Saturday, January 26, 2013

Favoring "Falcon Crest": The Other Major Prime Time Soap


I watched PBS's "Pioneers of Television" segment concerning prime time soaps this week with considerable interest.  I noticed how the testimony from the cast members of the shows that were profiled seemed to reflect the stature of each individual series.  The actors interviewed from "Dynasty" appeared to realize that their show was utter fluff and talked about their series, and their experiences with it, with a light-hearted sense of fun.  (However, Linda Evans' anecdote about kissing Rock Hudson on the series, and the controversial aftermath when it was revealed he was dying of AIDS, is genuinely affecting and poignant.)  In contrast, "Knots Landing" cast members Michele Lee, Joan Van Ark, and Donna Mills all heavy-handedly attempted to build their case concerning their show's purported sense of ordinary social realism.  (Mills has such airs about the show that she can't even bring herself to call the series a "soap.")  As I've blogged about before, I am really tired of hearing of how "Knots Landing" purportedly had more depth because it was initially set in (upper) middle class suburbia.  For instance, I sincerely hope that Lee will stop giving interviews touting her character's self-indulgent and theatrical "Pollyanna" speech in Season 12 (which was compelling at first viewing, but now comes across as forced and artificial).  I also hope that they all stop self-servingly alleging that "Dallas" was a show about "them" and that "Knots" was purportedly a show about "us."  "Knots Landing" wasn't any more realistic than the other prime time soaps, so they really need to get off their soapboxes (no pun intended) and give it a rest.  It was apparent to me how Lee, Van Ark, and Mills were all straining to build a case that their show was the most important of them all.  In contrast, I was pleased to see how assured and self-confident the "Dallas" cast members participating in this documentary were in discussing their series.  Because they know their show was the pick of the litter, proven by the fact that their revival series on TNT (which is returning Monday, January 28th, for a second season) has been well-received thus far, they don't have to work overtime to prove their worth.  The supremacy of "Dallas" speaks for itself.


Probably the most interesting interview was with actress Lynne Moody, who played the ill-fated matriarch in the token African American Williams family on "Knots Landing."  When Moody discusses her frustration at how her character faded into the background after initially enjoying a strong introduction to the series (while Caucasian cast members who later joined the series after she debuted ultimately received more screentime than her), it contradicts the case Lee, Van Ark, and Mills have attempted to make about "Knots Landing's" purported sense of credibility.  Moody comes off as the most candid, least delusional of the "Knots Landing" participants in the documentary.  Her anecdote at meeting the producers to discuss her frustration with her diminished role (a meeting which she admits did not go well and ultimately resulted in her asking to be let go from the series) underscores the racial inequality, double-standard, and hypocrisy of "Knots Landing."  For example, in the "Knots Landing" clip used on the documentary to show Lynne Moody and Larry Riley's characters at home, rather than talking about their own marriage or family, they are shown being preoccupied talking about Joan Van Ark's Valene.  The irony of this clip is that, even when the African American Williams family actually had screentime on the series, the scenes ultimately were not about themselves, but about their Caucasian neighbors.  After listening to Lee, Van Ark, and Mills gloat about the level of influence they had over their series in countless interviews they have given through the years, Moody's anecdote is telling in how it reflected that, when a woman of color on "Knots Landing" brought her concerns over her character to the producers, it fell on deaf ears as they were clearly not interested, nor motivated, in working with her to reach a satisfactory resolution for her character. 


