With 'Knots' finale, '80s mind-set fades to black

May 13, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

The '80s are ending -- at least on television.

The last major holdovers from TV as we knew it in then -- "Quantum Leap, "The Wonder Years," "A Different World" and, now, "Knots Landing" tonight at 8 on WBAL (Channel 11) -- have their finales this week. And next week brings the end of "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Cheers."

Their departures mean big changes in the look and feel of prime time.

Just as the politics of the '80s lingered until George Bush's defeat last year, so has an '80s sensibility lived on in prime-time TV. That sensibility includes nostalgia, much talk of family and a preoccupation with material goods and success.

"Knots Landing," which made its debut Dec. 27, 1979, is not only TV's longest-running prime-time drama but also the last evening soap opera. And there is no programming genre more of the '80s than the prime-time soap opera. Think "Dallas," "Dynasty," "Falcon Crest" "Flamingo Road" and "The Colbys."

In one way or another, all the prime-time soaps were about rich people, great clothes, fabulous homes, big corporations, power, sex and families. Those were also among the major concerns of the culture at large during the '80s. It is no accident that a show featuring J. R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) was one of the most popular on TV during a time when Donald Trump was a high-gloss celebrity. It is also no accident that Blake Carrington (John Forsythe) of "Dynasty" so resembled President Reagan.

Of all the prime-time soaps, "Knots Landing" capitalized least on the worst aspects of the '80s -- which is, perhaps, why it lasted longer than any of the others.

In the main, the characters in this spinoff of "Dallas" were not fabulously rich like those in "Dynasty" or "Dallas." Gary Ewing (Ted Shackelford) was the black sheep of the Ewing clan. The weak-willed, former alcoholic had to move not only out West to the cul-de-sac in California to escape the Ewings, but also down into the middle class -- OK, upper middle class.

Even after old Jock Ewing died and left Gary millions, the show stayed suburban in outlook, which made it possible for viewers to identify with the characters in a way they never could with the richer-than-life Ewings, Carringtons or Channings.

And while there was Sid Fairgate and his Knots Landing Motors, the local classic car dealership where Gary found a job, initially there was no mega-corporation like Ewing Oil or Carrington Enterprises for everybody to worship.

Maybe the most appealing difference between "Knots Landing" and the others, though, was the primacy of the female characters and an emphasis on relationships. In this way, it was more like the daytime soaps than anything else in prime time.

The rest of '80s TV was very much about patriarchy. From "Miami Vice" to "Dallas" and "The Cosby Show," men were firmly in control.

But on "Knots Landing," the women were in control. Abby Cunningham (Donna Mills) was the one who made things happen. She was the J. R. Ewing of "Knots Landing." And the yin to her yang was Karen MacKenzie (Michelle Lee). And then there were Valene Ewing (Joan Van Ark) and Paige Matheson (Nicollette Sheridan). These are memorable characters.

The only man on the show who could ever really play in their league was Greg Sumner (William Devane). And while he had all the earmarks of a J. R. Ewing, he never managed to wrest control away from the women.

But as distinctive as it has been in some ways, "Knots Landing" ultimately is a soap opera. And prime-time TV in the '90s has no place for soaps. They are too expensive for one thing, with those big casts and expensive sets. TV in the '90s is about inexpensive programming; newsmagazines, for example, cost less than half of what it does to make a "Knots" episode.

They are wildly unrealistic. Again, "Knots" was better than most in this regard, but tonight's finale is indicative of the suspension of disbelief required to enter wholeheartedly the world of prime-time soap opera.

It's not Bobby Ewing in the shower, but Val, who was thought to havedied in a car crash, resurfaces tonight. Paige and Sumner are forced together with a ticking bomb between them. And Abby, who has been away for four seasons, also returns.

Pop quiz: Why did Abby leave the cul-de-sac?

Answer: To become the U.S. trade representative to Japan. No suspension of disbelief required here.

There are other aspects of "Knots Landing" that make it out of sync with the '90s. It's virtually all-white at a time when the audience seems to be looking for shows that more accurately reflect the diversity of American life. There was an African-American family, the Williamses, introduced a few seasons back. But the producers and writers never involved them in the flow of the series.

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