Thursday, February 8, 2018

A Reflection on Season Seven of KNOTS LANDING (1985-1986)


A Reflection on Season Seven of KNOTS LANDING (1985-1986)





And so here we are again finishing up a big fat season of KL drama and excitement.  The conclusion of season seven is pretty significant, as it means we are now (more or less) officially halfway through the entire series, with seven seasons under our belt and seven seasons left to go.  Keeping that in mind, how does season seven rank in the scheme of things so far?  How does it compare when put up against the six seasons that came previously, most especially the three seasons immediately preceding it?  Well, read on.

KL season seven is a flawed one, I now realize.  If you had asked me about the overall quality of the season before we got started, I would have told you it was pretty much on equal footing as the three prior seasons, but now I realize that is not so.  See, I now recognize that what made seasons four, five, and six so strong was that they all had a great central storyline that was integral to the entire season and that kept all the characters in the cast linked together and working together.  Season four had Ciji and Chip Roberts, season five had the evil Wolfbridge group, and season six had the kidnapping of Val’s babies.  With each of those seasons, I really believe the writers and creative powers sat down and mapped out the entire year well in advance, making sure to fully represent each character and keep the storylines moving along with each and every episode of the season, building to a great cliffhanger at the end of it.  When season seven is put directly up against those years, most especially the season that came right before it, the problems start to become much more visible. 




As I said while writing about the year episode-by-episode, I think the first ten eps of the season are all sublime.  They are stunning, stupendous, spectacular, or any number of other words that start with an ‘S’ and mean supreme.  The first ten eps are so good that they could easily be fused onto the thirty eps of season six and you could just create your own brilliant forty episode season of television.  Why do I find the first ten eps so strong?  It’s hard to say directly except that I feel like everything’s building right from where we left off in the closing moments of season six.  Our season six cast is still retained and a complete unit, with each and every character being someone I love and care about and could watch endlessly on a loop for the rest of time.  The stories are still flowing organically from what came before, and I think the start of season seven does pretty much everything perfectly.  Val gets her babies back in Here In My Arms and it’s a beautiful and classic moment, a moment that feels totally earned based on everything that has happened throughout the last two years.  Then, I especially appreciate how the writers choose to shine the spotlight on the Fisher couple for two eps following the return of Val’s babies.  These characters who could have merely been presented as plot obstacles keeping Val from her babies suddenly take on new a dimension as we realize they are good people who have had a hard life and plenty of bad luck.  The moment where they finally say goodbye to the babies once and for all in The Christening is one of the most memorable of the entire fourteen season run of KL.




As we move through the first ten eps of the season, we find there’s so much drama and character stuff going on that it’s almost impossible to keep a handle on it all.  While Val’s getting her babies back, she’s also making plans to marry Ben and start a new life with him, yet all this is happening at the same time that Gary is connecting the dots and realizing that he must be the father of the babies.  As this is going down, we also have the strange James Bond villain developments going on over at Empire Valley involving secret spy sites and underground tunnels and, um, I dunno.  I sorta talked about how the Empire Valley stuff was my least favorite aspect of these early eps, yet I maintain that I didn’t hate or even dislike the storyline; I just found it a little bit confusing and drawn out.  Finally, we have my favorite story of the first third of season seven, the mental unraveling of Joshua.  Some fans seem to really dislike this whole thing because they just see it as Cathy getting beaten by Joshua repeatedly over the course of ten eps.  I guess I can see their point of view, but I appreciate this story for a multitude of reasons.  First off, I like the fact that the series is shining a spotlight on spousal abuse at all.  Other shows would probably choose to just not bother, but KL just presents it in all its evil.  I feel very sympathetic towards Cathy at this point, sad that she has fallen in love with a man who is going crazy and has become a danger to everyone around him.  For me, all the Joshua and Cathy stuff is unbelievably compelling, plus it brings out the best in all the cast members around the storyline.  Julie Harris gets to do some of her finest work ever on the series here, and the scene in Until Parted by Death where she and Joshua sit at the kitchen table and talk about child abuse is one of the most memorable scenes ever.  Then of course we reach Rise and Fall and Joshua dies and then the season starts to get a little rockier than it has been up to this point.