What ultimately disappointed me about the "Pioneers of Television" documentary was its exclusion of CBS's "Falcon Crest" (1981-1990) while purporting to provide an overview of the prime time soap genre.  Throughout the 1980s, "Falcon Crest" was a successful series in its own right.  Created by Earl Hamner (who brought us "The Waltons") and airing on Fridays at 10 PM, right after "Dallas," it was another epic saga about a battle for control of a family-owned empire.  If "Dallas" was about the oil business, "Falcon Crest" was about an esteemed winery in the fictional Tuscany Valley just outside of San Francisco.  Jane Wyman made a vivid impression as ruthless, powerful Angela Channing, who controlled Falcon Crest winery, and the denizens of the Valley, with an iron fist.  Unlike Barbara Bel Geddes's Miss Ellie on "Dallas," Angela Channing was an entirely different kind of matriarch.  Like Miss Ellie, Angela had been raised to respect the land and the traditions that came with it.  However, like Miss Ellie's son JR, Angela also believed it was her divine right and privilege that she fully inherit her family's legacy without having to share it with others.  Angela was different than Alexis on "Dynasty" or Abby on "Knots Landing" in that her power and wealth were part of her heritage.  She did not marry into it like Alexis or Abby, and her quest for wealth and power were also not motivated out of revenge (Alexis) or advancing her own socio-economic status (Abby).  In fact, Angela never complained or played "victim" by alleging that people disapproved of her ruthless, unethical actions because she was a woman, the way Abby complained in Season 5 of "Knots Landing" to her daughter Olivia that, if she were a man, her ruthlessness would be admired, not disdained.  Unlike Abby, Angela made no excuses for herself and "owned" her villainy.  Like JR Ewing on "Dallas," Angela was motivated out of an interest in maintaining the family heritage she had been brought up on by her forebearers.  That quality brought Angela a sense of nobility that almost justified her ruthlessness.  However, unlike JR, Angela's motivation was not based upon a need to gain parental approval (the way JR's ruthlessness was motivated by a need to gain the respect and approval of his daddy Jock).  She did what she thought was right for her winery and her family and made no apologies to anyone about it.  As Angela says in Season 1, "Falcon Crest belongs to those who can control it and make it live.  It belongs to me because I'm strong enough to make it produce.  The future here belongs to anyone who has the skill and the raw guts to take it away from me!"  Angela was a pure businesswoman through and through who was not motivated by a need to prove anything to anyone.  In that sense, she may have been the most assured and secure of all the prime time soap villains.


Another quality that made "Falcon Crest" so unique was the fact that, like Angela Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher on "Murder, She Wrote," the series centered on an elderly woman (Angela Channing) who was the undisputed lead character on a major prime time television show.  That would never happen today in our increasingly youth-obsessed environment.  If an elderly character shows up on a prime time television show now, they are either minor bit characters, or portrayed as eccentrics set up for comedic ridicule.  Angela Channing never had to endure such condescension.  She was also unique in that, unlike Alexis or Abby, Angela never had to use her feminine wiles to get her way.  Even though Angela was an elegant woman, she never had to use her sexuality to maintain her power or earn her authority.  However, Angela was not one-dimensional and had her share of foibles.  Because of her driving ambition, she had a flawed, complex relationship with her immediate family.  Both of her daughters, Julia Cumson (Abby Dalton) and Emma Channing (Margaret Ladd), proved to be emotionally unstable and/or insecure women who found difficulty forging lives for themselves because of Angela's dominance and influence over them.  (Not unlike the way Gary Ewing found difficulty living up to the Ewing legacy because of the overbearance of his daddy Jock over on "Dallas.")  Julia is even driven to the point of insanity where she commits several murders, and attempts to kill Angela, in an effort to exorcise herself from her family demons.  In addition, under Angela's influence, Emma turns out to be a fragile woman constantly taking baby steps to build her self-confidence.  What ultimately redeems Emma, and makes her such a sympathetic and endearing character, is her wry sense of humor and disarming candor, which were qualities meant to contradict her mother's perpetually calculating and scheming persona.  Emma is a unique character in the prime time soap genre.  She's not a character defined by glamor or sex appeal, and she's not as poised or assured as other characters in the genre.  Her awkwardness is both her strength and her defining trait.


