Thursday, February 15, 2018

Comparing and Contrasting David Paulsen's Season of KNOTS LANDING With Peter Dunne's Season of DALLAS (1985-1986)

Random Extra Essay Just For Fun: Comparing and Contrasting David Paulsen’s Year on KNOTS LANDING With Peter Dunne’s Year on Dallas

 Hello all, and welcome to this unexpected and only somewhat planned-out extra bonus essay of excitement.  The idea for this came about when we were just finishing up watching season six of KL and about to get started with season seven.  I found myself trying to fathom how Peter Dunne, who I had grown to love and respect over the course of three stunningly brilliant seasons of KL, could go from three seasons that amazing and immediately run the season of Dallas in which everything starts to go mammothly and colossally off the rails.  Now, since this is a KL blog and not a Dallas blog (aside from those occasional Interludes in which Gary and/or Val pop in for an appearance, and we aren’t going to be talking about another one of those for a very long time), at first I wasn’t entirely sure I was gonna do this cuz I’m more interested in talking KL.  But then My Beloved Grammy and I got started with season seven of KL and we had that little Dallas Interlude entitled The Family Ewing and I found myself surprised by how not awful the episode was.  Make no mistake, it wasn’t great or anything like that, but it was better than I had remembered, so then I decided to go ahead and rewatch the ninth season (the dream season) of Dallas.  To be clear, I just did this on my own time, when I felt like it, so I wasn’t hopping from KL to Dallas over and over again for the entire course of the season.  Rather, My Beloved Grammy and I watched the seventh season of KL when we had time and I watched the dream season of Dallas by myself when I had time, although I finished it long before we finished this year of KL.  This essay is going to focus more on the dream season of Dallas and what elements of it I can spot as Dunne influences; I’ve pretty much said all my thoughts on Paulsen’s season of KL, but one thing that I think is interesting is that I see similar problems within both seasons of television.

Peter Dunne ran KL during its trilogy of brilliance that was seasons four, five, and six.  To be clear, he didn’t totally run all of six, since I think the last ten eps or so were run by a different producer (Lawrence Kasha?), but for all intents in purposes, he ran those three seasons.  I think it will surprise nobody to say that, when all is said and done and I’ve watched and written about all 344 eps of KL, seasons four through six are going to stand out as the very best peak seasons of the series, where everything is just firing on all cylinders and the show is virtually flawless.  Then we hit 1985 and, for whatever reason, the two shows did their producer swap and Dunne went over to run Dallas while Paulsen went over to run KL.  The exact reasons for this producer swap I do not know and, if anyone reading this does know, please write in and tell me. I’d be very curious to know who came up with the idea of swapping producers and how the two producers felt about making the switch.  In any case, it was a fairly short-lived experiment because, after the year was up, Paulsen returned to working on Dallas and Dunne went to do, um, whatever he went on to do (according to IMDb, his next producer credit is a 1988 TV movie called Police Story: Burnout).

Obviously we begin the ninth season with Bobby Ewing’s funeral, an ep I already covered for A Brief Dallas Interlude.  Right off the bat, after being away from the series for some time, I was surprised by how well shot the show was.  To be clear, it’s never as well shot as KL, but that opening ep was rather colorful and had some interesting camera tricks and even a cool dissolve near the end of the ep.  At the same time, fuck if Dallas isn’t just plain ugly to look at. Were the prints just not preserved well at all?  Even if I’m seeing images that are technically well shot and photographed, the transfer is just so ugly and the picture looks very video-y, just generally unpleasant to look at.  Contrast this with KL where, even when I’m watching on my shitty bootleg DVDs, I can still enjoy the visuals of the series.  Anyway, the opening eps of the season pretty much deal with Bobby’s death to various degrees of effectiveness.  These opening eps of the season are probably the best part of the year and I was surprised to find myself enjoying them pretty well.  In fact, even though I started this season expecting to see the series beginning its steady decline, I’d actually argue the opening, let us say, eight or ten eps, I’d actually argue that those eps are pretty good and show a surprisingly willingness to experiment with the storytelling, something I don’t normally associate with this series.  See, when I think of KL, I think of a series that is happy to experiment with storytelling and really shake things up.  Kill off Sid Fairgate at the very beginning of the third season?  No problem, let’s do it.  Give Karen, the den mother and rock of the series, a problem with prescription pill abuse?  Done.  Have Val’s babies get kidnapped and give her a bunch of weird, trippy dream sequences about the trauma?  Affirmative.  Conversely, I feel like Dallas was always afraid to shake things up.  Once they realized that J.R. was such a popular character, let’s face it, it kinda became The J.R. Show and stayed that way until the end.  Every episode is basically about the same battle for Ewing Oil fought between J.R. Ewing and Cliff Barnes and it goes on for 357 eps and never really changes or evolves all that much.  However, here at the start of the 1985-1986 season, I’m seeing the show trying some new things and I like what I’m seeing.

