Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Knots Landing season 12

The first half of Knots Landing Season 12 is a shot of pure adrenaline. The rest is what happens once the rush wears off.

In my essay on Season 10, I noted that Lechowick and Latham -- the series' longest serving, but most erratic headwriters -- never seemed to be able to sustain excellence for more than twenty episodes at a time. Season 9 starts strong, as the show gets back to basics after a couple of unrecognizable years -- then the mobsters move in, and the younger cast members migrate to Santa Tecla, and things start to fall apart. Season 10 extends the Jill-Val story-line for nineteen impressive episodes -- quite a feat -- but then we get Mack and Paula, and Sally's friend, and a few other misfires that threaten to drag the season down. And finally there's the team's last gasp of greatness, a string of 22 episodes cutting across two seasons. It begins when former story editor Dianne Messina returns to the fold twenty episodes into Season 11 to carry out a late-season overhaul alongside Lechowick, Latham and (her eventual husband) James Stanley. The foursome manage a successful course correction, and their energy and creativity continue a dozen episodes into Season 12. And then -- as ever -- it all goes to pot: this time not because of a lack of ideas, but because of a distressing lack of attention from the four writers, who were consumed with readying their new ABC period soap Homefront.

But those first dozen episodes are bright and infectious. Traditionally, Knots seasons began slow, as cliffhangers were resolved, and new story-lines got underway; it was commonly understood that you couldn't begin a season with the same sort of urgency that the previous season had built to. But the top of Season 12 throws out the playbook. It doesn't merely advance the plots left over from Season 11: the ongoing threat posed by Karen's serial-killer producer, which won't come to a head till episode 4; the fall-out from Val's disastrous marriage to serial rapist Danny Waleska, who'll continue to haunt the cul-de-sac for most of the fall. It also initiates a few story-lines that are front-burner and fast-burning: most notably, Greg's health crisis. We had been told, when Greg was poisoned with camaride in the previous season, that it might prove fatal. Here we are at the top of Season 12, and so it is. And as word about the mogul's failing health spreads across the country, it makes its way to Greg's (previously-unmentioned) sister Claudia, who books the next flight to Knots Landing. ("The vultures are circling," Greg announces when he spots her in episode 1, pretty much telling us everything we need to know about her.) She has her daughter Kate in tow, and Kate is a dead ringer for Sumner's late daughter Mary Frances (and played by the same actress), the only difference being her mop of bright red hair. And although neither character has ever been mentioned up to this point, they're eased effortlessly into the narrative, and instantly become focal and useful.

Claudia is never more than a pot-stirrer in the first dozen episodes -- she's a schemer and a master manipulator who can take complex puzzle pieces and see an entire picture, almost at once. (She figures out that Meg is Greg's daughter about seven seconds after meeting her.) No one stands in Claudia's way in her ongoing quest to ensure that her daughter inherits Greg's fortune: receptionists share confidential contacts, reporters print the stories she dictates, lawyers' offices turn over privileged information, hospitals are forthcoming with donor lists. Even Carlos digs up Greg's will when she suggests it. Claudia doesn't even need to work at it; everyone just rolls over and plays dead when she instructs them to, because that's her purpose on the show: to keep the plot in motion. Fortunately, Kathleen Noone is a commanding actress who instantly convinces as Greg's sister; you can easily imagine her as the rotten older sibling who made her brother's life miserable. (He was their mother's favorite, after all.) It doesn't matter that Claudia is given all the dimensionality of Cruella de Vil; her machinations are always entertaining, even when -- or perhaps particularly when -- they're their most ruthless, as when she befriends a woman whose husband is higher on the donor list than Greg, simply so she can find a way to steal the liver he's been promised. (The final shot of that episode, "The Lady or the Tiger," is marvelous, sadistic fun. As Greg is wheeled into surgery, Claudia instructs the doctors to be straight with him about his chances for survival: "He hates to lose," she informs them -- and then we cut to the sobbing woman whose husband is now due to die, having lost the transplant he'd been guaranteed.) Claudia is cutthroat and single-minded -- and at this stage in their run on Knots, so are Lechowick and Latham; it's a merger made in heaven.

And she's perfectly balanced by Kate, who's sweet and bubbly and a little naive. She seems less a fully-formed character than simply "not Mary Frances," but Stacy Galina does well by her, and the addition of a character with innocence and warmth into a series that -- late in Lechowick and Latham's run -- is mostly lacking in those particular qualities is not a bad thing. You like her instantly, even if her character -- like her resemblance to Mary Frances -- is only skin deep. And she redeems her mother: you figure if Claudia raised someone that lovely, she must have done something right, and Kate being so admiring of her mother -- and so intrigued by her mother's relationship with Sumner -- makes you admiring and intrigued as well. Plus she does wonders for her Uncle Greg. After he sabotaged Paige's wedding by setting up Tom and sending him packing in the Season 11 cliffhanger, Greg's desperately in need of redemption. In part, the writers take care of that by giving him a terminal liver disease. (It's a standard soap device -- the punishment for bad behavior -- and Knots would make use of it often. Ted Shackelford, lamenting that Gary had to hit the bottle in Season 4 following his adulterous betrayal of Valene, made the point that it was lousy, but inevitable.) But in addition to being redeemed by having to face his mortality, Sumner is redeemed by his interest in his niece, who so reminds him of his late daughter. As he finds himself charmed by her quirky sense of humor and style, and -- despite himself -- begins to agree to lunch dates and to haunt her tennis matches, we're reminded that beneath all his power plays and posturing remains a lonely man looking to reclaim a little of what he's lost.

Anne Matheson, meanwhile, gets a make-over, and it's sensationally successful. Michelle Phillips remarked that when she was brought back on the show in Season 11, she saw herself as "the mother from hell": moving into her daughter's apartment, purloining her wardrobe, flirting with her boyfriend, and ultimately, we learned, attempting to defraud her out of her inheritance. How much longer can that go on, the writers reasonably ask. So at the start of the season, they keep one basic trait -- her need for money -- and she's reinvented as a screwball heroine from the '30s, with the smarts of Claudette Colbert, the pluck of Jean Arthur, and the outrage of Carole Lombard. (She even has Lombard's hair.) You sense the change from her first word, as she tries to get a fax machine working: "Phooey!" (Who says "phooey" in 1990? And further, it's evocative of an attitude -- the heroine battling a world of rigidity and conformity -- so emblematic of the screwballs.)

She's wonderfully entertaining in the first few episodes when she gives life lessons to Paige and Tom, separately, with all the cockeyed pragmatism of a Thirties screen heroine. Her advice to Paige, so spot-on it bears repeating: "Men are jerks. There's something unusual about them: they never grow up. I mean, their bodies get big -- God knows -- but in their heads, they always stay babies. Fraidy-cats, really. Afraid their hair'll fall out, afraid their credit cards won't clear, afraid their cars won't start. But really afraid of the big 'r' word: responsibility." She concludes: "There's a difference between men and women, and I know it's fashionable to pretend there's not, but there is. Women are women -- and men are jerks." (I was in Glasgow on business shortly after that episode aired, and having pretty much memorized that speech, proceeded to recite it to friends at a gay bar. The proclamation "women are women, and men are jerks" proved very popular, and spread through the bar like free tequila shots.) And within a half-dozen episodes, Anne has embroiled herself in a phony blackmail scheme, to get her hands on some easy cash, and in walks a rugged Italian who's been charged with "looking after her." And Phillips and Lorenzo Caccialanza, for the next six episodes, nearly dominate the action, as they engage in a series of (mis)adventures that find them battling each other, then -- once they see how much they have in common -- taking on the world.

As initially paired, Anne and Nick are the ideal screwball couple, in the best tradition of Hollywood romantic comedies: seeking to outwit each other, even as they fall in love. Screwball comedies -- that screen phenomenon that reached its zenith in the mid- to late-'30s -- were a frothy blend of sophistication and slapstick: battles of the sexes where love masqueraded as hostility, and where the woman inevitably had the upper hand. And the greatest screwball couples were so comedically in tune that they achieved a spontaneity, an unrestraint and a zest for life that most of us could only aspire to. They weren't just doing capers -- the capers were the backdrop for the fighting and the reuniting, for the one-upmanship and the ultimate partnership. And Anne and Nick have that, in spades, in the first half of Season 12. This early scene, when Paige's unexpected appearance forces Anne and Nick -- still relative strangers -- to pretend to be lovers and share a bed, is classic screwball, straight out of It Happened One Night:

Anne: Get out of my bed.
Nick: Where do you expect me to sleep?
Anne: Do I care?
Nick: I give you my word as an Italian.
Anne: Get out.
(She pulls the covers off him)
Nick: What if she comes in in the middle of the night and finds me sleeping on the floor?
Anne: With any luck, she'll step on you.

