Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Hypocrisy and Elitism of "Knots Landing"


Being a kid of the 1980s, I was a big fan of all the Lorimar prime time soaps: "Dallas," "Falcon Crest," "Flamingo Road" (starring the sublime Cristina Raines), and "Knots Landing."  I loved them all equally, but at the end of the day I still acknowledge "Dallas" as the King of the Hill.  In recent years, "Knots Landing" started to be touted as the best of the prime time soaps due to its purported emphasis on so-called "middle class" characters that better reflected the perspective of most Americans than the epic, larger-than-life "Dallas."  I used to believe that party line myself, until I became older and watched "Dallas" on DVD and realized that "Knots Landing" wasn't any better than "Dallas" in terms of its writing, acting, and directing.  Despite its middle class airs, "Knots Landing" was actually snootier and elitist about itself.  The show heavy-handedly seemed to believe that it was better simply because it was set in a Los Angeles cul-de-sac rather than the epic Southfork Ranch.  (Check out the contemptuous manner in which the characters of "Knots Landing" in its early seasons speak about the Ewings of "Dallas" and you can sense the show, and its characters, demonstrating a level of insecurity about themselves.)

Most of the original cast, before the show tried to keep up with the Joneses and glamorized itself to death

The "middle class" party line that its creators and stars like to emphasize really only applied to the first four seasons of "Knots Landing."  I acknowledge that the 1979-1983 seasons of the show are sublime in how it examined the foibles of modern marriage and middle class angst in a way that was unique and humane.  The shallow and misogynist "Desperate Housewives" never came close to tapping into the reservoirs of emotion that those first four years did.  During that time, "Knots Landing" truly was about middle class suburbanites and this was reflected in the fact that Donna Mills's vixenish and scheming Abby Cunningham was more a neighborhood troublemaker than the high-powered mogul she later became.  The argument that the show was more "realistic" and "down-to-earth" really applied during those first four years.  (Even then, it should be noted that the show was clearly about the UPPER middle class, who could afford a nice home on a cul-de-sac and were working as attorneys, music producers, and owned car dealerships.  There was a comfortable lifestyle depicted in those early years that was still alien to many working class viewers, who struggled to make ends meet with their low-paying jobs.)

JR visits Knots Landing in a "special guest villain" appearance

During this time when it was comparatively more grounded in reality, "Knots Landing" was a show that was doing moderately in the ratings.  It was dwarfed by the success of "Dallas" because viewers at that time probably didn't find anything particularly exciting about "Knots" compared to the epic storytelling of "Dallas."  It was only in the 5th season, when the show introduced William Devane's mysterious and powerful Greg Sumner, and the show started moving away from depicting the mundane aspects of suburbia by focusing on stories about corporate intrigue and organized crime, that "Knots Landing" started becoming more of a ratings winner.  Characters like John Pleshette's troubled and mercurial attorney Richard Avery (he deserved an Emmy for that role), and the newlywed couple Kenny and Ginger Ward (James Houghton and Kim Lankford), who were key to establishing the community suburban atmosphere in Seaview Circle, were phased out during this time as the show moved further away from scenes depicting curbside conversation and more towards boardroom boredom.  Even though I liked Devane's work on "Knots Landing" and feel that he created a compelling character, at times there was far too much of him on the series for my liking.  Sometimes "Knots Landing" felt like it had become "The William Devane Hour."  (I once met John Pleshette in a bookstore in Los Angeles and complained about this direction to "Knots Landing."  He seemed to acknowledge this and joked that the show became "Dallas in California" by the time he left.) 

Scene from the pilot episode, before the glamorous clothes and the facelifts ruined everything...

"Dallas" did a good job of maintaining our interest with its corporate intrigue storylines because there was an emotional basis for them.  JR was constantly trying to build Ewing Oil into being bigger and more powerful than what his daddy Jock Ewing had created in an effort to try to win his father's approval and love.  Bobby got involved with Ewing Oil at his wife Pam's encouragement, at least in the beginning, in order to move away from being the company's "pimp" and become a man of substance and character.  I never felt there was the same motivation on "Knots Landing" for its characters to become involved in such larger-than-life corporate storylines.  Abby Cunningham simply wanted to be richer and more powerful.  I know I'm simplifying matters by stating that, but that's all there was to it.  (Even "Falcon Crest" did a better job with these sorts of business-oriented storylines, due to Angela Channing's determination to carry on her grandfather's legacy with the winery he created.  There was never such a legacy with the characters of "Knots Landing" to warrant its emphasis on such stories.)