Despite her shortcomings as a parent, I think Angela Channing genuinely loved her daughters and wanted what was best for them.  It's just that what Angela's definition of what was "best" for her children did not always comport with reality.  Nevertheless, in later seasons, Angela's vulnerability in relation to her family became more apparent, especially when it is believed that the insane Julia burned to death in a fire at the end of Season 3, when the rehabilitated Julia decides to return to the convent at the beginning of Season 6 to atone for her crimes, and when Angela's arch-nemesis Richard Channing (David Selby) is later revealed at the end of Season 6 to be the son she thought died at birth decades before.  Especially with regards to the Richard storyline, Wyman gets a chance to display the Oscar-winning acting chops that made her one of the premiere leading ladies from the classic era of Hollywood.  At different times throughout "Falcon Crest," Wyman had opportunities to demonstrate her quick-witted sense of humor from her 1930s/1940s Warner Brothers contract player days, as well as some of her full-blooded, tear jerker moments from her Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950s.  Even though it's clear that Wyman recognized and appreciated Angela's ruthless drive and determination, she still realized that occasional traits of humor and humanity helped prevent the character from becoming heavy-handed and redundant.


But there were many other memorable characters to "Falcon Crest" that helped ensure the series' success and which should have warranted a mention on the "Pioneers of Television" documentary.  David Selby was touching and hilarious as the seemingly villainous Richard Channing.  He is similar to William Devane's mercurial Greg Sumner on "Knots Landing," but I think David Selby is much less mannered and obnoxious in the role in the role of Richard Channing than Devane was playing Sumner.  Richard Channing arrives in the Tuscany Valley in Season 2, trying to find a family identity after growing up in Europe isolated and lonely.  Angela, resentful because she initially believes Richard to be her late ex-husband Douglas's illegitimate child, shuns Richard on sight.  Richard receives little comfort from the other characters in the Valley as well.  Despite his devious nature, you always get the feeling that Richard is simply seeking acceptance and friendship with the denizens of the Valley.  Throughout the series, whenever someone is injured or killed, even if they were at odds with Richard, he is always shown as someone deeply affected by it.  (In contrast to Greg Sumner, who seemed to relish his role as the "outsider" on "Knots Landing," and only seemed concerned about the well-being of those immediately close to him.)  As such, Richard shows that he is a man who wears his heart on his sleeves.  I think that quality is what makes Richard such a sympathetic character in the end.  His friendship with Maggie Giobert (Susan Sullivan) is touching because you sense that this decent woman, married to who he believes at the time is his half-brother Chase Gioberti, is able to bring out the best in Richard.  Richard's developing friendship with his sister Emma is also affecting because he always drops his swaggering facade around her and is patient and compassionate with her vulnerable sensitivities.  Even when Richard is being humorous and sarcastic, you always sense that his wit is a finely developed veneer against being deeply hurt by others.  "Falcon Crest's" ability to create characters who had both light and dark qualities was what made it such a compelling show for most of its run.


The light and dark contrasts of "Falcon Crest" were also reflected in Melissa Agretti (Ana Alicia) and Terry Hartford (Laura Johnson), two of all-time my favorite prime time soap vixens.  I always found it interesting that the show featured both Melissa and Terry simultaneously throughout the third, fourth and fifth seasons, because they had such unique similarities and contrasts with one another.  Melissa was the privileged, spoiled and scheming heiress to the Agretti harvest, which Angela and Richard were constantly at odds with one another trying to get ahold of.  She was intense, dour, and serious all of the time.  In contrast, Terry was Maggie Gioberti's spirited younger sister.  A former call girl in New York, Terry was good humored, vibrant, and energetic.  Melissa was the darkness and Terry was the lightness of "Falcon Crest."  Even though they were not friends, I was always fascinated whenever they shared scenes with one another.  In many respects, they had similar aspirations and goals in life.  They both were constantly at odds with Angela, who tried mightily to put them down, and both sought recognition and respect in the Tuscany Valley.  Because Melissa and Terry inherited their wealth--Melissa from her father, Terry from her husband Michael Ranson (Cliff Robertson)--both found that that was not enough to earn them a sense of contentedness and legitimacy in the Valley.  Melissa yearned for the respect that Angela's power entailed, while Terry also sought social standing, by blackmailing Richard into marrying her in Season 5, in an effort to make the Valley's residents forget her checkered past.  At different times, both women were often involved with the same men: Lance Cumson (Lorenzo Lamas), Richard Channing, and Greg Reardon (Simon McCorkindale), and both found frustration with their relationships with these men.  Despite their selfish and scheming ways, what ultimately made Melissa and Terry such compelling and sympathetic characters were the refreshing moments of humanity that the writers and the actresses instilled in them.  Melissa, underneath it all, ultimately loved her father and her son Joseph deeply and, at different times, attempted to forge a loving relationship with Lance and Cole (William R. Moses).  Some of Ana Alicia's most affecting moments on "Falcon Crest" are the scenes where Melissa learns about her father's murder, when Melissa has to give up Joseph to her ex-lover Cole after cutting a deal with Angela that she will inherit Falcon Crest if she hands over her son, and when Melissa loses her second baby after a car accident that lands her in the hospital.  We ultimately learn that Melissa, like all the other characters on the show, feels deep connections to her family and reacts in a primal manner whenever those connections are severed. 


