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A Story of Survival: KNOTS LANDING

Discussion in 'Knots Landing' started by valkaren, Dec 28, 2016.

  1. valkaren

    valkaren Soap Chat Newbie

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    “KNOTS LANDING somehow, in keeping their finger on the pulse of the time, changed with the time” – Michele Lee (May, 1993)

    KNOTS LANDING lacks an identity. A harsh critique perhaps but one that has some merit, particularly when you look at the show as a brand. Rebooting Dallas? That was an easy sell. Dynasty? For better or worse, I can picture it now. Rebooting Knots? Let’s digest that. What Knots? The middle-class ‘scenes of a marriage’ version? The sweeping operatic version, ordinary characters experiencing extraordinary things? Or the Original Desperate Housewives version, a corporate domestic hybrid, bubbly with a sense of humour, with mixed-up briefcases and troubled teens galore. Simply put, you cannot go down the road of rebooting KNOTS, without first deciding which version you wish to reboot. My best pick, you ask? A new scenes of a marriage, four new families, almost Black Mirror like in its storytelling. A couple losing the intimacy of their relationship due to the interference of technology; a career orientated wife struggling with the guilt of putting her family second; a bisexual husband desperate to burst out of the heterosexual box society has placed him in. Likely, I’m in the minority, with many picturing a Season 14 / BTTCS version as the perfect hybrid of intimate cul-de-sac dynamics and the power of the outside world.

    Anyway, I digress. While the above critique has merit when looking at KNOTS as a brand, I would argue this ability to change is its cleverest attribute, and one must give David Jacobs and Michael Filerman credit for never getting too precious about their version of the show. I had always dismissed Michele Lee’s quote above as a fluffy soundbite relating to the types of storylines the show was telling. However, it goes a lot deeper than that, economics and strategic positioning come into play. This, combined with the obvious talent required to pull it off while retaining quality, is what ultimately allowed the show to last for 14 years through 3 key transition periods.

    KNOTS nailed the first two transitions, but stumbled, crashed and burned on the third, bringing an end to the show after 14 years. I call this post A Story of Survival not because KNOTS struggled to stay on the air, far from it, but to reflect that TV production is a business. Every show on the air is fighting for survival, with even the most popular show no less than one misstep away from cancellation. KNOTS was and continues to be TV’s success story in how to adapt your TV show to fit into a changing landscape.

    KNOTS started out solidly, although not spectacularly for a Dallas spin-off, in late 1979. It’s first two seasons ranked #29 and #28 respectively, just placing it into the top 30 in the Nielsen Ratings. KNOTS’ first season is easily dismissed as bland. At the time however, it was anything but. Storylines included Laura being raped and believing she had deserved it, Gary’s relapse into alcoholism and Karen being tempting into an affair with a younger man. Looking at the success of shows such as Little House on the Prairie, it’s easy to see why a take on the contemporary but everyday problems of middle-class America was tempting. Little House was doing extremely well in the ratings, ranking at #16 during Knots’ first season, and a healthy #10 during Knots’ second.

    However, something was bubbling underneath all this. Dallas was creeping up in the ratings, and when J.R. was shot at the end of Knots’ first season it changed everything. Dallas shot to #1 during Knots’ second season and continued to whittle away in the background, changing the television landscape and audiences’ expectations. KNOTS responded in kind during Season 2, introducing storylines with fragmented arcs and splashier buzz; Troublemaking little sister rocks the cul-de-sac to its core! Gary gets involved with stolen auto-parts, will he make it out alive?! Gunmen raid Ginger’s baby shower! It was less a transition and more of an attempted evolution, and the splashier episodes where strongly underpinned by the heartbeat of the characters established in Season 1.

    By the time Knots Landing Season 3 rolled around, KNOTS had lost Don Murray in a ground-breaking trio of episodes that broke the solid foundation that held up the show. Jacobs had chosen to bring in Ann Marcus to try and fully realise his version of KNOTS, but taking into account the decidedly soapier landscape. Commercially, the end result was a failure. KNOTS dipped 15 places and ranked #43 in the ratings, not helped by a rapidly emerging Hill Street Blues as its timeslot competition which ranked #27. Dallas held onto its ranking of #1 and a more character driven Dynasty ranked #19. Creatively, Season 3 divides the fans, however what it does do is provide the show with a solid foundation to build upon. Two characters in particular, Gary and Abby, are as eager to break out of the show’s confines and grow. The show, looking at their dwindling ratings and their growing competition, gives into Gary and Abby midway through the season, and positions them successfully to launch into the next era.

