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 (Constance McCashin), who'd left her jerk 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 resided 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 was living: on the streets for a while, but let's not go there. It's a plotline worth forgetting.

A lot of Knots Landing seasons 6 through 12 plotlines 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 -- not to mention those times Karen was shot and kidnapped), 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 self-loathing 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 an ABC period soap called Homefront, and took with them the other two Knots 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 characters became unrecognizable; it was the first time in my (then) 25+ years of TV viewing that I realized how little control actors have over their characters: that if the lines are just plain wrong, if the plots are incongruous, then the characters -- no matter how long they've been on the air -- disappear, and the actors 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 characters were reduced to stock heroes and villains, compelling rivalries were dissolved without explanation, and new characters were miserably conceived and cast.

After fifteen grueling episodes, creator David Jacobs called it quits. He shut down production, sacked Romano, and hired back Ann Marcus (who hadn't been with the show in ten years) 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 blog entry, 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 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. Marcus gives her the best plot she'd had in years: a family drama that splinters her marriage. Mack and Karen had taken over raising Greg and Laura's daughter Meg when Laura passed away. Near the end of Season 13 Marcus introduces a character named Mary Robeson (played by Maree Cheatham, whom Marcus knew well from her days on Days of Our Lives), who has some shady connection to Greg. By the top of Season 14, her identity is revealed: she's Laura's birth mother, fresh out of jail and demanding visitation rights with her granddaughter. 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 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 fear we all understand -- as opposed to, say, the fear of being kidnapped, or held hostage. 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. Karen's husband 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 is used to being self-righteous and judgmental -- she's the last person he'd confide in.) It's a family crisis that shuts down communication and almost unravels their marriage: exactly the kind of down-to-earth story-line Lee and Dobson desperately needed. And it's a story-line 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 ultimately 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 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 business training: the actress is great at taking charge -- she has the bearing of a natural leader. If she seems convincing and commanding in her new role, the audience won't question the steps taken (or skipped, in this case) to get her there.

And 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 and foil for Anne, but here he's placed in Claudia's orbit and expresses a romantic interest, and Claudia (realizing that for all she's acquired, she has no one to share it with) falls -- and falls hard. And much of her story-line examines the lengths to which she'll go to keep Nick in her life, even if it means playing fast-and-loose with Sumner Group funds. The end of Season 13 unleashes Claudia in the Sumner Group like a kid in a candy store, and prides her on her business acumen. Season 14 is the headier follow-up: "She can do the job -- but can she be trusted?"

The women are particularly strong in Season 14, because Ann Marcus and Lisa Seidman -- both strong woman -- liked to write strong women. 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 to her daughter, in the first of two crackling scenes written by Lisa 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: (Laughing) 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: (Cutting to the chase) 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: (Leaning in, quietly) 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: (Chirpily) Yah -- as in "Here Comes the Bride..."
Paige: Well.. (At a loss for words) Congratulations?
Anne: (Satisfied) 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: (Standing) 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: (Exiting) 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 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 Anne 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) actually 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.

All the characters in Season 14 become relatable and compelling in a way they hadn't in years, 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 and Mexican drug cartels and (in Season 13, no shit) a plan to save the world with tidal energy. I asked Lisa Seidman: was there a conscious effort 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? Seidman's graceful and generous response: "It was Ann's natural brilliance." As in Knots Season 3, there are very few outsiders required to stir the pot; the characters -- as in the best soaps -- create their own drama.

Joan Van Ark, meanwhile, created her own drama by electing to leave the show after Season 13. She was up for a couple of pilots, and feeling that one or the other might be picked up, opted not to return for Season 14. (Until Marcus returned, she hadn't had a decent plot in over three years; you can't blame her.) Her last-minute exit made for some speedy rewrites by Marcus, Seidman and Magnuson, but they managed to weave her disappearance into one of the season's ongoing plotlines, and Val, who had been in Florida at the end of Season 13 researching her new book, was kidnapped and ultimately killed in an explosion. And with her gone, that meant story-lines were needed only for Gary and for Kate. So they paired them: Gary, the beleaguered do-gooder, the former millionaire and failed businessman, father of a grown daughter and two nine-year-old twins; and Kate, the Twenties-something moppet with the pert disposition and miserable taste in men.