First off, I actually think having Bobby dead is a fine decision that the show should have stuck with.  For all the problems this year has (and trust me, it has a ton), Bobby being dead is not one of them.  We had eight seasons of Bobby being alive and being the good son to J.R.’s bad son.  That was all fine, well, and good, but I actually really like the sad feeling that permeates the show at the start of the season.  You can see all the other characters missing Bobby and feeling an emptiness without him, and I would argue Bobby’s death brings out some of J.R.’s most interesting material.  A lot of people say this season made J.R. too soft, and maybe they’re right, but at least in the opening hours, I’m liking what I’m seeing from him.  When J.R. stands at Bobby’s grave and tells him he always loved him, I believe it and I find it fairly moving.  Throughout the next eps, we have lots of different scenes displaying J.R. unable to cope with or even understand his grief.  

Another thing the start of the season brings us is the return of Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie after the disaster of Donna Reed during the previous season.  Now, I’ve made it perfectly clear that I’m never an Ellie fan no matter who plays her and that Ellie is my least favorite character from the entire original cast.  That being said, I actually think this might be her best season in terms of acting and weighty material.  I think Barbara returned to the series rejuvenated and wanting to reclaim the part as her own, so the writers give her lots of good moments to show her emotions and give some good acting.  While Ellie will quickly return to her usual state of playing checkers and getting absolutely no interesting storylines ever, at least for the majority of the dream season, she’s pretty solid and I’d say this is the most I’ve ever liked the character.

In fact, while we’re on the subject of Miss Ellie, I would like to point out that I think Peter Dunne came to Dallas intent on actually writing some interesting material for the female characters.  One of the most lacking aspects of Dallas pretty much start to finish is the female characters, who generally behave more like plot devices than characters.  Dunne had just spent three years writing for some of the finest ladies ever on television, so I imagine he wanted to give the ladies of Texas some interesting stuff to do.  Right off the bat, we see a new side of Pam as she deals with her independence after Bobby’s death and claims her spot at Ewing Oil, working alongside J.R.  Now, I didn’t say any of this winds up being all that exciting; I’m just saying that I see Dunne trying to give the ladies something to do.  We also have Sue Ellen hitting her famous rock bottom (an arc that brings me flashbacks to Gary’s rock bottom in season four of KL, one of the first things I spotted as an obvious Dunne influence in this dream season) and then coming out the other side, stronger and more capable.  We have Donna and Ray and their pregnancy (more on that in a moment), and we have Miss Ellie actually doing some interesting things.  Overall, I would argue the series gets a little estrogen boost this year and the ladies are getting more of the focus than the men.  No argument from me there, although I can see how this change would be jarring to loyal Dallas viewers.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying these first ten eps of the season are stunning or anything like that, especially when stacked up against the first ten eps of KL the same season.  There are still plenty of problems, starting with that eternal Dallas problem of endlessly repeating the same storyline on a loop, a cycle of repetition that goes on and on forever over the course of fourteen seasons. In this instance, it’s yet another boring battle for custody of John Ross fought between J.R. and Sue Ellen.  Oh snore, who even cares about this?  This stuff was compelling way back in the early years when John Ross was still just a baby, but every time they return to this device, it becomes less interesting, and sadly this isn’t even the last time they’re gonna do it (I recall us having to suffer through another custody battle storyline in season twelve).  

Also, even if I praise this season for giving Sue Ellen a good arc and letting her hit rock bottom, it’s still done in such a cheesy Dallas way.  Compare and contrast Gary’s two big benders on KL (season one and season four) and how realistic those felt (more or less, ignoring “WE’RE RUINING LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIVES”) with the way Sue Ellen’s bender here is presented.  She starts drinking again and five minutes later, she’s in a back alley with a bunch of gross homeless people drinking liquor out of a bag, complete with one of those scary homeless shopping cart ladies holding the bottle up to Sue Ellen’s face and being like “Welcome back,” or some equally bad piece of dialogue.

