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Why America Stays Tied Up in ‘Knots’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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-all except CBS’ “Knots Landing,” which airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on KCBS.

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 ---"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.

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“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 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 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 six 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.”

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Jacobs believes “Knots” could last forever if its 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.”

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JUST WHO WATCHES ‘KNOTS LANDING’?

“It’s spread out,” said creator David Jacobs. “The surprise in ‘Knots Landing’s’ demographics is that there are many more men than you think--much more than watched ‘Dallas’ or ‘Dynasty.’ We have quite a big college audience and a black middle-class audience--especilly young black women. It’s dangerous, though, to try to write for demographics.”


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