Concurrently, throughout her tenure on the series, Terry also had unexpected moments of warmth and vulnerability that demonstrated she had nobler aspirations for herself.  Despite her greed, selfishness and seedy background, Terry makes it clear when she arrived in the Valley in Season 3 that she would like to have a good marriage and raise a family someday.  When she shares this with Lance, she appears genuinely hurt when he scoffs at her about this.  Despite moments of competitiveness with her sister Maggie, Terry appears to want to have a good relationship with her.  At times, I sense that Terry wishes she could be as good and decent as Maggie.  Terry sincerely falls in love with Michael Ranson and is heartbroken when he breaks up with her after learning of her past.  The scene in Season 3 when she tells Michael that someday she aspires to again find a love as strong and good as the one he offered her is affecting because of the unexpected humility emanating from her character.  Later, in Season 5, when Terry is back to her scheming ways and blackmails Richard into marrying her for social standing, she finds herself genuinely falling in love with Richard.  When Terry tries to sabotage Richard's efforts to locate his former lover Cassandra Wilder (Anne Archer)--a woman who is carrying his baby--and Richard becomes angered when he learns of Terry's actions, she begs him to have a baby with her instead.  Despite Terry's initial motives, she realizes she wants to have a good, loving and fulfilling marriage and family life with Richard as well enjoy the prestige of being his wife.  Later, in Season 5, when Richard's son with Cassandra (who died in childbirth) is located, Terry surprises us by being fully accepting of this baby her husband had with another woman.  Laura Johnson gives a lovely performance in the scene where Richard is introduced to his son.  When the nanny places the infant in Terry's arms, she has a look of awe and amazement that one would never have imagined in her when she arrived in Tuscany three years earlier.  (The usually selfish and demanding Terry is even sensitive enough to allow Richard time alone to bond with his new son.)  We get the feeling that Terry is ready to become this child's mother.  It's too bad that this event occurs in what would ultimately be Terry's final episode in the series, as the character would be killed off in the earthquake cliffhanger that closed Season 5.  Both Terry and Melissa were flawed, scheming women who tried to, but ultimately couldn't, ignore their conscience.


"Falcon Crest" may not have had the brand name recognition of "Dallas" or "Dynasty," nor did it have the niche cult following of "Knots Landing," but it was a well-produced, well-acted, fun series that created vivid, larger-than-life characters who were a pleasure to spend time with week after week.  It might have had some weak years, especially towards the end of its 9 season run when new writers and producers were brought aboard who had no understanding or appreciation of the material, but it was an undisputed hit while it was on the air during the 1980s.  There was enough style and substance to "Falcon Crest" to warrant its inclusion in the "Pioneers of Television" documentary.  I believe one reason why the series may not have been as well-remembered as the other prime time soaps is because it was the only one that did not generate a reunion movie years after it went off the air.  Rather than reflecting a lack of popular interest, I believe the lack of a reunion movie was ultimately due to two factors.  One, "Falcon Crest" had the most bloodthirsty season ending cliffhangers.  Unlike the other prime time soaps, which teased a fiery finale each season, but didn't have the guts to actually kill off its major characters, "Falcon Crest" proved to be the most merciless to its protagonists.  In the course of its run, major characters such as Chase, Maggie, Melissa, Terry, among others, all met their maker.  That left fewer characters to bring back for a reunion.  More importantly, "Falcon Crest" gave its audience a satisfying sense of closure in its final episode on May 17, 1990.  With most of its surviving characters given a happy ending, the show closed with an internal monologue given by Angela Channing, as she recalled the characters and events of "Falcon Crest" across 9 seasons, that proved to be a fitting summation of the entire series.  "Falcon Crest" left no loose ends.

