And so, the following season, instead of the Knots writers being allowed to expand the cast however they saw fit, a demand came down from the network brass: trim the budget. (It was a decree imposed on all the Lorimar soaps that year, but Knots was the hardest hit. Small wonder: Dallas was down just 3% from the previous season, Falcon Crest 4%; Knots had shed nearly 15% of its viewers.) And by the time we were a third of the way into Season 9, there were just six principal cast members remaining.
Season 9 is an exercise in frugality; it's the season in which Knots Landing is punished for the network mucking with its timeslot. But it's also, to be fair, a punishment that isn't undeserved, as the show had been flirting with ruin for over two years. In its earliest seasons, Knots had plumbed the fears and foibles of the middle class, often brilliantly; even when it succumbed to the influence of Dallas beginning in Season 4 and became more upscale and outrageous, the focus remained firmly on character. But two-thirds of the way through Season 6, producer Peter Dunne and headwriter Richard Gollance departed, and the remaining scribes began to turn a character-based soap into a plot-driven one, with stories about industrial waste cover-ups and underground spy networks, where the far-fetched plotlines became focal and the characters were subordinated to them. And the issues were only magnified when Dallas scripter David Paulsen took over as headwriter at the start of Season 7. The Knots characters had always had a certain consistency and complexity that distinguished them from their sister-soap counterparts. But Paulsen ignored years of continuity; characters started behaving irrationally simply to generate story. (And the plots -- blackmail, extortion, corporate greed and corruption -- fairly reeked of Dallas; there was even a lavish party midway through the season where secrets poured out. We might as well have been at the Oil Baron's Ball.) And when Paulsen left, and new headwriters -- husband-and-wife team Bernard Lechowick and Lynn Latham -- assumed the reins for Season 8, they too floundered. They focused on some of the newest characters at the expense of the oldest and best-loved, and engaged in a rapid-fire series of flashbacks and misdirects and sleights-of-hand that only distracted from the storytelling. And viewers fled.
But lessons were learned by the time Season 9 rolled around. Get back to basics. Leave behind the high-concept plotting and return to what Knots was supposed to be: a show about people. A show where story-lines were relatable: heightened, yes, but relatable. Get back to the human drama, especially the core characters the audience cared about. Oh yes, and trim a third of the cast, to reel in the budget. And so they did, and the result is the best forgotten season in the show's fourteen-year history. Not the best season, mind you: the best one that no one ever discusses. No one talks about Knots Landing Season 9. The best-remembered Knots seasons have story-lines that you can sum up in a few words. (Season 3: "Sid's death." Season 4: "Ciji." Season 5: "Wolfbridge." Season 6: "Val's babies." Season 10: "Murakame.") Even the worst Knots season -- Season 13, by far (at least for the first two-thirds) -- has "tidal energy." Season 9 has "Laura's funeral," but that comes and goes in a few episodes, and although it's a moment that would haunt the show -- sometimes quite effectively -- until its dying day, it's hardly the season's defining plot. Knots Season 9 restores the Seaview Circle cul-de-sac to its roots. It doesn't ensnare its characters in underground spy networks and assassination plots; it wonders, "How far would a mother go to protect her family?" and "How do you cope with the loss of a friend?" It agonizes over how best to make decisions for young children, and when to stop making decisions for older ones. It understands how hard it is to let go of first loves, and how impossible it is to let go of true love. And how traumatic it can be to make a fresh start. Nothing too out-of-the-ordinary happens for most of Knots Landing Season 9; that's its beauty. It embroils us in the simplest of dramas, and we willingly, gratefully succumb.
Knots' best season, Season 5, is one long aria: 25 episodes of crescendos and diminuendos, of rallentandos and accelerandos -- all building towards a furioso finale. Season 9 has its own identity: it’s like three one-act plays, like a series of miniatures. One act ends, and it's as if the lights dim, as they would in the theatre, and when the next act resumes, there are characters added, fresh story-lines to explore, and we begin the simmer-to-boil process anew.
The first nine episodes were shot directly after filming for Season 8 concluded (there was an impending Director’s Guild strike looming that summer, so all the Lorimar soaps got a headstart on their 1987-88 seasons); those nine episodes comprise the first act of Season 9, and given that there was no time for lengthy reflection between the two seasons, it’s all the more remarkable how the tone and focus of the show instantly change. Lechowick and Latham (along with story editors Lou & Dianne Messina) must have come to understand how far afield the show had gone because, in mapping out the Season 9 stories, they instantly course correct. Bad ideas that threatened to drag on indefinitely (is Paige really Mack’s daughter?) are tidily resolved in the first episode. Laura’s ire at Valene -- a leftover from the Jean Hackney nightmare, and a story beat that had gone nowhere -- is quickly addressed and resolved. (“This [past] year's been a bitch, hasn't it?”, Laura reflects, speaking for the viewers.) And although the season begins with a mystery, it’s not a plot-driven whodunnit that takes in the entire cast; it’s a character-driven story-line that focuses on three principals, adjusting the relationship between two of them and better developing the third.
The end of Season 8 had found Abby coming out of the ladies' room at the Lotus Point restaurant, wiping her hands dry, only to find her daughter Olivia kneeling over Senator Peter Hollister's lifeless body. Was Abby discovering Olivia's deadly deed, or was Olivia discovering Abby's? That's our expectation going into the summer months, that there'll a mystery to unravel. Instead, it becomes a character study for Abby and Olivia, each of them convinced the other committed the crime, and each willing to do almost anything in the name of self-sacrifice. The characters’ responses to the tragedy are beautifully in character: Abby is happy to let her daughter skip school, to ease her pain and calm her nerves, but the minute the police start to suspect Olivia, Abby’s all too willing to ship her off to a Swiss boarding school, over her daughter’s objections. We get to see Abby’s controlling nature at both its warmest and its chilliest — and ultimately, we see the pair bond in a lovely way that will become more meaningful later in the season, when the bond is severed. At the same time, the other characters’ responses to Peter’s death manage to be both spot-on and surprising -- the best possible combination. Gary, upon learning that Peter has been murdered, takes one look at Abby scurrying away and mutters, “She did it”: a marvelous miscalculation that reverberates through the cul-de-sac. Karen fares even worse: she believes Abby could've killed Peter, but doesn’t see her -- in her designer duds -- burying his body beneath the children’s playground at Lotus Point; she’s wrong on both counts. There’s playfulness in the unraveling of the Peter Hollister mystery that’s quite unlike anything we saw in Season 8; Season 9 instantly turns writer-driven absurdities into character-based ironies.
