Search This Blog

Friday, March 09, 2012

Knots Landing: The Desperate Housewives of the 1980s

Have you ever noticed how many television spinoffs fail after one season or less?

You see it all the time in the world of prime time television. You have a long-running sitcom that has done incredibly well in the ratings that producers seem to feel as though they could strike gold twice by taking one or more characters from the television show to create a similar one with a similar formula.

And, a lot of them end up failing. You know how successful the sitcom “Friends” was? Producers came up with the idea to give Matt LeBlanc his own spinoff based on the character he played named “Joey”. But somehow, the idea of only watching one 'Friend' didn't resonate well with viewers, and it was promptly cancelled. When “The Golden Girls” wrapped up production, the producers thought they could have another hit on their hands. After all, if it weren't for “The Golden Girls”, we wouldn't have had the sitcoms “Nurses” or “Empty Nest”. But, when producers tried to make a new sitcom after Bea Arthur's departure called “The Golden Palace”, it just didn't work as well. Not even a guest appearance by Bea could stop the sinking ship.

And that seems to be the case with a lot of spinoff programs. The original program in which the spin-off was based on would often be incredibly successful. But, take one of the characters from the original and put them in a brand new show with a brand new cast with minimal chemistry, and you have a recipe for disaster.

There are some exceptions though. After all, we have had one NCIS spinoff, two CSI spinoffs, and three Law & Order spinoffs, all of which lasted much longer than one season.

But, have you ever heard of such a situation where the spinoff program lasted LONGER than the original program? Seriously, think back throughout the 70 years or so that television has been around. Can you think of one example in which a spinoff has lasted longer than the original program that the spinoff was based off of?

I can. Although, I admit that I was a bit young to remember much of the program (hence why I ended up doing a ton of research on it by watching old clips and reading old episode summaries on, I guess the best way that I could best describe the program would be that it was a precursor to the popular ABC drama “Desperate Housewives”.

(And, no, Desperate Housewives was NOT the program that was a spinoff, although strangely enough, both shows had one actress in common.)

Like Desperate Housewives (which is set in a residential neighbourhood known as Wisteria Lane), this program takes place in a residential cul-de-sac called Seaview Circle. The main action took place on this cul-de-sac at five different houses on the street. It was your typical primetime soap opera filled with affairs, scandal, kidnapping, and murder, amongst other things. In a lot of cases, I suppose you could call the women of Seaview Circle the 'Desperate Housewives of the 1980s', because throughout the show's run, the women all got involved in almost every dangerous situation imaginable, all because they wanted to find happiness in suburbia.

And when the show debuted on CBS in the last few days of 1979, viewers immediately recognized a couple of familiar faces. Moving into 16966 Seaview Circle were Gary and Valene Ewing (who were portrayed by Ted Shackleford and Joan Van Ark), who had moved to California from the state of Texas.

Dallas, Texas, to be exact.

Yes, today's featured television show is a spinoff of the classic CBS show, “Dallas”. And, as some of you might know, “Dallas” ended up having a successful run on the network, running for thirteen seasons between 1978 and 1991.

Now, what if I told you that the sitcom that Gary and Valene Ewing moved to lasted longer than “Dallas”? Would you believe me then? Because, it happens to be true.

Today we're going to take a look back at the television show “Knots Landing”. The show debuted on December 27, 1979, and ran until May 13, 1993. That's a grand total of fourteen seasons, one more than the show it came from! It's currently tied for third place for the longest running prime-time dramatic series, right behind “Gunsmoke” and “Law & Order”. There aren't a whole lot of spinoffs that can boast that accomplishment.

And certainly, one of the main reasons why the show worked so well was because of the connection to “Dallas”...well, at least in the earliest seasons. At first, the show was a direct parallel of “Dallas”, with Gary and Val being updated on the happenings over at Southfork Ranch involving J.R., Bobby, Pam, Cliff, Sue Ellen, and Lucy (Gary and Val's daughter who stayed behind on “Dallas”). But after the wacky dream season of “Dallas”, “Knots Landing” took off in a completely different direction and became its own distinct identity (which might explain why it seemed to have a bit more staying power).

Now, here's an interesting point about the creation of “Knots Landing”. Initially, it wasn't designed to be a spinoff of “Dallas”. In fact, David Jacobs, the creator of both “Knots Landing” and “Dallas” actually created “Knots Landing” BEFORE “Dallas”. He came up with the idea for “Knots Landing” two years prior to the show debuting on television, and tried to pitch it to CBS, but the network passed on it, saying that they wanted something more saga-like. So, Jacobs went back to the drawing board and penned out the pilot script for “Dallas”, which was a project that CBS greenlighted for a 1978 release. Once “Dallas” had hit the airwaves, Jacobs went back to the “Knots Landing” script, retooled it to make it a spinoff of “Dallas”, submitted it to the network, and the show was picked up as a mid-season replacement for the 1979/1980 season.