But it worked. Kate's "crush" on Gary had been set up briefly back in Season 12 -- and to Gary, Kate embodied many of the qualities that had first attracted him to Val: her nurturing nature, her empathy and compassion, even that breezy optimism that too often seemed out of place in a cynical world. As with all the great Marcus couples, it was a relationship rooted in character. (And killing off Val paid dividends in other ways: it gave Ted Shackelford the best story-line he'd had in years, and he responded with his rawest, most charged performances since Season 4.)

The characters are all well-served in Season 14, and 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 finest work in years.) But budget cuts, required to ensure another season, meant that each principal had to be written out of three or four episodes, and mapping out the story-lines around those absences was, according to Seidman, "insane ... a big part of our day-to-day story discussions." Sadly, the cast absences are one of the things most folks remember about the season -- and that tarnishes their memory. But they remember wrong. It's unfortunate, yes, but it's handled skillfully. The episodes are carefully sculpted to allow for the actors' absences, and sometimes the absences themselves actually 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 to tell their story; Seasons 6, 7 and 8 had thirty.) So the story-lines 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 funeral 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 pitcher 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 (they don't see him, of course) 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. (Seidman recalls that they struggled with making Paige sleeping with Bill so quickly seem believable; all I can say is, the struggle was worth it, because the moment totally rings true. Seidman and Magnuson focus early in the season on Paige's grief at losing Greg, and on Anne callously throwing her engagement in Paige's face. Of course Paige would fall into the arms of a handsome stranger to avoid attending Greg's wedding to her own mother.)

And the faster pace still permits a healthy dose of humor; in fact, it seems to encourage it. In Seidman's "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 notes he has 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 conference table.

Later, we have Anne visiting Mack in his office, to ask him to make sure Paige is at the wedding (she wants her daughter to witness Sumner being legally declared off limits). All nerves, anxious to get that ring on her finger, she inadvertently 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 (who's always loathed Anne, and is mortified to see her marrying her brother Greg ) 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: (Settling in, 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 one of Paige's old boy-toys, Tom Ryan, the crooked cop), but they're used smartly: they play key roles in the season, and aren't merely there for nostalgia. 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 Knots Season 14 so rich is that it feels like the writers know the show as well as we do, that they're there to ask the questions we ourselves have wanted to ask. When Paige runs into Tom again, she asks, pointedly, "So how was Brussels," a plot-point left hanging in Season 12, and reminds him "you can't commit to anything," referencing their aborted Season 11 wedding. (There's a brilliant montage of clips of past scenes between Tom and Paige, set to "We've Only Just Begun," which Tom had serenaded Paige with in Season 11 -- and the clipfest 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," plot points from Season 10. Late in the season, when Val turns up alive, on the run (Van Ark's pilots weren't picked up, so the writers -- in killing off her character -- had given themselves a clear and clever "out" in case the actress 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 Group, 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, Nick's accomplice in crime, comes clean to Tom about the head of their organization, a man named Treadwell, and his plans to take over the Sumner Group -- and Van Ark shoots Tom and Vanessa 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 what is perhaps the season's best piece of acting: Noone's searing performance when Claudia finds out that Nick has been setting her up the whole season. 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.

As for me, only a few things about the season annoy me. James Magnuson departed after the first six episodes of Season 14, and Donald Marcus -- a leftover from the Romano regime -- returned. Although Ann Marcus (no relation) speaks highly of him in her autobiography, he was not as facile a writer as Magnuson, 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 Marcus's limitations 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 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 final episodes. 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, which welcome Joan Van Ark and Donna Mills back into the fold, should have aired separately, instead of being combined into a two-hour finale. There's a great surprise at the end of the first episode that would have elicited such water-cooler chatter that ratings surely would have risen even further for the final installment.