    One could argue two key factors saved the show in 1982. (1) Knots had not carved out a strong identity (at least commercially), and (2) KNOTS was a spin-off from Dallas. If KNOTS had carved out a stronger identity ala Little House, CBS, or David himself, may not have seen the potential to change the show and likely it would not have survived, particularly as it was in an increasingly tougher timeslot competition with Hill Street Blues, one of the most buzzed about shows on TV. Instead, Jacobs used the Dallas connection to score a 4th season, with a healthy budget. The cost? KNOTS must follow in Dallas’ footsteps.

    Transition Period #1 – The Corridors of Power
    (Seasons 4 – 5)

    “We took them out of the cul-de-sac and put them in the corridors of power” – David Jacobs in ‘The Saga of Seaview Circle’

    Out of the three major transitions the show went through, its first was its most commercially successful. Executive Producer Peter Dunne was brought in to fulfil the promise Jacobs had made. Dunne set to work, and plotted the season by ‘enlarging the situations’. Nowhere is this more obvious then the premiere of Season 4, where he picked up a thread that Ann Marcus had chosen to ignore; bringing down Sid’s murderers. Karen, the everyday everywoman leveraged Mack to bring down Sid’s murderers. Gary passively leveraged his inheritance. Both gave the characters’ access to power and money, allowing them to make decisions that were unthinkable just one year prior. Meanwhile Val leveraged her own power, that of self-confidence and independence. By throwing Gary out of the cul-de-sac and essentially the show itself, the show could finally expand with its characters.

    KNOTS used it's connection explicitly in the first part of Season 4, with appearances by J.R. in the second episode, and a huge storyline crossover event in the fall sweeps. This crossover event, focussing on the reading of Jock's will and Gary's inheritance gave KNOTS it's highest rated episode in history, and stormed back into the public's conscious. Soon, another storyline revolving around the rise and fall of Ciji Dunne tied the whole cul-de-sac in knots, and exploded with a well executed murder mystery near season's end. What was most successful in this storyline was not that it was a who-done-it, but that the lives of the characters we had seen grow over the past 4 years came crumbling down around them.

    KNOTS also brought in a new setting, Richard’s restaurant ‘Daniel’. What’s interesting about the restaurant was that it represented the show’s transition period. On the show, Richard fights for Daniel’s to have unparalleled quality, and is more than willing to accept that this would yield lower profits. Abby fights for allure and glamour, and is happy to sacrifice slightly on quality in order to make more money and survive. Sound familiar? As Richard fights for Knots’ as the vision David Jacobs had for it, Abby fights for Knots’ future alongside the rapidly emerging juggernauts of Dallas and Dynasty. Abby, of course, wins out. John Pleshette left after season 4, stating afterwards that his character had no place in the new direction of the show. Donna Mills had always been a vocal advocate of glamorising the show, pushing them to lose the overalls and become more commercially appealing. Coincidence?

    From a ratings perspective the transition of Knots was successful. Locked in a ratings battle with Hill Street Blues, it emerged victorious, and KNOTS climbed an astounding 23 places to rank #20, one place more than Hill Street. Little House, now no longer comparable, dropped another 4 places to #28 and exited that year. Critically, by building on the momentum from Season 3 rather than simply retooling the show it was successful in its transition both critically and commercially.

    Season 5 continued to build on that success, but ramped up the characters’ zeal and passion for power. Dunne jettisoned the restaurant, as it fulfilled its purpose to transition the show. Richard, Kenny and Ginger were also jettisoned by Jacobs. Greg Sumner, a politician on the rise (again, a perfect representation of the show itself) was introduced, and soon characters that only last year were talking about adding an extra sitting in the restaurant were talking of national business dealings and aspiring to reach the White House.

    “If I ever have to make a choice between love or money, money’s gonna win every time” – Abby, to Greg (November, 1983)

    In order to fully integrate the show into this new era, Dunne and Jacobs needed to grow some of the characters to better adapt to their new environments. Val had grown last year, the wealth and fame her book gave her plus her new self-assurance over her divorce with Gary meant that she was properly positioned for the new era. However, the other two leading characters, Laura and Karen, spent Season 5 on a journey of growth to assure they would not get left behind.