Donna Mills ponders how she can drag her show in an upscale direction in this scene from the second season.

As much as I like her, Donna Mills is one of the leading and most egregious perpetrators in the ongoing hypocrisy of "Knots Landing."  She has boasted in interviews as to how she urged the writers in the early seasons to make Abby richer and more powerful, like JR on "Dallas" was.  She has talked about how she urged the producers to shell out for a better wardrobe for the female cast members in the 3rd or 4th seasons because people want to watch escapism when they watch television.  These days, because depictions of wealthy characters are less politically correct, you'll find Mills contradicting herself and claiming that "Knots Landing" was unique because it was about "us" (the middle class) rather than "them" (the wealthy and powerful).  This is blatant hypocrisy since Mills was the leading proponent in the early seasons of "Knots Landing" to urge the producers to move away from the suburban milieu in favor of something more glamorous.

When the show was truly "middle class," albeit "upper"

Even now, the ongoing elitism of "Knots Landing" persists.  These days, when the cast of "Knots" is interviewed and asked if there is a chance that it could be revived the way TNT has revived "Dallas," they usually say that "Dallas" was more likely to be revived because there will always be an on-going interest in the so-called "1%" of society, whereas "Knots Landing" was less lauded on an international basis because it was purportedly more "believable" and "intimate."  That's a load of hogwash.  I direct your attention to the 5th season storyline about the Wolfbridge Group organized crime syndicate, the 6th Season storyline involving Val's Babies (and its entanglement with the introduction of Howard Duff's powerful Paul Galveston), and the 7th Season storyline involving Empire Valley (which involved the building of an underground espionage communications headquarters) to refute these claims that the show was more grounded in "reality."

"Hi...I'm here to take over your show..."

The truth of the matter is that "Knots Landing," for all its good qualities, simply was never as popular as "Dallas," which is why it is less likely to be revived on TNT the way "Dallas" has.  "Dallas" featured amazing characters whose popularity and appeal crossed over on an international basis--and it never tried to pretend to be something that it wasn't.  "Knots Landing" had more of a "niche" appeal and, as with anything that attracts a "niche" audience, a ridiculous form of reverse-snobbery developed with "Knots Landing" against "Dallas."  "Knots Landing," and its personnel and constituents, repeatedly tout its purported superiority to "Dallas."  They constantly compare themselves to "Dallas" rather than try to stand on their own.  The irony is, "Knots Landing" tries too hard to build a legacy for itself when the reality is, if there's a legacy to be built for "Knots Landing," others will build it for them.  "Knots" and its personnel would not have to do it for themselves if it were real.  (The lukewarm ratings that greeted the 2005 2-hour CBS Reunion special "Knots Landing: Together Again," as well as the lackluster sales for the Season 1 and 2 DVDs, bear this out.)

The underrated and underutilized Larry Riley and Lynne Moody, who were often short-shrifted in terms of screen time on "Knots Landing"

For all of its airs, "Knots Landing" was still mostly a show about financially secure Caucasians.  Its only ethnically diverse characters, the African American Williams family (played by the talented Larry Riley, Lynne Moody, and Kent Masters King) who joined the show in 1988, were often relegated to the sidelines and rarely had any stories of substance.  Nevertheless, "Knots Landing" patted themselves on their backs for introducing the Williams family, as if they had done them a favor, but in the end never did much to substantially utilize them.  Their characters were introduced as being in the witness protection program and, unfortunately, that was about it.  They were primarily written as a plot device in terms of how they related to the other characters on the show, but the writers never allowed them to stand on their own as significant characters.  It was a waste of the talents of these actors.  (For the record, I am the last person in the world who believes that television needs to be politically correct or ethnically diverse, but if you're going to continue patting yourself on the back for your much-vaunted realism, you should be called out on it.)  As someone who grew up in Southern California in a neighborhood that was populated by a combination of Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, and Asian American households, "Knots Landing" seemed hardly "realistic."