And a few episodes later, once they've made their peace, news of Sumner's illness hits Anne hard, but -- as with all the best screwball heroines -- she has a clearheadedness of purpose that's decidedly unsentimental:

Anne: I was in college when I met Greg Sumner. I was going with his best friend when he got a crush on me. He tried to talk me into bed.
Nick: He sounds Italian.
Anne: And I said no.
Nick: And you sound American.
Anne: I'm serious.
Nick: Sorry.
Anne: But we always stayed really good friends. I can't believe he's so sick. I just can't believe it.
Nick: I'm really sorry.
Anne: It's shocking to think that life is so short and so precious.
Nick: I know...
Anne: I really want to do something good with my life, I really do. I mean, not that it's been bad so far, but there's always room for improvement.
Nick: Anna, I think --
Anne: You know, the one thing it's made me realize... is how important it is... to get that million dollars.

There are other felicities in the first dozen episodes -- for every seeming misstep, there's an outcome that redeems it. Karen's producer Jeff appears to be blown up in a confusing bit at the end of episode 1. That turns out to be a bluff, so that we don't see him coming two episodes later. And when he and Karen finally have the showdown in episode 4 that's been six months in the making, it's a bravura piece of writing by Messina, culminating in Karen's famous Pollyanna speech. (It also includes Sumner's brutal takedown of Anne, as she's cozying up to him and he lets it drop that he knows she's penniless. Her shaken, eloquent response: "In the old days, you'd have had the class not to embarrass a friend like this.") Danny's finding religion seems a pretty feeble device at the start of the season (are we revisiting the Joshua story?), but it doesn't last long, and when he's unmasked and unleashed -- just one episode later -- it's sensational. In Season 11, Gary had lured Danny into a barn at his ranch, and swung at him with a baseball bat. (It was Lechowick's God-awful "Twice Victim," in which Gary, bringer of justice, threatened Danny with bodily harm so he'd know what it was like to be raped.) The scene is flipped at the end of episode 2, as Danny turns the table on Gary -- same setting, same weapon. But this isn't the sort of moralizing that had undermined the earlier scene -- this is revenge, pure and simple, and it's nasty fun. By episode 3, he's broken Gary's arm, plied him with liquor, and sent him and his car careening over a cliff; Season 12 comes roaring out of the gate.

Even the one awful episode in the first half of the season -- Parke Perine's "What If?", which lets us envision how each of the principals, with motive and opportunity to kill Danny, might have done so (we get to see each of them break Danny's fingers, which is not an entertaining way to kill an hour -- Mack even gets to do it twice) -- is partially redeemed by the solution to Danny's murder, which provides good character development for Julie. Julie's been through a lot since her family, the newly-christened Williamses, resettled on Seaview Circle; it's reasonable that she'd start to act out, and in particular, that she'd have her revenge on Danny for killing her mother -- and feel unrepentant. (And furthermore, Julie's new attitude -- and new group of friends -- proves a good means of introducing Jason, the troubled teen who'll provide Mack with a story-line a few episodes down the road.) There are great cliffhangers throughout the fall months (Danny discovered face down in a pool, drowned; the mystery of two matching briefcases, one with a million dollars, one with a bomb; Val and Gary's twins, unattended, taking a rooftop excursion), plus the kind of conceits that Lechowick and Latham thrived on, like Anne and Claudia conversing with verbal thought bubbles, and Nick's thought bubbles being subtitled. And at the end of two episodes, when the announcer declares "Next on Knots Landing," instead of going to a montage of upcoming scenes, we cut directly to the first scene of the next episode: Karen arriving at the studio to discover Jeff waiting there; Paige entering Greg's office and finding him unconscious behind his desk. Those scenes aren't even repeated a week later -- the "next on" preview proves simply to be the following episode starting a week early. Five seasons in, and Lechowick and Latham are still finding ways to keep the format fresh -- and keep us on our toes.

To be sure, there are a few mistakes made early on. The Tom-Paige-Sumner triangle is mishandled and ultimately mangled. Lechowick and Latham have decided to reunite Paige and Greg, and as they're endgame writers, they have no trouble trashing anyone and anything that gets in their way. So Tom and Paige have barely moved in together when Lechowick and Latham start undermining everything that made them so appealing as a couple. Paige, rightfully furious that Greg sabotaged her wedding, is going to quit her job at the Sumner Group, but doesn't. Tom reminds her that it makes her miserable, but she says she can handle it. He admits it makes him miserable, and she counters, "Is that my problem?" After Sumner's stunt at the end of Season 11, Tom has every right to be suspicious of Greg, and although he stresses to Paige that he trusts her, but not Greg, she turns it around on him, taunting him: "You have the most primitive view of women. It's tragic how jealous you are." Within a few episodes of reconciling, the couple has devolved into nonstop bickering, over issues of no real consequence, and so they break up, for no other reason than -- from the writers' perspective -- it's time. Paige tells Tom to go, that there's nothing he could say that she wants to hear, but he lets loose with a wonderful speech that exposes Paige at her worst:

What? You don't want to hear me say, "Go to hell, Paige"? You don't want to hear me say that you are a spoiled, immature, big-league wannabe who doesn't know her own mind? You don't want to hear me say that you criticize guys for being too macho, and the fact is, the man you chose is the most macho man I've ever met? You don't want to hear me say that I tried to change my primitive opinion of women as being flaky and childish, and instead of changing my mind, you convinced me that it's true? You don't want to hear me say that? I won't say it.

Great speech, except here's the thing -- what do the writers gain by exposing Paige at her worst? What does the derision she directs at Tom -- and her powerlessness to resist Greg -- say about her? Shortly after Tom's speech, she corners Greg: "How can you say you love me and treat me like dirt?" -- and then minutes later, she confesses to Mack, "I never loved Tom the way I loved Greg," and confides she's considering moving in with him: Sumner, the man who sabotaged her wedding and threatened to imprison her fiancé. Part of establishing Paige as a leading lady in Season 10 meant revealing her vulnerability, then positioning her in opposition to Abby's manipulations. In Season 11, her continuing growth involved her falling in love with Tom, discovering his dark past, and forgiving him. And letting him unearth a sweet side of her that had rarely surfaced. (Can you imagine her having the garnet engagement-ring picnic with Greg?) In Season 12, the character development for Paige breaks down -- big-time. She seems as capricious, as immature, and as self-absorbed as the girl who showed up at Mack and Karen's door five seasons earlier.

So all said and done, why do the first twelve episodes work so well? Well, because Anne is a revelation, and because Claudia and Kate are lively plot devices. Because Karen gets a powerful monologue, and Michele Lee gets a memorable arrangement of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to accompany one of the show's better montages. Because Bill Devane has a literal life-or-death story-line that gives him a real chance to act: dredging up some great backstory and serving up some moving monologues. ("No funeral. No preacher. No flowers, no speeches. They wanna prop my body up like John Barrymore's, have a few drinks and play five-card stud, that'd be OK. I don't think that'll happen, though -- I don't have enough friends left to play five-card stud. Cremate me. And put a headstone next to my wife's.") Ooh, and because Aunt Ginny leaves town -- that's definitely a plus. Best of all, though, although there are a half-dozen ongoing plots, those plots intersect in surprising ways, ricocheting off each other like pinballs at a penny arcade, sending them spiraling in unexpected directions. Anne leaves a briefcase (that she thinks contains a million dollars) underneath an end table at Paige's office; Linda, snooping through Paige's stuff, discovers it and moves it, leading to a mix-up that could prove deadly. Tom, investigating a bomb scare called in by Nick and Anne (to ferret out the briefcase with a million dollars), pieces together their scheme, walks away with the money and boards a plane to Brussels, exiting the series. And Claudia, looking to settle in Knots Landing, ends up buying Abby's old place, which she's able to get for a song, because no one wants a house where a man was just found dead in the pool. Although these moments are absolutely charged with Lechowick and Latham's "look how clever we are" pathology, they're also a much-needed reminder that Knots Landing, after all this time, remains a community; these characters may not be populating a cul-de-sac anymore, but they're very much connected.

Season 12 seems to have been broken in two blocks, the first one ending with "A Merry Little Christmas." In the next episode, "The Unknown," ongoing plots start getting dismantled and jettisoned. Claudia tears up the wills she had just forced Anne and Nick to witness. (Why manufacture such an extreme plot twist if you're just going to discard it an episode later, unless it's the start of a new block and you've rethought your approach to Claudia?) And Paige and Sumner -- after a half-dozen episodes reconciling and getting engaged -- call it quits. "The Unknown" ushers in the second and final block with a host of course corrections, but although the season will soon go to pot, it doesn't just yet. Ironically, Messina's "The Unknown," the start of a very bad block, is the season highlight (the last great episode of the Lechowick-Latham era), mostly because of how it furthers two crucial story beats: Paige rethinking Greg's marriage proposal, and Jason reconsidering Mack's offer of help. It's about the last moment for Jason that will be told obliquely, and not with the sort of sledgehammer tactics that Lechowick and Latham reserved for their social issue story-lines. When Jason, participating in a class reading of Spoon River Anthology and charged with the poem that gives the episode its title, recites the tale of "one whom life wounded and caged," he's unable to ignore the parallels to his own life, and is finally ready to accept help. Mack arrives home to find Jason waiting on his front steps.