    Laura’s transition was simpler. Once she finally accepted Richard had left her, she revaluated her life, and by Dunne cleverly positioning her as a middle-man between Gary and Abby, Laura in turn used them as positions of power to secure her new place on the show. The motivations for her transition are nicely (and helpfully) summarised a conversation with Abby early in the season:

    “Gary’s got his millions, you’ll get yours if you haven’t already, Karen’s husband died and she’s happily remarried. Val’s husband left her, she’s got a bestseller, a new boyfriend and more money than she’s ever had before. Well my husband left me too, and the little I’ve got is five percent of Lotus Point. I think I’m entitled to that small piece of the pie, don’t you?” Laura, to Abby (December, 1983)

    Meanwhile, David Jacobs knew that Karen needed a major overhaul, but how do you transition a character that had spent the past four years positioned as the core of the cul-de-sac where family values and charity come first? Simple. You destroy everything she holds dear to her. So Karen’s daughter runs away from home and marries a murderer, moves in with Abby and refuses to speak to her. Karen, a stubborn character unable to accept this transition, becomes addicted to painkillers in order to block this new reality from her. Dunne drags her through the mud, stripping her of her dignity even further by following her into rehab. We see her beg for pills in front of her son and experience withdrawals in such a primal fashion in front of millions of viewers. And Dunne isn’t finished there, he spits her out of rehab and throws her into a crumbling marriage caused by her husband’s preoccupation in bringing down a crime syndicate at the expense of his family. This journey, as extreme as it is, is so successful that by the end of the year when our loving whale-saving Karen leers at Abby, steely eyed, demanding her share of Lotus Point from Abby just so she can be wealthy, viewers hardly blink an eye. Hell, she’s earned it.

    “Because you’re going to make me a very rich lady, partner” Karen, to Abby (March, 1984)

    These two examples perfectly illustrate the care and attention taken in transitioning the show through that first period, by concentrating on the characters themselves and accepting the growing pains associated with such a transition, we naturally buy in to what the show is selling us. KNOTS succeeds both creatively and commercially, as it climbs 9 places to rank at #11 – its highest so far, joining Dallas and Dynasty in the elite. Hill Street meanwhile, was nowhere to be found, having fallen out of the Top 30.


    1979 – 1980
    Dallas #6 (+9)
    Little House on the Prairie #16
    Knots Landing #29

    1980 – 1981
    Dallas #1 (+5)
    Little House on the Prairie #10 (+6)
    Knots Landing #28 (+1)

    1981 – 1982

    Dallas #1
    Little House on the Prairie #24 (-14)
    Dynasty #19 (+9)
    Hill Street Blues #27 (+60)
    Knots Landing #43 (-15)

    1982 – 1983
    Dallas #2 (-1)
    Dynasty #5 (+14)
    Knots Landing #20 (+23)
    Hill Street Blues #21 (+6)
    Little House on the Prairie #28 (-4)

    1983 – 1984
    Dallas #1 (+1)
    Dynasty #3 (+2)
    Knots Landing #11 (+9)
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2016
  2. James from London

    James from London Soap Chat TV Fanatic Respected DVD Reviewer 15 Years on Soap Chat 10 Years on Soap Chat 5 Years on Soap Chat

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    How interesting! Can't wait to read what happens next!
  3. Abbylexis

    Abbylexis Soap Chat Member 10 Years on Soap Chat 5 Years on Soap Chat

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    Totally agree with your assessement that Knots Landing is a perfect example of a show trying to adapt to the changes of television. I've said it many times, the beauty of knots landing is that throughout the fourteen years, you are watching 3 or 4 different shows within one show. Season 12 is so different than season 7 which is so different thatn season 4 which is so different than season 1. other shows have a harder time transitionning, but knots landing flows so well from one season to the next that the changes never feel sudden. I also like your link to Little House. I've always said that early Knots Landing had a little house seasoning to it. A show about a large group of people, where each week the story focuses soly on one of these people while ignoring the rest of the cast with stories that either made you laugh or cry.

    Knots Landing began by drawing from the late 70's family drama like Little House or Eight is Enough, a sorta dramedy.

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