A Reflection on Season Three of KNOTS LANDING (1981-1982)
So we’ve come to the end of another season of KL and are now 3/14ths of the way through the series (well, sorta, if you’re just going by season count and not by episode count). Before launching off for season three, I predicted that it would be my least favorite not just of these early seasons, but of the entire series. Was my prediction accurate? Well, obviously I can’t say at this time if season three is my least favorite of the entire series, since I will need to rewatch the next eleven seasons before I can officially decide that. Perhaps I’ll have a real change of heart about some of those later seasons that I remember watching and thinking were just fine (for instance, most fans speak about season thirteen in hushed tones, yet I remember powering through it and not thinking it was too bad at all). However, and this might sound weird coming after five or six gushing episode write-ups in a row, but yes, I am still declaring this the weakest of the first three seasons, and let me explain why.
Basically, this season is just all over the map. Season one was really short at only thirteen episodes, and it was the most self-contained season, really, with each episode being its own little story, usually focusing on a new character, with only the smallest hints of later, serialized storytelling. Then season two surprised me by being much more serialized than I recalled, and aside from some random one-offs like Moments of Truth or Man of the Hour, had a lot of long, ongoing storylines running pretty much throughout the course of the season. With season three, however, I feel we took a step back in that regard, that the creative forces behind the scenes couldn’t yet make up their mind on whether this was a nighttime soap opera or just individual, self contained episodes.
Okay, so the season started with a tremendous bang with the double whammy of The Vigil and Critical Condition. These episodes are amazing and, up to that point, the best episodes of KL ever, in my opinion. After that, though, the season just gets sorta weird. Episodes like Aftermath and Moving In are, you know, good, but they also don’t exactly stick in the memory. When I finish the series, I highly doubt I’ll reflect back and be like, “Oh man, Moving In was such a kickass episode of KL!”
I’m not gonna just walk us step-by-step through the entire season; I just spent weeks doing write-ups on all 22 episodes, so my thoughts can be seen there, but I will say that the whole middle portion of this season was just kinda weird. That’s really the best word I have for it. It seemed like we had a lot of exciting storylines building, but then the writers would put everything on pause randomly for singular eps. Probably my two best examples of this are the leap from The Rose and the Briar to The Three Sisters and the one from Best Intentions to Silver Shadows. As I said in my writeup, The Rose and the Briar ends with Abby sorta hijacking Gary to be her surrogate husband and Lilimae giving Val a word of warning about Abby’s behavior, but then our very next episode is the bizarre and truly skippable The Three Sisters, some sort of singular haunted house story that is utterly unlike any of the other 343 eps of KL. This is then followed by Power Play, which feels like a direct continuation from where we left off in The Rose and the Briar (reinforcing my theory that eps this year were aired out of production order, something I still am unable to prove concretely).
I would argue the jump from Best Intentions to Silver Shadows is even more jarring, not to mention more irritating. For me, Best Intentions was a season highlight, and you get the feeling that everything is revving up and leading us to some exciting stuff, but then it’s put on pause for what I am declaring the worst KL episode of all time, the unbelievably boring Silver Shadows, another episode that you have my full permission to just skip right over if you feel so inclined (unless you’re anal and pretentious like me and insist on starting with episode one and then proceeding through every single episode of the series no matter what).
My basic criticism with this season is that middle portion, where I feel like separate, disparate storylines are just sorta floating around, but they don’t start to cohere and come together until the last lap of the season. The affair of Gary and Abs builds very slowly (although I actually like it that way) while Laura and Richard’s emotional and marital turmoil sorta slowly comes to a boil, often being put aside for several episodes in a row while we focus on something else. Kenny and Ginger are, you know, there, but we are now at the point where it’s just achingly clear that the writers have nothing for these characters to do, and aside from the James Houghton-penned Possibilities, the two hardly get a storyline all year.
The best part of the middle portion and indeed one of the best part of the whole season comes in Michele Lee’s amazing performance as Karen, dealing with the loss of Sid. I remembered this being a big arc of the season, but I had forgotten just how big, how the death of Sid really hangs over the entire season, and I like it that way. You can definitely understand the impulse writers and producers might have to kill off a character and then try to immediately move on, to not constantly remind the audience that a character they loved is dead and gone. But KL goes realistic and I praise them for that; Karen does not get over her loss in an episode or two; it really takes all year. Episodes like One of a Kind and Mistaken Motives are maybe less exciting than the soapy, juicier storylines we are about to get into with season four, but there’s a real heart to them and they are basically character studies of this poor woman who has lost the man she loved. I don’t think Michele hits a false note all season, and I do predict that this will be her finest season of acting. If I could only give her an Emmy for only one season, I think I would pick this one, because she is realistic and sympathetic all year, from start to finish. This arc culminates pretty splendidly with Karen at Sid’s graveside, taking off her ring, in the last few moments of Letting Go. What struck me upon this viewing, however, was that this particular scene, which I had really hyped up in my memory, isn’t even the best part of her story. Please understand this is not a criticism, as that is still a fabulous scene, but rather I am complimenting all the smaller and more subtle bits of acting she does through the season as she goes through the stages of her grief.