A realistic show about "middle class America"?...um, really?

I find it annoying that "Knots Landing" fans narcissistically speculate as to whether any of its characters, besides Gary and Val, will turn up on TNT's new "Dallas."  There are too many characters from "Dallas's" rich history, such as Donna Krebbs (Susan Howard), Katharine Wentworth (Morgan Brittany), and Holly Harwood (Lois Chiles), who I'd rather see brought back before we even speculate as to whether they'll incorporate any "Knots" characters.  I also wish "Knots" personnel and constituents would stop citing the fact that it was originally created before "Dallas" was created.  At the end of the day, "So what?"  It appears to be another tactic in an increasingly futile and desperate effort to establish the purported supremacy of a show that does not even generate enough DVD sales for Warner Brothers to even consider releasing further seasons of the show on its DVD-on-Demand mail order service, Warner Archive.  While it's true that CBS asked creator David Jacobs, when he first proposed "Knots Landing" to them, to come up with another prime time soap that was more epic in-scope, and he came up with "Dallas," the fact remains that CBS only became interested in actually putting "Knots Landing" on the air when "Dallas" became a runaway hit, and only then if Jacobs could somehow make it a spin-off of "Dallas."  It doesn't matter what was conceived first:  "Knots Landing" still needed "Dallas" to get on the air.  At the end of the day, in more ways than one, "Knots Landing," in order to be relevant, remains dependent on "Dallas" more than "Dallas" ever needed "Knots Landing."

16 comments:

  1. I don't agree with you on all points (and you do make good points but I am still a die hard KL fan for life), but I do agree with you on the most important...

    John Pleshette deserved barrels of Emmys for his portrayal of Richard Avery.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. Just out of curiosity, which parts did you agree/disagree with the most?

      Even though it may not seem that way, I do love Knots Landing a lot, but I don't like the qualities of the show that I cited herein. I preferred the early years by far.

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    2. Yes, John Pleshette was amazing on the show. It was a great storyline. I hope he knows that he was appreciated.

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  2. Even though the show moved away from its roots, it still was, mostly, about middle class America. The lavish dresses and tuxedos worn by the cast in the bottom photo were uncommon. I think this photo was taken in season 7 when there was some kind of "charity ball" at Lotus Point. For the most part, Karen, Mack, Val, Ben, Laura, Lilimae, Joshua, Cathy, Olivia, Michael, Pat, and Frank wore casual clothes -- perhaps a suit or dress at work. Characters like Abby, Greg, Paige, and Anne were the ones with the lavish wardrobes who lived in the upper tier of society. I'm not saying that the other families weren't well off -- they certainly were. And the show did veer from its well-defined middle class roots. However, the change was, for the most part, gradual. To me, seasons 1 through 6 are the golden age of Knots Landing. Even though seasons 5 and 6 had more outlandish plotlines, it still had the same down-to-earth feeling of the first 4 seasons. Seasons 7 and 8 is when the show started to take a dip into the really, really soapy stuff. I still enjoyed it, though. By the barely tolerable 13th season and the marginally better 14th season, the show was hardly recognizable when compared to season 1. I agree with what you said about the characters changing over time -- they did, especially Val, and even Karen, who was always my favorite. Anyway, I guess what I'm saying is that I agree with you that the show was better in the earlier years, but I really don't think that the show was bad in the later years. It was still enjoyable.

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    1. I don't inherently disagree with you. I think Knots Landing WAS a good show overall. I just dispute the allegations made by its participants, and some of its fans, that it was vastly superior to other prime time soaps and that its superiority was based in a middle-class setting that the show didn't always adhere to.

