Monday, May 22, 2017

Knots Landing season 1

Knots Landing premiered on CBS in 1979 and remained there till May of 1993; by the time it went off the air, it had become the second longest-running drama series in network history. Creator David Jacobs conceived of four married couples living in a cul-de-sac in Southern California. CBS countered, "If we're going to do domestic drama in primetime, let's try something a little more high-stakes, with a bit more sweep," so Jacobs set aside Knots Landing for a spell. Instead, he gave CBS the saga they wanted, the oil-driven Dallas (that paean to American greed and grit) -- and once Dallas blossomed into a hit, CBS suggested he revisit Knots Landing, remodeling it as a spin-off. Jacobs complied with relative ease, taking two of the characters featured at the top of Dallas's second season, Lucy Ewing's parents, and -- with just a few appearances in Season 3 -- advancing their story enough that they could resettle in Southern California, becoming one of the four couples in the cul-de-sac. The pilot fell quickly into place.

Knots Landing was given a midseason launch in December of 1979 and a 13-episode order. (Back when shows ran uninterrupted from September to March, without reruns, December was considered mid-season.) Dallas had begun as a five-part miniseries -- standalone episodes that established the core characters and their relationships -- then slowly, once it was picked up for a second season, went serialized, and Jacobs adopted that approach once more: conceiving the first season as self-contained episodes with the occasional continuing thread. By the end of Season 1, the eight principals would hopefully be well defined and developed.

But what was the tone of the show to be? Dallas, by the time Knots premiered, was in the midst of one of its best seasons (the one that culminated in J.R.'s shooting) and had established a larger-than-life world where insults were hurled with as much glee as malice, and threats were never empty. Jacobs' inspiration for Knots was something else entirely: it was Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage, the Swedish filmmaker's groundbreaking look at the dissolution of a relationship over a 10-year period. A six-part miniseries that aired in the spring of 1973 (and was later condensed for theatrical release), Scenes took an unflinching look at issues ranging from adultery to assault. It was such a sensation that the streets of Sweden were empty on Wednesday nights: everyone was at home watching TV. (It was the kind of cultural phenomenon that was duplicated here when the fourth season of Dallas got underway in the fall of 1980.) Social historians speculated that the series was a contributing factor to Sweden's rising divorce rate, as it had taught couples how to face their marital troubles and articulate their grievances.

And so, a few years after Scenes From a Marriage took Sweden by storm, American audiences were treated to a show that approached its level of intimacy and insight. In the pilot episode, a daughter returns home and proceeds to wreak havoc on the family unit -- in particular, the parents' marriage. The script is careful not to overflow into melodrama, or tread the tropes of soap opera; there are no excesses in the writing or the playing. And the exposition -- this is a pilot, after all, introducing a host of characters -- is beautifully disguised, much of it delivered during an argument between the two parents, who offer the sort of conflicting memories and pronouncements typical of a lifetime spent together. A simple recitation of the dialogue doesn't begin to do the episode justice, but I can't not recount a portion of it. The wife has urged the husband not to be drawn into the daughter's drama. She tries to reason with him, firmly but without fury: "She's not helpless. For her sake, you must not allow her to manipulate you like this." And only when he's unmoved does a discussion about their daughter turn into a fight: a fight in which, notably, neither party raises their voice. The husband begins by digging in:

-- Why do you have to be so tough on her?
-- Because you never are. You think she's just perfection. Well, believe me, she does have just a few little faults. One of them is she wants everything.
-- What does that mean: everything?
-- Well, four years ago, she's just dying to be Mrs. Jeff Maitland III. She threw over everything, quit school, grabbed him up --
-- She grabbed him up?
-- and married him. Then she wanted a baby. Now she parks the baby for a week at a time. Then she wanted to go back to school. Now she's playing hooky from school. She thinks she can reverse field anytime she wants. Well, she can't.
-- How can you possibly condone what he did? Fooling around with one of her friends? What kind of humiliation do you expect her to take from him, and still go on with the marriage?
(a pause)
-- Exactly the kind I took from you.
(another pause)
-- That was twenty years ago. Don't you ever let it go? Don't you ever forget?
-- Oh, I forget most of the time. When I remember -- when sometimes I do remember about you and Margaret, it hurts just as much as it did then. And I hate you for it just as much as I did then.
-- Well, that's stupid -- and destructive --
-- That's right. I don't see that Jeff's behavior is that much different from yours. And I wonder if Nancy hasn't given him more reason. I married a man. She married a boy. If he's still a boy after four years of marriage, maybe it's partly her fault.
-- Kate, what about the baby? She doesn't want the baby.
-- If I got rid of a baby every time I thought I didn't want it, we wouldn't have much of a family.
-- You don't mean that.
-- Don't presume to tell me what I mean! I'm 46 years old, I've born three children. Some of the time in those pregnancies, I wanted out. It's the body that makes the baby and hangs onto it for nine months. Why don't men understand that sometimes women just want out?

The episode takes on infidelity, incompatibility, abortion and abuse without breaking a sweat. It was probably the best one-hour pilot that network TV had seen up to that point.

Unfortunately, that wasn't Knots Landing. That was ABC's Family, which premiered to a 40 share in the spring of 1976. That was Family, which (like Dallas) began as a miniseries, and which -- in its first crop of episodes alone -- had taken on teen pregnancy, the plight of the elderly, and the rise in suburban crime: using those issues to focus in on the family unit, revealing resentments simmering beneath the surface. That was Family, on which David Jacobs had served as story editor from the middle of the second season through the end of the third.