The first ten eps, everything spanning The Longest Day through Rise and Fall, are great.  The characters are great, the stories are great, the writing is great, the acting is great, and the style is, of course, great.  There are so many eps that just burst with a special cinematic energy you wouldn’t expect from this era of television or this genre of television.  Just doing a simple comparison to how Dallas was being shot and presented at this exact time easily shows how much more artistic and thought out every single camera shot on KL was.  Anyway, after Joshua dies, it’s not like everything immediately turns bad.  In fact, now might be the perfect opportunity to stress that, for all the flaws I’m going to mention, at no point do I think this season is terrible or even merely bad.  I think it is flawed and it suffers from some storytelling problems, but it never turns just plain bad the way that its parent series was turning just plain bad at pretty much this exact time. 
  


What happens after Joshua dies, however, is that the series suddenly begins to feel very meandering.  The first ten eps burst with an energy and intensity that propelled us from one ep to the next, each one contributing a lot to the overall story.  Once he’s fallen off that roof, however, things slow down considerably.  Suddenly things are just sorta taking forever to happen, and I don’t mean that in the positive way, in the “slow burn storytelling” way that I tend to praise so often.  No, instead it just starts to feel like the writers filling time, realizing what a huge number of eps thirty is and struggling to figure out how to fill all thirty of those eps with material.  Joshua’s death should have fallout and ramifications; I certainly do not want him to die and then be immediately forgotten, but did we really need to draw the proceedings out for eleven episodes?  After he dies, we have the not-very-engaging storyline of Lilimae and Cathy conspiring together to tell lies to the police about what happened, and that goes on forever.  When you think maybe they’re finally going to wrap this plot up, Linda The Waitress shows up to incriminate Arthur Fonzarelli in Joshua’s death, elongating the plot even more, so now we have a couple more eps in which the cops start to think Arthur Fonzarelli is the killer, and then that all finally gets resolved when Lilimae and Cathy tell them the truth. 



We think the story is over, but then it goes on even more when we hit my least favorite story of the entire season, Sonny the saxophonist/evil secret reporter.  Ugh, why couldn’t the powers that be have just cut this storyline out entirely?  What does it provide?  The answer is absolutely nothing.  Sonny exists only to fill up space for four eps, to give Cathy something to do for that span of time.  The problem is that it doesn’t advance the plots or lead us to any better understanding of the characters.  Cathy hangs around Sonny for a few eps, he seems nice but he’s really duplicitous, then Cathy realizes the truth, she punches him, and the storyline is over.  It’s pretty pathetic to watch a character I love get such a non-story, but at least she’s technically doing more than Lilimae by this point, who is just wandering around the house and moping over Joshua’s death, not getting anything interesting to do herself.




Karen and Mack suffer from similar problems this season, although it’s not quite as obvious as the Lilimae/Cathy issues.  Mostly, it’s the situation where I can sense the writers trying to fill time and give Karen and Mack something to do for four or five eps.  All the business with Mack having J.B.’s room key and Karen getting so upset about it; honest to God, I’m still not sure if I like this storyline or not.  On the one hand, it is acted well by all involved, with both Michele and The Dobsonator doing excellent work in their big fight scene in the bedroom, when all those unfiltered emotions come screaming out.  On the other hand, the story still feels meandering.  Karen finds the room key, she’s upset for a good chunk of eps, then she and Mack talk about it and resolve their issues and move on.  Oh wait, they move on from that issue only for Karen to suffer from trust problems and frigidity.  Suddenly Karen can’t get intimate with Mack, but she gets over that problem after a few eps by inviting him up to a hotel room.  This is a storyline I remember really loving, but I don’t love it so much now.  To be clear, I also don’t hate it, but I just recognize it as a time-filler, an issue that will occupy the attentions of Karen and Mack for four or five episodes until they can get over it and move on to new business.