Meanwhile, just an episode-and-a-half after Peter’s body is discovered, Paige is woven into the mystery, and it becomes clear that, for the writers, Peter’s death is less a whodunnit and more about fixing the Paige Matheson problem. Nicollette Sheridan had appeared like a bolt out of the blue at the tail end of Season 7, and in her first full season, she had hijacked half the story-lines. Lechowick and Latham had never overseen the plotting of a soap before, and they went overboard trying to be clever: they delighted in keeping Paige's character and motives unclear. Is she good? Is she wicked? They even trotted out "Is she an impostor?" (And what's more, they cast her in a dual role: playing Paige in the present-day sequences and her mother Anne in flashbacks.) And that would all have been lovely if Sheridan had been up to the task at hand. But one can only imagine that the writers and producers were blinded by her looks, because they were catastrophically oblivious to her acting limitations. She had no capacity for even the most straight-forward of line-readings; her deliveries were alternately distant and smug, and she intruded everywhere, like visiting royalty.
In Season 9, the writers try to weave Sheridan back into the fabric of the show, and to find some softness beneath Paige's tough exterior. And they start in the aftermath of Peter's death, when Paige is having nightmares: putting up a brave front, but clearly falling apart. In Season 8, we understood little of Paige’s makeup. Here Mack, having to ponder the possibility that his daughter committed murder, reflects to Karen about Paige’s upbringing, confessing his fears that her being raised by the callous, self-possessed Winston family allowed her to grow up without a sense of morality. His own concerns help to humanize Paige. Where Paige is concerned, there are two forces at play at the top of Season 9: an attempt to get to the root of her shallowness and heartlessness, and a clear effort to have the rest of the cast stop treating her with kid gloves: to have the other characters call her out on her behavior, instead of wearing blinders that only served to make them look bad. Olivia dumps on Paige early in the season (it’s glorious); Abby and Sumner have their turn a few episodes later. But no one lays into her like her own father, once she’s confessed to being there when Peter died (it was an accident), but is unwilling to take responsibility for staying silent: “You're acting like this is a parking ticket. I want you to go to each and every one of these people that you hurt, and I want you to apologize. You think none of this matters? You think you're so far above everyone else that you don't have to play by the rules?”
Ultimately, everyone turns on Paige in the first set of episodes, as she's forced to come to terms with her role in Peter’s death — and then the writers backburn her for the rest of the first block. They reduce Sheridan to a supporting player, as she should have been all along; they send her back to the barracks and make her come up through the ranks. They'll welcome her back when they have something useful and appropriate for her to do; in the meanwhile, the refocusing of the show can accelerate. There’s some scrappiness in these early episodes — in particular, the introduction of Al, an elderly messenger boy who frequents Mack’s office, is pretty woeful; at one point, he turns Mack’s office into a homeless shelter, a plot that goes nowhere. But just as Lynn Latham had reset the tone in her season premiere, she returns in episode 5 to reset the story-lines -- and at that point everything falls into place. Lilimae meets Al, and you instantly understand why the character was created; Val gets a new lease on life -- a new car, a new 'do -- and lets it slip to Gary that the twins are his; Gary and Jill, who’d been at odds all season, kiss and make up, and more to the point, she starts to suspect that the real threat to her relationship with Gary isn’t Abby, but Val. These are all plot threads that will bear fruit beautifully as the season progresses. And at the end of episode 5, Laura shares her medical diagnosis, haltingly and hauntingly, with Greg.
The other Lechowick-Latham seasons seem guided by Lechowick’s talents and temperament; in other seasons, he writes the premiere, many of the early entries, and most of the concept episodes (e.g., Mack’s film director con, the rape monologues, the twin ghosts). Lechowick could be heavy-handed and portentous; his best episodes (“Her Letter,” “Good News, Bad News,” "Do Not Attempt to Remove") are usually the ones in which he lightens up. Latham had a softer voice: playful and oblique. It’s in a great part because key episodes fall to her in Season 9 that the whole season feels so unforced and welcoming. And because she sets the tone for the season, Lechowick’s episodes -- more infrequent and strategically placed -- hit their marks more often than not. His ham-fisted ironies and penchant for soliloquizing can be better utilized.
And such is the case as we transition from Latham’s “There Are Smiles,” in which Laura’s reveals her prognosis to Greg in an indirect manner that seems as much about Laura’s character as it does the terror that’s consuming her, into Lechowick’s “The Gift of Life,” which has her announcing at the episode’s start, “I have a brain tumor!" There's no starker demonstration of the difference between these two writers’ styles and approach -- but “The Gift of Life” also happens to be Lechowick at his best. The lightness of the season so far permits a weightier episode devoted to “Laura’s final days in Knots Landing.” And the writer-driven ironies -- and there are a lot of them -- never become oppressive; Lechowick and director Kate Swofford Tilley linger on them long enough to make their point -- then move on. And occasionally they bathe them in the sun. In a lovely understated scene, Laura and Greg go to a gallery so she can purchase a painting by a famous artist she admires, and instead she ends up taking home a canvas by a promising unknown — and paying the price she was prepared to offer the first artist. (That painting will remain a source of character and plot development long after Laura is gone.) And in the big centerpiece, Laura is thrown a surprise farewell party by colleagues and friends who merely think she’s leaving her job. The black humor piles up: the band that Karen's son hires to play starts their set with Johnny Flynn's “When I Get to Heaven (Will There Still Be Rock ‘n’ Roll?)"; Laura opens Karen’s parting gift, which turns out to be a watch — the worst possible gift for a woman whose time is running out. (“With a lifetime warranty,” Laura reads wryly. “Swell.”) And all the while her friends are telling her how lucky she is and wishing they were in her shoes; Laura even gets to suffer the indignity of having one last schlub hit on her. But interspersed with the gallows humor is a powerful montage of Greg making the rounds of doctors' offices, seeking out second opinions and treatment options, drowning in anger and self-pity. Ultimately, he leaves the last office to discover his car has been towed; he ends up sitting broken-hearted on a city bench, as life goes on around him, and a tear falls from behind his sunglasses.
