Do you remember on Dallas when J.R. would sneer about “losers” whose yearly salary wasn’t enough to buy one of his trademark Stetsons? Well…Knots Landing is where those losers lived.
By Paul Mavis
Believe it or not…it’s been 40 years to the day that the smartly-crafted 80s soaper about the lives and loves of the inhabitants of Knots Landing‘s Seaview Circle cul-de-sac premiered on CBS. If you don’t remember the first Americanized Scenes From a Marriage half-season, the second season Dallas-like melange of bed-hopping and back-stabbing–courtesy of minxy Donna Mills’ Abby Cunningham/J.R Ewing-in-drag character–should come easily to the mind of prime-time soap-loving fans. In this full-season, Knots Landing gets its own horny evildoer in the guise of sultry sex kitten Donna Mills…so let the humping begin!
A brief rundown of the series’ backstory is probably in order…after 4 decades. Weakling alcoholic Gary Ewing (Ted Shackelford), finally reunited with his sweet backwoods bride Val (Joan Van Ark), has moved away from the destructive family forces (namely Larry Hagman‘s J.R. Ewing) in Dallas, to the upper middle-class Los Angeles suburb of Knots Landing. There, Gary’s mother, Miss Ellie (Dallas‘ Barbara Bel Geddes, who doesn’t appear here), has bought the couple a rather comfortable house on quiet cul-de-sac: Seaview Circle.
Gary, forever battling his weak willpower to dive down to the bottom of a bottle, has taken a job at Knots Landing Motors, where he’s worked his way up to Vice-President. K.L. Motors is owned by mechanic/engineer Sid Fairgate (Don Murray), who just happens to be Gary’s neighbor. Easygoing Sid is married to loud-mouthed liberal activist Karen Fairgate (Michele Lee); the couple have three children: teenagers Diana (Claudia Lonow), Eric (Steve Shaw), and Michael (Patrick Petersen).
Gary’s and Val’s other neighbors are newly married Kenny and Ginger Ward (James Houghton, Kim Lankford). This season, the pair are split up because Kenny, a record producer, was caught having an affair with one of his singers. But will they get back together if Ginger really is pregnant? Also hanging out on Seaview Circle is out-of-work attorney, Richard Avery (John Pleshette), a snotty, sarcastic womanizer who likes to knock back a few when he’s not either pawing some other woman or insulting his wife.
His long-suffering wife, Laura (Constance McCashin), is moving quickly up the ladder at her real estate office–and making more money in one commission than Richard made all year. Into this heady mix comes Abby Cunningham (Donna Mills), Sid’s kid sister. Charging around the Circle in her short shorts and high heels, Abby flirts with anything in pants (even her nephew, for chrissakes), before she sets about trying to destroy both Richard’s and Gary’s marriages.
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Running a long, long thirteen-and-a-half seasons from December, 1979 to May, 1993, Knots Landing really held my attention for a couple of years in the middle of its run when some particularly good story arcs involving William Devane (always great), Kevin Dobson (a favorite from Kojak), Alec Baldwin (thin and not yet morally repulsive), and Lisa Hartman (Tabitha!) were running (and of course: the kidnapping of Val’s twin babies – the ultimate Knots Landing storyline). By that point, the series was both a critical and popular success, a combination that gave Knots Landing a “must see” cache. I didn’t watch these first few seasons because Knots Landing always seemed to be sold as some kind of “chick’s soap”–not exactly a come-on for a teen boy.
You only watched it if your girlfriend or wife (or horrors…your mom) had it on the tube. Dallas was more to my liking – still a “man’s soap” in 1980 that appealed equally to women…before “Dynasty-creep” eventually took the edge off of it. Interestingly, Knots Landing, which technically was a spin-off of Dallas, was conceived first by producers/writers David Jacobs and Michael Filerman. CBS, looking for a nighttime soap with more scope and sweep (and wealthier characters), went with the team’s Dallas concept, instead – which incorporated the seeds of Knots Landing in the Gary Ewing character. Eventually, when Dallas became a surprise hit with viewers, CBS saw a convenient way to expand the franchise by green-lighting the earlier Knots Landing concept, and the series debuted mid-season for the 1979-1980 schedule.
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Watching Knots Landing‘s second season, you can see where the producers made the decision to jack up the inherently lower-key domestic proceedings of the show’s original concept, to more conform with its successful parent show, Dallas. The most obvious sign is the introduction of the Abby character, played with feline salaciousness by previous “good girl” Donna Mills (a total switch from her previously most memorable role as Clint Eastwood‘s sweet girlfriend in Play Misty For Me).