The handling of all the Empire Valley stuff is also a tad askew.  There’s so much intrigue and drama regarding Empire Valley and what’s really going on there throughout the first third of the season, but then we hit All’s Well and Gary decides to blow it up.  While I found this particular episode to be fabulously enjoyable and probably my favorite episode out of the last twenty for the season, it also does ring a little bit like the writers flushing the toilet on an entire storyline, saying, “This is getting too confusing, so let’s just have Gary blow it up.”  Of course, after Gary blows it up, Empire Valley does not go away; it’s still a big focus on the rest of the season, but just in a different way.  The international intrigue and James Bond villains pretty much disappear and then Empire Valley becomes a storyline about pollution.  Where did all the bad guys go, though?  That’s the part that feels like the writers just saying, “Fuck this,” and setting off the big explosion on the whole storyline.

So that’s pretty much the middle third of the season, and then we move on to the final third, spanning Irrevocably Yours through The Longest Night.  A lot of people say this is the weakest portion of the season, but I honestly think I might prefer it to that middle third.  At least we are done talking about Joshua by this point, and at least Karen and Mack get past their issues and start to focus on new stuff.  At the same time, it’s this third that somewhat feels like the creative team just giving up on the season and getting ready for the next one.  While the three previous seasons all propelled us towards our exciting cliffhanger organically, this season just sorta fizzles, having the characters bicker a lot about Empire Valley and the pollution and all that, and then Karen gets kidnapped, she’s in a scary basement, and boom, that’s our cliffhanger.  It’s an okay cliffhanger because it certainly gripped me upon first viewing and made me want to keep watching, but it suffers when placed up against previous seasons because we realize how out of the blue it came, not from anything previously established but just as this new storyline that we will now be focusing on.




I do think a lot of my problems with this season’s storytelling structure stem from our new supervising producer, David Paulsen.  It seems to me that some KL fans really vilify Paulsen and his contribution to KL, but I won’t do that.  I think Paulsen is a talented writer and storyteller who was a key part of some of the best years of Dallas, but I also think his talents were just inherently meant for Dallas, the same way that Peter Dunne’s talents seemed to align perfectly with KL and it just didn’t work when he flipped over to Dallas.  I definitely feel like Paulsen brought some baggage from his time on the parent series with him, such as the idea that the plot should dictate the behavior of the characters rather than the other way around.  One of my favorite things about KL overall is that the characters come first, not the drama, but here I think they are often being moved around more like chess pieces than characters and that seems to be a direct Dallas influence.  In fact, watching each episode under the microscope this time, I can definitely see Paulsen bringing a ton of Dallas influence to the series, and sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes that’s a bad thing and sometimes I’m indifferent.  I feel like he sorta turns Greg Sumner into the J.R. Ewing of the series this year, sitting in his high rise and smoking his cigars and working up complex, duplicitous plots.  I actually greatly enjoy this version of Greg, so that’s not a criticism, but I do think the women suffer this year, in general, from Paulsen’s Dallas baggage.  On Dallas, the women were not strong or interesting characters (a few exceptions such as Sue Ellen and Donna Culver notwithstanding) and they mostly existed to do whatever the plot demanded, but on KL, the women are the show.  I think the great acting from all the ladies in the cast more than makes up for them getting somewhat lacking material this year, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still lacking.  So yes, while I think Paulsen is a good writer and I think he contributes some fine scripts to this season and I think he tried his best to do a good job, I also think in the end he could only do so much, that his heart really belonged to Dallas and that’s where his interests lie.  Why else would he leave KL after one season to return to Dallas for two sinking-ship seasons?  Most people would realize that they had perfect timing by flipping over to work on the superior show at the exact moment that the parent show is turning into feces, but Paulsen instead chose to ditch the superior show and go to work for two more years on the far inferior show.  He also didn’t seem to give a crap about the fact that the dream resolution fucked up the storytelling he had been doing for an entire year on KL, that suddenly Bobby was alive on one show but dead on the other show, complete with a new baby boy named after him in his memory. 