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 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 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; and Season 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back.

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.

Limitless

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.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

WKRP in Cincinnati season 4

We remember WKRP in Cincinnati, the sitcom that aired on CBS from 1978 to 1982, as being better than it was. We remember "Turkeys Away," the ultimate in promotional-stunts-gone-wrong, as live turkeys are dropped from a helicopter, "hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement"; we remember the show that (rightly) made stars of supporting players Howard Hesseman and Loni Anderson; we remember its subversive tone and its striking characters -- we remember all that, and we think of it as a classic. But from the start, it was an erratic show, and among its 90 episodes are as many blunders as triumphs. It was a show CBS desperately needed, but never knew what to do with. It was a show designed for two actors that ended up being about two others. It had a control freak at the helm who, judging from the evidence, did his best work when he let others do their jobs. If it holds up after 35 years (and it does), it starts with the original casting director Bob Manahan: the characters themselves were well-conceived (and if they weren't, they grew into characters who were well-developed), but the actors made them memorable. It's one of the best matches of character and casting we've had on American television.

As a reminder, or a précis for the uninitiated: WKRP is a struggling 5000-watt radio station in Cincinnati, Ohio (1530 on the AM dial); they've engaged a new program director, Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) to shore up the ratings, and he's decided to change the format from Easy Listening to Rock and Roll -- much to the chagrin of the station's bumbling but well-meaning general manager Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump), who'd rather be fishing; sales director Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner), with the plaid, polyester suits and disregard for his marital vows; and Les Nessman (Richard Sanders), the nerd-of-a-news-director with a talent for mangling his on-air copy:

Les [on air, reading]: Monster lizard ravages East Coast. Mayors in five New England cities have issued emergency requests for federal disaster relief as a result of a giant lizard that descended on the East Coast last night. Officials say that this lizard, the worst since ’78, has devastated transportation, disrupted communication, and left many hundreds homeless.
Johnny: Monster lizard?
Les: The wire service never lies.
Johnny: Les, the “b” is out on the printer. It’s monster blizzard.

Embracing the format change are the early-morning DJ, drug-culture carryover Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman in an inspired bit of counterculture casting: Hesseman had worked as a DJ before he became an actor, and had been part of the San Francisco-based improv group The Committee in the '60s and '70s), and the nighttime DJ, Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), one of creator Hugh Wilson's two attempts at countering stereotypes. Venus, as first seen, has the flamboyant attire and manner that marked so many depictions of African-American men in the late '70s. (WKRP premiered in 1978, the same year Esther Rolle returned to Good Times to save it from Jimmie "Dy-no-mite" Walker.) But it turned out Venus's clothes and demeanor were part of his on-air act, and beneath lay someone ruminative, well-read, soulful and conservative.

The other character designed to upend expectations: the station's receptionist Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson), WKRP's answer to all the dumb blondes clogging the airwaves. Jennifer was as blonde and as beautiful as any of her TV sisters, but she was also bright, articulate, perceptive, and occasionally seemed to be running the station single-handedly. (President Reagan, she tells us in a 1982 episode, offered her Secretary of the Treasury, but she declined; she may have been kidding.) Completing the ensemble was the retiring but determined and ambitious Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers), who handled traffic and continuity. The characters of Andy, Johnny and Bailey are pretty much established at the start (although Andy doesn't really become interesting until Season 4, when he acquires a more ruthless side); Carlson, Herb and Les evolve through the course of the first season; and Jennifer and Venus take even a bit longer than that. (Critics initially tore into Anderson and Reid for how they looked, not how they acted; they presumed the roles were designed to reinforce stereotypes, not counter them -- so the writers had to work a little harder with those two.) Arguably, it's not until a third of the way into the second season that the characters all settle into the ones we remember today.

