Knots Landing, television’s second longest running drama (after Gunsmoke), ran from 1979 to 1993 on CBS television. Produced by Lorimar (owned by Time/Warner) the 14 seasons focused on the lives and loves of neighbors who lived in a southern California cul-de-sac.
Originally conceived by producers Michael Filerman and David Jacobs, they wanted the drama to be like a television version of “Scenes From a Marriage”. The drama was to focus on the marital relationships between a long married stable couple (Karen and Sid Fairgate), a couple with marital difficulties (Laura and Richard Avery) and newlyweds (Ginger and Kenny Ward). We were to meet the neighbors, and get to know them through a new couple just moving in to the neighborhood (Val and Gary Ewing). They decided to make the Ewings a couple who had remarried after several years of separation, with a problematic past, estranged from rich relatives, and trying to start their married life anew.
The pilot was written by David Jacobs and pitched to CBS. CBS liked the pilot, however they wanted some changes. They wanted the couples to be rich, and to be more saga-like instead of focusing mostly on the personal relationships. Jacobs and Filerman held fast to their vision of Knots Landing, and instead decided to create a different series. They had already made the character of Gary Ewing estranged from his family, so they decided to create the new series about his rich family, and called it “Dallas.” CBS loved Dallas, but Jacobs and Filerman saw it as a stepping stone to Knots Landing, so they included Gary’s story in the drama. With the great success of Dallas, CBS gave the green light to Knots Landing.
Knots Landing debuted on CBS in 1979. It’s initial season, only 13 episodes, received mediocre ratings. However, it’s critical acclaim was enough to convince CBS to pick it up for a second season. Some changes were made – most notably the addition of Donna Mills to the cast of Abby Cunningham. Abby’s character was designed to cause trouble and shake up the lives of the neighbors. The show also switched from story episodes with a beginning, middle and end, to a more serialized format. To further boost ratings, characters from Dallas were written in for guest appearances more often. Knots Landing began to attract a following and ratings rose steadily.
Knots Landing never reached the number one spot in the ratings, probably due to the fact that it was on opposite the high rated and critically acclaimed “LA Law.” But Knots Landing held its own against “Law”, which had sent many lesser shows to an untimely death.
Knots Landing broke new ground in television several times. It was the first prime time series to have the death of a major character (Sid Fairgate – season 3). From the beginning, the show explored several social issues, including rape, illegal and prescription drug abuse, abortion, homelessness, the environment, illiteracy, the Special Olympics and child abuse, and many others that were generally shied away from by the other prime time “soaps.” Many of these issues were suggested by the actors themselves, who took pride in the fact that their show had a high social consciensce. In fact, many of the actors and actresses on Knots Landing donated a lot of their off time to working for several charities, such as homeless shelters and shelters for abused women.
Another factor that set Knots Landing apart from the other night time soaps, was that a concerted effort was made to base this show in reality. Although Knots succumbed to more and more outrageous story lines, Jacobs and Filerman made a point to bring the viewer back to reality. Sure, the characters may have suffered many things the average person almost never does (bombings, kidnappings, ruining someone financially, etc.), but the writers and producers wanted these characters to be real people, that viewers could relate to on a personal level. To bring reality to the show, almost every episode featured main characters in every day situations, such as preparing meals or washing dishes, cleaning, taking out the garbage, rearranging furniture, fixing each other’s hair – things that real people, real couples, real friends do. This was the reason that so many people really related to the characters. Their lifestyle was not much different than the viewers.
Characters in the other night time soaps would never be seen doing such mundane tasks. Those shows were pure escapism. Knots Landing deftly blended the world of escapism and reality. The show also let us become intimate with it’s characters in other ways – longtime couples, families and friends had inside jokes, recurring arguements, points of stubborness and pride – just like real families and friends have. Knots Landing never got so carried away in unrealistic plots that it forgot to take time out and interject some real feeling and reality. And this was the magic of the show!
Also, as in life, the dynamics between the various characters were richly complex. Things were often not cut and dried, black or white. When a couple broke up, it wasn’t done and over. There were often lingering feelings, shades of regret. When Val initially broke up with Gary and refused to speak to him, we knew she didn’t hate him. We knew she loved him as much as ever, and we hurt along with her. We would see Greg watch Laura play with Meg, and we knew that for all his blustery demeaner, he was really a softy at heart. We would see Karen and her children fight as they began to find their own independence, but no matter how bitter the fight, we knew they deeply loved one another, and that this love would win out.
The characters on Knots Landing were also complex. Yes, there were some cookie cutter villians who were just plain evil, but these tended to be sideline people brought in for dramatic interplay. The main characters who happened to be villians weren’t all bad. They had major vulnerabilities. Abby could cheat, steal and lie with the best of them, but when it came to her children, she would protect them with the fierceness of a lioness. She caused all kinds of havoc in people’s lives, but she also got her daughter off drugs, gave her kidney to her sick niece, and really mourned for Gary when she thought he was dead. Greg Sumner was also ruthless and cruel. He also built his daughter a playhouse, talked to a picture of his father about how cruel he had been to him, had tender moments with Laura’s sons, and truly grieved when Laura died. He had a soft spot in his heart for Paige, no matter how he tried to cover it, and truly loved his niece Kate like a daughter. Conversely, some of the “good” characters also had their bad moments. Mac would consider cheating on Karen from time to time. Karen could be self-righteous and holier-than-thou. Gary could be terribly irresponsible, and Val could be irritatingly needy. Lilimae, for all her down-home charm, could be downright nasty at times. Laura could be really stubborn and unforgiving. So the characters, like people in real life, had many different sides to them.
The writing on Knots Landing was always highly acclaimed. At the end of the 12th season, several of the core writers (Lynn Marie Latham, Bernard Lechowick, Dianne Messina and James Stanley) left to work on the new show Homefront. Because of budget considerations, many favorite characters had also been let go during Season 9. So Season 13 started with new writers, and many new cast members. This was the start of the end of Knots Landing. Although the ratings started to slip, the show hung on for another season. The show could have run longer, but due to increasing costs, and the fact that many of the major actors did not want to return for a 15th season, David Jacobs decided to call it quits at the end of the 14th Season.
In 1997, Knots Landing had a reunion mini-series, “Back to the Cul-de-sac.” Ratings were not what CBS had hoped, so there are no plans to do another reunion.
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