          It’s just way over the top, but that’s the way I tend to think of this show.  While KL would handle a storyline like this with a certain degree of realism and subtlety, the parent series has all the subtlety of a bulldozer.  Oh yeah, and then the series AGAIN repeats something they’ve already done before when Sue Ellen checks into a rehab center and is immediately presented with the opportunity, courtesy of an unethical male nurse, to get some liquor smuggled into her room.  Okay, fine, whatever, but this was already done in season two and I see no reason to do the exact same thing again here in season nine.

Also taking up the attention for the first third of the season is another generally uninteresting storyline about how J.R. might lose Ewing Oil.  Jeremy Wendell (who I think is a great and underused character) shows up and offers a bunch of money or something like that and then we have a series of eps in which Ellie is thinking of selling and J.R. doesn’t want her to and there are arguments about that and it’s, you know, boring, but also nothing too terribly offensive or stupid.  Offensive and stupid will come at us very shortly after this in the form of Angelica Nero.  Ah fuck, as soon as this nonsense character enters proceedings (it’s in the seventh ep of the season, The Wind of Change), you can actually hear the entire season going off the rails.  Before she shows up, I’m actually having a pretty good time with the season.  It’s stupid in parts, it’s sloppily shot in parts, the acting is severely lacking in parts, and it’s repeating storylines like crazy, but it’s still pretty watchable and at least feels like it’s trying to go for something different, trying to explore these characters in a new way.  When Angelica shows up, things just turn stupid.  On a very base level, aren’t her outfits just stupid?  Travilla did the same two years on both series (1984 through 1986), and every now and then he would dress one of the KL ladies in an outfit that was a little bit silly (Cathy’s swimsuit that she wears to the fundraiser in Phoenix Rising), but for the most part, the costumes were cool and stylish and not too distracting.  With Dallas, you have to wonder if there was just no one to reign him in, because the outfits he dresses Barbara Carrera in are just ridiculous, and she’s only one character out of several that suffer from Travilla’s unfortunate wardrobe choices.  She’s always dressed in lavish ball gowns or similarly ridiculous things, even when she’s not going anywhere near a ball.  You could have a scene of Angelica taking a shit and I assure you that she would be dressed to the nines in a full gown and feathered boa with fancy earrings and a hideously huge hat.

However, stupid wardrobe aside, the entire storyline with Angelica is dumb, boring, confusing, and goes on forever.  This is the longest season of Dallas ever, with 31 eps, and I tell you, once Angelica enters proceedings, you feel that length. This shit goes on forever and winds up taking us away from Texas to some island in Europe that I’m pretty sure is made up (Martinique?) so that J.R. and Angelica can, like, dress up Dack Rambo in an outfit and fake grey hair so that people will think he’s, like, some other guy, or something.  I’m gonna go ahead and declare all of this stuff in the middle of the season involving Dack Rambo and this island and the ballgowns to be the rock bottom of this season.  It just keeps getting worse and worse, stupider and stupider, and it also coincides with the other storylines getting stupider and stupider (this is all occurring at the same time that Pam is off on her ridiculous Colombian emerald mine adventure, leading to such awful dialogue as Cliff gazing at an emerald and saying to himself, “Bobby’s dream….now it’s Pam’s nightmare”).  The rock bottom-est of the rock bottom occurs when we hit episode 24 of the season, Masquerade.  This is the ep where J.R. gets all dressed up for the masked ball and puts, like, a plant on his head, and then in the middle of the ball, someone tries to kill him with a crossbow, and the sad thing is that I’m not kidding.  Not only is this stuff dumb and taking forever to unfold, but it’s also shot like absolute ass; the basic staging and blocking of the climactic scene with the crossbow is just lousy and it’s kinda unbelievable that anyone thought this was acceptable to be aired on network television considering how bad it looks.