As dire as Laura's story-line is, it never overwhelms the show; because Laura retains a cool head, the show can, too. At the end of the episode, Laura drives away, refusing to let Greg see her deteriorate; she’s determined to live out her final days in what she calls a “clinic,” but what would now be called a hospice. We don’t question her decision; Laura’s always been levelheaded -- we know that, and the writers know we know that. They use our trust in Laura’s judgment to ensure we accept her swift departure from Knots Landing — and because they get her off the canvas quickly, they can instantly resume the other plotlines in earnest. Gary and Val start to bond, as do Lilimae and Al, while Abby receives a surprise visit from her first love, Charles Scott. A week later, all these plotlines collide in a one-of-a-kind marvel called "Love In."
"Love In" is penned by Dianne Messina (one of the series' best writers, and regrettably, her sole contribution to Season 9), and it takes place over the course of one evening, as the principals engage in family dinners, first dates and romantic reunions. It's an episode full of flashbacks, but it's almost an apology for the string of uninvolving flashbacks that dismantled Season 8. These are about Karen and Abby, two of the most popular characters, whose backstories had never been explored. We see young Karen, fired up by '60s activism (when she's not steaming up the backseat of Sid's truck), a far cry from the contented suburbanite she's become; we see Sid's kid sister Abby, a junior-college coed, meet and date the upper-crust Charles Scott -- and then, when he's forced by his family to marry someone more suitable, swearing never again to lose her heart. (No one had thought to explain why Abby had grown so calculating by the time she joined the series in Season 2. Now we know.) In the present, Charles asks Abby to dinner, and in a gently overlapping montage, they catch each other up on twenty years, culminating in her cheeky request: "Tell me your life has been frustrating and lonely and unfulfilled all these years. Tell me your wife is a bore, and your work is meaningless, and your dog chews your slippers. You can spare me the details; just so I know that your life has been miserable, and that leaving me was the biggest mistake you ever made. Then I'll be happy." And his candid reply ("Let's make a toast. To the most miserable man in the world. Me.") makes us eager to see where the story-line takes us.
The evening also includes Gary and Val falling into old habits (including a lengthy good-night kiss), even though he's committed to Jill. Lilimae and Al enjoy a night of dancing, bonding over the commonalities of their generation. (Al: "That was my wife's favorite song." Lilimae: "You were married?" Al: "Who wasn't?"). And best of all, a family dinner at the MacKenzies turns hilariously uncomfortable when both of Karen's sons show up with guests: Eric, her oldest, returns from college newly married, with his (controlling) wife Linda in tow; Michael, her youngest, brings along his (clingy) girlfriend Jodi. It's a meddlesome mother's nightmare, and Michele Lee is at her most brilliant, digesting each dinner-table revelation (Jodi: "Do you think people should wait till they're married to have sex?" Linda: "We didn't.") and hiding her horror behind a frozen half-smile. Until finally, alone in the kitchen with Mack, as she wraps the leftovers, she lets loose:
Karen: Open the oven, blow out the pilot, turn on the gas... Those are my sons out there. I've loved them, I've nurtured them, and they do this to do. They bring those... those two women into my house to pontificate and paw.
And when Mack protests ("It's not that bad"), Karen demands, "Step aside," moves to the oven and turns on the gas. He turns it off; she turns it back on.
Mack: So your first impression was negative, so what? It doesn't mean you have to kill yourself.
Karen: Me? I'm not talking about me. Call those two women in here. Then we'll run out and toss in a match.
Mack urges her to "wait till you get to know them a little better," and Karen sees the light: "You're right. Then no one will blame me." And then she's back on a tear, furiously pacing the floor: "I am going to sue those boys for every penny I've ever spent on them. I just can't stand those -- " and in walks her new daughter-in-law Linda, gushing, "I'm just so happy to be a part of this family." And she hugs Karen, diffusing the situation, then returns to the dining room (but not before quizzically noting, "I smell gas"). And Karen stands there speechless: amusingly deflated and defeated.
"Love In" is the best evidence yet that Knots has gotten back on track. All of the stories are driven by the core characters, and they're relationship-based; for the first time in years, the show hasn't required the addition of madmen, criminals, con artists or kidnappers to generate plot. It's followed by "Flight of the Sunbirds," which ends with Greg receiving a late-night phone call. We hear only his end of the conversation, and little is disclosed, but when he makes his way into Meg's nursery and sighs, "It's just you and me, kid," we understand. Up to this point, Greg's been in denial, convinced Laura would return. (In some ways, even though TV Guide has announced McCashin's departure, we thought so too. Isn't that what soaps do: serve up "miracle cures"?) News of her death hits us as hard as it does him -- and then we cut to black: the end of Season 9, Act I.
We resume the following week at Greg's home, prior to Laura's funeral. But this isn't Act II just yet; this is intermission. It's a famous moment in Knots history, a gathering of the cast at creator David Jacobs' home, where they were asked to improvise -- in character -- their responses to Laura's death while the writers trailed them, notated their conversations, and then turned them into a pair of scripts. But what's been forgotten in the decades since its original airing is what a letdown the first part is. The decision was made to include only the remaining six series regulars in Part One (plus Laura's ex-husband Richard, returning for the first time in four years). The limited dynamics didn't yield an hour of good story -- but too often, once Lechowick and Latham got an idea in their heads, they stuck with it, however badly it played out. A pall hangs over the first episode, but not by design; it feels undernourished: as unintentionally awkward as gatherings like that are in real life. It’s a Lechowick effort, and all the conflicts feel manufactured. Richard’s umbrage that Laura was alone when she died is preposterous; it was a writer-driven decision — don't call attention to it. (“Why did Laura leave Knots Landing to die” is really never an issue for viewers until the characters start hammering away at it.) Val’s fury with Karen for not telling her Laura was dying (even though it was Laura's express wish that Karen keep silent) is equally contrived, as is Mack’s anger that Greg isn’t more grief-stricken. (People react differently to death; has he never figured that out? Karen could have wised him up with the story of how she spent five weeks in denial after Sid’s death, but that would deprive Lechowick of having Mack go off on a drunken spree at a funeral home.) Meanwhile, the flight containing Laura’s body is delayed, then her remains are delivered to the wrong mortuary. Ugh.
