DYNASTY: The ’80s Personified (Best of Season Two)

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday and the continuation of my thoughts on Dynasty (1981-1989, ABC), the gaudy primetime soap that I think defines ’80s drama. Although it would be IMPOSSIBLE to categorize the show as being consistent and well-written, when one thinks about television of the ’80s, among the first shows that comes to mind is Dynasty. Its exaggerated opulence, shallow characters, and larger-than-life storytelling — all seemingly a byproduct of inferior writing — came to define the state of the decade’s TV (at least, as far as dramas go). Furthermore, the series entered the cultural zeitgeist, informing some of the look, sound, and feel of the decade. In last month’s post, I wrote all about the series’ standing in comparison to the other serialized dramas of the ’80s (particularly Dallas) and aimed to provide a little context as to the space the series initially occupied. I shared my thoughts on the season and how contemporary viewers may be surprised to find that the show is more intelligent and better constructed than Dynasty’s reputation might suggest. Additionally, we saw how the scripts began to “weed out” the elements of the series that didn’t work — namely the inclusion of a middle class family to counterbalance the Carringtons — in favor of the juicer elements that engendered a faster-paced storytelling: rape, homosexuality, murder, surprise ex-wives, etc.

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That last point, a surprise ex-wife, is what sets Dynasty on fire, as the introduction of Joan Collins’ Alexis Morell Carrington, Blake’s heretofore banished ex-wife — and the mother of both Fallon and Steven (well, those are the only two kids about whom we know, right now) — introduces both the conflict and the camp for which the series has become best known. Alexis really is a dynamic presence, captivating the screen right from her first appearance in Blake’s trial (for the murder of Steven’s gay lover, Ted Dinard), and contributing most directly to the elevated sense of excitement that runs throughout all 22 of the episodes produced for this second season. However, for viewers (like myself) who equate Alexis with the abundantly soapy hijinks that gradually became more audacious than logical, the true delight of her debut season is the never-again-matched calibration of emotional substance/motivation with the show’s more ambitious and grandiose storytelling, to which the series is obviously building. In other words, Season Two puts us right in the middle of the “sweet spot” — where delicious things are regularly happening, but they’re not so ridiculous as to be alienating. And Alexis, who reflects said balance, is precisely the agent that dictates this change.

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From surreptitiously causing Krystle to miscarry (by purposely getting her thrown from a horse), to scheming for Blake’s affections by arranging an optically scandalous rendezvous in Europe, and then plotting Blake’s financial demise with his biggest rival, Cecil Colby (Lloyd Bochner), to whom she becomes affianced, Alexis becomes the series’ prime antagonist. And yet, for all of her machinations and manipulations, Alexis remains the character to whom the audience is most drawn, and not in the manner of one of those “love to hate” scenarios — we actually love Alexis. Not only is she making the show exciting, but there’s a rationality underneath all that she’s doing, explained by the text (Blake kept her from her two kids and poisoned them against her) and reinforced through Collins’ pitch-perfect performance, which delights in the bitchiness, but hinges on vulnerability. In fact, as Alexis’ plots grow wilder and more vindictive in seasons ahead, one can look back to this year and see what many of those others are missing: believability. When the scripts stop caring about logic and make no effort to justify Alexis’ motives (and also, fail to give her precise focal points) beyond the simple “I hate you Blake Carrington” tripe, she becomes a caricature whose now contrived behavior, which bolstered this season, begin to define its failings. Here in Season Two, when the show is still in touch with reality, Alexis shines — benefitting the series as much as (or more than) it does her.

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With Alexis comes the catfights for which the series is best known. Her constant rival is Krystle (Linda Evans), who, unlike in later seasons, is still presented as a character in possession of flaws — and, in keeping with Dynasty‘s initial raison d’être, an unsurety about her place within Blake’s glamorous world. This shading therefore keeps Krystle’s conflict with Alexis from too quickly becoming “good girl” vs. “bad girl,” a construct into which it will unfortunately devolve over the course of the next two seasons. Right now, the issues that exist between them seem to come, on the surface, only from their mutual affections for Blake, but Alexis makes everything much more personally antagonistic — delving into Krystle’s past to disprove that the new Mrs. Carrington really is the good woman that she otherwise suggests. And this season actually gives credence to Krystle’s own fallibilities, as her romantic attachment to the scheming Dr. Nick Toscanni (James Farentino) once again puts her in the position of potential infidelity, another element that has her at odds with step-daughter Fallon (Pamela Sue Martin), who uses her own attraction to Nick Toscanni as a means of alleviating herself from a crumbling marriage to Jeff (John James), the foundations of which were always porous.