Speaking of which, season seven is also notable for being the last season in which the two series, Dallas and KL, absolutely and inarguably exist in the same universe.  Bobby dies on one series and his death directly effects Gary’s behavior on the other series.  In fact, I’m gonna go ahead and be really bold and say that the way KL handles Bobby’s death is not only superior to the way that his death was handled on the parent series, but is actually one of my favorite aspects of this seventh season.  See, my memory was that we got a mention of Bobby’s death and that Gary flew out to Texas to see the funeral, and then I figured we got a few more references, and then that was it.  Actually, it’s much more significant to the KL story than I had remembered.  I would argue that Bobby’s death is directly responsible for so much of Gary’s behavior this year.  His sudden reckless lifestyle and racing cars and chasing J.B. and deciding to divorce Abs all seem to point to a man now made rudely aware of his own mortality and determined to live his life fully before his time comes, as well.  Even though the references to Bobby’s death sorta taper off as we move through the season (I believe the very last reference occurs in episode 21 of the season, Irrevocably Yours), to me there’s no doubt that Gary is always thinking of his late brother and using that to gauge his decisions within his own life.

If it sounds like I’m doing a lot of bitching about the year, please don’t mistake it for that.  There’s still a lot to love in this season, and even as I complain about Paulsen not writing well for the women, I have to give him credit for bringing J.B. back onto the series in a big way and giving me one of my favorite characters.  J.B. had a one scene walk-on during season six and that was it, but she’s back in season seven to stir the pot and it’s glorious.  Even though there are aspects of the J.B. plot that I should be critical of, such as her hopping from a possible affair with Mack to an actual affair with Gary and then back to a potential affair with Mack (the type of musical chairs adultery that occurred regularly on Dallas), it all works for me because of the pure charisma of Teri Austin.  I’m gonna go ahead and say I enjoyed any scene J.B. was in and any storyline that she was a part of.  I think this new character is one of the highlights of the season and I’m glad we have several seasons to live and breathe with her.  Also, despite some storytelling problems throughout the year, there’s still an inherent classiness to this show that places it on a level above its contemporaries.  I feel that this is still a well made series with great style and acting and, on a scene-for-scene basic, the series continues to be well shot and insanely watchable.  I would still rather watch this year of this series than just about any other series I can think of in existence.  Also, while this year is not as slam dunk brilliant as seasons four, five, and six, I would still rather watch it versus seasons one, two, and three.  I think this boils down to my preference for this particular era and this particular cast of characters to that earlier, more domestic, much slower-paced era.  Ranking the seasons now, I would say we have season six at #1 (and, spoiler alert, that’s where it’s going to stay until the very end of the series), season five at #2, season four at #3, season seven at #4, season two at #5, season one at #6, and finally season three bringing up the rear at #7.  This was a flawed season of the series with some awkward hiccups due to a new show runner, but it’s still great entertainment starring a cast of characters that I love as if they are real people and it still has plenty of fantastic eps.  The first ten eps alone are so good and so exciting and so well made that I am comfortable recommending the entire season based on the strength of those opening eps alone. 




That about does it for my reflection on season seven.  Stay tuned for my essay comparing and contrasting this season of KL with the concurrent season of Dallas (click HERE to read it) and then it's time to get started with the second half of KL with our season eight premiere, Just Disappeared.



6 comments:

  1. Nice summary and commentary. The whole Paulsen story is fascinating. He went back and forth among prime time soaps and managed to influence all the series in major ways.

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