However, after that debacle, we still have seven more eps in the season left, and the surprising thing is I really felt things picking up in these last batch of eps.  We get away from Martinique and return to Southfork and I honestly feel the writers and powers-that-be are trying to fix the mess they have created, and I think they actually do an okay job.  As I got closer and closer to the end of the season, I realized once and for all how truly awful and irreparable the dream season resolution really is to the entire integrity of the series.  As I said already, at no point throughout this season did I feel like the lack of Bobby was a problem.  The idea that they just had to bring him back in order to fix the series just doesn’t fly with me; I think the show is already fixing the problems in this last batch of eps by returning the focus to the core characters within the family.  When we reach the season finale, Blast From the Past, I am actually interested in several of the storylines going on and want to see them continue into the next season, not just be flushed down the toilet as if they never existed.

I feel like I’ve written a lot about this season, but I haven’t even mentioned so many of the characters or their stories.  Part of this is from the season being so damn long and from me forgetting the details and part of it is that Dallas just doesn’t stick with me the way KL does.  Thinking back over the season, I need to double check the eps to find out when certain things occurred, whereas I can usually just remember that stuff with KL.  However, I do wish to address the main story Donna and Ray get this season, because it’s a story in which I can see major Dunne influence.  For those who have forgotten, we begin the season with Donna pregnant and her and Ray agreeing to get back together.  Then they find out they’re gonna have a baby with down’s syndrome (or, as the characters keep saying, “A retarded baby”) and it becomes this big debate about whether to have an abortion or not.  We wrestle with that decision for awhile only for the writers to do what they always do to developing fetuses inside the wombs of their female characters: they kill it off.  Donna makes the unbelievably stupid decision of hanging out near a bull while she is pregnant (a fine example of Dallas allowing the plot to dictate the character behavior) and of course the bull kicks her and the baby dies and that’s the end of that, at least for awhile.  After some time being sad, Donna decides to go to work as a teacher of mentally challenged kids and we have a lot of footage of her working with real special needs children and I think I don’t like the storyline.  The weird thing is that I can’t quite put my finger on what’s wrong with it, except to say that I could see it being right at home on KL and working beautifully over on that series.  Don’t you guys feel like this entire storyline could have been given to Karen and Mack over on KL?  With the quality of writing and acting on that series, I imagine this story could have been really moving and well done, but it’s simply out of place here and generally just made me feel kinda weird and uncomfortable.  Also, ingrained within the very fabric of the storyline are some basic problems that continue to support my case (as if it needs supporting) that KL is inherently better than Dallas in every way.  If this storyline had been done on KL, I can guarantee you if would have been handled with some subtlety and craft. On Dallas, Donna finds out her baby has down’s syndrome and the next scene is her flinging herself onto a couch and writhing around and shrieking “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” like Darth Vader at the end of that shitty movie.  This is just the way Dallas likes to handle things, especially by this point in the series.  Why have subtlety and nuance when you can have the character shriek and writhe around?  

Another Dunne influence I spotted early on in the season occurs when we get a very bizarre dream sequence in which Sue Ellen is holding John Ross and running away from a car driven by J.R.  Then it gets even more bizarre when the car appears to be driving itself and then J.R. just sorta appears in front of Sue Ellen like Jason Voorhees in front of some camp counselor and Sue Ellen wakes up screaming and freaking out. I remember watching this ep with my brother for the first time and being like, “What the hell was that?”  A strange, surreal dream sequence planted at the start of a Dallas ep was just not what I was used to, but now this dream sequence just makes me think of any number of Val’s dreams in the sixth season of KL (her and Gary on the beach, Dr. Ackerman and her friends coming into her bedroom to take the babies away from her, her and Gary dancing in front of the music box).  Now this Sue Ellen dream doesn’t seem so weird.  I imagine that Dunne liked the way the dreams played on KL and wanted to try the same thing here, but it just doesn’t work as well.

And you know what, that’s the basic problem with the season, a problem that’s very similar to the problem Paulsen experienced working on KL for the year.  In both instances, I feel these guys have talents that are just better suited to the shows they were already working on.  Would season nine of Dallas had been better if Paulsen had continued working on it?  Yeah, probably, although I also predict it might have been more rote and a little less experimental.  Would season seven of KL have been better if Dunne had continued working on it? Well, duh!  Even so, Paulsen’s season of KL definitely works a whole hell of a lot better than Dunne’s season of Dallas, and I think that just boils down to the inherent brilliance of KL, that somehow the magic of that series cultivates good energy and creativity around everybody involved, so even if there are things throughout the season that are flawed, it’s still very watchable and entertaining and the cast always comes off looking good.  And let’s be real, this also boils down to the fact that the characters on KL are just so much more interesting than the characters on the parent series.  In my little writeup, I didn’t even bother to mention characters like Jenna Wade or Jamie Ewing and you know why?  It’s because they are unbelievably boring and nobody could possibly care about anything they do.  In addition to these bores, characters so dull they make Kenny and Ginger look interesting (almost), you also have Jack Ewing, Angelica Nero, Grace Whatever, Nicholas Who Cares, and I’m sure there are plenty of other boring characters I’ve forgotten to mention.  Compare these non-entities with anyone in the cast roster or recurring star roster on KL and the spinoff series will win every time.

