryan), but they aren't there for nostalgia; they're used smartly, and have key roles to play. The season seems acutely aware of every incident that's happened in the thirteen years prior -- past events and conversations are referenced with gratifying accuracy -- and another of the things that makes Season 14 so rich is that it feels like the writers know the show as well as we do. When Claudia first runs into Nick, she calls him "the thieving Mr. Schillace," referencing the statue he stole from the Sumner Foundation in Season 12; when Paige runs into Tom, she asks, pointedly, "So how was Brussels?" -- a plot-point left hanging that same season. (There's a lovely montage of past scenes between Tom and Paige, set to "We've Only Just Begun," which Tom had serenaded Paige with in Season 11 -- but the clip-fest isn't just there to elicit a sentimental response: it shows Tom falling back into old, bad habits.) When Karen leaves town, she goes to New York to stay with her daughter Diana, unseen since Season 6; when Abby returns to town, Greg asks, "How was Japan," and she asks Paige, "Are you still sleeping with Greg?" -- picking up where they left off in Season 10. Late in the season, when Val turns up alive, on the run (the writers -- in killing off the character -- had given themselves a clear and clever "out" in case Van Ark wanted to return for the series finale), she sends Gary a coded note, "I've never seen the ocean," referencing a line from the very first episode; when the two reunite, they fall into old speech patterns ("Give us a kiss" "Piece of cake") from Season 2.

And a quick round of applause to Michele Lee and Joan Van Ark, who turn in the two best directing jobs of the season: Lee on episode 9 ("Some Like It Hot") and Van Ark on episode 15 ("Hints and Evasions"). No one understood the impulse behind Knots Landing better than these two: the middle-class domesticity that lay at the heart of each story-line, no matter how outrageous. As they do close-ups of the most mundane tasks -- Karen pouring a glass of milk for Meg, or Paige cleaning the underside of her glass dining-room table -- you're reminded of the ineffable yet wonderful "ordinariness" that is Knots Landing. But they also go for grand effects that pay off handsomely. In "Some Like It Hot," Claudia, having embezzled money from the Sumner Foundation, sets up Mack as the fall guy by filling Tom Ryan's head with half-truths -- and Lee shoots her mock confession in a tunnel, the two of them doused in blue lights and soaked in rain. It's a stunning sequence. In "Hints and Evasions," Vanessa comes clean to Tom about her past, including her involvement with a man named Treadwell, who plans to take over the Sumner Group; Van Ark shoots the pair at a carousel, first in close-up, and then, in a stunning crane shot, inching slowly away until, just as Vanessa is revealing the extent of Treadwell's machinations, the whole carousel is revealed. (Van Ark also captures perhaps the season's best piece of acting: Noone's searing performance when Claudia finds out that Nick has been setting her up from the start. Actors directing actors: sometimes, there's nothing better.)

There are precious few things wrong with Season 14. Some rail against a plot in which Greg, having quit the Sumner Group at the end of Season 13, is recruited to head up a task force to rebuild L.A. following the real-life 1992 riots; they argue that it's the kind of story-line Knots has no business dabbling in, since it can offer no real solutions. I don't have a problem with it. Sumner starts Season 14 in crisis, still mourning his long-departed Laura and fearing she'd disapprove of the man he's become; the task force permits the actor to engage with a new supporting cast, and the character to see if he can somehow redeem himself in the public sector. (It also permits Claudia, who takes over running the Sumner Group, to engage in the kind of mischief that would have season-long ramifications.) Ultimately, the task force becomes a bit of a MacGuffin that allows Greg to regain clarity and purpose, which leads him right back to his old job. The plot doesn't understate the grim challenges facing Los Angeles in the months following the riots, but ultimately, it's a story about a man, not about a city. It's admittedly the least of Season 14's plotlines, but it only lasts five episodes, and if Knots is going to touch on timely issues, I much prefer its character-based look at the challenges of rebuilding L.A. to its enervating takes on sexual assault, child abuse and adult illiteracy in previous seasons.