Because Knots Landing had a near record-breaking run, because it continues to turn up in syndication cycles around the globe, and because its fan base has remained passionate, it's nice to imagine it was somehow "significant" or "groundbreaking." It's nice to imagine that Jacobs -- at a time when most hour-long series were cop shows, murder mysteries, or period pieces -- pioneered the first contemporary domestic drama, one that was candid and uncompromising in its look at the challenges facing the American family (without, à la Eight Is Enough, coddling the audience into submission). But actually, he'd already schooled on a series that did just that.

And thus, the most surprising thing about the first season of Knots Landing isn't so much what it achieves as how long it takes to get there -- how long it takes Jacobs to find the proper tone, given that he'd come from a show that had established that very tone in episode 1: where characters are self-aware enough to resist talking in circles, as they do on soap operas, and where they're rounded enough to avoid falling into the traps of melodrama. A show that refrains from characters who are cloying or conclusions that are too convenient.

Is it a coincidence that the pilot for Knots Landing also features a daughter returning home to wreak havoc on a family, with the mother begging the father to see her for what she is? Probably. But more notable is the fact that the pilot is not very good. Neither is the second episode. Knots Landing requires patience. (And admittedly, lots of great shows don't hit their stride for several episodes, sometimes until the second or third season -- but those shows aren't aspiring to be another Scenes From a Marriage, from a writer coming off the next best thing.) And it's not just that the Season 1 episodes vary wildly in quality; they vary wildly in style and substance. Small wonder, as the writers chosen to contribute scripts are a mystifying lot. When Dallas premiered with its five-part miniseries, Jacobs penned two episodes, and two of the others were by writers -- Art Lewis and Camille Marchetta -- who'd continue with the show when it was picked up for a second season. But Knots Landing Season 1 is littered with free-lancers who'll never return to the series, most of them with few or no credits to their name. And the few seasoned pros -- Clyde Ware and Jack Turley -- had nothing in their resumés to suggest they'd be suitable. (When the season first aired, I recognized Turley's name from Lost in Space; I guess you could classify Lost in Space as a domestic drama, but it would be a stretch.) Obviously, all the episodes went through Jacobs' typewriter before reaching the set, but wouldn't it have been better to have a few writers with experience on staff, and what's more, a few with some understanding of the format and tone? Because oh, how that tone teeters from episode to episode.

Every time a Dallas character turns up for a ratings-driven cameo (J.R. in episode 2, Lucy in episode 6), Knots broadens its acting style to accommodate them. Larry Hagman and Charlene Tilton were crossing over from a top-10 series; you weren't going to ask them to rethink their roles. (It's doubtful Tilton would know how.) But you're aware of a mismatch in tone that throws Knots off its game. Hagman's episode sets up a battle between the Knots residents and J.R., who's engaged in off-shore drilling; it's the kind of hokum that Dallas thrived on, and sometimes, the Ewings of Texas aren't required for Knots to engage in an Old West showdown. In episode 7, a biker gang targets and terrorizes the cul-de-sac: tossing garbage onto their lawns, egging their houses, pouring oil in the street. The episode culminates in a full-scale brawl where Knots Landing's model citizen Sid Fairgate -- elsewhere a reservoir of reason -- beats up one of the gang members, then declares, in a sort of epiphany, "I feel great! I feel terrific!" In domestic drama, apparently, there's nothing so awful that a little violence can't solve it.

Some episodes are pure soap opera, as when Sid's ex appears, after twenty years, to win him back. As if serving up the sudsiest cliches of the genre, "Civil Wives" ends with two women -- Sid's wife and his ex -- going at each other across the kitchen table, with lines that stoop to the banalities of daytime drama: "I want you to know, you didn't win. I lost. I moved too fast. Next time you may not be so lucky." You practically expect an organ to punctuate each line: "You versus me -- that was a fair fight -- you didn't have to make it dirty." (The episode sets back the women's movement about twenty years.) The following episode succumbs to all the same cliches and conventions, as the cul-de-sac's youngest wife, Ginger, is being sent anonymous gifts that remind her of an incident from her past. (Cue organ music.) She's surrounded by a freak show (the fellow teacher who lives with his mother, the school janitor auditioning for an early draft of Sling Blade) and suspects them all -- but ultimately, she discovers it's the mother of the boy who got her pregnant when she was in her teens, who's sending her reminders of the child she aborted. (The child's father died shortly after, in Vietnam.) And although an effort is made to speak to the lingering pain of abortion (and the women's shared sense of loss), the stench of soap opera runs roughshod over it, as the mother lashes out at Ginger, "You killed my grandchild, and you killed my son!"

Even the best episodes occasionally fall prey to cheap theatrics. In episode 5, Val Ewing's mother Lilimae turns up, played by Julie Harris. It's a good Jacobs script (far superior to his pilot) that keep pointing to the direction he wants to take Knots, as Lilimae's return prompts each of the women in the cul-de-sac to reflect on -- and in some cases, re-examine -- their relationships with their own mothers. (A couple of those plot snippets turn into full episodes over the following seasons. You start to feel Jacobs painting a broader canvas than you'd expected, and you're encouraged.) And when Valene's animosity towards her mother resurfaces, Joan Van Ark and Julie Harris tear into each other, in as virtuosic an acting display as Knots Landing will see in its first few years. But once we launch into flashbacks of their backstory from Dallas -- replete with a teenaged Valene running through the dark woods, baby in tow, trying to stave off J.R.'s henchmen -- it all feels a bit overdone and foolish. And at the end, when Val tells her mother "I love you" as she drives off, it feels like a tacked-on happy ending; is it really that easy to get beyond decades of hurt? (The third season's fourth episode will answer the question: no.) Through most of its first season, Knots is a show practically thirsting for identity.