At first, the show struggled in the ratings, especially against “Dallas”. It made sense, when you consider that the very season “Knots Landing” debuted was the same season of “Dallas” in which J.R. Ewing was shot. But, by the show's fourth season, the show increased in popularity, and by season six, it was in the Top 10 of most viewed programs. The show got so huge that it eventually out performed its parent show beginning around 1988.

So, why did the show do so well in the ratings?

Well, for one, I think it helped that “Knots Landing” didn't have such a thing as a plot device where an entire season was a dream! No such shower scenes on that show.

I think part of it could have been the fact that the show tackled a lot of serious issues. Drug abuse, mental illness, domestic abuse...the show tackled all of these issues and more during its 14-year run. And, based on the episodes that I have seen, the show didn't use kid gloves either. Take a look at a clip of an episode where the character of Olivia Cunningham is dealing with a drug addiction, and takes out her rage on her mother, Abby.

And, that was just a taste of what the show had to offer.

But, if you want my honest opinion as to why I thought the show worked, I think it had to do with the strength and chemistry that the cast shared with each other.

Specifically, the women of Knots Landing.

That's not to say that the men had their own impact on the show. Gary Ewing was involved in a lot of storylines over the series run, as were Greg Sumner (William Devane), Mack MacKenzie (Kevin Dobson), and Sid Fairgate (Don Murray). Heck, even Alec Baldwin got his big break on “Knots Landing”, playing a rather psychotic character who met a crazy end.

But, I think in the case of “Knots Landing”, the female cast members really brought the drama and the action, and the romance. Every single actress who appeared on the show had their own distinct personalities. Some were heroines. Some were trashy. Some were victims. And, some were just plain crazy. But, all of them worked on the program during the time that they appeared, and each one brought forth something that made “Knots Landing” a hit.

So, I thought that for our look back on “Knots Landing”, we'd take a look at the “Desperate Housewives of Seaview Circle”, to see who they were, who they were married to, and what their main storylines were. And, as you'll see, not everyone ended up leaving the show alive...

So, let's begin with the only cast member to appear in EVERY episode of “Knots Landing” ever made.

CHARACTER: Karen Cooper Fairgate MacKenzie
ACTRESS: Michele Lee
DURATION: 1979-1993
MARRIAGES: Sid Fairgate, Mack MacKenzie

Karen Cooper Fairgate was the first person who befriended Valene and Gary Ewing when they first moved to Seaview Circle, and she is the only character who has been in all 344 episodes of the series. She was a community activist, and a shrewd businesswoman, but also had her share of pain and heartache. Her first husband, Sid, was killed in an automobile accident, and she had a rather prickly relationship with her daughter Diana through the years. She was also shot, kidnapped, and stalked by one of the producers of the talk show that she hosted in the later seasons of the show. But, Karen was also one of the most grounded people on the show, and most of the residents of Seaview Circle saw her as a good friend and confidant. She also managed to find love once again with Mack MacKenzie.

CHARACTER: Valene “Val” Clements Ewing Ewing Gibson Waleska Ewing
ACTRESS: Joan Van Ark
DURATION: 1979-1992, 1993
MARRIAGES: Gary Ewing, Ben Gibson, Danny Waleska

Valene Ewing was also a huge character on “Knots Landing”. After all, Val was one of two characters that provided a link to “Dallas”. And, Val has been central to some of the biggest storylines that the show has ever featured.

Let's begin with the idea that Val had a total of four marriages on during the show's run. Her original marriage to Gary ended after he had an affair with another Seaview Circle resident (who is featured a little bit later in the blog entry). She ended up remarrying him a total of twice during the series, but in between she had a couple of other marriages. Her marriage to photojournalist Ben Gibson (Douglas Sheehan) was sweet, but ended when Ben disappeared in South America following a forced plot in which he plotted the murder of Greg Sumner. And, then there was her marriage to Danny Waleska (Sam Behrens), which was a disaster in the making, as he raped his previous wife, and ended up becoming a rather scary character.

As if Val didn't have enough to worry about, she had gotten pregnant with twins, and was lead to believe that her twins had died in childbirth. Ironically enough, the woman who had an affair with her husband was the very one who discovered that the children had survived, and was a key player in helping Val reunite with her son and daughter, Bobby and Betsy. She also had to deal with a colleague of Mack's who tried to drive her crazy and kill her, as well as suffering from a minor brain injury following a fall from a horse. She also was reunited with her estranged mother, Lilimae (Julie Harris), who abandoned her to become a country singer. At some point during the show's final season, Val was believed to have died in a car explosion. But by the show's final episode, it became clear that Val's death was not to be believed.

CHARACTER: Abby Fairgate Cunningham Ewing Sumner
ACTRESS: Donna Mills
DURATION: 1980-1989, 1993
MARRIAGES: Jeff Cunningham, Gary Ewing, Greg Sumner

Remember how I told you that the reason why Gary and Val divorced on "Knots Landing" the first time was because of an affair he had with a resident of Seaview Circle? Abby was the reason. This cunning and sly woman was trouble with a capital T, and she was an expert in sucking her claws into people and spitting them back out once she was finished. She was one of the main villainesses of the whole show, and she had a lot of enemies. Although she was the sister of Sid Fairgate, she never could get along with Sid's wife, Karen. After Sid's death, the relationship between Abby and Karen remained frosty. I think it's also safe to say that there was no love lost between Abby and Val either for obvious reasons. Although Abby did show that she did have SOME good in her, as Abby was the one who helped Val get her children back.