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Ah, but there are complications, naturally — Fallon is pregnant with Jeff’s child and although she initially considers abortion — a place that Dynasty couldn’t go at the time, even if Esther Shapiro wanted to — she is predictably unable to go through with the procedure, opting instead to have the child (which she does, in a miraculously short period of time), divorce Jeff, and then run off with the good doctor Toscanni. Things are never that easy though, especially when Toscanni has bigger fish to fry — like punishing Blake for the death of his brother, a former Denver-Carrington employee. This arc lasts the entire season and culminates in a literal brawl, and viewers today remain mixed as to how well the character fits on the series. My opinion is simply that his arc always felt finite, because I knew that once his revenge was either achieved or not, his modus vivendi would evaporate, and so would he. In the meantime, I am able to enjoy the complications that he brings and invites along the way — specifically the romantic triangle, which further puts Krystle and Fallon in conflict, reinforcing the latter’s refusal to accept the former, and helps continue both of their characters’ primary emotional arcs.

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Speaking of acceptance, Season Two continues the marvelous storytelling given to Steven (Al Corley), who attempts to rebuild his relationship with Blake (John Forsythe) after the latter is found guilty for Ted Dinard’s murder, but let out on probation without any jail time. Steven’s story becomes more interesting when he falls for — and marries — Krystle’s trashy niece Sammy Jo (Heather Locklear), whose intentions go from genuine to not-so-genuine after she’s victimized by every member of Steven’s family, particularly Alexis, who successfully pays the “tramp” to leave town. Steven then gets into another situation with a man, which forces the issue of his sexuality to resurface in a powerful scene where he disavows his family and leaves (seemingly for good). It’s the perfect crescendo to what we’ve seen from his character these past two seasons, and with hindsight, marks the end of Steven Carrington as we know him. For when Corley makes his last appearance, the character of Steven fundamentally changes — no longer will he be a sexually confused man who desperately wants to declare himself and be accepted as a homosexual; instead he’ll be a sexually confused man who desperately wants to declare himself and be accepted as a heterosexual. The coloring is different, and coupled with inferior writing and playing, doesn’t work as well as it does here — in the character’s best season.

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In terms of the season’s narrative, there are a few other elements that must be discussed. One is the conflict between Cecil and Blake, as the former masquerades as a gangster (Logan Rhinewood) and has Blake temporarily blinded in a shooting. Cecil then proposes to Alexis in a further bid to destroy his rival. Meanwhile, Blake’s inability to see, and his refusal to reveal that he’s got his sight back (until a key moment) is well-handled, and although the character has been diluted ever-so-slightly from the dangerous man last season who beat his chauffeur and raped his wife, the flaws within his makeup are still given exploration. For in addition to his continued difficulties with Steven, the season hints a few times at lingering feelings for Alexis, which also helps to justify her place on the series. When his fondness for her is removed next year, the implicit triangle doesn’t work nearly as well. And as the show’s patriarch, a well-written Blake goes a long way for keeping the series grounded. If Alexis is the source of Dynasty‘s qualitative explosion — particularly this season — then Blake is the source of its continued traces of substance. He’ll always be reliable, but he won’t always be strong.

DYNASTY - Gallery October 1981. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) JOHN FORSYTHE;LINDA EVANS;JOAN COLLINS

The only other big arc that merits mention in this seasonal commentary is the one given to Claudia (Pamela Bellwood), whom Cecil uses to steal information from Denver-Carrington by promising private intel about the missing Matthew and Lindsay. (This is after she gets a job working at Denver-Carrington for Jeff, with whom she sleeps to steal a key.) Claudia then plans to kill Cecil when she learns that her family has been dead the whole time, and her already liminal sanity becomes increasingly elusive as the season progresses, a nice continuation of what we already know of her character from last year. Meanwhile, her sustained inclusion on the series, which otherwise seems superfluous, is warranted by Bellwood’s consistently solid performance and her connection to the Carringtons through Steven. Once that’s played out, the show wisely gets her a job at the company, where she can be a pawn in the Cecil-Blake conflict. She’s well-utilized in this regard, but she still feels like an outsider — and her scenes do slow down the proceedings in the same way they did last season. That noted, the seasons’ scripts are generally good enough to take this in stride… unlike in years to come.

