November 1991. It was the worst of times; it was the worst of times. After a couple of months of denying the problems, David Jacobs was coming to grips with the shortcomings of his 13-year-old pride and joy creation, Knots Landing (CBS, CTV). I remember watching the first couple of shows last fall, says Jacobs, and thinking, They dont feel or look exactly like Knots Landing, but theyre pretty good. I didnt admit that simply wasnt good enough. There was a lot of denial on my part. I was busy with other things. I had some health problems. Things conspired so that we were going down to the wire when it came to fixing the problems. Other years, wed fouled up early on, too, but had time to get back on track. This time, we got a very late start on the problems.
Such a late start that as the story went to press the future of the venerable drama – the last of a late-70s, early-80s infusion of prime time soaps that included Dallas and Dynasty – was still in doubt. With the last two episodes airing April 2 and 9 Jacobs was saying, Ive told CBS that not doing anything about whether were picked up is tantamount to pounding nails into the coffin. At this moment, CBS hasnt ordered a buy [for another season].
Im still confident that well get picked up, and I thing since we got the show back under control weve done some of the best episodes ever. But the longer a decision about the future waits, the more it makes doing the show next year a nightmare. We had no choice but to write the April 9 finale as we normally would, with cliffhanger elements in it. Pause. If we dont get renewed, Im sure well be back to wrap it up with a movie. With a frustrated sigh, he adds, Not that wed necessarily bring it to CBS.
Jacobs frustration is understandable; it had been building for months. While readily admitting miscalculations, including his own, there have been other factors just plain out of his control – including preemptions at critical moments when the series was gathering steam.
When it started the season, Knots – a network staple since December 1979 – was assumed to be virtually foolproof. Over the years, as other nighttime soaps grew stale or self- destructed, Knots always found a way to keep a loyal audience. I created Dallas too, notes Jacobs, and I felt it was sort of the same story every year, and the last three years it was just kind of completely out of it. But Knots has always generated so many changes – with all kinds of potential for emotion and constant sparks from the relationships. We have a rich history without staying stuck in the past.
This seasons decline of Knots really started innocently enough last spring when ABC ordered Homefront, a new drama set in post-World War II and created by Jacobs. He became its executive producer and brought along producers Lynn Marie Latham and Bernard Lechowick, who had been running Knots in recent years. It was a mutual decision, Jacobs recalls. Lynn and Bernie were a little tired of Knots, and they had a right to put their stamp on their own show. Now, please understand that I replaced them with very good people, but maybe not the right people for this show. And on top of that, I gave those people some bad advice. You know, one of the networks complaints about the show is that it didnt re-run well. So I told the new people, Lets try to make the stories shorter – compress them a little more. More in the style of L.A. Law.
By way of example, Jacobs says that when Bruce Greenwood was hired as Pierce to romance Paige (Nicollette Sheridan), It was my bright idea that we start right out with them as lovers. We didnt build up to a romance, we didnt see her fall for him – it was just, boom, theyre in love. Our audiences love to see those things evolve, not those shortcuts.
As it turned out, the chemistry between Bruce and Nicollette didnt work. No knock on Bruce, whos a wonderful actor, but sometimes the chemistry isnt there. Even if the chemistry had been there, our audience couldnt have bought that relationship, because they wanted to see how those two fell in love in the first place.
Disappointment about the show overall was soon reflected in the Nielsen ratings, where Knots was competing against L.A. Law and PrimeTime Live. Disappointment was reflected by way of Jacobs personal reality check – the response of the waitresses at Arts Deli, where he gauges public response firsthand from the waitresses. A couple of them have watched the show from Episode 1. Ive used them as a barometer all these years. And all of a sudden they werent talking about Knots Landing at all!
Disappointment was voiced directly by key cast members. Sheridan, for one, Came to me one day with a file folder under her arm and a very specific list of what she felt wasnt working, including the Pierce romance and Paiges abrupt reconciliation with her mother, Anne, after a long estrangement. When the season started, says Jacobs, I heard from Nicollettes agent that she wanted to leave at the end of this year. But Im not so sure now, because the constructive way she explained her difficulties this season indicates a great fondness for the show.
William Devane also approached Jacobs with some sense of alarm, admitting for the first time that this is the best character Ive ever played. Says Devane, Ive stuck with it all these years because it gives me a great character to play week after week with a great group. it keeps me from getting stuck with mediocre movie material that a dozen other actors have passed on/ Knots is a great gig.
Another star who voiced concern, Michele Lee, feels there were too many new characters introduced this season who didnt impact on the principals that the traditional audience cares about. Some of the new characters didnt affect the lives of Karen, Mack, Val, and Gary, Lee says. If you shuffle those characters who were there from Day 1 into the background, you lose viewers who have been there from Day 1.
The cast members complaints were registered in a firm but respectful way. They knew Jacobs was already recognizing shortcomings – and that he was simultaneously recovering from surgery. It was prostate surgery, and everything is fine now, says Jacobs, but at the time I was sort of out of it for two months. Between that and launching Homefront, I didnt get back to dealing with Knots as soon as I normally would have.
He shut down production during November and started working on scripts, bringing back longtime executive producer Michael Filerman to help with the hands-on-work. By then, though, the storylines were already set for 15 of the shows 22 episodes; seven of the old batch remained to be aired before the new knots could strut its stuff, starting Jan. 30. As if there wasnt enough for Jacobs to worry about in gaining back his audience, the show was reempted for two weeks in February by the Olympics and for another two weeks in March by NCAA basketball. Plus, over at the competition, LA Law creator Steven Bochco returned to that series to spice it up, and PrimeTime Live landed exclusive interviews with the woman who charged William Kennedy Smith with rape and with Hillary Clinton, wife of presidential candidate Bill Clinton, in the wake of allegations about his sexual affairs.
As Knots ends up this season, Jacobs has the pot boiling ever with cliffhanging potential. Paige was recently hospitalized, suffering paralysis from a shot by Pierce, who had been trying to kill Sumner. Pierce then kidnapped Paige from the Hospital. Any time you put a major character in jeopardy and have the rest of the characters affected by that, its riveting drama, says Jacobs.
Sumner, apparently still in love with Paige, is forced to reevaluate his life. Greg may go off in search of himself. In the last two shows, he comes to a major decision.
Val is still avidly pursuing a book on Sumners misdeeds over the years, while Gary – having lost a fortune in an innovative energy project – worries about her getting in harms way by being in proximity to Sumner.
A lighter touch has Mack taking Anne into his home with Karen in the wake of the shooting and kidnapping, causing some consternation on Karens part.
And as for sex, new character Alex Barth becomes entangled in a rectangle, as Jacobs puts it – trying to juggle affairs with Claudia, her daughter Kate and another new addition, Vanessa.
Waiting by his phone in his Burbank office for the network call that would decide the future on Knots Landing – be it another full season or a wrap-up movie – David Jacobs says, Despite being put through the wringer on this, the last few months have been more fun than Ive had in years, actually going to the word processor and getting directly involved in the writing of the stories. Whatever form we come back in, thats what Ill keep doing.