But all is redeemed by the second part, which resumes after the funeral, with the entire cast in tow. It's filled with the kind of razor-sharp exchanges and surprising shifts in tone on which Knots thrived; there might be nothing funnier in all of Season 9 than Sumner asking Jill if she’s enjoying the party, and Jill -- who’s been boozing it up since discovering her brother’s remains on Greg’s coffee table -- responding with brutal indifference, “Yeah. You might try a different theme next time.” (The episode also sets up key story-lines -- Jill’s isolation and despair, Mack’s thirst for a family -- that will dominate the remainder of the season.) The episode climaxes with the airing of a video Laura prepared, in which she makes requests of all her friends, then concludes with Sumner alone hearing her final words. Sumner came on the show as the smooth politician with the toothy grin, good at choosing his words and compartmentalizing his feelings; in one key scene, Laura urged him to "stop giving lip-service to having a passion for something and get passionate." And now he does. He breaks down, in a way he never permitted himself while she was alive: "You left me in a bad spot, Red. I don't know what you're trying to tell me. Why did you leave me all alone? I love you... I hope I don't end up hating you." Devane sobs uncontrollably -- and he's tremendous.
There are those fans who still say that killing off Laura was a bad move: some who go so far as to claim "the show never recovered." They're mistaken. Folks love Laura because Constance McCashin was a fine actress, and Laura was always there with a clever quip. But she hadn't had a plot to call her own in three years; she was mostly a sounding board for Greg. Once the writers had paired the characters, they had ultimately dead-ended her, and once Lechowick and Latham took over -- writers whose inclination was always to strip characters to their most dominant traits -- a character like Laura was bound to get lost in the shuffle. She didn’t easily reduce to type. And ironically, because Laura was the one who tamed Sumner when he went wild, he was never able to potentially ascend to the heights -- or more likely, descend to the depths -- that he could without her. But the writers had written themselves into a corner. Laura was the love of Greg's life. You couldn't just "split them up" -- we'd keep waiting for a reconciliation. It took Laura dying to unleash Greg.
After shooting the first block of episodes, the cast did their “Laura is dead” improvisation at David Jacobs’ house, then took a nine-week hiatus while the writers crafted the rest of the season. The time off shows: from a writing perspective, this next story block is pretty much flawless; it fulfills all the promise of the first nine episodes, as the six remaining principals become embroiled in all-too-human drama.
And that nine-week hiatus has one other benefit: Nicollette Sheridan re-emerges a far better actress. It’s startling how improved she seems when the second block begins. Part of it is how she’s used: sparingly, carefully. But the writing is canny: she’s transplanted to a local art gallery, where her aloof delivery sounds erudite rather than uncaring. She’s given a story-line -- pining after the Widower Sumner, in vain -- that plays to Sheridan’s own inability as an actress to connect with the core cast. And best of all, the writers gift her an old boyfriend, the charming 33-year-old soap "veteran" Peter Reckell, here imagined as an Irish rogue named Johnny Rourke. Reckell sparks Sheridan: he knows how to push her buttons -- and for the first time on the show, she seems engaged. She seems caught off guard, fighting for dominance, and it suits her. (There’s only one way the casting of Reckell goes awry: Lechowick and Latham conceive him as a singer -- they want to use him the way Lisa Hartman was used in Season 4, singing at a club and letting the lyrics comment on the ongoing story-lines -- but Reckell has a wretched voice. Fortunately, they only make him perform twice, and the first time is passable. But the second time around, when the show gives him such a build-up that even Greg Sumner turns up at the Lotus Point restaurant because, as he tells Abby, “My contacts among the younger generation tell me you have a decent singer here,” and then Johnny proceeds to massacre Art Garfunkel’s “All I Know,” you can practically hear Ciji Dunne rolling over in her grave.)
But back to the stories. The second block starts, boldly, with Val and Gary in bed, following (another?) night of love-making. “We shouldn’t be doing this,” she cautions him. He corrects her: “You mean, I shouldn’t be going home to another woman,” and she laughs. Gary’s willingness to cheat on Jill isn’t all that surprising -- he’s cheated on every woman he’s been involved with -- but Val’s smug complicity is. (That said, she had no problem bedding Gary in Season 5 even though she was forging a relationship with Ben.) Season 9 doesn’t romanticize its characters; like Season 5, it acknowledges that their flaws are part of what make them so fascinating. Val doesn’t think twice about sleeping with Gary — until Jill turns up to insist that she “could give Abby Ewing lessons in manipulation.” And just as Gary has spent his life determined not to turn into J.R., Val isn’t about to invite comparisons to Abby. She severs ties with Gary, inciting him to sue for custody. It’s two characters pushed to the brink, but it's grounded in years of backstory. She tells him, angrily but rationally, “I can't trust you in my life. Why should I trust you to be in my children's?” -- and who can blame her? Later on, they have a whale of a good fight in which she calls him out for being undependable, and he calls her out for being indecisive -- pretty much summing up their last five seasons on the show. And although the story-line gets histrionic when it needs to, it concludes with both characters acting reasonably and responsibly; it doesn’t rely on narrative sleights of hand to forge good drama, nor to bring it to a satisfying resolution.