Only a few things about the season annoy me. James Magnuson departed after the first six episodes, and Donald Marcus -- a leftover from the Romano regime -- returned. Although Ann Marcus (no relation) speaks highly of him in her autobiography, it takes a while for her to work the Marcus magic on him, and his first two episodes -- "A Death in the Family" and "Call Waiting" -- are probably the season's weakest efforts. The former introduces the members of the L.A. Task Force, and the latter brings Sumner's involvement with them to a close; it's in part due to Don Marcus's learning curve that the story-line seems flatter than the others. His first episode also includes the season's most troubling scene: a first date between two supporting players you couldn't care less about. (You think, "They're not really going to build a story around those two, are they?" Luckily, there's no follow-up.) I don't much care for the dialogue in episode 16, "My Kingdom For a Horse." It's the only Knots episode credited to Howard Lakin, who'd done sterling work on Falcon Crest and Dallas, but apparently had no idea how the Knots folks talked. (It's also the episode with the most lead actors missing -- a full five out of eight -- but there's nothing wrong with the tighter focus or premise: one last fast-money caper for Anne and Nick, to strengthen their bond heading into the season's end. It's the dialogue that lets it down.) The season would have been better-served with a two-hour premiere: the first episode is all the setups that pay off in episode 2. And the final two episodes should have aired separately, instead of being combined into a two-hour finale. There's a great surprise at the end of the penultimate episode that's undercut when the two installments are merged.

But beyond that, Knots Landing Season 14 is bliss. And it ends with the most wonderful wink to the audience, with a moment harkening back to Season 3, the last time Ann Marcus was in charge, and the true start of the series. Marcus was there at the (true) beginning; she and her gifted team of writers were there to oversee the ending. Primetime will probably never see another soap with the enduring affection Knots Landing engenders; thank goodness Ann Marcus was there to set it on its course, and to see it safely home.

Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 1, which establishes the characters and struggles to set the tone; Season 2, which pretty much mucks up everything; Season 3, in which new headwriter Ann Marcus masters the challenges inherent in the show's premise; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 6, 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 10, the year the ratings rose; Season 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; and Season 13, an epic fail, and an epic save.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Limitless and Madam Secretary: Welcome Home, CBS

Last January, in my year-in-review post, I made note of my "big break-up" with CBS, and my decision to start devoting more time to other networks. It's not like I'd been an exclusive CBS follower, heaven knows, but truly, since the early 1970's (and it probably began with The Mary Tyler Moore Show), I'd say 90% of the shows I watched were on CBS. I started to feel a certain "brand loyalty" to the Tiffany Network, with its "welcome home" slogan, and I'd invariably sample their new shows first, and stay with their shows longer. And as I look back on over four decades of TV viewing, I find that most of the shows that stick with me -- and often that I've chosen to write about here -- aired on CBS: from the aforementioned Mary Tyler Moore Show to WKRP to Knots Landing, from Newhart to Picket Fences to Everybody Loves Raymond, from Survivor to Cold Case to Mike & Molly. But as a viewer, it was hard to justify that brand loyalty after a while: not just because there was so much great television on other networks, but because the CBS luster was fading.

Oh sure, it was still "America's most-watched network," but for years, their new output had been spotty -- I mean, they'd been greenlighting things like Made in Jersey and The Ex List and How to Be a Gentleman and Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior. Year after year, I'd sit gob-smacked watching their pilots and think, "Wow, that must have been one bad development season." And admittedly, the astonishing success of CSI and 60 years of sitcoms dating back to I Love Lucy clobbered the network, because it trapped them with an aging audience devoted to procedurals and multi-cam comedies, who didn't care to sample or stick with much else -- but how much longer could a loyal viewer watch Nina Tassler pull the plug on every great show that tried to break the mold (and often she seemed as sad to see them go as I was), from Jericho to Moonlight to Swingtown -- or even the promising ones like A Gifted Man and The Crazy Ones? And shows that were desperately in need of network interference -- like 2 Broke Girls (from the start) and The Good Wife (as it aged) -- simply weren't getting it. Every network goes through its ups and downs, but CBS seemed flummoxed, for the first time since the mid-'90s. (I'm thinking of around the time they went searching for new identity by greenlighting the Raquel Welch-led CPW in 1995, just before Les Moonves arrived to rebuild.) And as for me, by May of last year, I think I was watching less CBS than I had since the late '60s. What shows did I really care about? Well, Elementary and Mike & Molly and Mom -- and that's about it. For the most part, I was more interested in Ray Donovan on Showtime, The Leftovers and Silicon Valley on HBO, Arrow and iZombie on the CW, Longmire on Netflix, Grantchester on ITV, Doctor Who on BBC -- and lots of others.

So imagine my shock, here in November of 2015, when I find two of the shows I most look forward to each week -- no, let's be more specific: the only two shows I insist on seeing "live" each week, as they air -- are on CBS: Limitless, in its first season, and Madam Secretary, in its second.

Well, friggin' welcome home, CBS.

These are two shows on the air right now basically Doing Everything Right, and I'm not going to linger on either for more than a paragraph or three, because nothing I could say could do justice to the experience of watching.