In fact, for an idea that had been percolating for years before it made its way to the small screen, the first season of Knots is strangely skeletal. Of the eight characters, only five of them seem well-formed when we meet them, and two of those -- Val, the country girl, and Gary, the surly middle Ewing -- had already been introduced on Dallas. The men fare far better than the women. Car dealer Sid Fairgate, the calm center of every storm: the husband, father and friend who doesn't have all the answers, but will always be there with a solution. Lawyer Richard Avery, the upwardly-mobile wannabe, always looking for an angle: the kind of weasel who'll take you to a three-martini lunch, then bill you for it. And hotshot record producer Kenny Ward, with his perfectly coiffed hair and shirt buttoned just north of the navel: the guy who loves his wife, but hasn't decided how he feels about being married. They're types, but they're good ones, consistently drawn, and even the worst of the free-lancer writers have no trouble nailing them.

But these women -- who are they? It's staggering how ill-defined Karen, Laura and Ginger are in the early episodes. Constance McCashin, who played Laura Avery, has admitted in interviews that there was basically no conception of her character when the show went into production (surprising given the role was written for her). She's the lucky one. Jacobs' pilot introduces Karen Fairgate (played by Michele Lee) as a shrew, resentful of the arrival of her husband's daughter Annie and barking orders at him: "Either she goes tomorrow or I do -- with the kids!" In interviews, Jacobs, asked to account for Karen's shrieking through most of the pilot, postured that since the show was a spin-off of Dallas, everyone would wonder who "the J.R." was, so he designed the pilot to suggest that Knots' villain-you-love-to-hate might be Karen. It's a lovely story for those who believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Tidal Energy. There's no reason to think this wasn't exactly how Jacobs imagined Karen, and she's screechy-awful. If I were Valene and Gary Ewing, moving in next door to this harridan, I'd book the next flight back to Dallas. (Val and Gary consider it.) Small wonder that Variety labeled the pilot "trashy domestic drama" that retains "the raunchy behavior patterns and bad taste of the original," probably not the response that the man who imagined himself paying homage to Ingmar Bergman was looking for. (Unlike Scenes From a Marriage, the pilot episode of Knots Landing did not ignite cultural changes in American society, but it's said the purchase of ear-plugs increased dramatically during the first commercial break.) And yes, there's a glorious scene where Valene, who's never seen the ocean, gets her first look and, removing her shoes, runs joyously through the water. It will become one of the show's iconic moments, but it's not what lingers by the end of the first episode. What lingers is a land where people yell a lot.

The writers take a while to get a handle on Karen, and Lee does too; often her reactions seem shrill and strident: too much for the moment. She and Don Murray have chemistry, but when they go at it, it's always her thrusting and him parrying -- and he's so laid back, and so secure in his beliefs, that Karen just raising her voice makes her seem overly aggressive. Her best episode is the tenth, staff writer Rob Gilmer's "Small Surprises," in which Karen learns she's pregnant. Much of it is carefully modulated, and some of it genuinely bracing, as when Sid, early on, negates Karen's ability to consider an abortion by outing her pregnancy to their daughter Diana. In moments like this, Knots understands (as Family did) that we're often cruelest to the ones we love most; we know how to push their buttons, to get what we want, and occasionally, we all need a "win." But the episode, good as it is, is still undercut by outbursts in which both Karen and Michele Lee overact in their worst manner. "I don't feel like being judged right now," she growls, but there's no judgment coming from Don Murray; it's just another case of Karen going off on Sid because that's how the writers manufacture discord in the Fairgate household. Karen is at her best being supportive, or gently intrusive, or passionate about causes that matter -- not just to her, but to us -- and through the first season, the writers start to figure her out.

At least Karen, from the start, has fire -- and a brain; Ginger, in the pilot, is a dumb bunny. We learn she teaches kindergarten, and it feels like a joke; is this really who's shaping young minds in Southern California? Ginger isn't even included in some of the early episodes -- she and Kenny are basically set up to be expendable, and that's how they'll continue to be till Season 4, when they're well-used and then discarded -- and when she appears, she's mostly defined in response to her husband. But as a foil for Kenny, she's well-defined, the young wife longing for a stable marriage and a family, but wedded to a player. In the season's sixth episode, the A-plot, like several in the first season, is bland (this one addresses why Lucy doesn't come live with her parents in Knots Landing -- Tilton answers the question the moment she opens her mouth and can't gel with the rest of the cast), but the B-plot is excellent, as Kenny throws a party for the band he's producing, and expects Ginger to accept all the ogling and advances that come with being a young wife in the music industry. She objects to the "managers and musicians with their hands all over me" and storms out, but Kenny doesn't go after her; he's got a party to host, and busies himself at the mirror: undoing a shirt button to see if he likes it, and then, when he decides he does, undoing another. Ginger gives the series its first whiff of feminism in her bid for self-respect, but notably, as much as the show admires Ginger, it doesn't judge Kenny for decrying sexual conformity: for feeling it's the product of another era, a bygone from when sex was for procreation and not for pleasure.