I was trying to figure out, if I had to recommend one season of WKRP, which season that would be, and oh Lord, it's tough. The first season is full of issues. Hugh Wilson wanted to do character-based comedy (it was, after all, an MTM production, where he had cut his teeth), while CBS wanted more light-hearted "radio station" episodes, particularly ones that targeted younger audiences. (This was just a few years after CBS had been supplanted in the ratings by ABC's aggressively kid-friendly programming.) And the show was ostensibly about Andy Travis (only Gary Sandy and Gordon Jump received top billing in the first season; everyone else was consigned to the closing credits), but Travis -- with his aw-shucks demeanor, his too-tight jeans and coiffed hair -- was arguably the least interesting character of the bunch. CBS premiered it in a kiss-of-death time-slot, Mondays at 8, opposite ABC's Welcome Back, Kotter and NBC's still formidable Little House on the Prairie, and it tanked. The network pulled it from the schedule in November, and "relaunched" it in January behind one of their top shows, M*A*S*H, where it soared. Airing after M*A*S*H allowed Wilson to complement that show's tone with lower-key ensemble comedy, which is what he'd wanted all along. But of the fourteen episodes completed before the show was yanked from the schedule, only eight had aired, which meant of the remaining fourteen episodes to air, six were pre-hiatus and eight post-. They were scattered seemingly randomly through the remainder of the season -- sometimes one old, one new -- and the result is distressingly schizophrenic: a season that keeps lurching between MTM character comedy and Garry Marshall screwball. There are some great episodes -- aside from the aforementioned "Turkeys Away," there's "I Want to Keep My Baby," "Tornado" and "Who Is Gordon Sims?" -- but ultimately, Season 1 is a show still finding itself.

Season 2 sees a host of new writers join the staff: some I took to instantly (Steve Marshall, Dan Gunzelman), some I grew to like (Peter Torokvei), others never won me over (Steve Kampmann). Torokvei and Kampmann came via Second City and SCTV; they pitched some story ideas to Wilson, and he bit. They were sketch-comedy writers, which is exactly where WKRP wasn't heading. (The quintessential Kampmann episode -- Season 3's "Hotel Oceanview," in which Herb, away on a business trip, carries on with a woman who turns out to be transgender -- is actually taken from a Second City sketch he wrote.) Torokvei and Kampmann's first script, "Sparky," guest-starring real-life baseball manager Sparky Anderson, was written because they wanted to meet Sparky Anderson; that was the episode's justification, the furthest thing from character comedy, and you can practically hear the MTM kitten purring in its grave. One of my favorite episodes comes from Season 2 -- "Jennifer's Home for Christmas" -- as do many of the episodes I hate most: "Baseball," "Bad Risk," "Sparky," "Les's Groupie," "The Doctor's Daughter." The cast gets more assured in Season 2 -- by midseason, they have their acts down pat -- but WKRP still seems like a show in search of direction: the sophisticated wit of "Jennifer's Home for Christmas" immediately followed by the juvenile antics of "Sparky" pretty much epitomizes the work-still-in-progress feel that plagues Season 2.

In Season 3, the writers seem to pull together, but Wilson starts to crumble. The season starts with "The Airplane Show," with Les doing traffic reports from a World War I biplane piloted by a crazy war veteran; it's a fitting start for a season that never quite feels grounded. You know you're not in good shape early in Season 3 when the series' creator pens an episode called "Jennifer Moves" (the season's second episode) and then can't think of a single way to make that scenario interesting. (And it's not like the "lead character moves" scenario can't be an entertaining one. When "Charlene Buys a House" on Designing Women, it's such a triumph of smart silliness that EP Pam Norris rightly chooses it as one of that season's Emmy submissions; when "Mary Moves Out" on the The Mary Tyler Moore Show, David Lloyd gently mocks the repetitive nature of TV sitcoms, where conventions and catch-phrases are like comfort food, and turns it into a sad classic. When Hugh Wilson has Jennifer buy a house: well, she buys a house.) The first third of Season 3 seems aimless, the middle third gets back on track, and then, as the season end approaches, it becomes some other series altogether: a string of "special episodes." Wilson admits that, by that time, he was burned out, and drama simply came easier than laughs, so we get episodes about alcoholism and censorship and long-lost parents and domestic abuse. Some of it is well-done, but it makes for what WKRP fan and expert Jaime Weinman accurately called "a rather weird season (where the show's tone changed radically with every episode, and [much] of the humor became a little offbeat at times)." At its worst, Season 3 is off-putting; you watch and go, "Shouldn't they have ironed out the kinks by now?"

