Knots Landing

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Knots Landing

The second longest running prime time drama—after Gunsmoke —in television history, Knots Landing's (1979-1993) 14-season tenure is even more prestigious because it survived both the competition of glitzier prime time soaps (such as Dynasty) and the advent of cable television. Prophetically, series co-creator David Jacobs told his cast at the outset, "We're not going to get any attention. We won't win any awards. But we're going to go on forever."

Ironically, this spin-off of the phenomenally popular Dallas was created prior to its predecessor. Creators David Jacobs and Michael Filerman envisioned a television series modeled after Ingmar Bergman's 1973 Swedish mini-series (later edited into an Oscar-nominated film) Scenes From a Marriage. The concept involved a study of neighboring married couples—in various states of contentment—living in a cul-de-sac in Southern California. Though CBS liked the pilot, they wanted something more glamorous and on a larger scale, resulting in Jacobs and Filerman pitching Dallas.

Once Dallas became a hit, the producers wove in the story of Gary Ewing (Ted Shackelford), the alcoholic and weak-willed younger brother of both J. R. (Larry Hagman) and Bobby (Patrick Duffy). A ne'er-do-well, the teenage Gary had married Valene Clemmons and fathered their child, Lucy. Though circumstances had separated them for sixteen years, on a special of Dallas on December 13, 1979, Gary Ewing and Valene Clements Ewing (Joan Van Ark)—who had found each other again—remarried and moved to a California town named Knots Landing. The original idea was that if the couple could get on their feet in a place far away from Gary's powerful relatives, they could then send for Lucy and be reunited as a family. But as luck—and the vicissitudes of television drama would have it—this reunion never took place.

Though Knots Landing received only mediocre ratings its first short season (only thirteen episodes), the producers made three major changes in the second season which caused ratings to escalate. First, they shifted the format of the show from self-contained episodes to serialization, introducing plotlines which could span the entire season. Second, they create plotlines which would allow for visits from Dallas characters to boost ratings. And third, and perhaps most important, they cast television and film actress Donna Mills—known primarily for, as she puts it, "victim roles"—as sultry vixen Abbie Cunningham, Sid Fairgate's sister who is obsessed with both money and power. Thus, upon meeting Gary Ewing and learning of his wealthy family, Abbie sets her sights on him, and her destructive efforts become the most central conflict in the series run as "true lovers" Gary and Val break-up and then struggle to reunite through a succession of lovers and spouses.

As seasons passed, Knots Landing continued to hold its own in its Thursday night time slot against stiff competition from the popular Hill Street Blues and then L. A. Law. Despite the increasing influx of more melodramatic plotlines (such as Valene's twin infants being stolen and then sold by a nefarious baby doctor), the producers of Knots Landing contended that the secret of their longevity was the emphasis on middle-class characters and relationships which, to some extent, mirrored the experiences of their audience. Scenes often depicted characters involved in everyday situations such as preparing meals and taking out the trash. These sentiments were confirmed by USA Today, which contended, "KNOTS always shone as the least guilty of TV's guilty pleasures," giving "nighttime soap fans middle-class characters and backyard barbecues as an alternative to the flowing champagnes and life-styles of the rich and famous of other shows." In addition, the show was often praised by critics for taking on such serious subjects as alcoholism, prescription drug abuse, teen drug abuse, mental illness, child abuse, divorce, and bereavement; issues with which its campier rivals refused to deal.

While former Broadway star Michelle Lee proved the show's anchor, appearing in every episode in the run as Valene's neighbor and best friend Karen Fairgate McKenzie, throughout the course of its run Knots Landing also featured a series of appearances by veteran Hollywood stars such as Ava Gardner, Howard Duff, Ruth Roman, and Julie Harris, who actually became a cast member for several seasons as Valene's mother, receiving an Emmy nomination for her work. But the show could also prove a star-making vehicle, as evidenced by the rise of Alec Baldwin, who later starred in major Hollywood films such as The Hunt for Red October and The Edge. Originally introduced as mild-mannered Joshua Rush, Valene's half brother, Baldwin performs a virtuoso transformation over the ensuing season as this humble preacher's son becomes first a televangelist then a raving megalomaniac who marries and then batters his wife, Cathy Geary (played by singer Lisa Hartman).

As the plotlines grew more outlandish (Michelle Lee's Karen suddenly becomes a talk show host and is stalked by a crazed fan), ratings slipped dramatically in the thirteenth season. In addition, annual contract renewals of the increasingly large cast rendered the show too costly to produce despite the producer's reducing the number of appearances by regular cast members, and even writing out the show's long-running characters. As a result, the producers willingly canceled the show in 1993, David Jacobs commenting, "I think we all felt rather than continue to amputate limbs, which is really what we were doing, that it was just time to stop."

In 1997, the majority of the cast members reunited for a four hour miniseries, Knots Landing: Back to the Cul-de-sac, which suffered from contrivance and silliness, resulting in its low ratings. In its wake, creator David Jacobs went on to create other short-lived series, scoring another hit with Lois and Clark. Both Michelle Lee and Donna Mills have formed their own production companies. In addition, fans of the show have developed a number of Knots Landing internet sites where they can continue the show by writing their own episodes.

—Rick Moody

Further Reading:

"Knots Landing." 1999.

Van Wormer, Laura. Knots Landing: The Saga of Seaview Circle. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1986.