The same could be said of the Greg-Mack-Karen story, in which Greg abandons his daughter Meg at the MacKenzies at regular intervals. The story doesn’t excuse Greg’s inability to raise Meg by harping on his heartbreak at losing Laura. On the contrary, in terms of being a single parent, he doesn’t seem so much terrified or out of his depth as merely disinterested. Greg never wanted another child; he has no desire to raise one on his own. But if Greg’s actions seem heartless, Mack’s are hardly selfless. He’s fulfilling his fantasy of raising a child -- the chance he never got with Paige -- and the abandon with which he throws himself into caring for Greg’s daughter is unnerving and a little unhealthy. And Karen sees that, but despite her clarity and best instincts, she gets caught up in the fantasy: “I was worried about you and Meg,” she confesses to Mack. “I was afraid you'd get too attached to her. I knew it would happen. It did. I just didn't think it would happen to me.” And that ultimately leads her back to Greg, where Karen -- at her most presumptuous and self-righteous -- suggests he give up Meg to the MacKenzies, insistent that she and Mack could care for her better than her own father. It’s the simplest of stories (“Mack and Karen care for Greg’s daughter”), but the emotional beats are so strong and so evenhanded -- propelling story through a clear understanding of the characters’ passions, frailties and failings -- that it’s fascinating to watch it all play out.
And of course, while Karen and Mack are struggling with Meg, they’re also dealing with the new family who’ve taken up residence in Laura's old house. The Williamses -- Frank and Pat and their daughter Julie -- make their first appearance in the second episode of the second block. They’re hiding out in witness protection, a situation revealed to us piece by piece through the course of next seven episodes. What’s remarkable is that, as good as the mystery is, it never dwarfs the characters. On the contrary, it deepens them. In an early episode, Pat is forced to call upon her doctor’s training, and Lynne Moody lets us see the elements of Pat’s personality that made her a successful surgeon. After the Williamses’ first dinner with the MacKenzies, Mack announces “He’s a cop,” reading his new neighbor Frank freakishly well, and as the episodes go by, it’s clear that Larry Riley has chosen to heighten traits in Frank that reflect his law enforcement background. It’s all beautifully considered. In the wrong hands, with the wrong treatment, the Williamses could have been a mere plot device, with skeletal characters who -- once their secret was unveiled -- receded into the background, having served their purpose. But the Williamses start vibrant and only get moreso; ironically, it’s a mystery-based storyline that’s arguably the most character-driven piece of scripting in the whole Lechowick-Latham catalog.
It’s a great story, too, for Mack and Karen, as it brings out the best and worst aspects of their personalities. As Karen’s nosiness gets the better of her (eavesdropping on her new neighbors through the open kitchen window and from behind the bedroom curtains), Mack refuses to get involved. But the minute she’s resolved to give the Williams family the benefit of the doubt, Mack’s professional instincts ignite his own suspicions. At first, we see the Williamses mostly through their interactions with the MacKenzies, so we’re furnished with the same clues as Karen and Mack, and when they jump to a conclusion, it seems reasonable. (In “Blushing Bride,” Karen serves up a solution that fits all the details we've seen so far: that Julie is a child from a previous marriage, and Frank and Pat didn't get custody, so they kidnapped her.) Then the writers flip the script: in the following episode, they let us in on the Williamses’ secret, and we wait for Karen and Mack to catch up. And from that point on, we no longer see the Williams family as a threat to the cul-de-sac; we see Karen and Mack as a threat to the Williams family. The writers work every angle.
On the surface, the Williamses’ initial story-line concludes in the second episode of the third block, when Pat has her day in court. But in fact, their story reaches its emotional climax three episodes earlier, when we learn their secret. After seven episodes of build-up, it falls to Moody to deliver the goods, and she does, magnificently. Moody proves to be an original. Her line-readings are fresh and surprising, and her inflections are dynamic; at times, each syllable seems pitched in a different octave. And in the aforementioned episode, “Lawfully Wedded,” Lechowick gives her a tour-de-force that exploits Moody’s singular ability to seem at once defiantly intelligent and vibrantly spontaneous, as she awakens to find WITSEC packing up her new home (Frank has convinced them that the MacKenzies pose a threat to their safety) and has to single-handedly make the case for staying on Seaview Circle. She pleads with Frank: “Honey, I would rather take a chance with people that I like, and I like these people, and I believe that they like us too. In fact, that's why they seem nosy to us, because they're interested in us, and they're just lousy at hiding it. They don't lie well. Honey, I like people who don't lie well.” The WITSEC officer tries to interrupt, and Moody drops her voice down an octave: “Shut up.” And then back to Frank, in a higher register, “Honey, what if our next set of neighbors are good liars? Then we wouldn’t even know if they were lying or not. Wouldn’t that be more of a threat?" And when the WITSEC officer insists that they leave immediately, or she can’t guarantee their safety, Moody’s voice drops again; her manner becomes stiffer and her delivery slower: “Don’t even bother to finish this little I-don't-know-if-I-can-guarantee whatever. I mean, when have you been able to guarantee us anything? You think we feel secure with you around?”
It’s a three-minute monologue that takes on everything from the family’s safety to Pat’s sanity to their daughter’s future. (“Honey, we have an obligation to give our daughter the very best life that we can. A normal life. I mean, look at how she’s changed. Look at how shy she is. I don’t want her to be afraid of everything. I want her to have friends. I want her friends to come to the house. I don’t know, Frank, I want her to play hopscotch on the sidewalk because it’s her sidewalk. And when she gets older... We have to find a place to live so that when she gets older, she remembers it, and she says, ‘Yes, that’s the neighborhood I grew up in, and I liked it.’”) Lechowick takes Moody through wild, wonderful shifts of emotion that she navigates triumphantly. It’s quite simply one of the best pieces of footage the show ever shoots: a bravura piece of writing and acting that goes way beyond “explaining” the Williams family; it characterizes them so vividly -- as the family they were and the family they’ve been forced to become -- that we’re fully prepared to welcome them into the cul-de-sac even before their neighbors are.
Finally, the “Abby reunites with her first love” story-line, as scripted, is a splendid showcase for Donna Mills. There’s really only one problem with it: the chemistry between Donna Mills and Michael York just isn't there. York is a rare case of the show resorting to stunt casting, and it’s a piece of stunt casting that doesn’t pay off -- at least not initially. There's a scene in “Weak Moment,” the start of the second block, where they're having a quarrel, as the past comes back to haunt them; fury then turns to desire, and they wind up in bed. It’s a common soap contrivance, and it should have worked as scripted, but as it plays out, it feels like -- as the episode title suggests -- a weak moment. (Rare for Mills, she flubs a key line.) York and Mills, left to themselves, can't seem to find a common rhythm: you see them trying, like two pros, but they never quite convince as former lovers rediscovering their youthful passion.