As for Paige, the deck is stacked against her in this episode; the outcome is purely plot-driven. Lechowick and Latham have decided to break up Paige and Sumner -- except they've just spent a dozen episodes not merely reuniting them, but getting them engaged. How do they manage that one? How about if Sumner reveals he had a vasectomy -- and decides where they're going to live -- and tosses a prenup in her face? That should do it. It's Lechowick and Latham switching gears at their clumsiest -- but what made Messina so critical to the success of their era is that she knew how to undercut their obviousness. And so, two-thirds of the way through the episode, we get Paige sitting at a bar, ordering a club soda, and admitting to the bartender that she's about to get married -- when an older woman, perfectly coiffed, sits down beside her.

Woman: So, you're getting married.
Paige: Next week.
Woman: Has anybody talked to you about men?
Paige: Well, I don't know if it qualifies, but my mother has.
Woman: Then you know.
Paige: Know what?
Woman: Men are jerks.
Paige: That's what my mother said.
Woman: Bless their hearts, they can't seem to help themselves. But it doesn't make them any easier to live with.
Paige: You're married.
Woman: A long, long time.
Paige: You must be happy -- to stay married for such a long time.
Woman: God, you're young. I haven't even thought about "happy" for years.
Paige: You look happy.
Woman: Do you have any idea what I would give for my husband to hold my hand, take me for a walk around the block? He can't even get his nose out of that financial page long enough to sneeze.
Paige: If he's so bad, why have you stayed married?
Woman: I've been stupid. I kept telling myself: it's his upbringing, his background, his style. Deep down, he loves me. Finally, I decided that there just isn't any excuse for a person not being very nice. I mean, there may be an explanation, but not an excuse, because you see, in the end, a person who is not nice is just... not... nice. You know, I even kept thinking that surely I would outlive him, and then at least I could enjoy his money. He's damn near a hundred. That old coot just won't die. The sad part is, I did have a chance. I had one chance for a happy life. Once he said to me, "You wanna call it off?" All I had to do was say yes. (She takes a final gulp of her martini.) Well... Good luck to you.
Paige: Wait. What's your name?
Woman: Don't you know? I'm Paige Sumner.

And Paige wakes up in her bed. It's a glorious flight of fancy. It gets inside Paige's head -- pretty much the only time all season; it's a little like the middle block of Season 6 condensed into one scene. What a splendid way of getting Paige to let go of Greg -- let her "see" what her life will become. And so, in her next scene, when Greg -- with eerie symmetry -- asks her, "You wanna call it off," she has her ready-made reply: "Yes. Let's call it off." There are lots of ways -- once Lechowick and Latham had decided to tease a Paige-Sumner wedding, then pull away -- that they could have split them up. Certainly the most predictable one would have been some machination on Claudia's part; she'd been trying to keep them apart all season. But that's not Messina's style. If Paige and Greg are going to call it quits, let her be the one to do it -- and make it about clarity, not calculation.

"The Unknown," the start of the second (and final) block, is an anomaly: a brilliant lead-in to a lousy set of episodes. But there's one big clue in it about how bad things are about to get, as the episode advances one of the awful plots that's going to dominate the second half of the season: Val's brain virus. Truth be told, Val and Gary haven't been served well all season -- but it really gets bad here.

Earlier, I spoke of Lechowick and Latham as endgame writers: once they'd settled on a potential pairing, they had no problem trashing any character who got in their way. Tom Ryan, who had grown so appealing by the end of Season 11, is ruined in Season 12 so the writers can pave the way for Sumner and Paige's reunion. In a sense, it's no different from how Ben -- once Lechowick and Latham decide that Gary and Val are their endgame -- gets relegated to a footnote in Val's past: early in Season 12, she laments her awful track record in the husband-picking department, as if Ben -- the guy who presumably gave his life to keep her safe -- now counts as an error in judgment. But as Latham and Lechowick had reconceived the series in Season 9, Val and Gary were the endgame. Karen tells her, at the top of Season 12, that everyone in Knots Landing has been saying, "I hope Gary and Val get back together" -- reducing them, as Lechowick and Latham do, to types: here, the star-crossed lovers we all root for. And furthermore, Karen announces that it's never seemed like their marriages didn't work -- it seems like their divorces didn't work: as shameless a rewrite as Lechowick and Latham ever indulged in.

The platitudinous dialogue is nice, but you know what would be nicer: to let Gary and Val finally get together. Lechowick and Latham have teased the pairing so many times now, we're all teased out. In a sane universe, the writers would have just started Season 12 where we all expected it to start: with Val and Gary tying the knot. (It looked like they were going to do just that at the end of Season 11, when Paige's own ceremony was called off, and the church and minister were available.) But they've been writing Val and Gary as star-crossed lovers for so long, they have no idea what else to do with them -- so they stall the reunion yet again. It's an awful letdown for the viewer. And ironically, because there's no one handy that they can position as an impediment to Val and Gary's reconciliation and then easily trash, they have to trash Val and Gary themselves. And that's what they do, in one of the worst decisions in Knots history.

Let's face it: there are a lot of bad plots during Knots's long run -- and let's not even get into Season 13. Let's just look at the Lechowick-Latham years. There's Jean Hackney and Ben's assassination assignment; there's Peter's attempted matricide. There's Paige running roughshod over Season 8 and invading Santa Tecla in Season 9. There's Michael and Ellen and Johnny, and Mack and Paula and the skunk. There's the character created solely to be raped (Amanda), and the one revived just to be killed (Mary Frances). And there are the twin ghosts. But really: there's nothing as bad as Val's brain virus.

And here's the thing. Because the early part of the season has been so successful, or at least so invigorating and assured, when the brain virus story first hits, you're cautiously optimistic -- or if "optimistic" is too strong a word, at least you're willing to give the story a chance. ("Let's adopt a wait-and-see attitude," as Karen once put it.) Val is in a riding accident, and as her strange behavior emerges, we imagine she's suffered some sort of brain damage. But the damage, at first, seems realistic. As she starts acting odd, we realize we've seen this sort of behavior before. When she calls off the wedding (because Gary saw her in her wedding dress), perhaps it's emblematic of her misgivings -- expressed throughout the last few seasons -- about reconciling with Gary: will the third time really be the charm? When she's rearranging books in the middle of the night, remember Verna and her kitchen floor fixation? And when she leaves the kids unattended to get her hair cut and styled -- well, we've seen Val try to jumpstart her life before with a new 'do: at the top of Season 6, and most dramatically, at the top of Season 9, when she got a new sports car to go with the new cut. But the minute the second block begins, the writers plunge full steam ahead with the story-line, and there's no recognizing Val anymore. In "The Unknown," following a doctor's appointment, as Karen and Gary are escorting her back to the car, she goes full-on batshit crazy, her head swinging madly from side to side, accusing her ex-husband of paying a doctor for a phony diagnosis and telling her best friend to "butt out":

(To Karen) You know, you're so naïve sometimes, I could scream. Don't you see what's going on? This "man" here can't take it that I won't be his adoring little missus, so he's planning on making me his slave. (To Gary) You are trying to trap me. (To Karen) He's trying to make me look crazy so he can get the children. (To Gary) Well, I'd have to be crazy to leave Bobby and Betsy alone with you out there at that ranch, and you know it. So I will stay out there with you, but nothing will make me marry you. Nothing! And don't you even think about touching me. (To Karen) You know, that's all this is really about -- that's all he wants is sex. (To Gary) Well, you're not getting any!

And then she gets into the car and switches out the pills the doctor gave her: the writers' way of letting us know that she's not going to get better anytime soon -- which, after that scene, is the last thing we want to hear.

When Val had her breakdown in Season 6, it was clear that she was reverting to an earlier incarnation of herself -- when she was young and full of hope: before the Ewings came along to steal away Lucy, before her mama rejected her cries for help, and before her husband abandoned her for another woman. But whatever this brain virus does to Val in Season 12 doesn't seem to stem from her own personality. There are none of the psychological underpinnings that grounded Season 6, and that made the middle section so fascinating. There are no insights being provided; it doesn't even open up new characters or settings or story-lines. This is just "what if Val went nuts?" -- and the only thing it accomplishes is the one thing Lechowick and Latham want it to accomplish: it postpones Val and Gary's wedding. And it unleashes Val in the conventional way that every soap heroine gets unleashed when their show affords them the opportunity to play a dual role or a new character -- she gets the chance to be wilder, stranger, broader, bawdier.

