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 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; and Season 13, an epic fail, and an epic save.

8 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. After reading your brilliant post on season three, I was curious to why you put season fourteen so high up on your list of KL seasons, since most fans seem to just sorta ignore all the seasons after Abby leaves (I am NOT one of those fans, BTW).

    My own blog is currently up to season two of KNOTS (almost done! Oh wait, no, not so much.....) while in real-time I am up to season four and have written essays as far as "To Have and to Hold." Obviously it'll be some time before I get to season fourteen and am able to formulate my own opinion upon a second viewing.

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    1. I've been following your blog since you first directed me to it, and enjoying it very much. I rarely post at other people's sites, but know that I am "lurking." :) I was glad I found time to rewatch and write up Knots 14 last fall, and really appreciate your checking out my post. I definitely don't find the show goes downhill once Abby leaves; I'm not necessarily crazy about Seasons 11 & 12, but I certainly prefer them to 7 & 8. And rewatching Season 14 in November was as blissful as ever: it's such a "welcoming" season, like the writers know exactly how best to showcase each character, and exactly what the viewers want to see. It feels rich in history: just the kind of ending you hope for after a 14-year journey.

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  2. Season 14 may have been the best of the later seasons....actually I can easily say that it was. I can say it pretty soundly even though I haven't seen it in over a decade.

    I think you make a very strong case for it, even if I do feel it is a rather weak season when compared to its golden years, 4-6....and I would say 3 and 7 too despite their flaws at times.

    Perhaps it may not be fair for me to comment on this season until I rewatch it, but I do recall a certain warmth being brought back and you can obviously tell it was the Marcus touch. I do highly respect Ann Marcus, primarily for her work on Mary Hartman Mary Hartman, a comedic gem for sure.

    Ann Marcus does deserve to be commended for saving Knots and letting it die with dignity. I did begin to watch season 13 and it just felt so off in ways that just baffled me. The fact she did turn it around in the extent she did is very commendable.

    I just hope you eventually write about every season. As you can see, you have many passionate Knots fans out there. KNOTS BLOGGER isn't the only twenty-something that fell in love with it :-)

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    1. I could never make the case that Season 14 is the "best" Knots season, but it is the one I return to most. And maybe, as you noted, it's because of the sheer warmth that it exudes. It's a terribly inviting season; Marcus instantly understands how to focus in on the characters' most relatable traits, and really reinvents some of the newer characters (Claudia, Anne) in ways that make them sympathetic and compelling. I don't know if it's still in print, but if so, it's worth picking up Marcus's memoir WHISTLING GIRL. Her Knots insights are fascinating. She recalls that, when she was brought in during Season 13, to right the ship, the next episode that was set to go into production (before David Jacobs pulled the plug) was about car-pooling! It was, apparently, a major plot point in Season 13, episode 16. No wonder Jacobs shut down production after episode 15 and sent Marcus a cry for help.

      It's been truly gratifying for me, since I started this blog, to see all the passionate Knots fans out there, especially the younger ones like Brett and yourself. I suspect I will indeed ultimately cover all the seasons, and I will say that you and Knots Blogger have most definitely been instrumental in that. I think it was when Brett read my eulogy of Ann Marcus, in which I talked up Season 14, that he said he hoped I'd write about that season someday -- and so I did. And it was your comment under Season 9, in which you encouraged me to tackle a season I didn't much care for, that promped me to rewatch and write up Season 7, which I should be posting within a few days. I had initially intended to write just one Knots essay; now I suspect I shall be doing fourteen!

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    2. I'll be tempted to hear more about Season 7 and am anxious for it to be posted. When I rewatched it again recently, I was HOOKED and finished it in one weekend. For me personally, it probably hit its weakest stretch towards the end of the season which was extremely bizarre. But I'll save my thoughts until you post it..and I have a feeling we will probably disagree some but that'll make it fun haha

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    3. Well, we'll probably disagree on Season 7 a whole lot, but yes indeed, as you said, that'll make it fun. One thing I love about Knots is that, with 344 episodes to choose from, no two people see the series in exactly the same way. Back when I used to haunt the Knots Forum, in 2008 or so, we did one of those Grading the Seasons threads. Everyone was giving Season 7 an A or B; I think I gave it a C-. I tried to make friends with it during my latest rewatch, but alas, I think it irked me more than ever. Hopefully, I express my reservations clearly in the new essay; I should have it posted by Monday (currently proofing it, for about the 20th time).

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  3. Season 14 may have had only 19 episodes...but there was little to no filler that dragged out.

    Plus, there were still a few of the fun smaller scenes included such as the Paige scene in the boardroom...but another scene was when Karen knocks on neighbor Claudia's door...and instead of Claudia answerinf...it's nick with a towel around his waist...and the dramatic response on Karen's face startles Nickm.and he accidently gives Karen a full Monty scene before he closes the door..and both are embarrassed. Reminds me of Karen's slave to fashion scene in season 9 as well as Karen showing up at Mack'S office in her underwear and his clients walking in on them.

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    1. Ah yes, the Lorenzo Caccialanza towel scene! His timing is perfect, and Michele Lee's reactions are priceless. I chose the fifth episode, "Love and Death," to show how humor was used effectively, but you're right: it's sprinkled throughout the season -- frequently in episodes where the other plotlines are particularly dark. (The Karen/Nick scene, after all, happens in the episode where Val "dies.") It's similar to how, in "Some Like It Hot," just as Claudia is hanging Mack out to dry, and Tom is inching ever closer to an arrest, Lisa Seidman intercuts scenes of Kate interviewing baby sitters -- some of the worst baby sitters EVER -- with a smart, funny twist at the end. Season 14 maintains a really nice balance between the light and the dark.

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