Prior to her arrival in the Circle, Knots Landing didn’t really have a permanent central villain who could constantly stir the pot and keep multiple story arcs moving along (the grumpy Richard character was probably the closest thing to that in half-Season One). Having learned their lesson with the phenomenal, breakaway success of Larry Hagman’s portrayal of evil sonafabitchin’ J.R. Ewing on Dallas, the producers probably recognized that Knots Landing would need some kind of boost to not only jump-start the frequently After School Special-y nature of the storylines, but also to start grabbing the attention of the only fair-to-middling audience numbers out there (in its first season, Knots Landing only managed a three-way tie for 30th place in the Nielsen’s).
Thank god Knots Landing isn’t exactly subtle when it comes to parading around the obvious charms of Mills–she’s either in a bikini, a one-piece for the hot tub, or various sexy casual-wear ensembles–elevating the “I hate that bitch” factor for female viewers when Abby’s casual attitude towards stealing other women’s men is factored into the equation (Laura’s sneering, “You’re such a slut,” to Abby’s face during the “home invasion” episode is probably a season highlight). Indeed, operating much like her male counterpart J.R., Abby survives and even thrives in this male-dominated world by matter-of-factly using her sex to get what she wants.
During these first seasons, the producers brought over cast members from Dallas to spike interest in the series, and this season, Bobby (Patrick Duffy), J.R., and even Kristin (Mary Ann Crosby), show up. And of course, to both literally and metaphysically canonize Abby’s ascension to the throne as Knots Landing‘s resident “bad guy,” the producers have none other than J.R. Ewing himself come to Knots Landing to nail Abby in a hotel room. And thus a new evil horndog is crowned.
As Abby moved from Richard to J.R. to Gary, the women watching at home loved to hate her…while perhaps, just a little bit, also envied her prettiness and her ruthless ability to bend weak men to her desires. When Richard gets the final brush-off from Abby, he mumbles, “But I need you,” to which Abby coldly and matter-of-factly replies, “I don’t need you.” She may be a homewrecker that women love to hiss at, but with such weak, spineless, stupid men…who can blame her?
Often perceived as literally a “poor woman’s Dallas,” the obvious step-down in luxury and gloss from the oil-soaked Ewings informs the scripts, as well. While I always find it amusing to read other critics labeling obviously wealthy TV characters as simply “middle-class” (Seaview Circle is decidedly “upper middle-class” if not outright “wealthy,” to my way of thinking), the class envy angle is played frequently here this season, and to good effect (in Dallas, such a story theme was usually just a pretext to allow J.R. to crush some unsuspecting poor boob). It seems like the writers, despite attempts to make the stories in Knots Landing seem more “ordinary” than the epic wealth battles over on Dallas, are aware that the denizens of Seaview Circle have it pretty goddamn good.
In the “Sid-arrested-for-rape” story arc, the chiseling little hustler who’s framing innocent Sid lives in a squalid dump with an equally conniving mother who, when confronted by Karen with the rigors of what a trial will do to them both, incredulously waves her hand around her rat’s nest and snarls, “Look at this place! Trial is going to be a vacation!” And later, in Moments of Truth, a vicious gang of thugs invade Ginger’s baby shower, with the female head honcho telling an incredulous Karen: “Husband, kids, decent house, nice car. Great American dream, right? People like you: rich, pretty, privileged people. You buy what you want. People like me…we never could. And it gets harder every day. Lady, don’t you understand? There’s a war going on between the haves and the have-nots. People like you and people like me. Except it’s just the beginning. And it’s going to get a whole lot worse” (a speech that would make Faux-a-hontas proud!).
Other “hot button” issues of 1980 get the Knots Landing treatment, including “hyperkinetic” kids, teen drug use, and teen sex…amid all the humping by the adults. And for the most part, these contentious issues are handled here with a degree of skill not expected for this kind of series (Diana’s first time having sex is done with knowing sensitivity). Usually, both sides of an argument get an airing in these episodes (Sid gets to stay mad at Eric for taking drugs to a party; Karen is allowed to forgive him), but that even-steven approach can sometimes seem like the writers are bending over backward to be issues-oriented, when increasingly, the bedroom antics of Abby and everyone else are getting the lion’s share of viewers’ attention. Still, for an 80s prime time soap, Knots Landing walks a pretty fine edge between exploitation and education–a feat it accomplishes more often than not.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.