After "The Unknown," Valene grows more and more manic and outrageous, and the story-line more and more preposterous. She tears through scenes, offending and threatening everyone. (A character will ask "Excuse me?" as she barges into the room, and she'll spit in their face, "No, I will not excuse you," her voice dripping with disgust.) She traumatizes her own children by telling them that Gary is trying to have her committed (he's not) -- then threatens to punish them if they tell. Decked out like a punk Morticia Addams, in some black long-sleeve monstrosity, with the shoulders unaccountably exposed, plus a flared miniskirt and hip-high boots, she makes her way to her old second-floor balcony on Seaview Circle, where she starts throwing clothes onto the front lawn. Suspecting Gary of taking up with another woman, she howls at Karen across the cul-de-sac, "I know who she is," planting her hands on her hips and grinding away like an aging stripper, stretching her lines in an angry sing-song that resembles nothing remotely human: "Anne MATH-E-SON!!" (At that point, Michele Lee puts her hand to her face and stares wide-eyed: Jack Benny's trademark expression. There's really nothing else to do at this point other than deadpan to the audience, like you're on a bad sitcom. Ironically, although Lee hasn't been featured in months -- and won't be again until Mary Robeson comes calling late in Season 13 -- you have to wonder if she's not standing there thinking, "I've never been so happy not to have a story-line.") By this point, there's nothing left of Valene: her mannerisms, her inflections -- all gone. It's all just a shallow stunt, and when have we ever tuned into Knots for shallow stunts?

You had to believe, in Season 11, when Van Ark was reduced to being both dupe and dope in her own story-line -- as Gary stood outside her wedding to Danny, begging her to listen to reason, asking with incredulity, "What is the matter with you," and she responded, oblivious yet smugly superior, "Gary, what is the matter with you?" -- you had to imagine that that was going to be her series nadir. You had to believe that there was no way they could decimate her character further, but the brain virus story-line takes it to a whole new level: a new low for the character, and a real slap-in-the-face for Van Ark, who -- at the time -- was stuck posturing to the press that she liked the damn story-line. (She's since admitted the truth. The joke is: the press -- USA Today and Entertainment Weekly -- loved the brain virus story, as close as Knots ever came to full-on camp. They were apparently missing Dynasty.) It's unimaginable that Lechowick and Latham would have done this to any other character -- or any other actress, for that matter.

Hysterically, famously, Knots creator David Jacobs approached Ted Shackelford when the brain virus saga was starting to play out and advised him that it was really his story -- that it wasn't so much about how the illness affected Valene, but how Gary dealt with it -- and would be a great showcase for him. Do we really suppose that Shackelford looked at these scripts, in which poor Gary is stuck with a look of frustrated disbelief for an entire season, and thought, "Hot diggety dog -- now I'll finally get that Emmy nod"? When the story ultimately wraps -- about eight episodes after it runs out of steam, when the doctor admits that she still doesn't really know what disease Val had, but anyway, she's cured -- Shackelford gets as lousy a line of dialogue as any he's had: "I don't know whether to be sad or mad or glad." Be mad, Ted. Be very mad.

The irony here is that there's one thing that might have salvaged the story-line -- the intended coupling of Gary and Anne -- but it was scuttled by Michelle Phillips. When the pairing of Gary and Anne is teased during the final moments of the Christmas episode -- as Gary, taking the twins to a service, looks around the church and spots Anne, who smiles at him -- it seems inspired. It's up there with all the other fun pay-offs so far that season: dead Danny at the end of "God Will," Anne outwitting Nick in the department store by putting security tags into a dozen ladies' shopping bags, Tom figuring out the briefcase ruse and boarding the flight to Brussels. Of course Gary -- after enduring so much from Valene, and uncertain what's plaguing her -- might turn to someone for attention and/or affection, and of course it would be Anne. It's a pairing you'd never considered -- what with him so tied up with Jill in Season 8 and Val in Season 11, and her setting her sights on Mack and Greg, respectively. But Anne's always been the antidote to gloom: just ask Greg Sumner in Season 11, hospitalized from camaride poisoning and tired of being fawned over by Paulette. The pairing -- whether or not it turned romantic -- not only seemed like a promising idea, but one grounded in backstory: Anne Matheson was the one that men turned to when real life got too oppressive.

But of course, Michelle Phillips put the kibosh on the whole thing. In the final years of the Lechowick-Latham regime, it wasn't easy to get the showrunners to rethink a story-line. (Van Ark has lamented that when she was confronted by back-to-back stories that painted her as "the village idiot," she had nowhere to turn for rewrites. The headwriters were the showrunners. They were unyielding.) But Phillips convinced executive producer Larry Kasha to dictate a rewrite -- she didn't want her character going from man to man. In interviews, she makes that point with pride, never questioning her move. Let me be the one to question it. In fact, let me deride it: it stinks, babe. First off, you're Anne Matheson: that's what you do -- you go from man to man. Once you take a character who's fundamentally but delightfully damaged and start worrying about how she's "coming off" -- once you start confusing her reputation with your own -- the character is lost. And how about what your refusal to pursue the story-line does for poor Ted Shackelford, who's been doing dutiful service for twelve seasons? Shouldn't it matter that you're stranding him without a story-line? Whatever Lechowick and Latham had in mind for Gary and Anne, it couldn't have been worse than what we ultimately got: Gary trailing uselessly after Valene for another half a season, while Anne gets one more go-round with Nick -- this one devoid of all the elements that made their initial pairing so complex and appealing.

Here's what the writers forget when they elect to bring back Nick for another set of misadventures: screwball isn't about the capers; it's about what's going on beneath the capers. But when Caccialanza is pressed back into service in the second half of the season, the writers can think of nothing new to do with the characters of Nick and Anne. They're already established as comic soulmates -- there are no more discoveries to be made in their relationship, nothing to add tension or interest. It all becomes about the misadventures, and this new set is outrageously improbable. The ones in the first half of the season -- a run-around in a dress shop, the quest to distinguish between a pair of identical briefcases -- were down-to-earth. (Some of Knots' best scenes -- Laura telling Karen about her diagnosis, Pat convincing her to buy a leather miniskirt -- had taken place in clothing stores.) But when Nick returns, the capers go as far afield as Val's mental state. Wealthy corpses with hidden tattoos, Lithuanian relatives, and children's dolls with microfilm stitched inside. At one point Lechowick and Latham pay homage to their matching briefcases cliffhanger from earlier in the season with a matching puppies cliffhanger. (They actually serenade themselves. That takes guts.) And Anne and Nick don't so much get by on their wits -- as they did in the first half of the season -- but through clumsy conveniences and contrivances. (Anne, posing as a Lithuanian women, is confronted by a relative, who speaks to her in his native tongue; we expect the scheme to instantly fall apart, but no, she speaks Lithuanian back to him -- then explains to Nick, "I had a Lithuanian lover in boarding school." Gee, lucky that.) For a half-dozen episodes, Nick and Anne engage in outlandish capers that go nowhere; finally, she recalls some arbitrary event in her life (a scheme that went south because "the opals weren't real") that inexplicably gives her insight into a long-buried secret of Claudia's; she blackmails Claudia into giving her a seat on the board of the Sumner Foundation -- and then that plot goes nowhere. As with Val's brain virus, there's no build and no payoff. Things just end because the writers realize they've overstayed their welcome.

The final half of the season is one failed story-line after another. After a first half of the season that managed -- despite any tactical errors -- to be unpredictable and effervescent, the second half of the season is plodding, tiresome and banal. And for a clue to what's going on -- why the season takes such a dive in quality -- you have only to look at the writing credits. For most of Lechowick and Latham's reign, they shared equal duties with their story editors: the episodes were assigned fairly evenly among the members of the writing staff. But in the second half of Season 12, after Lechowick pens the fourteenth episode, the interminable "Simmer" (the sort of melodramatic episode that he delighted in writing, and never should have been allowed to write -- a throwback to "Until Parted by Death," "Suicidal," "Twice Victim" and "Out of Control"), six of the next nine episodes -- nine of the next thirteen -- are credited to Stanley and/or Messina. It's a wild shift in script assignments, and the point is clear: Stanley and Messina are minding the shop while Lechowick and Latham focus on launching Homefront. The give-and-take between writers that had given the first half of the season such a crackling unpredictability all but disappears. What we're left with is a set of uninteresting stories that misuse key characters and ignore others. And the pace drags to a halt: story-lines seem to go on forever, then either limp to a conclusion or end without explanation. Legend has it that Knots fell apart at the top of Season 13, when a set of new writers came in with no familiarity with the format or the characters. But in the truth, it all goes to pot at the end of Season 12, as the characters are so compromised, and the story-lines so drawn out and desultory, that any good will engendered by the first half of the season is forfeited.

