A Reflection on Season Eight of KNOTS LANDING (1986-1987)
And so we’ve finally finished season eight, all thirty eps spanning from September of 1986 to May of 1987. How was it? Oh jeez, where to even begin? I guess I’ll say the key word for this season is disappointment; this whole season was just one big disappointment to me and it honestly made me sad to watch a lot of it. As I said over and over again while writing about these shows, my memory of this season was that it continues the run of brilliance that started with season four, but I was way off. I think my memories must be based on the fact that I simply consumed so much KL at such a rapid pace back in college; I didn’t really have time to think over the arcs and styles of the seasons because I was just powering through them and then jumping right into the next season as soon as I finished. Anyway, let’s get started with discussing the season and I’ll try to explain some of its overall problems.
Let’s start off by saying that I am incredibly nostalgic for the glory run of seasons four through six, when the creative team was consistently able to find some really great, really amazing, really compelling central storyline through which all the other storylines could interact and flow. Season seven dropped the ball with this run of quality by being sorta all over the place, by seeming to be about one thing and then changing direction as soon as Gary blew up Empire Valley. With season eight, that problem manifests itself again, only so much worse. When I think back over how gloriously the creative team were able to fill 30 eps of television for season six, it only makes season eight seem even more inferior. This is the first time that I’ve found myself thinking a season should be much shorter; I think snipping five or maybe even ten eps out of this season would have gone a long way towards improving the flow of the storytelling. Instead, we just sorta focus in on a certain story for a certain amount of time, then we quickly dispose of that story and move on to something new before disposing of that in a similar way. This starts right off the bat with Karen’s kidnapper, which comes out of nowhere and really doesn’t make too much sense. I’m gonna go ahead and say I am 100% confident that when the writers cooked up the season seven finale, they had absolutely no idea what they were going to wind up doing come fall. They just had Karen get kidnapped and left us on that cliffhanger. When we return to the story in the early eps of this season, it’s very clear the writers are having to invent all sorts of past histories and new characters to try and explain this. Suddenly we find out Karen’s kidnapper was an old buddy of Mack’s from law school, that he used to hang around with both Mack and Sumner. Okay, I guess, but I’m still not sure I understand why Greg feels the need to keep protecting him in these early eps. He knows the man has Karen kidnapped and yet he tells nobody about it and I can’t tell you why. Can anyone tell me why? What possible instinct could Greg have to find out that an old friend of his kidnapped Karen and do nothing more than advise him to leave town?
And then, of course, the whole Phil storyline finishes up in about five seconds when he is inauspiciously hit by a car and dies quickly after. Okay, so, um….what was the point of all of that? Rather than organically allowing the story of Karen and her kidnapper to then flow into some other, new storyline, the writers just kill Phil as quickly as possible, return Karen home, and pretty much immediately stop talking about it. In fact, I’m gonna pay some strict attention in the next six years, because I’m willing to bet that we never hear another word about Karen and Phil Harbert ever again after this season is finished. In my opinion, it would have been much better writing for this multi-ep kidnapping arc to lead to Karen having serious paranoia or trauma. After all, she was almost burned alive and then she was chased all night through the woods by a maniac; I don’t think you can just return home and immediately get over this kind of an event.
Similarly, the writers keep us focused on a burgeoning romantic relationship between Paige and Sexy Michael for a good long stretch of eps. They build up the tension, they play with the flirtation, and then finally the two characters shag. After shagging for awhile, they stop shagging, Paige dumps Sexy Michael, Sexy Michael acts like a whiny little bitch for awhile, and then that’s pretty much it. Again, it doesn’t strike me as a storyline designed to lead to new things or to enhance characters, but just something for the characters to do in order to fill up a certain number of eps until the writers are ready to move on to something new. Also, I gotta say that all this Paige/Sexy Michael stuff really caused the character of Sexy Michael to plummet in my esteem. Perhaps it’s because I put his physical appearance up on such a pedestal and think he’s among the most beautiful human beings to ever live and breathe, so when I see him acting like some pathetic 12 year old girl just because Paige rejects him, well, it makes me lose respect for him. I want to tell him, “You’re Sexy Michael; you could fuck anything you want to and you have no reason to get this bent out of a shape over one blonde girl!”