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  3. Thank you for this thoughtful piece. You make many good points. I "Knots Landing," yet I'm surprised by how much I agree with you. I don't necessarily find the show elitist, but I agree the writing and directing on "Dallas" holds up just as well as what I remember seeing on "Knots." You also make a great point about how "Knots Landing" lost its middle-class sensibilities as the series progressed (although I thought William Devane was a hoot and I welcomed the addition of Greg Sumner to the ensemble). More than anything, I think "Knots" is distinguished by its trio of well-written women characters -- Val, Karen and Abby -- although much of this is based on memory. I'd love to see the whole series again to see if if holds up as well as I remember.

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  4. This is a very well written piece, and there's much I agree with. I come from what I think is an unusual perspective: I am generally NOT a fan of soaps. I have watch some Dallas and it's fine if soap opera is what you want. But KL is my sole exception to my usual preference against soaps. The reason? While KL is clearly soapish in some respects, it is more than that. It has some finely nuanced drama and a range of emotions not usually to be found in soaps, especially in my favorite seasons of 11 and 12.

    But having said those positive things, I do agree that the alleged down-to-earthness of KL is a bit exaggerated. As someone now middle-aged who grew up in a blue-collar family in a small agricultural town in Kentucky, I never found Knots Landing characters to be people I could particularly relate to. Maybe Val for the first few seasons, but she lost that humble quality. And the Ewings of Dallas are basically hicks who came into riches, which made them a little more down to earth relative to their wealth.

    Still, for the reasons cited above, KL is my favorite "continuing drama", and my sole viewing choice for that genre.

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    1. Thanks for your feedback. I really appreciate it. I agree with you regarding Val. I liked Val very much when she started on Dallas and in her first few years of Knots Landing. I just feel that, at some point, Joan Van Ark stopped playing Val and I sense she just started playing herself, with the neurosis and nervous mannerisms becoming far too much to take.

      I do agree Knots Landing is a good show with nuanced moments, but is it far better than Dallas just because it's purportedly more "realistic"? No way. I've gotten some negative feedback to my article from people who think I dislike Knots Landing and my skepticism is less with the show at times than it is with its followers, and with its participants, who try to elevate it to something it's not.

      If you haven't had a chance, check out my Falcon Crest article, written in January 2013.

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  5. I've read your article several times and find your comments interesting. I must confess that I am die-hard Knots Landing fan and I never got into the other soaps you mentioned. Thus, I can't comment on which one is "best". I've been re-watching Knots Landing online and am now up to the middle of season 8, so I've been able to see some of the developments you speak of. I did not find the early seasons "snooty" or "elitist" about focusing on the middle class. Instead, it seemed to me that they were striving to educate the audience about various social topics, such as alcoholism, medical issues and the environment. There are several episodes that I think would make excellent training videos.

    You're right that as the seasons progress, there are cosmetic changes, such as better clothes, hair and home decor, and the plots get more elaborate. However, I don't see these changes as having a profound effect on most of the characters. Aside from Gary, Abby and Greg, the other characters continue to live fairly typical day-to-day lives. For example, they cook their own meals, eat as a family, and do their own dishes (by hand!). Their children have chores and even their adult children are expected to be home at a reasonable hour. When the MacKenzies had everyone over for Thanksgiving, they had to corral tables and chairs from all over the house and had to put their sofa in the garage to have enough room for everyone. When they have people stay over, Michael and Eric often have to bunk together. A stark contrast in lifestyles can be seen in the episode where Michael is dealing with his drug possession charges. The night before his hearing, Karen insists on staying home and cooking his favourite meal, even though Mack wants to go out for Chinese food. Olivia, on the other hand, goes home to have her obligatory weekly dinner with Abby, and it is Maria the maid who welcomes her home and has prepared her favourite meal.

    You make much of the comments that the cast have made during their interviews. I haven't seen any of the ones you mention, so can't speak to them directly. I would only note that it is rare (if ever) that an actor or director will pan his/her work during an interview. Even the most trite drivel is often lauded as some magnificent masterpiece for one reason or another. I generally take such interviews with a grain of salt and chalk much of what is said up to the hyperbole of show business.

    While I would agree that Knots Landing was hardly representative, I do feel they did better than most shows in ensuring that people of colour are cast in professional roles (i.e., doctors, lawyers and nurses) rather than just menial ones. I did find it awkward how they introduced Eric's girlfriend, Whitney. It's clear the social commentary they were trying to make, but I think it fell flat by them not addressing it head-on.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article.