Pretty much everyone gets ruined in the second half of Season 12. Claudia, whom the writers decided (rightly) had come on too strong, gets "softened" in the laziest way possible: by giving her a dark secret from her past. A photographer named Steve Brewer turns up in Knots Landing, asking questions about Claudia, and it turns out he's her son, given up for adoption. Nothing about this story-line works: not the reimagining of Claudia, not the casting and conception of Steve, not the effect it has on Kate. Poor Kate, who's fallen for the guy who turns out to be her half-brother, gets to admit her incestuous feelings in a Valentine's Day poem that's embarrassing to watch. Then, because Galina hated the red wig, they let her go back to her natural brunette hair, and the writers promptly forget who she is. In an odd bit of irony, once Kate stops functioning as "not Mary Frances," which had served the first half of the season nicely, they start writing her as Mary Frances. It's almost as if the writers haven't the energy to define her, so they just grab the actress's most recent characterization. She becomes sullen and angry: suddenly concerned for the environment and outraged at her uncle's business practices and furious at her mother for just about everything she can think of, including giving away a child long before she was married and long before Kate herself was born.

The thing is, the "long-buried secret" ploy rarely works, certainly not with a character introduced only a few months earlier. You can pull off this sort of story-line with someone well-established (e.g., Lilimae in Season 6, confronting the son she abandoned decades earlier), but sordid secrets aren't a substitution for -- or a means of -- character development. So ultimately, you're left as clueless about who Claudia is once Steve is introduced as you were when she was robotically manipulating lives in the first half of the season. And the ultimate revelation of who Steve's father was -- which is clearly positioned to be a shocker -- becomes a non-event. "Why would Claudia sleep with her own mother's lover?" Anne wonders aloud to Nick, as they plan their blackmail. The thing is, we never find out. The why's aren't important to Lechowick and Latham by this point. Hell, even the Romano regime tries to characterize Claudia, at one point giving her a touching story about what it was like to grow up knowing Greg was her mother's favorite -- hearing her mother sing him to sleep nightly in the next room, and appropriating that tune as a lullaby for her own daughter, seemingly conquering the past even as she unwittingly immortalized it. But we get nothing like that in Season 12. Claudia is defined by her scheming and her secrets -- in other words, she's not defined at all. But at least the scheming propels story-line. Once the scheming side is put to bed -- so that we can "like her better" -- there's nothing left to sustain our interest. Claudia spends the second block terrified that Greg will find out who Steve's father is, and when he does find out, he couldn't care less. Just another plot that goes nowhere.

Meanwhile, the Jason story, once it kicks into high gear, becomes preachy and oppressive. As noted, the story-line had been approached with some subtlety in the first half of the season. But then "Simmer" hits, an episode designed to make Mr. Lochner's abuse of his son as awful and unrelenting as possible. It's not like we weren't already well aware of how Jason was suffering -- but no, the point won't really be made unless we see it up close and unceasing. There are no grays to this story-line: Jason's father is cruel; Mack is his savior. The writers tie Mack's determination to save Jason to the abuse that he himself suffered as a child, and that's good, but in doing so, they so deify Mack that the story becomes pallid and predictable, and instead of drama, we get facts. "We have over 50,000 children in our system," a social worker announces to Mack. "We get 2000 new cases every day: babies with cigarette burns, toddlers with skull fractures. You have no idea what's out there." And interspersed with speeches from social workers -- about how overworked the juvenile justice system is, and how people need to take it up with their elected officials -- is running commentary from Mack and Karen about good parenting. "I never knew why people think that hitting is discipline," Mack announces, as he and Karen discuss child abuse in all its forms.

As Knots fans know well, you can do social-issue story-lines without resorting to preachiness, without making the character in question a statistic, and without bringing the action screeching to a halt while you educate the viewer. Karen's addiction story-line in Season 5 is a triumph, an outgrowth of her controlling personality and the powerless state she finds herself in -- and the show makes it clear, without ever needing to come right out and say it, that anyone can become the victim of chemical dependence. Olivia's drug use is equally smashing, a core character's backstory and current predicament causing her to fall prey to the sort of dangerous diversions available to privileged teenagers. But the rape story-line of Season 11 begins the practice of Knots taking up social issues in the most transparent way possible: by creating a new character merely to endure a societal ill, using a core character to expose it, and then giving us so much data about that social issue that we're not so much entertained as well-informed.

And that's what we get with Jason. While the juvenile justice system is busy being overworked and negligent, and Mack and Karen are being saintly, Jason's father is growing more and more violent. (There's one unintentionally funny moment when Mr. Lochner insists to his son that he tried to be the best father he could be, "and what did I ever get from you? Lip and sass." Lip and sass -- sounds like a song from A Chorus Line.) Fed up and terrified, Jason runs off, and his father chases him in his car, pursuing him down an alleyway that dead ends at a chain-link fence that Jason can't scale. And as Jason's father approaches him, the music starts to swell like some horror film -- and we know what's coming next.

And so Jason ends up in the hospital, and the doctor apparently prescribes another dose of moralizing -- except this time we get it in verse. Mack rifles through some magazines in Jason's room, and as he chooses one, the sappy music starts playing, and he begins reciting -- via voice-over -- A Prayer for Children:

We pray for children
Who sneak Popsicles before supper
Who erase holes in math workbooks
Who can never find their socks

And we pray for children who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire
Who can't bound down the street in a new pair of sneakers
Who never "counted potatoes"
Who are born in places we wouldn't be caught dead
Who never go to the circus
Who live in an X-rated world

And in case this isn't heavy-handed enough, Mack starts to wander the hallways as he continues reading aloud, staring at kids with broken legs, and kids learning how to use the candy dispenser. And kids waiting for good news about mommy. Mack's recitation goes on for a full five minutes before he arrives back at Jason's room.

By this point, the Jason story-line is only half over, but it feels like it's been going on forever. Don't look now, but once Lechowick and Latham finish with their latest social issue -- in another five enervating episodes -- there's still going to be time for Anne to become homeless and for Karen to go on a tear about school violence.

We pray for writers
Who have run out of good ideas
Who confuse preaching with entertainment
Who have no idea what to do with the core characters
Who are too fond of their paychecks to just up and leave

The Jason and Valene stories are static ones -- they make their points early on, then tread water for episodes on end. Anne and Nick redux is inconsequential, as is everything to do with Claudia and Steve and Kate. There isn't remotely enough plot to fill fourteen episodes, so the second block of the season keeps falling back on cute montages -- anything to stretch the story-telling. We get a montage of Frank and his new girlfriend Charlotte dressing for a date; we get one of Anne and Nick trying to earn an honest living, her as a saleswoman, him as a waiter. We even get a montage, when Paige discovers Sumner and Linda fooling around in his office, of her imagining all the ways she might have reacted. They include such witty rejoinders as "You're actually sleeping with that cow," which she decides is "too on-the-nose," and "What happened, Greg? Did you lose a bet?" -- which she dismisses as "too subtle." (Only in Season 12 could that line be considered subtle.) She also imagines dumping a pitcher of water on Linda's head.

Linda's increased exposure in the second half of the season is the worst thing that could happen to Paige. The writers clearly find their rivalry entertaining, but it's juvenile. It's like two teenagers fighting over the same guy, or for the one spot on the cheerleading squad. Linda, outrageously, tells Paige she forgives her for not knocking, when Paige walked in on her and Sumner at play, but suggests that in the future, she should assume a more "professional stance." And Paige assures her that from now on she'll knock, because "I wouldn't want to disturb a professional at work." Linda, who's never been anything more than a lightweight annoyance, cautions Paige, "You should be afraid. It's only a matter of time before I have your job" -- and you just want to laugh at how empty the threat sounds. But then in the next scene, Paige sinks to Linda's level and proves just as immature, as she picks up the phone, adopts a thick southern accent, and places a racy ad in Linda's name at an online dating service. This is our leading lady? At the end of Season 13, when Sumner hands Claudia, Paige, Mack and Karen the keys to the castle, Paige starts to move her things into Greg's office, only to find Claudia already settling in there. She expresses her surprise, and Claudia inquires, "But Paige, you were quitting. Have you changed your mind -- again?" And Paige tells her there's no way she's leaving her in charge of the company, unchecked, and reminds her that if anyone deserves that office -- "It's Greg's sister," Claudia interrupts, regally planting herself in his chair. Claudia, finally well-defined by that point, proves a worthy adversary; she and Paige are two formidable women determined to assert their authority, justify their position and grow the business. But with Linda, it's two Mean Girls playing games.

I don't even have the will or energy to list all the ways that I despise the character of Linda Fairgate. I hate that she's used to push Michael into his second foolish crush on a relative in three years; I hate the way her character is retconned, and her worst traits apparently passed on to Eric, so that suddenly she can be the victim in her loveless marriage; I hate the second retcon of her character, in that very same season, which takes her from victim to vixen; I hate how Paige, who had grown from an adolescent to an adult right before our eyes, is stuck competing and sparring with Linda in the most juvenile ways; and I hate Linda's pairing with Sumner, which never for a moment seems convincing or invigorating, but ultimately diminishes him and every woman he's been involved with up to that point in the series. (You can only imagine Laura turning over in her grave.) And I hate that the writers clearly prize this annoying, inconsistent character more than the four who've been there since the start: Karen, Val, Gary and Michael.