This problem of starting storylines only to let them fizzle out or end abruptly is also exemplified through the characters of J.B. and Peter Hollister and Sylvia Lean. We start the season with a big senatorial race between Gary and Peter. I liked this storyline and it was my favorite part of those opening eps, but then what happens with it? I think it fills up something like seven or eight eps, and then Peter wins the race, and then that’s basically it. Nothing really changes all that much from him becoming a senator and we focus more on his relationship with Sylvia. He decides it might be easier to get rid of Sylvia and not have to deal with her anymore, so he starts poisoning her. This should be exciting but it never really manages to get off the ground. Peter slips her extra pills awhile, then he has an attack of conscience and stops, but by then Sylvia has found out about it and gone to live with Abs. Then Sylvia just sorta vanishes from the show for a good chunk of eps, I was starting to assume she’d just never be mentioned again, and then near the end of the season she dies off-screen. Huh? Why introduce this character and make her play a big role and be played by a fairly famous actress if you’re just gonna shuffle her off and then give her an offscreen death?
Also, my readers should know I love J.B. and she’s one of my favorite characters ever, but I’m realizing that’s based on my memories of the two seasons to come and certainly not on the season eight that we’ve been discussing for so very long. Boy, is J.B. underutilized this year, with the peak underutilization being, of course, when she falls off the damn cliff and hits her head and goes into a stupid coma for an ep or two only so the writers can tell us she was pregnant but that she lost the baby, and then J.B. has to wear bandages on her head awhile and she hangs out in the hospital for like five eps and then…..she goes home. Okay, so what was the point of that? I’m sticking to my theory that the knock she takes on the head is what leads us to the J.B. of seasons nine and ten, but if you remove that theory, the whole cliff/coma thing is just hopelessly lame. However, I do think J.B. starts to show her promise in the last eight eps or so of this season, when the writers start to focus in on her engagement to Gary and how she’s dealing with jealousy towards Val.
The best run of eps in this season spans from Gifts through No Miracle Worker, because this is where the story of Olivia on coke is given to us, this fabulous gift buried in the middle of all these stupid stories. These eps showcase both Olivia and Abs at their best, showing us a new and more human side to Abs that we’ve never seen before, showing how she is fiercely protective of her children and will do anything to protect them. The acting from both Tonya and Donna is great and this is the best storyline of the season, but I gotta say, and I hate to say this, it didn’t hit me nearly as hard upon this watch as it did upon first viewing. I tell you, I was so excited to get to this storyline because I remembered it being one of the best of the whole series, but it just doesn’t work as well as I remembered specifically because it’s one good storyline being mixed in with a bunch of silly, crappy storylines. If the whole season was going like gangbusters and then we also had this great cocaine storyline, but when it’s just four eps out of 30 placed in the middle of a very spotty season, it loses a lot of the effect.
Paige is the big new arrival to the series this year (yeah, she arrived in the last two eps of season seven, but you get my point), and while I remembered loving this character as soon as she arrived and loving her all the way up through 1993, it turns out that I again misremembered things, at least as far as season eight Paige is concerned. We’ve got six more years with Paige so we’ll see if my memories prove accurate, but for just this season alone, no, this character doesn’t work for me. I’ve read other people complain about this, but it bears repeating, and that is the fact that Paige comes completely out of nowhere and immediately takes up so much time and attention, to the detriment of veteran characters who have been with us for years such as Laura and Lilimae. Also, so much of the Paige stuff this year is dependent upon first viewing. Maybe it worked for me when I first watched it because I didn’t know what was going to happen, so when an ep would end with a Paige Matheson headstone, I would be excited to see where that would go. However, once you know that Paige Matheson is Paige Matheson, she is who she says she is, she is not an imposter, it’s hard to get excited watching all this shit again. It’s also annoying how the writers can’t just let the character be. Rather than just letting us get to know her and decide for ourselves if we like her, they shove her down our throats and keep throwing new “twists” at us. “Ooooh, she shows up and claims to be Mack’s daughter, but is she lying? Then she says she faked her death, but is she lying? Then she says her mother is dead, but is she lying? Then her mother shows up and declares that Sumner is Paige’s father, but is she lying?” It just goes on and on and on, and it’s annoying from start to finish.