Jacobs reveals that an early plot called for Kenny to pimp out Ginger to his boss, for his own advancement, but he couldn't get it past the network. But that sort of plotline, a husband egging on his wife to make nice with a colleague, becomes a B-plot for Richard and Laura in episode 2. Once again, the A-plot, this one guest-starring J.R., is weak, full of the kind of hyperbolic dialogue that would have been right at home on Dallas (J.R. to Gary: "I'll break ya -- again"), but the B-plot has some power, as Laura runs into a one-night stand, and passes him off to Richard as an old friend. When Richard encourages her to rekindle their friendship to land him some business, we're left wondering just how far Laura is willing to go to help her husband, and just how far Richard expects her to go. The story-line allows for ambiguity, and invokes some of the salaciousness of Dallas without sensationalizing it. The ending is a bit pat, and diminishes Laura by having her dotingly declare, "Oh Richard, I love you so much," as if she's Nora in the doll's house -- but it's the first time you start to glimpse what the show could be.

You get another glimmer, via Laura, two episodes later. When one of her dalliances leaves her visibly shaken, and Richard notices, she covers by declaring she was attacked: the victim of a serial rapist who's been targeting the women of Knots Landing. Laura has a wonderful monologue about her mother's death when she was 12, and how she's been struggling since then to find affection and affirmation from others -- in particular, other men. "The Lie" is very much a product of its time, and as a result, it's a hazier episode now than it was in 1980. From a modern perspective, it's clear that even if Laura lied about the identity of her attacker, she was in fact assaulted by the man she hooked up with. But law enforcement didn't view it that way then, nor did the writers, and neither does Laura herself. She was simply promiscuous, things got a little rough, and she paid the price. But as with her B-plot in episode 2, it raises questions about the boundaries of the new sexual freedom. (This aspect of Laura's personality will quickly be toned down, and by the second half of the season, her penchant for infidelity will be transferred onto Richard. Was the network more comfortable seeing a man with a roving eye?)

One of the fascinating aspects of Season 1 is that the lead couples are clearly Sid and Karen, and Gary and Val, but it's mostly through the other characters that Knots starts to fall into place. And it's not just the other couples: it's also Sid and Karen's oldest kids, Diana and Eric. Claudia Lonow and Steve Shaw are Season 1's secret weapon. They're not adorable, precocious, or even well-groomed; they're about the most believable teenagers we'd seen on American television. (Jacobs based his next show, Secrets of Midland Heights, around a group of equally awkward adolescents.) Lonow is a marvel: her hair a rumpled, curly mess; her face naturally settling into a pout. And Shaw -- in his infatuation with Ginger in episode 6, and his tentative romance of her younger sister a few episodes later -- is shy and sweet, endearing without being precious. Jacobs hits all the right notes with these two. Both are dealing with the standard teen issues -- trust, peer pressure, "the first time" -- and often, they're doing it on their own, because their parents are trying so hard to be trusting and enlightened that they're not giving them the guidance they need. And worse, they're coming of age while seemingly everyone in the neighborhood looks on. (Karen and Ginger, two characters who rarely interact one-on-one, have a nice exchange late in the season, where they gossip -- and Karen frets -- about Diana and her new boyfriend.)

As the season progresses, the cul-de-sac itself takes on a real presence. At the end of "Small Surprises," Karen comes home from the hospital, having miscarried, and as she and Sid pull into the driveway, their neighbors are outside, either awaiting her return or simply on hand to witness it. Seaview Circle isn't just a community where neighbors are always there to lend a shoulder; it's a community where they're always there, period. Ultimately, you come to see what distinguishes Knots Landing from Dallas and from Family. Season 1 is about the awkwardness of human interaction at a time when the restraints are looser, in a setting where the confines are closer. It touches down at the tail end of the sexual revolution, in a claustrophobic cul-de-sac, and asks, how does the institution of marriage survive? In some ways, it presages the internet age, with its easy access to infidelity that's both titillating and terrifying. "Good fences make good neighbors," the expression goes, but what happens when the fences come down?

Throughout the season, you see how sexual liberation has altered attitudes, mores and even behavior. In the pilot, it feels like everyone in the cul-de-sac is coming on to everyone else. In episode 3, a teacher with an unorthodox manner of engaging his students proves a point by kissing Karen at a PTA meeting; later, he joins a couple of the parents at a diner, where he and Karen flirt in front of Val. (Although Valene looks uncomfortable, the script makes it clear that she'd better get used to it: in Southern California, flirting is the new "hello.") When Laura goes out of town in episode 8, Richard wastes no time cozying up to Sid's ex; while Kenny's away in the following episode, the policeman investigating Ginger's stalker case decides to hit on her. And in the episode after that, Karen and Sid let Diana and her boyfriend make out in the bedroom upstairs while they're downstairs playing poker with the adults. And make no mistake: Karen and Sid are meant to be seen as good, responsible parents -- but they remember what it was like to be young, and don't expect their kids to abstain till marriage, or even hold out for "the right one," as TV parents would have done five years earlier (and will do again in five years' time, once Reagan conservativism has permeated the airwaves).