But most of all, I hate how the writers take obscene delight in having her humiliate Michael for almost two years, right up until his departure from the series. Poor Michael's entire story-line in Season 12 is being taken in, time and again, by Linda. Even when they finally break up, and she cons him into letting her keep her engagement ring (which she then proceeds to hock), the writers don't let Michael go out with dignity. He gets duped right up to the end, and since it's unimaginable that the point Lechowick and Latham are making is "Isn't it fun to watch Michael being humiliated," we're left to imagine that the story they think they're telling is "Isn't Linda delightful, in her shameless cunning?" But are we really supposed to enjoy watching a supporting player walk all over a core character? Are we truly meant to admire how wicked Linda is, at the expense of poor trusting Michael, who's been on the series since the pilot? Three episodes after they break up, Michael is still defending her: "She's not as bad as everybody thinks." Yes, she is, you knucklehead. But right to the end of Pat Petersen's tenure on the show, the writers are insistent upon making Michael a dumdum to promote their own creation; it doesn't matter to them how they decimate his character and his credibility.

The writers make one attempt to redeem Linda, to help us understand why -- for two seasons now -- she's been so underhanded. Her (previously unseen) mother is passing through town, and Linda rushes to meet her at the airport between flights. And her mother -- a dithering, dismissive neurotic -- makes a crack about Linda's weight and shrugs off the expensive scarf she bought her. She characterizes her daughter, recently promoted to head of research, as "a glorified librarian," and has neither the time to catch up nor the inclination to care. And from that one scene, we're meant to think, "Poor Linda, she never got any validation as a child -- that excuses her behavior." Well, honey, there isn't any excuse for a person not being very nice. There may be an explanation, but not an excuse -- because you see, in the end, a person who is just not nice is just not nice.

And that's what we're left with at the end of the day with Linda Fairgate. She is just... not... nice. She's at her most appealing during her two-episode stint in Season 9: she's bossing around Eric, and forcing her opinions on anyone who'll listen, but by the end of her stay, you forgive her. Of course you do: it's Season 9, the one time Lechowick and Latham truly try to write a character- rather than plot-driven series. As brash as she is when first introduced, you appreciate that she makes Eric happy, and understand that she's gratified to be welcomed into this new family, when it's clear that her own parents wouldn't be nearly as accepting or accommodating. And when she tells Karen, “Eric has this sweetness and this healthy attitude towards women. He doesn’t have any hangups about that at all, and it’s all because of the way you raised him. You deserve a lot of credit, and I just want you to know that I know it” — well, it’s just lovely.

But once she reappears in Season 11, it's one unflattering retcon after another: first making her the "victim" of a loveless marriage, so that we'll actually root for Michael to cheat with his sister-in-law; then reinventing her as a minx so embittered by what she sees as her mother-in-law's efforts to break up her relationship with her brother-in-law (yup, it's as bad as it sounds) that she'll happily paint her husband as an abuser. And notably, the writers don't ever bother to correct that impression; they're happy to let Michael continue to believe that his brother Eric beat up Linda. To them, Eric and Michael -- how they feel, and what they believe -- are irrelevant; Linda is their golden child. With almost calculated perversity, Lechowick and Latham use Linda to repeat all the mistakes they made with the introduction of Paige -- and then don't correct them. She never becomes more rounded, sympathetic or appealing; her actions actually grow less forgivable and less justifiable the longer she sticks around. By the second half of Season 12, the writers abandon any pretense that she's in love with Michael -- she's sticking with him to stick it to Karen, and she'll take any opportunity to privately humiliate him, even to the point of cuckolding him with his own boss.

And by then, there's little left of the series you once loved. Thanks to the writers' inattentiveness, most of the characters are, by this point, a shadow of what they once were. Val, the village idiot; Karen, the voice of the people. Mack, the saint; Paige, the adolescent; Michael, the dimwit; and Sumner, whom Karen accurately labels "a jerk." By the final three episodes, Knots is as aimless as it's ever been. Unlike the end of Season 11, when four plots moved inexorably towards the cliffhanger, there's apparently been no thought to how the season should end. So new characters and plots and conflicts are introduced two weeks before the finale -- anything to bring the season to a "rousing conclusion," to suggest there's actually a game-plan. Kate goes to work for Gary, then Claudia unaccountably decides to tell Val that Kate is in love with him (she's not) -- so Kate quits her job to run off with Steve. Nick, with no proper set-up, decides to make off with a statue he and Anne had purloined, leaving her destitute and homeless. And out of left field, a new character is introduced named Brian Johnston, a client of the Sumner Group, and Paige and Linda are put in charge of his account. It turns out that Linda knows him from her old days as a sexual adventuress, and when he's not having sex with Linda (and videotaping their encounters), he's being rebuffed by Paige -- and in possibly the single most plot-driven piece of writing from Lechowick and Latham's five years in charge, Linda and Paige just happen to be wearing matching outfits, so that when Johnston goes missing, Paige finds herself mistaken for Linda and interrogated by the police. In the final moments of the season finale, as Kate and Steve are driving off in his van, wailing away on "Dead Skunk," perhaps you're recalling the last time a skunk graced a season finale, a mere two season earlier, and how -- once again -- Lechowick and Latham are stinking up the joint.

When the end of Season 10 ran out of gas, it took the showrunners twenty episodes to get it back in gear. They won't have that luxury here. They'll leave one of primetime's sturdiest vehicles on the side of the road, stalled and stripped, with no instructions to the new team on how they might salvage it. Ironically, Knots Landing Season 12 was seen at the time as a success story -- it even made the cover of Entertainment Weekly. Falcon Crest and Dynasty were long gone, and now Dallas was on its way out as well, leaving Knots as the sole survivor of the '80s primetime soaps. And because the media felt the need to justify Knots's longevity in an upbeat way, they proclaimed that Season 12 had been a marvelous season that took bold chances that paid off -- it was "nutty, naughty Knots," as Entertainment Weekly dubbed it. But the true takeaway from Season 12, with its disastrous second half, is that Knots Landing -- by doing its best through the years to "keep it real," by offering splendid showcases for some of the best actors in the business, and by creating characters you genuinely cared about -- had engendered the kind of audience devotion that ensured that its inevitable ratings decline would be less swift and less severe than that of its sister soaps. That Knots endured beyond Season 12 isn't about quality; it's about loyalty. But could Knots survive one more rotten season? Probably not. Thank goodness, even though the worst is yet to come, there's hope on the horizon.

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 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 13, an epic fail, then 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. Lechowick and Latham were disastrous for Knots Landing! They get credit for keeping the show on the air, but they're judged in the context of the last few years of dallas, dynasty and falcon crest. Season 12 was a horror show, although the first few episodes of the season were excellent. David Jacobs never had a hit post Knots. If he had spent more time working on Knots Landing from 1986-1993 the ratings would and quality of the show would have been a lot better. More often than not Bernie and Lynn turned Knots landing into murder she wrote and I blame david Jacobs for handing over the show to these two
    I thought the child abuse storyline was the worst in the history of the show. Thomas Wilson brown was strong and well built. It was so implausible to believe that he was being abused by a slob of a man whom Thomas Wilson brown looked so much stronger than.

    Everyone hates season 13 but I think season 12 is the series' worst. Most episodes in season 11 finished in the 20s. But by season 12 many airings were finishing in the high 30s to mid 40s. The finale I believe finished at a very good number 10, but it was so horrible many fans just didn't bother returning. The poor quality of the finale probably played a role in the fact that cbs only ordered 22 episodes the following year.

    1. If you've read my other Knots essays, you'll know I'm not a big Lechowick and Latham fan. I'm can be quite critical when I discuss their work, and I suspect that, in the last few years, I've only begun to temper my language because I've met so many people here (whose opinions I greatly respect) who quite love them and their house style. For me, when they're good, I find them very good; when they're bad, I think they're awful -- and as I note here and elsewhere, I never find that they're able to sustain a "good" period for more than 20 or so episodes at a time. My favorite of all their seasons will always be Season 9, the one time they truly tried to adhere to the Knots formula of character-driven, relatable story-lines.

      I can't fault the Jason story-line for the reason you state: because Jason seemed so much stronger than his father. I think the very point of abuse is that it's about power, and many children who grow up in abusive households, in fear of their parents, remain terrified and traumatized long after they've reached adulthood. I just feel the story is heavy-handed and overlong -- like most of the second half of Season 12 -- hitting the same beats over and over.