But let's start with Limitless, which for CBS is sort of a miracle: the kind of younger-skewing, still older-adult-friendly show CBS has been searching for for half a decade, as well as the sort of popular, serialized drama it's been struggling to find since Desperate Housewives and Lost revitalized the form back in 2004 (and before Shonda Rhimes went on to create a dynasty). And in truth, before it aired, we were all ready to tag it as another CBS procedural. The plot: Brian Finch is a regular bloke, down on his luck, the self-admitted family-screw-up type (but so winningly played by Jake McDorman, and carefully conceived by creator and EP Craig Sweeny, that you're on his side from moment one). Luck finally goes his way; he gets his hands on a pill called NZT that magnifies his brain function, allowing him to remember every piece of information he's ever processed. And then fate intervenes twice: first, when Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper's character from the movie of the same name) steps in with an antidote to the deadly side-effects of the drug (which allows Brian to continue taking it, but makes him bound to Morra for life); and second, when the FBI steps forward with a job offer: come aboard while we study you.

And it absolutely could have gone the way of most CBS hour-longs: let's solve a case a week. But Sweeny notes that CBS encouraged the show to introduce more serialized elements, and he and his brilliant writing team -- some of my favorite writers in the business -- seized the challenge and went to town like Yankee Doodle. The third episode had a case-of-the-week; the fourth did, too, but it was subordinated to three other storylines. By episode five, the show had come into its own: deliriously abandoning the procedural format in favor of something much less predictable, filled with ongoing threads, mysteries and revelations. The result is more sheer fun than anything on TV right now.

Because here's the thing about Limitless: Brian is an everyday fellow. He's not Sherlock Holmes; he's not Ichabod Crane; he's not Henry Morgan, of my late, lamented Forever. He's the most ordinary of guys -- he's us -- so when he has these flights of fancy that demonstrate how fast his engine is running, it's the way our own geeky brains would work. A mind so stuffed with knowledge is also a mind in need of diversion, so Brian embellishes his narration (sometimes, it seems, for our own enjoyment as much as his) with instant rewinds, with triple-speed montages (complete with hand-chosen accompaniment), with pop-up speech bubbles and clay-figure reenactments, with himself in James Bond-like fantasies and his co-workers lecturing him in Peanuts-style "wah wah" voices. Limitless asks: "wouldn't you love to be this smart," and the answer is "yes, and I'd be just like Brian, too." Brian is scruffy-faced and irreverent -- on occasion, downright childish -- and yet he's utterly devoted to the people he cares about and (to his great surprise) morally responsible in a way he himself hadn't ever suspected. And Limitless itself is fleet-footed, brash and irresistible. It's a shot of adrenaline for the viewer, and one for the network as well. (It's CBS on NZT.) It's infused with a "top this" mentality; you start to think the writers' room must be the happiest place on earth. Limitless asks: what if utter brilliance wasn't an obligation, or a calling, or a curse: what if it was fun? And each week, it provides the answer.

And let's talk briefly about its four stars. Jake McDorman is giving the kind of star turn that's star-making: it's not just a dynamic performance, it's an astoundingly ingratiating and empathetic one. Jennifer Carpenter, as his FBI handler, matches him scrape for scrape, quip for quip, and the two share undeniable chemistry. Hill Harper is showing more authority, more spirit and more shadings than the ensemble-driven CSI: NY allowed him, and a bit this past week -- where he was tempted to turn traitor and truly kept you guessing till episode's end which side he was on -- was some of the best onscreen work I've seen him do. But you know the revelation? Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, because she is a firecracker on this show, and I wouldn't have necessarily thought of her for the role. But it's brilliant casting: the head of the FBI field office, someone strong enough to lead and warm enough to engender loyalty -- of course it's Mastrantonio. She's best at playing characters who don't relax in front of the camera, who always seem to be on their guard and on their game; it's a perfect piece of casting, and the show is enriched by her presence. When they first aired the opening credits, I counted the list of actors and went "just those four"? Now four seems like the most magical number, and Limitless the year's most magical surprise.

Madam Secretary

Limitless is reaching the younger audience that CBS has been thirsting for; Madam Secretary is reaching its more traditional base, but with strong overall viewing figures -- and it's giving them the best character-based drama they've had since the early days of The Good Wife. Madam Secretary had a solid first season, but it had some kinks to work out. Téa Leoni (subtly commanding and amusingly withering, often in the same breath) stars as former CIA agent Elizabeth McCord, brought back to Washington to serve as Secretary of State. The show utilizes the dual home/workplace format that's been around for generations, and the first season struggled a bit figuring out how to define and humanize Elizabeth's staff, and how to keep her home-life interesting, when (obviously) the family plots (e.g., her eldest daughter dropping out of college) couldn't be nearly as gripping as what she was dealing with at work. And as befalls a lot of shows early in their run, they needed to wrap up plots quickly, so that new viewers could tune in at any time, which meant Elizabeth was scoring an awful lot of successes for a rookie Secretary of State. The plots needed broadening -- Elizabeth needed longer-term challenges -- and that's a structural change that's paid off handsomely in Season 2.