But once Eileen Barnett is folded into the mix (as Charles' wife Judith), everything clicks. (Judith and Abby are a study in contrasts: Judith is old-world money, whereas Abby only stole Gary's fortune in the last couple of seasons.). From there the story-line takes off, and Mills hits wonderfully unexpected notes along the way. When Judith first appears at Lotus Point, Abby rushes into the ladies room, humiliated, and Mills’ face is infused with sadness — she can’t believe that she let her guard down again, that she allowed herself, once more, to be so vulnerable to Charles. (Her face says, “Have I learned nothing?”) When Judith crashes a party that Charles has arranged to introduce his friends to Abby, and paints Abby as a nouveau riche home-wrecker, you see Abby’s shaken realization that for all she’s achieved, there’s one thing her money can’t buy: pedigree. And once Abby discovers that Charles has been conning her, and pulls off a coup to get even (neatly reminiscent of how she disposed of her first husband in Season 3's "The Surprise"), Mills attacks the material with renewed vigor. Instructing a private investigator to check out Charles’s business holdings and investment portfolio (“I want to know more about Charles Scott than he does himself”), she’s met with resistance. That’s going to be hard to do, the PI insists: very hard. Abby’s peremptory reply: “The next time you see a laborer up on a roof mopping hot tar for minimum wage, call me. Tell me how hard your job is.” The Abby-Charles story may start tepid, but by the time it ends, Donna Mills is on fire.
Act II ends with Val and Gary settling their custody dispute, and Greg leaving Meg (permanently) with the MacKenzies. And Abby breaking things off with Charles, but making off with a wedding gift he's given her, to expand the Lotus Point marina. And from there, we launch into Act III: the final set of stories. The first episode -- Latham’s again -- sets up everything we need to take us through the rest of the season: Olivia meeting Harold; Gary quitting Lotus Point, and Abby and Karen going into business with Manny; Jill’s dissatisfaction with Gary’s and Val's new arrangement -- and the introduction of Mrs. Bailey, the forger with whom Jill ultimately strikes a deal. And it's here, in the third block, that things simultaneously get even better and much, much worse.
Worst first. The young characters on Knots Landing had been getting a lot of screentime, and quite a bit of attention from the press; CBS, it was reported, considered spinning them off. In the third act of Season 9, Paige, Johnny and Michael are given their own plot, sort of a try-out to see if they could sustain their own series. How do they do? Well, let's just say there was no spin-off. It's not the actors' fault: the writers fail them. They ship the younger cast members off to Mexico, and entangle them in a plot about an archaeological dig in danger of being shut down. It's the furthest thing from what Knots does best; suddenly we're in Hollywood's version of a Mexican village, where chickens scurry through dirty streets and distressing South-of-the-Border stereotypes litter the landscape, and we’re asked to care whether some pre-Colombian artifacts can be saved. After two dozen episodes where the focus has been gratifyingly tight, now our screen is cluttered with bland archaeology students spouting cliched banter like (in reference to Paige) “I say that woman’s gonna marry me and bear my children” and “Wonder how long she’s gonna last?” “Until she breaks her first nail” -- plus the requisite local federales eager to accept multiple bribes and given to broken-English aphorisms like “Next to a frog, a cat looks big, but next to a horse..” And while our head is swimming at the horrifying wrong turn the show has taken, we learn that it's cocaine dealers who want to shut down the dig (to build a highway through the town), and we’re forced to sit through episodes of mob intimidation, as they plant deadly snakes in sleeping bags, and taint the water supply with the remains of a dead dog, and ultimately resort to kidnapping and murder.
Meanwhile, doubling our misery, the same criminals -- back up north in Knots Landing -- are trying to smuggle their drugs through Abby's expanded marina, and Karen, Mack, Abby and Gary are stranded in their own mob-related drama. And literally stranded: the government official they contact advises them to “do nothing,” and further warns them, “You blow the whistle now and [the Feds will] make this look like you operate the drug ring.” So four of our six principals are saddled with a story-line in which their biggest acting challenge is to make sitting around look interesting. It's a terrible comedown, after the first two-thirds of the season have been so character-driven, to see the show return to the kind of gangster-ridden melodrama that had been plaguing it the past few years, and to see the core characters reduced to props.
Only one of the young characters emerges from the end of Season 9 unscathed (she gets in and out of Mexico fast); Tonya Crowe gets another chance to shine as Abby's daughter Olivia. The young actress had proven someone to watch as early as Season 5, where -- at the mere age of 13 -- she'd had a raw and riveting breakdown when Gary was thought dead. In Season 8, she had the one great plotline, as her addiction to cocaine pitted mother against daughter. In Season 9, at the top of Act III, Olivia gets a boyfriend, Harold Dyer; unfortunately, unbeknownst to her, he's the nephew of the man looking to smuggle drugs through Lotus Point. Paul Carafotes is perfectly cast as Harold: you believe he'd fall for a mixed-up girl like Olivia -- you believe he'd find and bring out the best in her -- and you also believe he's the kind of guy who'd drop her off after a date, then go break someone's arm for being late on a payment. He's equal parts sweet and sinister, but Carafotes plays the "sweet" so sincerely, he makes you quite willing to overlook the sinister. And Crowe is remarkable: we're used to seeing her troubled; now the actress shows she can be just as compelling playing something as conventional as a teenager in love. Here she is pouring out her heart to her mother about Harold, at a time when TV teenagers still talked like teenagers:
I never thought that I would ever meet anyone like him. You know, after you got divorced, and then I got on drugs, I never thought that I would not be depressed. I was miserable all the time. I was beginning to think that I would be miserable for all my life. But I know with Harold I won't be. I am never miserable when I'm with him.