      And yes, the finale was horrid. I didn't devote a lot of time to it, because by that point, I thought I'd said everything about the season that I had to say. But I had forgotten that it did well in the ratings. As always, though, if you put two episodes together and bill them as a "two-hour special," you're always going to get a boost in the ratings. And I have long maintained, as you suggest, that the real downhill spiral doesn't begin at the start of Season 13, but midway through Season 12 -- and if Lechowick and Latham hadn't left the show in such dire straits, we might not have grown so disillusioned quite so quickly in Season 13. But we were coming off a deadly half-season; we couldn't take much more.

      By the way, I'm delighted you stopped by, and you'll discover I always try to respond to posts -- but I do ask that folks try not to comment as "Anonymous." If we get a discussion going, and another person chimes in as "Anonymous," it gets very confusing, very fast! So if you choose to respond to this, or decide to comment elsewhere as well, do consider at least giving me a first name. It's always nice to know whom I'm "speaking" with.

  2. Lechowick and Latham did a horrible job writing for Karen's three adult children. We had watched them grow up and they all became afterthoughts. They should have brought Diana back much sooner. David Jacobs said the viewers hated Diana but I loved the character in seasons one to three before the writers destroyed her when they introduced chip. Steve's death should have been incorporated into the show although by this time new writers were in charge. Knots Landing became the Meg show and it became so tedious. Ann Marcus is credited for saving season thirteen but she cowrote the reunion and they went back to the meg ole standby and the renunion numbers were bad finishing 23 on night one and 51 on night two.

    1. I thought Claudia lonow did good work in season 4. sadly she was a total mess in season 5 physically and professionally with the horrible material she was given. It was very apparent she had drug issues during this time which she has confirmed, although not specific to this exact time period. I loved the Diana and Karen fights and these are some of my favorite scenes in the whole series. If the lechowicks had been running the series early on it never would have survived. I rewatched the entire series last year and have a much greater appreciation for seasons one thru three. I forgot how much I enjoyed the Richard laura dynamic and how much I enjoyed the laura scenes with Richard compared to her scenes with greg. John pleshette was the most underrated actor on knots landing. They got rid of him because he wasn't handsome but he should have returned later on in the series in some capacity. we all agree Julie harris should have been brought back in some capacity.


    2. I speak more about Diana in the comments section for my Season 4 essay, and I suspect I'll talk about her a lot when I get to writing up Season 5. For me, she kept threatening to become a plot-driven character. I love her in Season 3 when Karen is falling apart, and she has to become the adult. She is so appealing, and Claudia Lonow does wonderful, warm, subtle work that season. But then in Season 4, her story grows plot-driven for me, as she falls in love with Chip, and dislikes Mack at first sight. That said, I find Lonow wonderful in Season 5, and as noted, I'm sure I'll write more about her when I pen that essay.

      You'll find me hard-pressed to be too critical of Ann Marcus. (There are elements I don't like in her seasons, and I note them, but by and large, I am a fan.) I don't believe the series would have lasted without her guiding hand in Season 3, and I don't believe we'd all be looking back so fondly on the series without her saving it in Season 13. In her autobiography, she notes that the script she and Lisa Seidman wrote for Back to the Cul-de-Sac was thrown out, but contractually, they were due a writers' credit. So I don't know how much of what's there was hers. I had very mixed feelings about Back to the Cul-de-Sac, and might write about it someday.

  3. I would say that describing season 12 as an adrenaline rush that quickly wears off is apt and favorable.

    After having an 11th season that gave us everything from stale corporate intrigue, post office key suspense, death, and rape galore; it was definitely a surprise when the season ended with some promise (despite "meh" cliffhangers and then killing off Lynne Moody because all she wanted was a chance to be able to act).

    Season 12 starts off successful as we are able to get rid of Danny and in a very satisfying way: him dying while Julie just watches him. It's the stuff all revenge seekers dream of...but the less said about "What If?" the was so gimmicky and typical...though still better than most of season 11.

    We also have Anne and Nick, which may be my favorite storyline of the season. As a fan of the frothy sparkling fun that those zany romantic comedies provided from 30s/40s Hollywood, I absolutely loved this charming dynamic and it's a shame that it isn't sustained as the season goes on.

    When it comes to season 12 though, I can't go any further without discussing Val. It's true that after watching season 11 that you can't expect that they would ever sink her lower than that. (In that season, it got to the point where I was actually ready and gleeful to see Danny go crazy on her; her obtuseness and superiority made me wish Jill had succeeded in season 9).

    After years of watching Val go on a mad spree for a gun, shrieking like a banshee over Gary trying to get custody of the twins, acting like the victim to the "Poor Val" chorus, and then being duped into marrying a rapist, we now get to watch Joan Van Ark become inhuman: a garish, ghastly, and brash cartoon of herself....herself is an overstatement.

    What is remarkable about this storyline is how much JVA commits to it despite the fact she knows how stupid it is and also remarkable is Ted Shackelford. As somewhat of an unsung hero, Shackelford has always been a dependable force on this series and watching him put up with Val's lunacy in this storyline is extremely admirable.

    I still firmly stand by the belief that after Jill dies in season 10 that Gary and Val should've began dating again and then after several months of this, consider getting remarried and have that big finale of season 11 or a way to begin season 12. They could easily just remove Danny and Amanda from the proceedings. It wouldn't shock me of Latham and Lechowick just wanted to hold off on getting them married until the very last minute as a "Look! We are giving you this present before we go off create this other show that will actually be better written than our writing on Knots ever was!".

    Your hatred of Linda is interesting and while I don't love the character, I never hated her the way you do. It must be said that she is certainly another Paige in that the writers love her way too much and she is yet another plot device to make Michael look stupid. Michael is such a sweet and kind character but it gets harder to like him when he keeps getting these girls that take advantage of him or just suck the life out of him (Paige, the one played by Kristy Swanson, Ellen, and then Linda).

    I think it would've been more interesting if they had actually developed Olivia and Harold and incorporated them into The Sumner Group. Their presence certainly was missed after they appeared in all but five minutes of season 11.

    1. I always love your insights into the show, and the way you phrase things. You have a gift for seeing patterns of character behavior (I tend to see patterns of writer behavior, although you certainly see those as well) -- for example, noting all the ways that Valene acted crazy starting with her "going on a mad spree with a gun" in Season 8 and "shrieking like a banshee over Gary trying to get custody of the twins" in Season 9. It is all so true, and I hadn't quite realized that pretty much right from the start of their tenure on the show, Lechowick and Latham redefine Val as someone much less in control and more prone to hysteria than we'd seen before. I always thought the damage began later in their run, but the seeds are sown early on. And yes, you are very right: Ted Shackelford doesn't get his due; I don't really give it to him here, for being so good and so valiant, all those years. I remember once on the Knots Forum (this must be a decade ago), we were talking about the end of Season 12 into the first 15 episodes of Season 13, and how most of the characters ultimately become unrecognizable. (I describe a little of that here – how Val becomes the village idiot, and Karen the voice of the people. It falls to Ann Marcus to restore them all.) We discussed how the only character who never really goes away -- who remains a consistent, recognizable character throughout -- is Gary. And that's got to be in great part due to Shackelford. And admittedly, the writers don't decimate his character late in Season 12 and early in Season 13 the way they do almost everyone else, but still, he is remarkably consistent.

      Jayson Crady (who comments here often) and I have had many discussions here about the idiocy of getting rid of Olivia and Harold, considering how useful they could've been. Putting Olivia at the Sumner Group always seemed like a logical move to me; her rivalry with Paige was already established. And it would've been so interesting, had Harold remained at Mack's office, and Olivia gone to work for Sumner, to see what kind of impact that had on the couple when Mack and Sumner got into it. Would their loyalties have been divided? It's the kind of thing I talk about with Paige and Michael that, unfathomably, never got explored: what if they had a dispute at work; would Mack and Karen each side with their own child? What might the repercussions have been? That's obviously a very simplistic example, and it would have had to be way more interesting than that, but still: that kind of self-generating, character-driven story-line wasn't what Lechowick and Latham enjoyed.

  4. Mack loves to be The Saint...but he isn't like Saint Sid, this is a Saint that loves to yell and act overly passionate. I'm not sure what is worse: the boring vanilla demeanor of Sid or the mighty brashness of Mack. I do much prefer Mack but i prefer the Mack born out of Peter Dunne and Diana Gould and Richard Gollance, not the Mack that began to creep in with David Paulsen and became bombastic under L&L. So what is Mack tackling? Abuse. The basis of the storyline is obviously important and tragic and a worthy storyline to's just a shame that it becomes overbearing and predictable: rebel boy with bad temper meets sweet neighborhood girl and there is concern but obviously there is something more...the fact his father beats him. It's a storyline that has moments of good (Mack approaching him in a Santa suit saying he doesn't have to go home comes off as surprisingly sweet but maybe being the Christmas queer that I am, I am just too gushy during that moment), but in the end, it's yet another example of taking on a social issue and the audience getting educated.

    And oh yes, Claudia and Kate. I never really warmed to Kate and I don't really get into Claudia until season 14, but as additions, they add a certain intrigue. You could argue that Claudia is almost a retcon but I guess Greg wouldn't be one to talk about family much.