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  6. Someone is thinking WAY WAY too hard about something that is just meant to be a bunch of glossy 80's OTT entertainment. Why must they be politically correct? Dallas, KL, FC Dynasty etc....were/are a form of escapism for us to indulge in for an hour when ever it took our fancy. Just take it for what it is. Entertainment . Sounds to me like you take life and yourself way too seriously. I enjoyed them all. I don't sit there thinking about how one is more "elitist" over the other. The irony is your own snobbery of taking shows like these as seriously as you do. When did these shows ever claim to be like that? They are NOT documentaries. They are Soap operas. Like I said a form of escapism for an hour a week, before we return to the real world.

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  7. I find some comments quite confused. You suggest that knots landing was unappealing to viewers in the early days due to 'mundane' storylines about surbibia in comparison to the lavishness of Dallas, yet your picture captions are quite scathing about the way in which in went in a more glamorous direction. Personally, I think there should have been more raw episodes like there were in the beginning before the silly, overly convoluted storylines kicked in. The Val's baby saga was good at first but descended into nonsense and the organised crime stories were mainly misplaced with too much emphasis on pointless characters like Ben. I agree that Franks's wife (pat?) was killed off too soon but the Frank got a lot of airtime, his job changed multiple times without explanation and there were whole episodes where he was front and centre of the action. The witness protection angle was an utter mess of a storyline and there were massive contradictions at every turn. KL did do brilliant baddies however, despite their usually short rein-Jill, Joshua, Chip etc. It was at its best when it was sinister and when Gary still had his uncontrollable vices.

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    1. I think I was simply saying that, when it was less glamorous, the show wasn't as popular as it became later when it went upscale. I thought it was contradictory that fans cite the middle-class aspect of the show as one of its strengths when the era that really highlighted it, the first three years, are seasons that most die-hard fans give short shrift. I wrote that three years ago, around the time I really started working on this blog, and there are some aspects of this piece I might do differently if I did it now. Thanks for your interest and for taking the time to read and comment on it.

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  8. You've missed the point. "Knots Landing" was supposed to be about drifters and misfits who struggled to find their directions in life through their ironic connections to each other and their community. When Val went crazy and had to leave the state to find herself, everyone had to re-examine his/her own trajectory in life. And the same thing when Sid died in early season 3.

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  9. Knots landing wasn't better because it was set in LA. It was better because it was better. The writing was far superior to Dallas. (Dallas's topic every episode was oil, oil, oil, it got stale VEEY quickly.)
    Soaps need the ramped up, outlandish, inconceivable, and yet somehow believable problems that knots landing delivered every season. Dallas never came close to that.

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  10. I must say that Knots Landing is my favorite of the "Big Four" soaps from the 1980s, but I have never said it was "The Best". Dallas was undoubtedly the most popular, but that doesn't make it the best. I must say I prefer Knots Landing over Dallas, but each show (no matter what it may be) has its following, and every show has those fans that think "their" show is the best.

    Anyways, I agree the early years of Knots Landing were arguably the most realistic. However, even when the should did "glamorize" itself, you must admit that it didn't become as glamorous as Dynasty, Falcon Crest, or even Dallas for that matter. Dallas, around 1984, was so threatened by Dynasty that they tried their best to make their show more glitzy, and most of their "attempts" weren't too successful. Knots Landing had several "reality" stories after Season 5. I think Val's twins story was very good, and yes, very realistic. Babies do get kidnapped, and studies show that different people deal with traumas of that short in different ways; Val, as we know, developed a multiple personality disorder. Fast-forward to Paige coming into Mack's life. Look at the back story we were given on a young Mack, Greg, and Anne; AND we weren't just told about it, we actually saw it! Olivia's drug addiction story was handled exceptionally well, and Abby's way of dealing with it was something I could see my own mother doing. The episodes dealing with Laura's death (those leading up to it, following it, etc.) are superb. Maybe it's not so "real" for someone to go away and die, but I do think everyone's reactions to her death were realistic; they felt genuine.