As Olivia gets happier, you get get happier for her -- she's that radiant. And yet, because you know she's being set up for a fall (you just don't know who's going to give her the final push), your heart goes out to her. And when the ultimate betrayal comes from her own mother, with whom she had forged such a lovely new bond at the start of the season, the devastation is complete. In the following episode, she starts to part with the things she loves, in preparation -- we intuit -- for committing suicide. As stunning as Crowe’s turn as a coked-out teen was in Season 8, this showcase seems somehow an even more impressive piece of acting -- perhaps because the situation feels that much more universal, yet Crowe imbues it with such specificity. Olivia has all the earmarks of a potential teen suicide: she feels powerless, and she feels unloved. The actress fully convinces you that she sees Harold as her one chance for happiness, even though they’ve only known each other for four episodes, and that once he’s gone -- and once she fully realizes the lengths to which her mother will go to control her -- she has nothing left to live for. (Crowe and Carafotes are never again given the chance to shine like this; the writers soon forget what made them special, and write them off after another season-and-a-half.) Olivia’s story-line is a stunner, and it’s only failing is that it climaxes too soon, clearing the way for even more Santa Tecla dreariness.
But the best-remembered plot in the final third of the season concerns Jill, who's tired of playing second fiddle to Gary's exes: Val in particular. In the first episode of the final block, she sets a trap to convince Val that her husband Ben is coming home. Her thinking: that Val will be so busy readying for Ben's return that she'll leave Gary alone. Except the plan backfires: the longer Ben stays missing, the more Val turns to Gary for support. So Jill adapts: for a while, it appears her new objective is to drive Val mad. Then after a few episodes, she determines that the only way to keep Val out of Gary's life is to murder her. Jill had been introduced three years earlier as a schemer and a flirt, but over time, as her brother Peter became more ruthless, she'd been the one holding the moral compass, taking him to task for each transgression. But since Peter's death, Jill had been pursuing a darker path -- we simply had no idea how dark.
In 1988, the devolution of Jill's character (and the lengths to which she goes to set up her alibi and commit "the perfect crime") felt recklessly invigorating. Now, on rewatching, the holes show. You can't pinpoint when Jill's plans evolve; they seem to switch gears without exposition or explanation. There's so much time wasted in Santa Tecla, Jill gets short shrift; the third and fourth episodes from the season's end, which could've helped clarify Jill’s shifting state of mind and motives, are pretty much turned over to the pre-Columbian dig. At one point, Jill steals Val's house key and has a copy made, but we don't know why; later on, she secretly fills Val's prescription for flurazepam, but we're not told to what end. We're not made privy to Jill's thinking at all -- but suddenly she's launching into a carefully premeditated plan to dispose of Val (complete with gun and wig and rental car, not to mention a conveniently scheduled convention in San Francisco), as if the whole thing has been percolating in her mind for weeks, and we've been deliberately kept in the dark. So ultimately, her story-line is riveting because of the steps we watch her take once her plan is formulated, not because of the events along the way -- and her responses to them -- that convince her to formulate that plan. It’s the sort of story-telling that derives its kick from plot points rather than character beats, and although -- as noted -- it’s gripping on first watch, it’s an unfortunate break from the way most of the season has been scripted.
Season 9, for the most part, has played scrupulously fair with us. Whereas Season 8 had consistently hidden key plot points for maximum impact (so much so that the writers' tactics eventually became frustrating and predictable), Season 9 has allowed the richness of the characters to provide the suspense and seemingly drive the action. But while the Jill-Val story-line starts as a character-driven piece of plotting ("How do I keep Gary from spending time with Val?"), it ends as a writer-driven one. There is a difference between distracting a woman with forged letters and actually killing her, but the writers don't seem interested in exploring the steps that get Jill from Point A to Point B. Her shifting emotions become less important than the plan she ultimately hatches. In the episode where we most need to understand what's going on inside her head, the focus is on Paige's efforts to use a pre-Colombian statue she swiped from an art gallery to stop the highway construction. Paige, who admits to Johnny that this is the first time in her life she's done something that feels truly important, actually gets better motivation in these final episodes than Jill. And that is troubling.
What the shift from a character- to a plot-driven story-line means is that there are certain elements that are distressingly unclear, because the element of surprise has been achieved by keeping the character’s motivations a secret. (It’s a writing choice that will come to dominate and ultimately decimate the Lechowick and Latham era; we’ll next see it emerge when Sumner buys an engagement ring, then proposes to Abby instead of Paige.) At the top of “The Perfect Alibi,” Jill is playing with the twins and grills Bobby into blithely confessing that his mommy and Uncle Gary sometimes kiss; this information so unnerves Jill that she goes rummaging through Gary’s shirts until she can confront him with some perceived evidence of infidelity. Ultimately, she counters his denials by announcing she’s going out of town for a conference. On first watch, it seems those incidents are the last straw for Jill: the trigger for putting a scheme in motion. But once you then see how much of the apparatus was already in place, it’s clear she’s been at this for weeks, and that her plan to dispose of Val had to happen that night, while she was supposedly in San Francisco. So what were the scenes at the dollhouse and rifling through Gary’s clothes about? Was she merely pretending to get upset to give herself an excuse to leave town, to thereby furnish herself with an alibi? And that front-door key of Val’s that Jill duplicated; was that to retrieve Val’s answering machine tape, so no one could further scrutinize it, or to drive Val crazy by letting her think she imagined the message? Or to give Jill access to Val’s house once it was time to kill her? It’s never explained.
The story-line comes to a head in the season finale, when Jill forces Val to take an overdose of sleeping pills (at gunpoint) while showing her a forged suicide note she’s prepared. The actresses’ long confrontation is shatteringly played, but a problematic piece of scripting. It's a Lechowick script, and he clearly wants the episode to be all things: tense, powerful, arty, even funny where possible -- he wants it to be his masterpiece. But he can't formulate a tone and approach that will allow him to accomplish all that. So while the actresses are flawless, the dialogue itself is an odd mix of naturalistic exchanges and others that feel clipped and artificial:
Jill: You are going to kill yourself.
Val: I won't.
Val: I won't.
Jill: What won't you?
Val: I will not --
Jill: What won't you do, Valene?
Val: -- kill myself.