    I think season 12 benefits greatly being sandwiched between 11 and 13. It fed off the promises hinted at the end of the former and the bulk of it looks better when compared to the first two thirds of the latter...even if its own ending was nearly as dreadful. It's not as good as any of the golden years seasons (3-6) but it certainly has an entertainment value and even a certain creative spark early on that puts it over seasons 8, 11, 13, and honestly perhaps even 1 and 2.

    1. You're not the only one who's moved by Mack holding out his hand to Jason at the end of the Christmas montage -- gets to me every time. You know, when I talked to Richard Gollance, he loved the fact that Mack wasn't just a good guy – that there was very much an anti-hero streak in him. The way he endangers Karen and his friends to get what he wants in Season 5 is really the essence of his character. That's so lost late in the Lechowick and Latham era, and really lost in the Jason story. I'm not sure that that story could've been salvaged, given L&L's propensity for social issue preachiness, but it didn't have to be so black-and-white. What if Jason's father was actually a decent guy, but with business pressures that he took out on Jason, and Mack decided he knew best what Jason actually needed? What if there were actually some grays to that storyline? What if Karen thought Mack was wrong for getting involved, but Mack was so focused on his own abuse that he transferred those feelings onto the Lochner home, taking more drastic measures than he actually needed to? But that, of course, makes it a more complicated piece of psychological drama, and what L&L wanted was a social issues story with clear-cut heroes and villains.

      Like you, I do see the glory years of Knots as being Seasons 3 though 6. Nothing's ever going to change my mind about that. (I know lots of folks I quite respect who totally disagree.) And the later seasons I like best are the ones that respect and emulate that formula: Season 9 and Season 14. And I do like Season 10, because I see L&L emulating that formula, but adding their own touches to it, redefining it in a way that was more appealing to them. But I just don't think they were able to sustain that plan. They seemed to get bored so easily and so quickly, and although some feel that it was their constant soft-rebooting of the series that kept it fresh, I think it's mostly what kept it uneven.

  5. Mack is quite fascinating in his first couple of seasons, particularly season 5...and you see a certain gruffness return when he's acting out to the Mary Robeson storyline in season 14. I would actually argue that the intensity between him and Michele Lee that season is even better than how it was at the end of season 5.

    But anyways, I do find it interesting when those like different seasons more. I know our friend Brett of Knots Blogging used to be a passionate fan of seasons 8-12 but now his rewatch is proving otherwise.

    My feelings on the show have changed a lot. I used to say that once Donna Mills left that they show never recovered but now I realize the show found moments of goodness in early season 12 and it rebounded quite strongly in season 14.

    L&L are certainly very controversial figures. They start off solid with a freelance episode in season 6 that includes a shout out to Sid (even a visit to his grave) and then give us solid episodes in season 7 before near ruining the show on their watch in season 8. It's almost remarkable that they even salvage it in season 9 despite their mishaps with Mexico and the dullness of Abby/Charles and the rather hasty ending to the Peter murder. Season 10, as you said, is a fascinating mix of greatness and WTF moments with a mostly weak finale. Season 11 is another borderline train wreck with a decent ending that shows promise going into 12 with strong confidence. Their patterns are fascinating in be grand scheme.

  6. After season 11... Latham and co should have been pink slipped.. and Jacobs should have tried to entice Ann Marcus to come back since she wrote Val so well.

    I had forgotten about Kate with the red wig.. and that she was more whimsical then militant. I don't recall if Kate/Paige were friends at this point.. or if that friendship developed in season 13/14.

    1. Omigosh, how lovely would that have been: Ann Marcus coming back for Season 12? If Van Ark had had a couple good story-lines, which Marcus no doubt would have provided her, she might well have rethought her plans to leave the series.

      Stacy Galina is so charming as introduced as Mary Frances -- always smiling with both sets of teeth, with a very offbeat fashion sense. I cut it from my essay, but there's a great scene early on when Sumner is in his hospital bed, and Kate is sitting cross-legged at the foot of it, reading to him, and in his weakened, highly medicated state, he keeps seeing her turn into Mary Frances. And Stacy Galina is careful to change the tenor of her voice when she slips into Mary Frances: less breathy, more piercing. She really nails the difference between the two characters. And then, the minute she loses the wig, she starts getting written as Mary Frances, lambasting her uncle, "You closed the mill. You sold off the assets without any regard for the people who lived there" -- and doing this impassioned speech about the importance of putting people before profits. You sit there thinking, "Um, isn't she a tennis player?" She doesn't really get that bubbly quality back till Vanessa shows up.

      The Paige-Kate friendship does start here, early in Season 12, and it's lovely. It's one of the best things that happens to Paige early in Season 12. Then it's pretty much back-burned in the second half of the season, and as I recall, doesn't really become focal again till Season 14.

  7. Yeah, this is pretty much the season that unfortunately takes the show off the rails. Even from the premiere, the break-neck speed in some of the storytelling, combined with some abrupt turns (Danny is now religious, and they never bother to explain his motivation / Jeff suddenly comes on to Karen, then promptly tries to kill her with some confusing to follow car-phone bomb) show that the writers are leaning more heavily into the twists and reveals, no matter the sacrifice in storytelling and character to get them there. At least in the beginning of Season 11, they tried to motivate the characters and their relationships in the Val / Danny / Gary / Amanda story, coloring with shades of grey (at least, up until the rape). Here, they take any remaining heart out of the show, and it turns fully superficial.

    Like Season 11, the show falters badly in the middle part of the season from an even worse fault, the lack of plot or character (aka. lack of effort). The stories in this period do not have nearly enough plot to fill the episode order. While we do get some nice heartwarming Jason scenes at first, we then get about 200 of them over the next 10 episodes. And, even worse is the treatment of the Val storyline, and they way they just decided it was over just in time for episode 300, is a conclusion so embarrassing and lazy it blows my mind how it ever made it to air.

    I actually enjoyed the final three episodes, and appreciate some of the heart that goes back into the show with Val / Gary, Jason / Julie, Frank / Mack and the cul-de-sac feel, in addition to the injection of the videotape plot, but probably by this point I was desperate for anything, having sat through a solid 10 episodes of nothingness.

    1. I can't tell you how thrilled I am to see you back here commenting, and I apologize for the lag time in responding. Yes, as I think we've discussed elsewhere, if the second half of Season 12 hadn't been so dispiriting, would we all have turned on Season 13 quite so quickly and bitterly? I mean, yes, Season 13 is pretty much 15 ghastly episodes, but it's rarely acknowledged how bad the *previous* season becomes; it beats us down, and then Season 13 sort of runs over our limp bodies with a truck.

      My opinions on seasons have often changed since I first viewed them -- no *major* shifts, but positive or negative opinions have become stronger. I obviously love Season 3 now, when I had real issues with the stop-and-start story-telling back in 1981-82. Conversely, I rather loathe Season 8 now, whereas in 1986-87, although I knew nothing (other than Abby & Olivia) was truly exciting me, I thought it was "fine." Now the steady stream of misdirects and flashbacks -- and the cold calculation of it all -- makes my blood boil. But Season 12 -- well, it is what it is. I see it now pretty much as I did then. Back in 1990, I knew the first half of the season was moving at breakneck pace -- often, as you note, skipping key character beats to do so -- but I felt like Lechowick, Latham, Stanley and Messina were so engaged (they genuinely seemed to be having a good time) that I was quite content enjoying the ride, and willing to overlook the things that *weren't* working, like that whole Jeff/phone/bomb bit, which still makes no sense to me. And I could tell that things like the Anne-Nick story-line were energizing the writers, so I felt energized myself.

      But my God: the second half of the season. I remember sitting there week after week wondering when the show was going to go somewhere -- anywhere. At some point, what felt like two dozen episodes in, when Jason was writing his paper on "An American Hero," I felt like bashing my head against a wall. Haven't we hit this plot point, as you say, 200 times already? And as you note, the Val plotline going on and on until it's time to quickly, unsatisfyingly wrap it up for a "very special" 300th episode. Oh, I just hated it, and still do.

      But it's very interesting what you say about the final three episodes: I remember in 1991 being impressed and encouraged by the final two episodes (which, of course, aired as one). I was amazed that, for a season that seemed to be going nowhere, they actually managed to get some intrigue and tension going. But now I find it harder to generate any real enthusiasm for those final episodes: the "Paige and Linda are both wearing the same outfit" set-up seems almost an admission of how little the writers have been paying attention for a dozen episodes: "We don't have time to create a real mystery or story-line or cliff-hanger, so let's have Paige and Linda wear the same outfit, and Paige can go down for Linda's deceit." So contrived. (It's also more of the "Paige at the mercy of Linda" crap that I hate throughout Season 12. As I'm sure I've made clear here, my loathing of Linda in Season 12 knows no bounds...)