Wilson claims that up to that point, no matter whose name was on a given script, he himself had pretty much penned every word. That's what he says, but it's hard to imagine, since the credited writer's voice always seems to come through. (There's no mistaking a Steve Marshall script for a Steven Kampmann script.) But Wilson also notes that he was less hands-on in Season 4, and it shows -- for the better. Kampmann is gone by Season 4, but Torokvei, Marshall and Gunzelman remain -- as does Blake Hunter, the best of the bunch, and the only writer (aside from Wilson) who was on the show all four seasons. And Lissa Levin is there too, Hugh's former production secretary, who joined as a staff writer in Season 3. It's a good, solid team, who all seem to be writing the same show. It arguably takes WKRP three years to find its footing (not that unusual, especially for an MTM show: it took The Mary Tyler Moore Show two years and an overhaul; it took Newhart two years and two overhauls). And here's the caveat: I didn't enjoy the fourth season of WKRP originally nearly as much as I do now. But then I didn't enjoy Season 3 of Knots Landing nearly so much at the time either -- and they both aired during the 1981-82 season, so I have to imagine I was just having a bad year. (I was fresh out of college, and jobless.) Season 4 is rarely as funny as it thinks it is, but it's rarely less than entertaining. There are only two or three truly bad episodes, and for WKRP, that's sort of a miracle. Season 1 has a spotty premise, some undeveloped characters, and a tear in its fabric about halfway through; Season 2 has some new writers still getting a feel for the show; Season 3 is unfocused, with an uncomfortable shift towards the (melo)dramatic near the end. Season 4 has none of these problems. It's the most rewatchable season largely because it's issue-free. And being issue-free lets it, on occasion, soar.

So after eight paragraphs of preamble, let's discuss what's right about Season 4. It starts with a bang, a two-parter called "An Explosive Affair," that manages to be both funny and timely (and sadly, timeless), as a terrorist group called Black Monday calls in a bomb threat at the station. And from there, except for a midseason lull, you're never more than a couple weeks from a great episode: if it's not the next one, it's the one after that. (That's not damning with faint praise, either; I'd say much the same thing about The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season 6, which I like quite a lot.) But it's not just episode quality that defines Season 4. The characters grow fuller, richer, more rounded, without resorting to the "special episode" solution that marred Season 3. Each one gets, as with most ensemble shows, at least one spotlight episode, and those episodes manage to be among the series' funniest, but also among the character's most challenging, or revealing: whether it's Jennifer serving as the executrix for a departed gentleman friend ("Jennifer and the Will"); or Bailey committing an on-air breach of ethics while reporting on her experiences at a children's ward ("Dear Liar"); or Andy paying a price for the money he's secured from Carlson's mother for station improvements ("Love, Exciting and New"). Whether it's Herb facing his own mortality during a building "Fire," or Johnny pondering the ravages of time in a business dominated by youth ("Rumors"). Whether it's Mr. Carlson wrestling with how to respond to an upcoming "Union" vote; or the inflexible Les giving in to new experiences when Herb signs him up for the "I'll Take Romance" dating service (which, of course, turns out to be a front for prostitution); or Venus fretting that he's lost sight of his heritage when an urban magazine requests an interview ("Changes"). Splendid episodes, all.