DYNASTY - "The Miscarriage" - Airdate December 16, 1981. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) PAMELA BELLWOOD;JAMES FARENTINO

In fact, as you can see, there is a lot going on this season, but it’s not yet to the point where the narratives become unwieldy. That is, the show is still able to sustain multiple plots, primarily though the convergence and regular intermingling of story and character. However, Dynasty is never a perfect property, and although this year is far and away the best of the lot with many good qualities discussed above, the season still has issues with plotting. There’ll be a string of episodes that are very hectic and fast-paced, and then we slow down for a while, and then we pick up for a bit, and then we slow down again. This is perhaps true of all serialized shows, but Dynasty takes this a step further by also going through periods of intensely exploring a story, and then “backburning” it until the arc suits the master plan’s purpose. Again, this is perhaps true of all serialized shows, but Dynasty can’t help but be obvious about it. (Let’s face it, subtlety was never something with which this series even wanted to engage.) So there are definitely scripts that work better than others — both for what happens, and for the way things are structured to happen. A quiet episode is valuable, if it’s deserved and motivated by what came before. This series never quite knows how to fully get this right, even in its golden era.

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However, that’s a small nitpick. This is still the best year, and I have picked ten episodes that I want to highlight as being my favorite — the ones that best give you a flavor for the season. They are listed here in airing order.

 

01) Episode 16: “Enter Alexis” (Aired: 11/11/81)

Blake’s ex-wife testifies at his murder trial.

Story by Eileen Mason (Pollock) & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Gabrielle Beaumont

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Dynasty gets the jolt of its lifetime with the introduction of Joan Collins as Alexis Morrell Carrington in this season opener, and the show is automatically benefited by her presence. From both the elevation of style and the raising of the show’s narrative stakes, this installment marks the beginning of Dynasty‘s all-too-brief “golden age,” in which style and storytelling converge to create the most satisfying experience. From now on, the series will be synonymous with Alexis.

02) Episode 17: “The Verdict” (Aired: 11/18/81)

The verdict in Blake’s murder trial is announced.

Story by Eileen Mason (Pollock) & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Gabrielle Beaumont

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Although Alexis was originally intended to only be on the series for a few episodes (six is the number most often given), this is the installment where I think it becomes most clear that her presence is going to be more permanent, as she decides to move into her old art studio on the Carrington property, setting up the primary conflict that will exist throughout the rest of this sublime season. Meanwhile, Blake’s verdict is a surprise, but the easy breezy aftermath isn’t.

03) Episode 18: “Alexis’ Secret” (Aired: 11/25/81)

Blake hires a psychiatrist to treat suicidal Claudia.

Story by Eileen Mason (Pollock) & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Richard Kinon

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One of my favorite offerings from the entire series, this installment has the distinction of marking the first time that Krystle and Alexis meet face to face, and their verbal sparring is a treat. Alexis’ inclusion is particularly good for Krystle, who gets to illustrate a declicious bite that will soon become forced and campy in later seasons, but here is believable and fostered by the circumstances of the narrative. Elsewhere, we meet the sinister Dr. Nick Toscanni…

04) Episode 21: “Viva Las Vegas” (Aired: 12/16/81)

Blake makes a deal with a Las Vegas gangster; Fallon takes an interest in Dr. Toscanni.

Story by Eileen Mason (Pollock) & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Alf Kjellin

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In the beginning of this marvelous second season, Dynasty‘s possibilities seem limitless and this episode is one that best illustrates this heightened sense of excitement, as Fallon’s steamy pursuit of Dr. Toscanni opens the figurative door to a whole host of conflicts (upon which many are capitalized). But this installment gains its deserved notoriety for Alexis’ most evil deed in the whole series: firing her gun in an attempt to get Krystle thrown from the horse!

05) Episode 24: “The Psychiatrist” (Aired: 01/13/82)

Alexis arranges to recover Blake’s embargoed oil when he agrees to meet her secretly in Rome; Fallon considers an abortion.

Story by Eileen Mason (Pollock) & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Shimon Wincelberg | Directed by Irving J. Moore

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While I do feel that this entry suggests the more soapy directions toward which this nighttime serial will go, the season’s writing is still able to support these big event shenanigans with believable characterizations and motivated dialogue. Furthermore, the interactions between Blake and Alexis in this installment actually do aid the overall conflict, as the pair’s evident chemistry allows the faux triangle to actually seem viable — and Alexis more of a threat.