    As the previous "Unknown" poster stated, Dallas did get repetitive. It was always J.R. trying to over-throw Bobby, destroy Cliff, cheating on Sue Ellen, or just being J.R. There went his storylines, in one sentence. It was always about oil, the control of Ewing Oil, or some sort of business situation. That's at least 85% of the show. Dynasty, too, repeated itself; Alexis was always after Blake, Krystle was always goody-goody, and Blake couldn't decide whether he was nice or mean. Same story tactic recycled in slightly different ways.

    When talking about Knots Landing, however, I think it's fair to say that all of the characters on that show did evolve. Look at Val, for example. She started out this insecure, uneducated, naive girl from Texas, but through her marriages, giving birth, and all the turbulence that surrounding her, she became her own independent woman. Same with Karen. When Sid died, she mourned him, and gradually fell in love again. Even Abby, although primarily an ambitious woman, did find time to look out for her children. There is never really a "sameness" on Knots Landing. Almost everyone, all the time, seem to be growing in one way or another.

    In conclusion, I'm not trying to knock Dallas (or the others) in favor of Knots Landing. As I said earlier, I do prefer Knots Landing, but I do realize Dallas, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest as very good shows. Honestly, I think it all depends on what the viewer wants; what he/she likes will determine which of the four he/she will prefer, if any.

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  11. To start off my comment, I must tell you that I do not agree with everything you have said. I do prefer Knots Landing to Dallas, but I must say that I have never boasted that Knots was “The Best”. Even if I did try to argue that, not everyone will agree (and I don't expect them to, either). Dallas was undoubtedly the most popular of the 1980s prime time soaps, but that, also, doesn't automatically make it “The Best”. Not in my book at least. It was simply the first and got all the viewers glued in before the others started.

    I do agree where you have said the first four seasons of Knots Landing were perhaps the most consistently “realistic”. However, even though the show did glamorize itself (I admit it), it did it very gradually, and not at all to the extreme Dallas did around 1984, when it became threaten by Dynasty (which finally surpassed Dallas in the ratings). The photo you have of the main cast is not their every episode wardrobe; in fact, it's very far from it. I'd say that the majority of the characters wear casual clothes, maybe some “fancier” stuff at work or while out on the town, but that is not the typical look of the Knots Landing cast.

    Dallas got repetitive. It was almost always about oil, the control of Ewing Oil, J.R.'s dirty dealings, Bobby's love life with some woman (and their problems), Cliff trying to best J.R. (and vice versa), and every so often one of the ladies would have a story (and yes, they got repetitive, too). Dynasty, too, repeated itself. Alexis was always after Blake, Krystle was always so innocent, and Blake couldn't figure if he was bad or good. Knots Landing, however, did very well with “evolving” their characters. Take Valene, for example. She started out naive, uneducated, and insecure. Through her marriages, given birth, and all the other turbulence she found herself involved in, she gradually became an independent woman. Look at Karen. After Sid died, she mourned him, then gradually fell in love with Mack, and later found she good be successful in business. Even Abby changed. When she first arrived, she was just a neighborhood troublemaker before becoming more powerful, but even then she found time to deal with the problems that faces her marriages and children.

    I refuse to agree that Knots Landing stopped telling realistic stories. Take Valene's twins story. Babies do get kidnapped (it's fairly common), and studies show that people do deal with traumas like that in different ways; Valene, as we know, developed a multiple personality disorder. Look at Abby's story revolving around Olivia's addiction to drugs. She locked her in and came in on her (the opposite of what “tough love” says you should do). And take Laura's death as another example. The whole subtle way she told Karen, and they way Greg reacted, were totally realistic. Even her goodbye episodes (ep.200 and 201) were very poignant, and everyone's reaction to her demise was quite realistic... and most of the major characters were there.

    In conclusion, I'm not meaning to knock Dallas (or any of the others) in favor of putting Knots Landing on a pedestal. What a viewer likes to watch will determine which of the soaps he/she will prefer, if any. Different people have different tastes; no two people, I'm pretty sure, don't like all the same stuff. And let me just say, Knots Landing was the most “realistic” of the “Big Four” from its era. It reflected and changed with the times, instead of defining them.

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