Why America Stays Tied Up in ‘Knots’

“Dynasty” died out. “Falcon Crest” has withered on the vine. “Dallas” is fading into the sunset.

The enormously popular prime-time soaps of the ‘80s are passe in the ‘90s--except for CBS’ “Knots Landing,” which airs Thursdays at 10 p.m.

The serial drama concludes its 11th season this week with the requisite cliffhanger and has already started to gear up for its 12th. TV’s fourth-longest-running hourlong show ever--"Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza” and “Dallas” are the Top 3--"Knots” places in the Top 30 every week. What makes that feat even greater is that over the years, “Knots Landing” has competed against such critical and popular successes as “Barney Miller,” “Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law.”

“Knots Landing,” which spun off from “Dallas,” actually came first. “The idea was formulated in 1977,” said David Jacobs, executive producer and creator. When he pitched the idea to CBS that summer, the network executives liked the idea but wanted to go with something more ambitious.


“They thought since there was nothing like it on TV, they wanted to start off with something bigger and promotable, a little more of a saga,” said Jacobs. “As soon as they said saga I thought of Texas.” When his Texas saga “Dallas” started to catch on, CBS decided it was the perfect time to launch “Knots Landing,” about the California cul-de-sac of Knots Landing.

Three of the original cast of “Knots” are still with the show, headed by Ted Shackelford who on “Dallas” played Gary Ewing, the black sheep of the Ewing clan who moved to California to get out of the clutches of the evil J. R.

Also on the show as they have been since Episode 1 are Joan Van Ark as Gary’s first wife, the naive Valene, who is currently married to Danny (Sam Behrens), whom she discovered is a rapist, and Michele Lee, as the strong-willed Karen MacKenzie, who is happily married to Mack (Kevin Dobson) and is a successful TV reporter.

“I always thought ‘Knots’ had the potential to last longer than ‘Dallas’ and even more so than ‘Dynasty,’ ” said Jacobs. “Those two shows were very much connected with the era of the ‘80s--the Reagan era. ‘Knots’ is the kind of show that is downscaled.”

“We keep the show as middle-class as possible,” explained co-executive producer Lawrence Kasha. “They are not rarefied people or spoiled rich people. They share all of the problems that everyone can identify with--marriage, relationships, raising kids. Our rule is whatever happens in life could happen on ‘Knots.’ ”

Of course, not every storyline works. “At the beginning of every season, I have a single storyline which I expect to be big and it turns out to be the weakest,” said Jacobs. “The ones that turned out well have generally caught me by surprise. This season, the Val-Danny story seems to be catching peoples’ imaginations more than I thought.”

Rarely do the “Knots” writers stick with their original story outline--or bible--for the year. “If we have a good idea the Saturday before we start shooting, we put it in,” said Jacobs. “We take chances. That’s why when we bomb we bomb big. I think the audience responds to that. I think they would rather see you be lousy knowing you are going to excite them and do something unexpected. That’s how we keep going because we are unpredictable.”

But Kasha admitted it’s getting harder and harder to keep “Knots” unpredictable. “You don’t want to repeat yourself,” he said. “I think people in the ‘90s are different now--I think the people are quicker, fast and hipper. We have a trickier balance to worry about--how long will a story sustain itself?”

Most TV series shoot 22 episodes a year, “Knots” produces 29 to 30 episodes. “It’s hard,” said Kasha. “We used to do them on a seven-day shoot and now because of the expense we do them in 6 1/2 days. It’s nonstop. We don’t do reruns because we are serialized. We take Christmas week off, but it’s just that one week.”

Jacobs believes “Knots” could last forever if spiraling costs don’t kill it. “It’s a very expensive show,” he said. “These stars have been with us since 1978 and they were not badly paid in the beginning. We have renegotiated twice and then some of the younger stars want parity. That’s why we have eliminated some characters to save money.”

Though “Knots” has only won an Emmy Award for its score, Jacobs has always thought of the series as the class act among the prime-time serials. “We are the best written, the best acted and part of the reason for that is our competition, specifically ‘Hill Street Blues’ and ‘L.A. Law.’ They have kept us fresh and honest,” he said.

Jacobs also gives high marks to ABC’s acclaimed new serial drama, “Twin Peaks.” “Oh boy, what a show,” he said. “I think it can actually help us if it gets people back in the soap mind-set and if it takes people away from NBC.

“I know that when ‘Dynasty’ was a real big show, a lot of people on our show wanted to go that way with heavy glitz and we really resisted that. We were smart.”

What the original stars say:

TED SHACKELFORD: “We are this quiet little show that keeps getting better,” said Shackelford, who plays Gary Ewing. “There is a very loyal staunch audience. People have ‘Knots Landing’ parties. I think the audience likes the characters.”

Especially Gary and Val. Fans, he said, are eager to see the couple get back together. This season, Gary went to Val’s side when she learned the truth about Danny. “We are getting closer,” Shackelford said, laughing.

Shackelford’s willing to play Gary for as long as “Knots” is on the air. “I don’t want to write, produce or direct,” he said. “I am too old and I make too much money. The show has been real good to me. You will never hear me say anything bad publicly about the show. I am delighted to be working. You can’t ask for better working conditions.”

JOAN VAN ARK: ‘We are the darling of the network,” said Van Ark, who plays Val. “We are right there delivering week after week. It’s really quite amazing and deserves more attention.”

Van Ark gives most of the credit for the series’ success to executive producer and creator David Jacobs. “I equate the show with an elite sports team like the Lakers. Each person in the ensemble has a position they play. The quarterback changes, but each player knows the game. It’s a true ensemble effort. It’s composed of players who have a position and know their position. The coach is David Jacobs.”

Though she said the show’s fans in New York and Los Angeles usually leave her alone, Van Ark is constantly recognized when she visits other areas of the country. “People hit on you like crazy,” she said. “They do come up and talk to you. A lot of what they talk about is about Gary and Val. People appreciate Val.”

And how long will she stay with the show?

“Well,” said Van Ark, coyly, “I think I will pass on that question.”

MICHELE LEE: Lee agrees with her co-stars that it’s their characters that keep the audience tied to “Knots.” “Our characters have histories and back stories,” said the actress. “There is also a sense of future. They are three-dimensional and are honest and decent.”

But it’s getting more difficult for Lee to do the show. “It’s harder to make realistic and believable stories and make them interesting,” she said. “You fight to keep it interesting for yourself and the show. I find myself having less fun in that area. I think the reason Joan and I get so obsessive about the show and our characters is that we care deeply about what’s going on. I think it’s possible to bend and squeeze yourself into a situation. I try to do that, but there have been moments when I have been opposed to a situation that goes against the grain of my character. We have dropped the storyline.”

Last season, Lee was allowed to direct an episode of “Knots”; she also directed two more this year and hopefully will do more next season. “I had been interested in directing before ‘Knots,’ ” she said. “It’s one of the reasons I still want to be on ‘Knots.’ You can love a character to death, but you can do it so many years and then you need other things.”