06) Episode 28: “The Hearing” (Aired: 02/10/82)

Blake testifies at a crime-commission hearing; Jeff learns about Nick’s half-brother.

Story by Eileen Mason (Pollock) & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Shimon Wincelberg | Directed by Bob Sweeney

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One of the strengths inherent in the second season — and this is something I touched on above in my seasonal commentary — is the nuance afforded to Blake. He’s not as dastardly as he was in Season One, but he’s not treated as the show’s undoubted good guy. The blind Blake arc is a great illustration of this complexity for even though he’s a victim, he’s never completely likable. In this episode, he regains his sight but doesn’t tell anyone — for reasons of his own…

07) Episode 30: “The Party” (Aired: 02/24/82)

Jeff and Krystle learn of Nick and Fallon’s affair; Blake stops feigning blindness; Fallon discovers the facts of her birth.

Story by Eileen Mason (Pollock) & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Gwen Arner

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This is really the season’s biggest crescendo (just in time for February sweeps), as all of the characters are gathered together at a party for some figurative fireworks to explode, on pretty much every front. As Fallon’s affair with Nick makes itself known to Jeff and Krystle, Blake also realizes that Krystle is not in love with Toscanni, allowing him to stop faking his blindness. Then, in a deliciously vindictive moment, Sammy Jo spills a secret to Fallon about her paternity!

08) Episode 31: “The Baby” (Aired: 03/03/82)

Surgeons try to save Fallon’s unborn baby; Alexis offers Sammy Jo money to leave Denver; Krystle learns that Alexis caused her accident.

Story by Eileen Mason (Pollock) & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Jerome Courtland

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After the prior installment, Season Two loses steam a little bit, but this memorable episode, although not collectively stellar, does feature a few seminal scenes, including Alexis’ pay-off of Sammy Jo, and the year’s most memorable sequence: the fight between the two Mrs. Carringtons in the art studio after Krystle learns about Alexis’ role in the former’s miscarriage. It’s a wonderful release of the tension that built between the two and it will never be duplicated.

09) Episode 36: “The Two Princes” (Aired: 04/28/82)

Steven refuses Blake’s efforts to bail him out of jail; Alexis agrees to marry Cecil.

Story by Eileen Mason (Pollock) & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Irving J. Moore

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Gearing up towards the inevitably big finale, this offering is another one of the year’s best, indicating a sense of direction for the season that one wishes would have been present in years ahead. I like this one most for the cathartic moment where Steven essentially comes out of the closet to himself and the entire family — no more not knowing who he is and what he likes, he’s finally decided, marking the conclusion of his two-year arc. It’s one of the show’s best.

10) Episode 37: “The Cliff” (Aired: 05/04/82)

Blake is offered a Mideast oil deal; Alexis and Cecil plan their wedding reception.

Story by Eileen Mason (Pollock) & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Jerome Courtland

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Were I to be perfectly honest, I’d tell you that the actual conclusion to the second season isn’t as strong or exciting as many of the episodes that preceded it, as some of the show’s biggest and most important storylines have already been resolved, making this one thematically less necessary. But the mounting tension works in this installments favor, all the while granting some good moments, like Jeff’s monologue to LB, and Cecil’s melodramatic heart attack.

 

Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: Reconciliation,” which introduces Sammy Jo, “The Miscarriage,” which I simply wrote, during my note-taking on the series, has “great dialogue,” and “The Gun,” in which Claudia gets shot and Blake gets a meeting with the fictitious Logan Rhinewood.

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Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post — and please return next month for my thoughts on the third season of Dynasty! And don’t forget to tune in on Monday for another early Jerome Kern musical!

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7 thoughts on “DYNASTY: The ’80s Personified (Best of Season Two)

  1. Season 2 of DYNASTY is such great television. It even holds up well today.

    I know there were many different actress considered for the role of Alexis (Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Raquel Welch, Jessica Walter etc.) but I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job with Alexis than Joan Collins. Totally put her stamp on the role forever.

    • Hi, Brandon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, unfortunately it’s all downhill from here — but stay tuned, nevertheless, because it’s not a simple slope!

  2. Thanks for the great review of season 2! I have been looking for a review or thoughts on this season. This is my favorite Dynasty season so I enjoyed your observations and comments.

      • Thanks upperco. Steven’s I am Gay Speech is my favorite Dynasty scene. Alexis returning and her initial scenes with all the characters is my favorite story. Like you write, Season 2 is so well balanced, takes the best of season 1 and adds to it.

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