And of course, no discussion of season eight would be complete without some vitriol directed towards that abomination of a character known as Hackney. For years, I’ve read fans shitting on this storyline and saying how awful it is, and I would always kind of shrug and be like, “I didn’t see what was so bad about it.” Well, now I have seen the light and I recognize Hackney for what she is, the very worst character and the very worst storyline ever on the entire series in all fourteen years. Mind you, I will pay strict attention to seasons 9-14 to see if anything out-stupids the stupidity of Hackney, but I highly doubt anything will. This story sucks. The woman who plays Hackney is awful and I can’t believe she managed to span her career all the way out to 1991 after this dreadful year of acting. The storyline is stupid and corny and forces our much loved and much cherished characters to behave in very stupid ways (like Hackney randomly showing up at the house and Val and Lilimae being ever so delighted to see her and hear all about the college days with Ben and Hackney). More, the story isn’t even good camp. Interestingly, Brother seemed to find a way to enjoy this as camp, and he even told me he did enjoy Hackney because of her corniness. Perhaps it’s because I take this show much more seriously than I probably should and Brother is just wanting to enjoy the show, but I couldn’t laugh at this storyline as camp because it made me sad to watch it. I remember watching Nightmare and MBG saying, “This feels way more like a soap opera,” and I know what she meant. It feels like a crappy daytime soap opera like General Hospital or something, and not the classy and well-crafted nighttime soap opera that David Jacobs invented. In addition to the stupid Hackney story, you have cheap visuals and a truly wretched score that spans the entire season, all furthering the daytime soap feeling of the proceedings.
I will say that I think the season starts to fix itself in the last bundle of eps. Things bottom out with Nightmare, taking us to a new level of badness we’ve never seen before in a KL ep, making me yearn for such eps as Land of the Free, Kristin, or Man of the Hour. That ep is total crap and a complete failure from start to finish, but then I think things immediately improve in the next ep (Neighborly Conduct) and continue on that track until the finale, which is a season highlight. Believe it or not, but it actually reminded me of the dream season of Dallas, which I feel starts out okay, quickly becomes stupid, and then bottoms out to some new level of stupidity around ep 24 of the season, but then starts to improve itself a bit in the last six or seven eps of the season. Watching this season, I definitely sensed that the last seven eps were trying to right the tracks, to get the focus back on what we care about, and I appreciate that. We get a little more of the cul-de-sac, we return to focusing on marital relations through the arrival of Anne and Mack’s potential affair with her, and we also have Laura giving birth (offscreen, since the writers disrespect Laura all year), which will lead us to great stories in the seasons to come.