That said, if you watch Season 4, you can skip "You Can't Go Out of Town Again" and "The Impossible Dream," and your life will be better for it. And you'll watch the severely undernourished "Circumstantial Evidence" with the knowledge that it was supposed to be a two-parter, but CBS got cold feet, and you'll forgive it. And you'll wonder why the season's one episode to feature both Loni Anderson and Howard Hesseman (arguably the series' only episode to wed them in an A-plot), "Jennifer and Johnny's Charity," never reaches the heights it should, particularly since it's written by the series' best writer -- but you'll enjoy watching them share screen time so much that you'll let it pass. And mostly, you'll do your best to excuse the rampant homophobia, which is incessant and uncomfortable. WKRP had always mined people's discomfort with homosexuality for easy laughs; this was the era of Three's Company, after all: that's what shows did. You expect WKRP to be better, but it's not. (Its third episode aired, "Les on a Ledge," is all about Les's suicidal response to rumors that he's gay. I remember when it first aired, TV Guide extolled that it wasn't really about homosexuality, but more about the damage caused by rumor and innuendo, like Hellman's Children's Hour. No, it's really about homosexuality: to be specific, how being seen as gay would be the worst thing in the world.) Season 4 goes for the cheap gay laugh every chance it gets: at one point, three times in five episodes. The message is: we've restored the black man's dignity, and detonated the "dumb blonde" myth, but fags are still fair game. (Staff writer Peter Torokvei transitioned into PJ Torokvei in the 1990's; I do wonder if she ever looked back on her years on WKRP and regretted the steady stream of gay jokes -- but then, when WKRP aired, and for years after, there was no such thing as an LGBT community.)

But as you watch Season 4, you'll put up with -- and maybe forgive -- all that, as you revel in the barrage of memorable lines:

Johnny [on air, from "The Union"]: WKRP, with your generous help and support, has now climbed to 10th place in the Cincinnati market. If I sound emotional about this, it's because I can still hear my father saying: "Son, no matter what you decide to do in this life, always try to come in 10th."

Bailey [to Herb, from "Rumors"]: Continuity is so important. Thank you for always being a jerk.

Les [from "Jennifer and the Will"]: What is an executrix?
Herb: I don't know. High heels and a whole lot of leather, something like that.

Bailey [from "Changes"]: Have you noticed that you can't tell what color someone is over the phone?
Venus: I guess not.
Bailey: I mean, when I heard Black Life Magazine, I was expecting him to be like "Hey, little mama, you tell the dude I'll be here at fo'." But he didn't. He sounded just like you!
Venus: What does she mean "just like me?" I'm black, I'm from the street, I can say "fo'!"
Johnny: That's right, Kingfish. You is, and you does. But the problem is, you sound neutral.
Venus: Neutral. You mean "white."
Johnny: Well, don't worry, pal. I've heard you say "upside your head," things like that. You can pass for black.
Venus: I don't want to "pass for black," I want to be black! What the hell am I saying?

Jennifer [from "I'll Take Romance"]: Les, relationships don't happen every day. You have to wait for them. But just because you think you have a relationship that you really don't have, doesn't mean you're not worthy of having one -- if it's real.
Les: Are you trying to tell me that I'm not worthy of Lorraine?
Jennifer: No... I'm trying to tell you that Lorraine is not worthy of you.
Les: She cost $200.
Jennifer: No, she charges $200. [a pause] Les, I'm talking about the oldest profession.
Les: Lorraine's a farmer?

And one sturdy season arc holds it all together. Andy was hired in the pilot to save the station, which was languishing in last place. At the start of Season 4, they've shot up to tenth place in the Cincinnati market, and by the season's end, they're sixth. The station gets more successful, and it's a recurring motif that grounds the season. At the heart of Season 4 is the question of how these eight people deal with unexpected success: through talks of unions, through increased workloads and added pressures, through rumors of re-staffing and reshuffling. And even when it's not the station's status at the heart of an episode, there's often the broader theme of people finding themselves charged with responsibility they're simply not prepared for. The question that underlies the first three seasons is: how do you raise the ratings at a radio station? It's a nice idea, but aside from countless promotions and Andy poking his head in the DJ booth from time to time and yelling "Johnny, play the hits," there's no easy way to dramatize it. But the question underlying the fourth (and final season) is: how do you maintain a successful radio station, particularly when half the staff is incompetent? How do you embrace success without letting it change you, or worse, corrupt you? And that is something that can be dramatized, and is, over and over again, perhaps never more persuasively than in one of the series' most unassuming episodes, Season 4's "To Err Is Human." It's a Lissa Levin script, and the premise is simple: Herb was supposed to hire a photographer to shoot Venus, for a series of shampoo ads; instead, Herb decides to pocket the money and shoot the ad himself -- and accidentally substitutes a shot of himself at a family BBQ:

Mr. Carlson: Well, Herb, what do you think? What we have here is an ad for Soul Suds Shampoo, a shampoo that's exclusively marketed to the hip black customer. Am I right?
Herb: Yes, sir.
Mr. Carlson: Then why are we looking at a picture of this really idiotic-looking white man?

It's as standard a sitcom premise as you'll find -- the screw-up that must be made right. But underneath, there are complex (often unspoken) workplace issues. Because, you see, Mr. Carlson wants to fire Herb for his mistake, except that Mr. Carlson is frankly no better at his job than Herb. And ultimately the ones who have to make it right are Andy and Jennifer, simply because they can -- except because neither has the authority to do so, they end up working at cross-purposes and making it worse. The whole episode is ultimately about trying to save the job of a man who deserves to be fired, simply because -- in work language -- he's "family." And why not? Because just as Mr. Carlson shows, by his willingness to step it up and terminate Herb, that he himself can be responsible and even formidable when it's called for, the possibility exists that perhaps Herb can, too -- unless, of course, he can't. But you save someone because that possibility exists, and because they're "family" -- oh, and because of one more thing:

Jennifer: Mr. Sherman, WKRP is a very unusual radio station. We hire some people that otherwise couldn't get jobs at another radio station.
The Clientt: Like that Tarlek fellow, right?
Jennifer: Exactly like that Tarlek fellow. I don't think I would be spreading tales if I were to tell you that he probably couldn't get another job in the city, let alone the state. And, well... I like him. It's crazy, but I like him.

You save someone because you like them. You like them even if they've hounded you and harassed you and hit on you for four years. You like them because, in Season 4, as the writing get deeper, things like old hostilities seem trivial somehow.

But there's more to that scene; it continues:

Jennifer: I'm the one who sent him over here, and I don't want him to get fired.
The Client: So you took it upon yourself to come down here and change my mind?
Jennifer: Yes.
The Client: I can't help you.
Jennifer: You're very self-assured -- I like that.
The Client: Thank you.
Jennifer: I also like a little compassion.
The Client: I'm a perfectionist. When you're handicapped, you're always trying to show the world that you can be a little better.
Jennifer: I know all about that.
The Client: You do?
Jennifer: Mm-hmm. I'm a pretty blonde, so when people meet me, they naturally think I'm dumb.
The Client: Oh, I didn't think so.
Jennifer: Well, that's because you can see through all that. And I'm sure you can see through me. I came down here because I thought a pretty face could help you change your mind.

And of course, her candor does prompt the client to change his mind. And suddenly a screwball situation involving two characters (Herb and Venus) turns into a character study for another (Jennifer), which offhand I can't think of a precedent for in sitcom history. But more than that, the episode illustrates -- as so much of Season 4 does, confidently -- the growing pains of a newly successful radio station: where the strong have to look after the weak; where the weak will vow to change, and probably can't; where change is inevitable and gratifying and terrifying, and rumors rampant and indistinguishable from fact. Where everyone is suddenly in new, uncharted territory where even the best will fail -- but they'll fail together, and with any luck, they might just fail up. WKRP Season 4 is a lovely season, and well worth the three years it took the writers to get there. I recommend it highly.

Want more WKRP in Cincinnati? I offer a detailed look at writer Blake Hunter's work here.