This sense of sexual freedom is the best thing about the first season of Knots Landing. It's not there to generate "buzz" or goose the ratings; it's simply, for better or worse, what the world has become. And the new code of conduct extends beyond sex. In episode 11, Diana discovers that her boyfriend has stolen money from her father to get his motorcycle repaired. And she's ready to ditch him, but Sid intervenes. In a speech that turns the traditional-father role on its ear, he argues she should give the guy another chance: "Betrayal is a terrible thing, but I want to tell you something -- and I hate to say this, but it's true: betrayal's not all that rare. I mean, it happens to everybody -- sometimes, even people that love each other very much. Husbands and wives are unfaithful sometimes, businessmen cheat their partners, and friends betray secrets. When you find out, it always hurts, but it doesn't mean it's the end of a marriage or the end of a partnership or the end of a friendship. Sometimes people forgive." In Knots Landing, people expect to be cheated on; if you're going to embrace a looser morality, you have to expect and accept the consequences.

Episode 11, entitled "Courageous Convictions," is the season's high point. It's written by Rogers Turrentine, a disciple of Larry Gelbart and veteran screenwriter Howard Browne (and exactly the sort of person who should be writing Knots Landing), yet it's a largely unheralded episode: the splashier ones -- Laura's date-rape, Karen's pregnancy, Gary hitting the bottle at season's end -- get more attention. But "Courageous Convictions" is the episode that gets to the heart of life in Southern California. On the surface, Knots Landing celebrates its setting, a coastal community in Greater Los Angeles. (It's there in the sunshine, the fashions, the food they consume and the drinks they order, the excursions to the beach and the backyard BBQ's.) But so did half the 1979 primetime line-up; most shows then filmed in (and were set in and around) Los Angeles, and they understood well both the look and the lifestyle. Most TV shows "got" Southern California; hell, Barnaby Jones "got" Southern California. But Knots understood that nowhere else does the gulf between the rich and the poor seem wider: that it's possible to presume, as you stare at the million-dollar mansions in the Hollywood Hills, that you're the only person in the city who hasn't made it big -- and so you keep pressing your way into the upper classes before you're absorbed into the lower ones. Everyone on Knots is struggling to better their station, hustling to improve their standing (everyone, of course, except Sid, because he's Sid). Because in Southern California, it sometimes feels like the most miserable place to be is stuck in the middle.

And so in "Courageous Convictions," Richard has made some lousy investments and owes money to all the wrong people. He holds a barbecue to hit up his neighbors, and begs Laura to ask her father to bail them out (and not for the first time). As Richard is drowning in debt, Laura reminds him how they got there: "We've got a house we can't afford, we've got furniture that we don't own, closets full of junk we don't need -- we're always stretching." And when he tries to correct her -- "striving for something better" -- she gets in the last word: "Richard, you're always looking for the shortcut, and it's always getting us in trouble." Laura ultimately does borrow from her father, and writes Richard a check, but it comes with strings: from now on, she'll manage the money, and what's more, she's going to look for a job. The writers use Richard's financial woes to embrace the part of the sexual revolution they'd been overlooking: the rising tide of female equality and empowerment, the re-entry of women into the workforce, in a way the country hadn't seen in a generation. And Richard concedes to Laura's demands, but not before admitting, "I hate being ordinary," exquisitely capturing a malaise endemic to Southern California. "Courageous Convictions" isn't just about what people will do to get out of trouble; it's about what people will do to get out of the middle. It takes on both class and sexual warfare, ultimately pitting them against each other, in a way that American audiences hadn't seen.

At its best, Knots Landing Season 1 encapsulates a sexual freedom emblematic of its time, and a middle-class malaise specific to its setting. And it explores them with an acting style that's naturalistic and theatre-based, as Family did so well. But although the series is steadily improving as it reaches the end of Season 1 (the final four episodes are among its best), you recognize the challenges that lie ahead. In an age and an arena where people are allowed to flirt and even cheat without guilt, and where even betrayal will be forgiven, where do you mine the drama? At the end of Season 1, Ginger is convinced, rightly, that Kenny is having an affair. The episode stresses, it's not going to go the traditional route, where Ginger "learns of her husband's deception." Ginger is no longer the airhead we met in the pilot. She gets that Kenny is a player; it's not something she likes about him, but it's something she accepts. The question the script asks isn't "when will Ginger find out?" -- it's "when will she have had enough?" When will she decide that her needs -- for constancy, security, a family -- trump his? But that's a tougher question to dramatize, unless the writers are prepared to show months of daily indignities (hardly possible in a one-hour drama splitting its focus among eight people). So the show goes where shows have always gone: she catches her husband in flagrante delicto -- and then she decides she's "had enough." And you're left thinking: what's the point of creating contemporary characters if you're just going to fall back on the same old contrivances?

And that's the dilemma that Knots faces as it reaches the end of Season 1. Now that you've re-imagined married life in a way that speaks to present-day audiences, how do you update the story beats as well? Once characters have grown comfortable with the flirting and even the promiscuity, where do you turn for conflict and suspense? And if seemingly nothing is taboo, what's going to stop the characters from acting on every impulse -- and if they do, will the writers be able to rein them in? The end of Season 1 finds the writers on an exciting yet dangerous precipice. What's most remarkable is that they don't seem to notice; as they head into Season 2, they seem unaware that -- in a perfect metaphor for a domestic drama about to go serialized -- they are figuratively hanging from a cliff. Will they survive?