But as bad as Abby was on the show, she did have some challenges to overcome. In particular with her daughter Olivia, who developed a severe drug addiction. Abby left the series in 1989 following the bust-up of her marriage to Greg Sumner, but returned for the series finale.

But, just to show just how much of an edgy character Abby was, here's a clip above of her featuring her feud with Val Ewing.

CHARACTER: Paige Matheson
ACTRESS: Nicollette Sheridan
DURATION: 1986-1993
MARRIAGES: None, but several relationships including one with Greg Sumner

Nicollette Sheridan is the only cast member of "Knots Landing" to also have a regular role on "Desperate Housewives" (which if you've been following the news, you know that Sheridan's role on Desperate Housewives did NOT end well), but on "Knots Landing", she was the daughter of Mack MacKenzie. And, as it turned out, Paige came onto Seaview Circle with a whole lot of secrets. For one, Karen discovered that "Paige Matheson" was actually dead, but Paige told the MacKenzie's that she faked her death in order to flee her grandparents. Paige's mother, Anne (Michelle Phillips) followed suit, and Anne was just as devious as her offspring. Paige's main rival in the series was Abby, who wanted Paige to pay after she framed her daughter for the death of Peter Hollister (Hunt Block) Paige's most well-known relationship was with Greg Sumner, which kicked off after Greg's wife passed away.

CHARACTER: Laura Avery Sumner
ACTRESS: Constance McCashin
DURATION: 1979-1987
MARRIAGES: Richard Avery, Greg Sumner

Laura Avery was one of the original characters of "Knots Landing", and comparing her to such characters as Abby, Val, and Karen, Laura was a lot more plain. With good reason too. She was in a very unhappy marriage with her husband, Richard (John Pleshette). Early in the series, Laura embarked on an affair with her boss, and when Richard found out, he got violent. Complicating matters was the fact that Laura had gotten pregnant, and this prevented Laura from leaving Richard right away. She gave birth to their son, Daniel, and she tried to make the marriage work, even though Richard had suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide.

Richard recovered, and opened up a restaurant named after their son, and a singer was hired to sing at the location, a young woman named Ciji (Lisa Hartman). Ciji and Laura immediately became best friends, which irked Richard, as he believed that they were having a lesbian affair. But when Ciji was murdered, Laura and Richard broke up for good after Laura refused to forgive him for his meanness towards her. Laura thought that Richard killed Ciji, but the real killer was Chip Roberts. Laura then got involved in a relationship with Greg Sumner, and she and Greg lived together relatively happy despite Ben's plot to kill Greg. Sadly, Laura ended up passing away from cancer, leaving Greg heartbroken.

TRIVIA: Lisa Hartman Black played two characters on the show...Ciji, and Cathy Geary.

CHARACTER: Jill Bennett
ACTRESS: Teri Austin
DURATION: 1985-1989

Jill Bennett started off as a sweet, if not flawed character. She was a former colleague of Mack's, and she eventually became romantically involved with Gary. Problem was that Gary was with Val after reconciling with her following Ben's disappearance. Little by little, Jill began to lose her grip on reality, and the more she lost touch, the more she wanted Val dead. The feud between Jill and Val grew quite heated and twisted with each passing moment. See what I mean below.

Jill attempted to kill Val by kidnapping her and forcing her to down an entire bottle of sleeping pills at gunpoint. At first, Jill seemed to have an alibi, but when Mack and Gary poked holes through it, a desperate Jill tried to get revenge by tying herself up inside the trunk of Gary's car, so that it would look like he tried to kill her. Unfortunately for Jill, she really DID die, and Gary was almost arrested for killing her, but he eventually was cleared of all charges.

And, those are just a FEW of the characters on this show!

You know, "Desperate Housewives" is slated to air its final episode sometime in April or May 2012 after eight seasons, and while I'm sure that a lot of people are sad to see it go (though not me as I haven't seen one episode), not even it ran as long as "Knots Landing".

Because while "Knots Landing" may have been a show that started off as a spinoff, the show was a force to be reckoned with all on its own. For fourteen years, the trials and tribulations of Seaview Circle were fascinating material to watch.

I mean, compared to all the messes that they had to go through, our lives had to be better, right?

1 comment:

  1. Knots Landing was one of the Longest-Running Television Series and Best Classic TV series I've seen so far. Knots Landing for me was so real that I can't even move on with it until now. And I agree with what was written above that it really helped the show to become realistic and don't have any shower scene! Maybe that's the main reason why everyone loved the show. Until now, I still watch Knots Landing on DVD's all over again :-)