9 comments:

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this on falcon crest what a nice write up on a great show one that lives on in our memories it was the best none before it or after it was as good.

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  2. GREAT ARTICLE!!! Do you know Falcon Crest was a HIT in Spain in the 80's??? So sad the people at PBS "Pioneers of TV" forgot this awesome soap!!!

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  3. I never watched FALCON CREST much. I had watched DALLAS, and little of DYNASTY. I lost interest in the "nighttime soaps" pretty quickly. But your article, above, is so full of incredible insights that you have piqued my interest, and I will revisit FALCON CREST, to be sure, and certainly will pick up the new DALLAS episodes. Thanks for publishing this information. I suggest that you put all of this sort of thing into a book. It seems to me that you already have books on Hollywood starlets, the nighttime soaps, and one on DALLAS, in particular.

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  4. What a fantastic piece. Great observations, especially about how "Falcon Crest" was the only prime-time soap that had the courage to really kill off major characters. The 1986-87 season finale (Chase's last appearance) remains one of my all-time favorite soap cliffhangers, and Maggie's death in 1989 was positively chilling. I also love what you have to say about Angela, who really was unique among the prime-time soap villains. My guess is we'll never see the likes of her again. What a shame Jane Wyman never deserved the recognition she received. If nothing else, she should've been given an Emmy for comedic lead actress; no one delivered a zinger quite like Wyman. Angela was the funniest woman on television!

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    1. I think, in your comment, you meant to say "What a shame Jane Wyman never received the recognition she deserved" instead of she "never deserved the recognition she received." But I completely understand what you are saying and I agree! Thank you for your kind comments! It's nice to find people who "get" what you are trying to express.

      What was your opinion on Terry and Melissa?

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  5. Oh my. How embarrassing. I left you that comment as I was being rushed out the door to go to dinner. You are correct: What I mean to say is that I loved Jane Wyman's performance as Angela Channing and wish the actress had received more recognition for her good work. She deserved it.

    I found your observations about Melissa and Terry interesting. The lightness/darkness comparison would never have occurred to me. I don't have strong memories of Terry, but I remember really liking Laura Johnson's pairing with Cliff Robertson. (I also I remember wishing Cliff Robertson would replace Robert Foxworth as the show's male lead.) I thought Melissa was a fascinating character. "Falcon Crest" was never afraid to make its heroines less-than-perfect. Ana Alicia was terrific in the role.

    Also, I mean to write this yesterday, but I agree with everything you have to say about the "Pioneers of Television" special. (Although I'll confess I still love Michele Lee's Pollyanna speech.) I hope "Falcon Crest" fans who were disappointed to see the show excluded from the documentary will find this essay.

    I'm enjoying reading your posts. Keep up the good work!

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    1. Thanks again for your kind words and you keep up the good work as well at Dallas Decoder! I loved your Julie Grey article. I might do one on that character as well. And I enjoyed your David Jacobs interview. I usually find him pompous in his other interviews, especially when he lays it on thick about Knots Landing's purported superiority, and how he would have done things differently on the old and new Dallas, but he came off much more humble and low-key in your interview.

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  6. Great article, Hill. I watched the PBS's special and it was very disappointing to me. It's a shame they excluded Falcon Crest when was, several years, most watched than Dynasty or Knots Landing. Angela Channing is a very delicious character full of humor.

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  7. Especially in Europe, Falcon Crest was much more popular than Knots Landing or Dynasty. Im most countries in Europe it had the same numbers as Dallas. And the cliffhangers anf the guest stars were also much larger than in the other series

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