To be continued, in Season 2...

Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 2, which pretty much mucks up everything Season 1 sets out to do; 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 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years; Season 10, the year the ratings rose; Season 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; 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.


  1. I feel like the issues with Season 1 are pretty well addressed here. I personally found "The Lie" to be my favorite episode of the season but a close second is (and I'm so happy you called it out) is "Courageous Convictions". While it's bogged down by the Diana storyline, the Richard/Laura storyline makes up for it and I am definitely more fascinated by their coupling than any of the others in the first 4 seasons.

    I think some of the episodes get more interesting for me on repeated viewing but despite that, the pacing almost feels glacial at times.

    It's definitely a very odd season and whatever faults season 2 may have (and I do think I'd probably give it more credit than you), I do think they were moving in the right direction the following year before sorting it all out by the end of season 3.

    I found myself at a point where I can't elaborate much more. You summed it all up very well and I guess the season is just sort of...there haha.

    It's hard to believe that this show would, in just seven seasons, give us the likes of Jean Hackney and a Lady Macbeth scale storyline for Nicolette Sheridan.

    1. I suspect, from things you and I have discussed, that you do indeed like Season 2 more than I do. I'm loathe to say too much about it -- not because I might change my view of it in the next rewatch (that rarely happens), but because I may choose to focus on things other than what I now intend (as happened with Season 4). But I think at the end of Season 1, the writers have created a world that exemplifies and embraces the new, looser morality -- and then, heading into Season 2, they go, "OK, now let's run with it." And within a few episodes, three of the four husbands are having affairs, and soon after, the fourth is being tempted. And the wives forgive them, and they reconcile. I don't think the world they create in Season 1 lends itself to drama; it lends itself to incident. (And again, just my opinion: my friend Jason would slug me for saying so.) I think the success of Season 3 is that Marcuses recognize that you can have your laid-back California attitude, but you need to focus in on situations where the fall-out will have maximum impact, and build slowly to that -- as soaps always did. And betrayal isn't automatically interesting, but betrayal on both sides -- that fuels the infidelity -- IS interesting, which is why Val writing Capricorn Crude, ultimately contributing to the dissolution of her own marriage, is such a sensational story-line. Oh well, all to come, whenever I write up Season 2, which according to my current schedule is sometimes in 2018...

  2. I think season 1 was marred for two reasons.

    The first reason was trying to make the show as 180 from Dallas as possible...but it made the show seem too tame.

    The second reason was David Jacob attempting to make the show like Family..only with 4 marriages/families instead of one family. Kenny/ginger got the shaft...though the episode with the abortion and the woman stalking her did shed some light on Ginger (though after meeting her mother in season 2...its no wonder Ginger was so passive.).

    I think season 2 kind of fixes it by bringing on Abby..but it isn't as apparent during that season.

    1. It's funny, Jayson, I don't think I'd describe Season 1 as "too tame," but I get what you mean. There was a disconnect between the series Jacobs envisioned and the one CBS thought they were commissioning, and every time Jacobs conceded to network demands for Dallas crossovers, all he did was bring over viewers looking for more of its mocking sense of melodrama -- and they weren't going to find that on Seaview Circle. For folks expecting "another Dallas," the cul-de-sac was indeed going to be a disappointment. I agree that the addition of Abby helps, because she brings some of the salaciousness of Dallas while feeling like she belongs in the cul-de-sac, and she enlivens the story-lines in a way Dallas viewers could relate to. But Season 2 still insists on giving us Kristin and Bobby and J.R., and for me, the blending of the two shows remains uneasy. It's one of the reasons I so like Season 3, because, by refusing to do the requisite Dallas guest-spots, it just lets the series be what it wants to be.

    2. Had they not added Abby...i could have seen Kristen as welcome to the show in some capacity. It was the only time really that season (season 2) that kenny/ginger weren't islanded...outside of man of the hour (which focused too much on Eric and pot...and not enough in the dynamic between Ginger and her mother)

    3. I love how you think outside the box, Jayson -- like your ideas for keeping Jill past season 10, which were sensational. After 35+ years of viewing, I'm so wedded to "how things were done" that I rarely consider "how things MIGHT have been done." As you say, if they hadn't gone with Abby, Kristin definitely could have filled the "vixen" role in Season 2. Mary Crosby was popular on Dallas -- they obviously decided early on that she was going to be the one who shot J.R. and would be departing the series; I wonder if there was any thought to moving her to the cul-de-sac, before the Knots team solidified their Abby plans. Although, of course, with Kristin on Knots, we would have been subjected to many more visits from the Ewing clan...

  3. I'm currently in the midst of binge-watching the series again. I must say, I do agree with you completely about all of your observations regarding season 1. Had I started watching the show from the beginning the first time around (i was too young), I would have surely lost interest. Season two definitely became slightly more interesting with the addition of Donna Mills. The semi serialization that started in season 2, while still mundane compared to Dallas and dynasty, made the show more exciting, giving viewers reasons to want to watch the next episode. But, some of the miss placed standalone episodes came across like preachy after school specials. Especially ones revolving around Diana Fairgate. Her character was screechy, annoying, always complaining, whining and acting like a spoiled brat. The episode with Eric and ginger sister with the pot laced with Angel dust was an example of a contrived after school special message. However, the beginning of Abby's machinations, Gary's involvement with Frank and Roy and his affair with Judy Trent, even though the pace was underwhelming, built up momentum towards becoming a full on primetime soap.