But other marvelous things have happened this season. Elizabeth's staff has settled into their roles -- and the writers show greater command of both their quirks and their strengths. The President, facing an upcoming election, has morphed from lamb into tiger, and the newfound vigor and unpredictability that Keith Carradine is bringing to the role have energized his scenes with Elizabeth and his chief of staff (Zeljko Ivanek, never smarmier and never better). And the political stories have grown more sweeping and more nuanced, and the stakes ever higher; in particular, killing off the Russian President, only to have him supplanted in power by his more ruthless, decidedly anti-American widow, was a masterstroke that ramps up the tension between the two nations and allows the plot to proceed in new directions without inviting (or avoiding) "real-life" comparisons.

The need to make Elizabeth's home life as compelling as the life-or-death situations she faces on the job has, this season, been met with greater success as well, and that should come as no surprise to anyone aware of series creator Barbara Hall's background, as no one writes family drama better. Over the past two decades, I figure we've had about three network dramas that accurately represented -- without melodrama, without the tropes of soap opera -- what the day-to-day drudgery and messy humor of family life is like: one wasn't Hall's (it was Glenn Gordon Caron's Medium), but the other two were: Judging Amy and Joan of Arcadia. (It says a lot about how badly American families have been portrayed on network television when, of the three series to do it well, one featured a mother who was psychic, the other a daughter who talked to God; apparently, capturing the American family with any grain of truth requires divine intervention.) This season, the Madam Secretary writing staff boasts Joy Gregory (from Joan of Arcadia) and Moira Kirland (from Medium), and family life has rarely rung so true. The kids could easily have developed into stereotypes: the rebellious older daughter, the neglected middle child, the youngest who longs to fit in -- but they haven't. They're such a step up from the one-note blunders we've seen in similar shows (e.g., The Good Wife) that every breakfast scene around the kitchen island is like a gift: the madness and mundaneness we all go through before we go off to conquer -- or in this case, save -- the world. The Secretary of State is equally well cared for on the home front and abroad.

One thing clicked on Madam Secretary from the start, although that too has only gotten stronger: the relationship between Elizabeth and her husband Henry, as the onscreen chemistry between Téa Leoni and Tim Daly bled into real life. During Season 1, they smartly blended Henry into the ongoing political landscape by uprooting him from his university teaching job, and placing him in a new position as military ethics professor for the National War College, working secretly for the NSA. In one recent episode, Henry goes on CSPAN2 to talk about a new book and comes under fire from a call-in viewer, Jeff, who wants only to discuss a compromising picture that's surfaced of Henry's daughter in bed with the President's son: to attack Henry for holding himself up as "an expert on morality" and ask if that photo is his definition of "moral parenting." And far from backing away from the question, Henry goes on the warpath, on the air:

"I'd like to start by making a distinction that I usually make on the very first day of my Morals and Ethics class. A lot of people say that morals are how we treat the people we know, and ethics are how we treat the people we don't know. So morals are what make us a good parent, a good friend, a nice neighbor. But ethics are how we build a society. That's the true test of our higher self. But what happens, Jeff, when society is ruled by the subjective morals of, say, you and your family, and you choose to project that onto complete strangers is that we all end up with a society that's governed by self-aggrandizement. So really, by calling in, to make sure you're the first little pedant to jump off your chair and teach me a lesson with smug superiority about your own particular moral point of view, when you know precisely nothing of the situation, you've done your part to contribute to the erosion of our entire social fabric. Pat yourself on the back. Bravo."

In an age when "why is your penis on a dead girl's phone" is promoted like it's a dazzling line of dialogue, where else on network TV are we seeing moments like this: intelligent, able people being stretched until they break, but remaining principled, defiant and passionately articulate?

And I'm not going to say much more. If you haven't seen Limitless, do a Brian-Finch rewind back to the beginning of the season, catch up (we're only eight episodes in) and join the fun. If you haven't seen Madam Secretary, you can start with the pilot, but you can also easily slip in at the start of this season and get a good grasp of the characters and situations, at their best, and you will not be disappointed.

Two very different shows, two exhilarating hours.

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. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries -- not (necessarily) my top episodes, but the best whodunnits. Or if you have a preference for sitcoms, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2; 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.