The very best thing about this season is the incredible upswing it goes into in its final few hours. After the dull, go-ahead-and-skip-it-cuz-it’s-dumb episode that is Silver Shadows, the rest of the season is like a bullet from a gun. We follow it with Letting Go, which brings the death of Sid full circle, and then we get a five episode string of pure excitement with Exposé, Night, Acts of Love, China Dolls, and Living Dangerously. This is absolutely the best final set of episodes we’ve seen in a season so far, even blowing away the last three eps of season two that I just loved so much. Even though I keep saying that KL doesn’t officially switch into glorious nighttime soap mode until season four, in all honesty I'd say it makes the switch right here in these concluding episodes of season three.
So now’s the time for me to discuss the season highs and lows, as I’ve done with the two seasons previous. Honestly, picking a best episode for this year is hard, because when they were good, they were really good. I absolutely loved The Vigil and Critical Condition and am tempted to say one of those (probably Critical Condition, if I had to pick just one) are the best of the season, but then I remember episodes like Secrets, Best Intentions, Night, and China Dolls that really blew me away and delivered an amazing 48 minutes of television. After doing some serious chewing on it, I think I have to pick Night as the highlight episode of the season, and perhaps even the whole series up to this point, the best episode of the first 53 episodes of the show.
The reason Night is so good, and something I honestly didn’t even think about until I read a brilliant blog posting about KL season three (Tommy K's brilliant television blog located here) is the fact that the drama is coming from within, from the characters. This blog post specifically compared Night to season two’s Moments of Truth as an example of why the former is so much better than the latter. With Moments of Truth, the conflict, the hostage situation, the drama is all coming from an outside source, from some one-episode guest stars who come out of nowhere and are tidily dispensed with and never heard from again. With Night, the drama is involving the mental breakdown of a character we really care about, Richard, and the way his actions are affecting all the other characters around him, characters we also love, most specifically Laura and Karen. Also, unlike Moments of Truth where the hostage situation is tidily cleaned up and never mentioned again, this one has ramifications that will affect the characters for a long time to come.
The worst of season three? Easily Silver Shadows. What a boring turd this episode was, and if I had to pick one KL episode to throw in a fireplace and never see again, it would be this one, and honestly nothing would be lost. Second worst would probably be Reunion just for being boring, but that one didn’t offend me the way Silver Shadows did. I think it’s all about placement, too, in that the fact that Silver Shadows followed Best Intentions just made it so much worse and so much more difficult to sit through (after watching those two eps back to back, My Beloved Grammy actually said "It's like we went from the best episode ever made to the worst episode ever made"). The Three Sisters is another weird one, but I confess that its inherent strangeness does make it somewhat appealing to me. For one episode out of 344, we suddenly drift into some haunted house horror movie and are existing in a world where there are ghosts and supernatural shenanigans at play. Yeah, it’s pretty dumb, but at least it held my attention and was unique, not to mention well shot and directed in an interesting way.
If I sound overly critical of season three, I hope you understand that I still loved it; I love every season of KL. Yet as of this writing, having not gotten started on season four yet, I think I still hold firm in my assertion that these first three years are the weakest. If I was trying to get someone hooked on the show, I don’t think these are the best “gateway drugs” for that. They might start to get into the exciting storylines, but then they’d sit through an episode like The Three Sisters and be like, “What the hell was that about?” I think if a viewer could make it all the way through to the end of season three, they would become hooked in those final five or six episodes, but some of those one-offs that we’ve seen throughout seasons one, two, and three, really threaten to sink a viewer’s interest, in my opinion, although I'm continually surprised by how many people seem to really love those eps and defend them (God help them, but some people actually might even defend Silver Shadows).
So despite my praise for so many aspects of season three, I am still, as of this writing, declaring it the weakest year of the series and I actually find it very easy to understand why it was the least watched in the Nielsen ratings of all fourteen seasons. It’s too disjointed and all-over-the-place and, especially if you were watching week to week, hard to get a real handle on. But the good news is that it picks up tremendously at the end and, once we get into season four, we’re pretty much in for nonstop brilliance.
So with all that said, how about we get started with that fourth season? On Sunday, I will return with my thoughts on the premiere of the 1982-1983 season, the episode fittingly titled A Brand New Day.