The last thing I want to talk about before wrapping up this random little essay is how I feel about the resurrection of Bobby Ewing and why I hate it and why I refuse to recognize it as canon.  One of the aspects of KL season seven that I enjoyed the very most was watching Gary react to the death of his brother. I actually think this is a huge development in the character of Gary and one of the reasons for his behavior throughout the season.  He gets more reckless, more dangerous, more thrill-seeking, and he loses patience for putting up with any of Abby’s crap.  I think this relates directly to losing his brother and becoming aware of his own mortality and I think it’s a very interesting story to watch play out, much more interesting than anybody’s reaction to Bobby’s death over on Dallas.  The fact that the Dallas folk were happy as clams to totally erase all of this and try to shuffle it under the carpet, not even caring about how it fucked up continuity with the KL story, well that just goes to show you how the Dallas writers dealt with things when they wrote themselves into a corner.  They came up with a resolution so very stupid that nobody in the world could possibly take it seriously, and they effectively ruined any credibility Dallas had spent the last nine seasons building, plus they fucked up the storyline on the better show.  Because of this and so many more reasons, I am officially declaring that I recognize seasons one through nine of Dallas as canon and I do not recognize any of the events of seasons ten through fourteen as canon.  In Brett’s world, Bobby Ewing dies on both series, Gary has a minor mental breakdown because of it, Val names her baby boy after Bobby in honor of him, and he stays dead.  I just won’t allow the continuity of the series I love so much to be fucked up by the series I don’t care nearly as much about, so I’m officially declaring that Bobby died in 1985 and he stayed dead.

So that does it for my thoughts on the dream season of Dallas.  To be clear, it’s still bad.  This is a bad season of television that drifts into the just-plain-terrible category for about fifteen eps or so near the middle before beginning to improve itself in the last seven eps.  I’m not really sure who to blame for this season being so bad, but I won’t blame Peter Dunne.  Part of this just boils down to my loyalty; I can’t blame him for this season being so bad after watching him work such magic for three glorious years (“He fed us gold,” as J.V.A. said about him).  I think the problem is that he moved his talents from a glorious work of art to a far inferior series and found himself trying to expand the series a bit and being unable to do so successfully.  Really, he moved from a highly artistically satisfying series to a sinking ship and was expected to run that sinking ship and that’s why it didn’t work out.  Even so, for being the showrunner of the absolutely brilliant seasons four, five, and six of KL, Mr. Dunne will always have my eternal respect.    

       Alright, that oughta do it for this little compare and contrast essay.  We've been on season seven for a good long time, so let's go ahead and launch into season eight with Just Disappeared


  1. I watched Dallas intermittently during its initial run, and then once all the way through in syndication. Its repetitive story lines and no-growth characters just didn't stand the test of time for me. I have no desire to rewatch this series, even though Larry Hagman looked great in a suit, boots and a cowboy hat :)

  2. I'll watch any of Dallas up to the Bobby death episode any day of the week. There's nothing worth watching after that. At some point, they made Miss Ellie a crime solver. I think they were trying to present a Murder, She Wrote angle. I felt like a fool watching

    1. I've seen all 14 seasons TWICE! How do you think that makes ME feel?

    2. Well, I know how it makes me feel FOR you.

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  4. "This shit goes on forever and winds up taking us away from Texas to some island in Europe that I’m pretty sure is made up (Martinique?)" OMG!I can't believe you wrote that Brett! Of course Martinique exists in real life! And not in Europe my friend. It's closer to the ol'good the Caribbean. So, maybe Angelica was outrageous, the Dynastier character in Dallas, but Martinique was very real!

    1. LOL, thank you. I am very American in that I have no idea what a globe looks like and what other countries are out in the world.