Let’s talk season highs and lows. You should all know my bottom ep for season eight, but I’ll go ahead and repeat it now; it’s Nightmare. This is the worst ep of season eight and, in my opinion, the very worst ep of the entire series. The fact that one of my favorite directors, Bill “Cooke” Duke, directed this ep as his swan song just makes me deeply unhappy. After such a run of brilliance with the previous nine eps he brought us, to go out on such a lame note as Nightmare…..ugh. I don’t even feel like talking about how shitty it was; if you want to know why I think it’s the worst KL ep ever, just go back and read my essay on it, since I think I covered pretty much all my points there. As for the best ep, I was having a serious debate between No Miracle Worker and Cement the Relationship. I think both of these stand out as examples of KL being really strong, and I especially like the dark comedy of Cement the Relationship. Also, that ep ends on a tremendous cliffhanger that should glide us smoothly into the next season, so it’s got that going for it, which is nice. However, I finally decided to give the edge to No Miracle Worker for one scene, and that of course is the scene of Olivia in the bathroom trying to flush her coke while Abs pulls a Jack Nicholson on the door through use of a hammer, culminating with her pulling the baggie of coke out of the toilet and flinging it at Olivia and then removing the door from its hinges and declaring, “If you wanna get high, you let us watch you get high.” A most fabulous scene, a scene so fabulous that the first time I watched it, I immediately rushed upstairs to find my friend and force him to come downstairs and watch this most fabulous scene with me. In addition to that killer scene, you just have overall great acting from the two actresses and I especially love seeing a new, more sympathetic side to Abby’s character. So yes, I’ll go ahead and say the best ep of season eight is No Miracle Worker.
Okay, so where does this season rank in terms of the full package of eight seasons and 190 eps that we have watched? This whole rewatch has borne rich fruit for me, because it’s shown me drastically reevaluating my opinions on characters, stories, situations, and seasons. I’ve already found myself loving characters I didn’t think twice about before (Ben) and I’ve found myself appreciating new, smaller details to the series that I didn’t notice beforehand. I bring this up because I began this blog by declaring that the first three seasons of the show are the worst and that things immediately get better in season four and then stay great all the way until the final ep. Well, no, that’s not true, and I was completely wrong to say that. Through the rewatch, I found so much more to appreciate in seasons one through three and I really think that their main problem is the crappy standalone eps. If you do some judicious pruning of the lackluster standalones, you could really improve those early years. Also, those early years get a pass from me because they are finding their footing; they’re still figuring out exactly what the series is and what they want it to be, so if things are a little rocky, it’s just going to make things better when we hit the glory years. Also, there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, in all of season eight that is as good as Karen grieving Sid’s death throughout the run of season three, so that immediately puts season three above eight in my book. So get ready for it, I’m calling season eight the worst season thus far and here’s the official breakdown of how I would rank the seasons we have currently seen:
· 1) Season Six (1984-1985)
· 2) Season Five (1983-1984)
· 3) Season Four (1982-1983)
· 4) Season Seven (1985-1986)
· 5) Season Two (1980-1981)
· 6) Season One (1979-1980)
· 7) Season Three (1981-1982)
· 8) Season Eight (1986-1987)
Reflecting back on it now, I realize that perhaps the major, most vital flaw of this season is that I feel we’ve drifted too far away from what KL was created and conceived to be. Now, I do think a show needs to evolve and change to stay on the air for as long as KL was on the air, but I also don’t think they should betray their core. For me, seasons four through six hit that magic sweet spot of good, juicy nighttime drama mixed with a realistic feeling and a neighborhood atmosphere. Season seven started to derail us a little bit off the tracks, and then season eight took it to new levels. As I watched Sumner slip into some sort of terrible spy sex thriller in Nightmare and lure Hackney up to a hotel room only to pull out a pistol and deliver that truly awful “pistol in my pocket” line, I realized that this is simply not KL, that it had drifted way too far away from what KL is meant to be. My prediction is that season nine will correct these errors, so let me declare what I think KL is meant to be at its core and we shall see if season nine delivers. I believe KL is a drama series about the lives of married people in California. I believe the cul-de-sac setting is very important. I want to see lots of scenes of cookouts and block parties and cups of coffee in Karen’s kitchen. I want to see well done, exciting drama, but I never want the drama to betray the characters; I want the characters to stay true to themselves and for the drama to enhance the characters (this is why I’m glad that Mack didn’t sleep with Anne; I think if he had, I would have found that an unforgiveable error on the part of the writers). I want the shows to be written with wit and a sharp ear for dialogue and occasionally total humor, and I also want to believe in these characters as real people existing in a real California landscape. Will season nine give me what I desire? I’m hopeful, but we’ll have to wait and see, starting with the premiere ep, Missing Persons.