    1. Thanks for dropping by, Rob -- and thanks so much for leaving a comment, which I always love. It's funny when you say that if you'd been watching the series when it first aired, Season 1 probably wouldn't have sustained your interest: unlike you, I am old enough to have watched Knots when it first aired, and did, and indeed, Season 1 made little impression on me. I'm sure I saw every episode, but unlike all the other seasons, I retain few memories of watching it "live." It does take an awfully long time to figure out what it wants to be: strange, considering how long the show had been in the planning stages, and given Jacobs' background on Family. Interesting what you say about Diana. I quite like her in Season 1, when she's rather sweet and responsible; then she irritates me no end in Season 2; then I enjoy her again in Season 3, when Karen is floundering as a new widow, and it falls to Diana to be the "adult" in the family; and then, of course, in Season 4, she's back to being a twerp. Diana, more than any other character, was basically reconceived season by season, according to what role the writers needed her to play. Offhand, I can't think of another longtime character whose personality was so plot-driven.

    2. It's funny, I never thought of Diana is being a plot-driven character before. However, now that you mention it, I do see where you are coming from. Maybe I give the character more leeway because she's a teenager, and her shifting priorities and morals are more malleable before of it (or maybe, more likely, I'm just making excuses). Even when she was hastily written off at the top of season six, it was to live with Jo and study fashion, something that had been long established.

      Cathy is a character I would describe as solely plot-driven, although I guess at 3 seasons she's not necessarily a longtime character. Even her creation and casting was driven by fan uproar rather than a occurring due to a need in the story. Although season 5 was somewhat successful in weaving her back into the show (her story tied into two threads of the season; Gary being reminded of the late Ciji and the reveal that Gary had planted her all along - a reveal in my mind that was severely underplayed), by season 6 and 7 any semblance of a backstory or character was removed she was used as a pawn to serve the bigger plots of the season. She even began singing at the top of season 6 to fill that void (despite, as memory recalled, being wholeheartedly against it during season 5).

      From memory, any continuity the writers gave her character past season 5 was only deployed when convenient for plot (Abby's blackmail in season 6, the police referencing her previous stint in jail in season 7). Which, I guess, is better than nothing.

    3. I fully agree with you about Cathy, and will obviously address it (probably in detail) when I write up Season 5; of the few things that bother me about that season, most of them have to do with Cathy -- and yes, indeed, she only gets worse from there: initially defined as "not Ciji" (which works, if just barely, in Season 5), they never figure out who she actually IS.

      Oh Diana... I don't think you're "making excuses" (as you put it) for her: I do agree that part of the teenage mentality is to have ever-shifting opinions and priorities. I just find that, season by season, she's whatever the show requires of her. I quite like her in Season 1, and rather hate her in Season 2, but of course, that's partly because Season 2 is about mining drama by bringing out the worst in every character. (I do reference her "We're all sick, and we're never going to get better -- never!" freakout in "Hitchhike" in my upcoming Season 2 essay.) And I suppose Season 3 is a return to the Diana of Season 1, the one I like best, who -- with Karen melting down -- is called upon to be the "adult." (Even when she's given her moments of teenage histrionics -- in "Mistaken Motives" and "Reunion" -- she manages to calm herself down and wise herself up; she's capable of doing it when the writers need her to.) It's in Season 4 that I think she turns into a plot-driven device. The story-line requires her to trust Chip to the exclusion of all evidence, and so she does; and then Season 5 requires her to go batshit crazy, specifically so Karen will have her pill-popping meltdown. (I think Diana could've stood by her husband and not become such a voice of unreasonable fury – if the writers hadn't needed her to BE that furious and unreasonable to trigger Karen's story-line.) And then, at the top of Season 6, because Karen's in surgery and someone's needed to speak for her, Diana's back to being the voice of reason, reminding Mack that Karen had ended their marriage, and that he has no business hanging around their house. I think by Season 4, she's there to do whatever the plot requires of her, and it does start to bug me -- particularly given my affection for her in Seasons 1 and 3.

  4. Another great essay Tommy! You've articulated so many points about season one that I have never put together myself, but all of it makes so much sense. The land of looser morals, incident rather than drama, the broadening of the show every time a character crosses from DALLAS - it all makes so much sense.

    My favorites of the season probably change more than any other season, simply because, as I grow older and mature, I appreciate the subtleties of the more understated episodes (such as COURAGEOUS CONVICTIONS). THE LIE is always a stand out for me, the unintended complexities of it when viewed in the modern day light is fascinating. I do love the two-parter than ends the season, the drama being born out of character, the scenes between Val and Karen, Sid and Val, and Laura being used effectively, made it feel like the writers were finally figuring out the strengths, and writing to those. The scene where Gary chooses the fake bottle over the dime to call Val is one that sticks in my mind.

    You also start to see the potential of the show when you remove the 40 minute story constraints. You also see that, despite the care-free era the show then portrayed (the drunken neighbors dancing at the top of the show would simply be unthinkable a mere two seasons later), there can be too much of a good thing, and actions have consequences. Too bad it's all undone in season two (although I'm excited to hear your thoughts on HITCHHIKE; I thought it was a solid two-parter and rare character study of Sid. But I'll have to wait patiently for your season two write up!).