And interspersed throughout are jokes, as when Jill reads the prescription off the bottle of pills she's going to force Val to take: "'Valene Gibson. Flurazepam. 30 milligrams. One capsule at bedtime as needed. Expiration date.' We don't need the expiration date, do we, Val? One capsule at bedtime as needed. I think we're gonna need some tonight." And then, reminding Val that she could just as easily shoot her, she reiterates her preference for the overdose option: "It's better than 'bang' -- I mean, they could replace the wallpaper, but they'd have to replace the carpet, too."
Yes, it's funny, and even memorable, but is the character being clever, or the writer? Jill has already made a few careless mistakes (e.g., losing her wallet on the plane), and perhaps as a result, she's now being aggressively monomaniacal in her confrontation with Val. ("What you will do is what I tell you to do, and I am telling you to sit!!") Would she really let down her guard long enough for extended quips? At times it feels like two scripts were written -- a campy one and a serious one -- and what we're seeing is an uneasy amalgam of the two.
And the timeline is a mess. If Jill doesn’t leave the convention hall till 8 PM, there’s no way she gets to the cul-de-sac before midnight — yet soon after her arrival at Val’s, Frank brings Julie by to babysit, so Val can join Frank and Pat for movie night. Talk about a late, late show. (And once her confrontation with Val is over, the other plotlines resume, and Mack, Karen, Gary and Abby are busy scheming in what they keep calling “the middle of the night,” because if the writers admitted it was 4 AM, these pre-dawn activities would seem even more preposterous than they already do.) And there’s no way Jill drives back to the airport after poisoning Val, parks her car, gets to the gate, discovers her flight has been cancelled, motors all the way back to San Francisco (depositing her car where?) and arrives at her hotel room any time before 10 AM — but as staged, it’s clear she makes it back before her 8:30 wake-up call. The defects don’t undermine the conception, but they do weaken the execution. Throughout Knots’ long run, you’re perfectly willing to overlook glitches and oddities — to cut story-lines slack when they’re working (and this is definitely a story-line that works) — but that said, for a pair of episodes that laud themselves, without irony, as dramatizing a crime so well-planned it could be considered “perfect,” there’s an annoying inattention to detail.
Jill's "Perfect Alibi" and "Perfect Crime" are dazzling in design, but just a touch less so in execution -- diminished ever so slightly by the sort of writer-driven idiosyncrasies and self-congratulatory excesses that would come to stain Lechowick and Latham's tenure on Knots. And that said, whatever you think of the Jill-Val cliffhanger, its impact is unquestionably lessened by it having to share airtime with the deadly dull doings in Santa Tecla, which dominate the final 15 minutes of the season finale. (Tellingly, when CBS reran the final two episodes during the summer of 1989, they merged them into one episode by cutting all the Santa Tecla tedium and focusing only on the Jill-Val storyline.)
Season 9 ends with Jill holding a gun to Val's head and car bombs detonating in Mexico, but the season doesn't go out with a bang; instead, it ends with a distressing whimper, as the characters become embroiled in the kind of cheap theatrics the rest of the season had assiduously avoided. But the disappointments that cloud the end of Season 9 don't detract from the season's very real accomplishments. For most of its length, the show has gotten back on track, after a couple unrecognizable years.
And ultimately, the moments that linger in the mind aren't the mobster melodrama, or the self-conscious scripting of some of the Jill-Val story-line. It's the lighter moments. It's the subtler moments. It's Abby and Olivia, when they finally figure out that neither was responsible for Peter's death, twirling off into the breaking Pacific waves, as we hear Olivia in voice-over, "Oh Mom, we gotta start talking to each other more often." It's the oblique way Laura chooses to share her diagnosis with Karen, when they're out shopping for dresses for Meg, and Laura insists on buying enough outfits to last her daughter the next five years: "I have to plan ahead." (Karen asks, blithely, "Why?" -- then, seeing the answer on Laura's face, her own face darkens.) It's watching Paige preen before the mirror, dressing to impress -- and when she emerges from her bedroom, certain she’s irresistible, being told, "You've got a run in your stockings." (And when she hurriedly changes, her step-brother further deflates her: "I liked the other outfit.") It's Karen and Pat bonding on a shopping spree, in which Karen is convinced to buy a leather miniskirt, and it's Abby smirking in amusement during the business meeting that follows, as Karen fidgets in her chair, trying to conceal her exposed legs from a new client. (Abby, post-meeting, offers her some advice: "Don't be a slave to fashion.")
And it's moments like this one. Midseason, Gary is suing Val for visitation and has enlisted Jill to represent him. And Jill subpoenas Karen to testify, as Karen is well aware that Gary is the twins' father. But Val phones Karen, prior to the deposition, terrified at the havoc Gary could wreak if he's allowed into the twins' lives. She asks Karen -- begs Karen -- to lie under oath: to deny that Val ever told her that Gary is the father of her children. And later that episode, we're at the deposition, and the lawyer, referencing Val, asks Karen, "Did she tell you who is the biological father of those twin babies?” Karen responds, “Yes,” and then comes the big question: “Whom did she name?” As we hold on her face, we realize we have no idea what Karen will say. In the previous season, Karen had been kidnapped, held hostage, and almost burned alive; none of it was as bracing as simply watching her wrestle here with a moral dilemma: should she lie under oath for her best friend? And miraculously, Knots Landing has reduced back down to the kind of human proportions where a moment like this feels...well, momentous. That's the beauty of Season 9, and a bunch of mobsters and a gunpoint suicide near the end can't undo it. For a brief time, Knots Landing has gotten real again. It's felt like the show you first fell in love with. There are five seasons left -- and there are some breathless highs to come -- but Knots won't recapture that "welcome home" feeling until it’s nearly time to say goodbye.
Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 1, which establishes the characters and struggles to set the tone; Season 2, which pretty much mucks up everything; Season 3, in which the show finally masters the challenges inherent in its premise; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 5, the show's annus mirabilis; Season 6, one of the series' best story-lines, and perhaps its greatest acting showcase; Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; Season 8, in which the characters return, but the plotting goes haywire; Season 10, the year the ratings rose; Season 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; Season 12, a shot of pure adrenaline that soon fades; Season 13, an epic fail, and an epic save; and Season 14, in which Ann Marcus, who'd guided the series during a critical time in its history, gives it a glorious send-off.