    1. Glad you enjoyed. I was not looking forward to writing up Season 1; as I think I mentioned elsewhere, it's the season that left the least impression on me when it originally aired, and I didn't know if I'd have that much to say. But having just re-viewed so many of the other seasons, and having just watched a bit of Family Season 1, a lot of things about the early episodes became clear, and the essay flowed rather easily (whereas Season 4, which I thought I'd love writing about, was a bitch). I agree how certain episodes come to mean more to us as we age. I never paid much attention to "Courageous Convictions" before; this time, I was so struck by it that I suspect I didn't give enough attention to "Bottom of the Bottle" (other than noting that the final four episodes were among the season's best).

      Yes, indeed: "actions have consequences" -- a rather simple concept all but lost in Season 2. So odd. Meanwhile, I hate to say it, but YOU might have to be the one to write about "Hitchhike"; I think I barely mention it in my Season 2 essay. (Although I confess, my Season 2 essay is still being tweaked and pruned, and the contents could easily change; "real life" stuff is getting in the way of my continuing my Knots essays right now, and I suspect I won't have Season 2 up till next month).

  5. I only saw the first few seasons much later, in syndication. "My" Knots Landing had always had Greg, Abby, and Mack. So it was a little strange, seeing where it all began and how it struggled to find a consistent tone. It was interesting to finally meet this Sid whose name I'd heard dropped occasionally, and I liked Don Murray in the part, but too often it seemed to me that the episodes were going for down-to-earth and took a wrong turn at turgid. I never wanted to see anything this early a second time.

    It's hard for me to say whether I would have stuck with it had I seen it when it originally aired, because this first season is *such* a circa-1980 show. Even with the basic concept the same, so much would have been different if it had originally aired at any point when I would have been watching it. Even only five years later.

    Someone on a forum once wondered what the much-mocked biker-gang episode would have been like if it had taken place during the Latham/Lechowick era, with Mack there to react to it. My mini-pastiche:

    Mack, in an office: "Let me see if I got this straight. YOU'RE tellin' ME that I gotta stand by and do NOTHIN' while this SCUM comes into MY neighborhood, knockin' over trashcans, ridin' around in circles, leavin' black marks on the pavement, throwin' eggs at my house, scarin' my WIFE, scarin' my KID, scarin' the kids next door, and there's nothin' anybody can do about it? Is that what you're tellin' me?! [kicks a wastebasket] Huh?! [dramatic pause, breathing heavily from exertion] 'Cause if that's what you're 'tellin me, I got news for ya, pal. [leaning over the desk, his voice now a hoarse whisper] IT STINKS."

    1. Hysterically funny and spot on!

      I'm curious, Todd: you say that you didn't catch "the first few seasons" till they were in syndication, but also that your Knots Landing "always had Greg, Abby and Mack." So did you not start watching "live" till Season 5? If that's the case, I understand your having greater affection for the Lechowick-Latham years than I do, since they were obviously there for half the time you were watching, and were sort of the centerpiece of your viewing. Contrarily, for me, the glory years of Knots (and I think this is true for some other fans -- I suspect the first commenter here, Anthony, would say the same) are Seasons 3-6 -- and for me, specifically, from the final third of Season 3 up to the final third of Season 6. And after that, it's entertaining viewing but patchy brilliance -- or, at least, brilliance that's rarely sustained for more than a season or two. (I love Season 9 and the first two-thirds of Season 10, the final third of 13 and all of 14 -- but I have, obviously, mixed feelings about the rest.)

      I've heard several people say that they don't know, if they'd watched Knots from the beginning, when it first aired, if they'd have continued watching. I understand that feeling fully. I found Season 1 intriguing but uncertain, but liked the characters enough to continue into Season 2. Season 2 seemed a mess, and if anything would have prompted me to discontinue watching, it would have been Season 2. Season 3 seemed a huge step forward in the quality of the writing, but the odd format (which I tried to describe, to the best of my abilities and understanding, in my Season 3 write-up) was off-putting, and it wasn't until the final third of the season that I felt Knots start to become must-see viewing for me. And it truly wasn't until "Acts of Love" that I was hooked. But to my mind, despite their flaws, Season 3 and 4 are superior to half the remaining seasons. So it's fascinating to hear the perspective of someone who, if I understand you correctly, came to Knots in Season 5, when it had already gone through one huge metamorphosis, and (to my mind) when some of its best years were already behind it.

  6. The thing I enjoyed about season one was that each episode was like its own mini movie. Much like the Sopranos was many years later. I wasn't crazy for that long wild looking wig or fall that Karen wore. She looked much better season 2 and on. it seemed more like a family drama. By season 8 I felt it derailed but thankfully the drug storyline with Olivia redeemed the series, and the laura's death and Jill going crazy.

    1. I think I’m kinder to Season 1 than most fans are. Like you, I don’t mind the lack of serialization; that’s not what the show was intended to be (at least, not for the first season), and I don’t think you can fault a show for not being something it wasn’t *designed* to be. And when it’s successful — in “The Lie” and the final four episodes, plus huge parts of “Will the Circle” — it’s very successful. I’m harder on Season 2, because i think when the show goes serialized, it does pretty much everything wrong, and it takes Season 3 to right the ship, and really find and refine Jacobs’ vision. But I am aware that many Knots fans who fell in love with the show during its glory years of Seasons 4 and 5 and 6 have no taste or patience for Season 1.