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. When discussing both the first and second seasons over the past two months, we saw how the series aimed to cement its identity through the fantastical elements invoked by the Carringtons’ lavish lifestyle and the juicy antics of its characters, particularly the sensational Alexis, who burst onto the scene at the start of the second year and ushered in the “Golden Age” of Dynasty. As the show reaped its new character’s “fabulosity” while reinforcing her broad characterization within the backdrop of a tighter, more focused narrative — that still had a thesis (can Krystle survive in Blake’s world?) — Alexis helped to distinguish the series’ style even further, giving it a palpable joie de vivre.
But when I wrote last month that Season Two was the series’ best, it was inevitable that everything that followed wouldn’t be as good, and I’m afraid that’s the case for Season Three, which despite being fortunate enough to ride some of the “tailwinds” that came from last year’s hearty quality, said thesis sort of deconstructs itself during the season. In fact, many viewers who cite Season Three as a disappointment in comparison to its predecessor try to pinpoint a moment as to where the series goes wrong, but very rarely will you come across two who agree. And the reason for this, in my eyes, is that there is no single point (in this season, anyway) where the show makes a bad decision that fundamentally destroys the season. It’s not so simple. There is, however, a point where the show goes from drama to melodrama (last season’s finale), a point in Season Three where the drama loses steam (discussed below in the list), and another point in Season Three where the show simply can no longer handle itself, but must continue on anyway. I’ll discuss the latter in a figurative moment. But first, I realize that this criticism may come across a bit intangible — what do I mean by “handle itself”?
Dynasty is an ensemble drama, and was so from the beginning (even when there were fewer characters), but with Alexis (Joan Collins) raising the stakes with her arrival in Season Two, the show feels the need to “up” them again in Season Three, with more “OMG moments” (that’s what the network calls them today — seriously), more characters, and more action. In fact, everything is heightened this year, as we begin to see the glamorous Dynasty to which all those ’80s myths alluded. However, much of the discussion about Dynasty and its adoption of those iconic ’80s sensibilities will have to be reserved for next month, because Season Three is an odd transitional year, taking us from the more ’70s Season Two to the definitely ’80s Season Four, and indeed suffering from being stuck in this liminal state. Meanwhile, in addition to style and aesthetics, the stories too become grander. This may not be a surprise, seeing as the series is clearly invigorated by the results of the already inflated season prior, but pride always goeth before a fall, and the show’s ambitious narrative aims prove to be unsustainable by these writers, as the delicious stories they’re so excited about telling begin with a bang… and end with a whimper (or disappear, until the end of the season demands their restored focus). Part of this “start and stop” storytelling is attributable to the overabundance of stories, especially for certain characters. For example, Alexis is not only involved in the storyline with Adam, but the storyline with Mark, the storyline with McVane, etc. It becomes increasingly difficult for the series to satisfyingly play with all of those threads within the same episode, while continuing everything and everyone else with which the show must deal. These writers simply can’t handle it.
But another big part of the inability to juggle these stories stems within the very fabric of the series itself: its characters. More and more, we’re seeing less depth in the figures who were once given the most multi-faceted depictions (and by their position in the series, really needed to have the most depth) — particularly Krystle, Blake, Fallon, and Steven — as everyone is starting to become merely a “good guy” or “bad guy.” Those in the latter group are obvious: Alexis and Adam (Gordon Thomson), the sudsy Carrington son who was kidnapped as a baby and learns his true identity from his dying “grandma,” only to be spurned by Blake and accepted by Alexis. This simple act turns him into a full-fledged villain, as he conspires to get revenge on Blake through Jeff (John James), who has come over to ColbyCo following Cecil’s death (right after the latter’s wedding to Alexis). Long story short: Adam uses poison paint to drive Jeff insane, and in the process, get enough shares of Denver-Carrington so that he and Alexis can stage a coup. It’s soapy and grand, and actually works, for Adam’s inclusion on the series allows Alexis to be less antagonistic and more morally-grounded (well, as morally grounded as Alexis Morrell Carrington Colby can be) than she’ll be from now on, sustaining a semblance of complexity.
Unfortunately, as Alexis thrives, everyone else suffers. First let’s talk Blake (John Forsythe), who’s really pushed into the background during the season. Yes, he’s involved in many storylines and gets plenty to do every week, but so little of it is meaty or memorable, and the reason for this lack of substance is that Blake is no longer making mistakes with regularity — and on the rare occasions when he does morally err, he’s countered by Krystle (Linda Evans), who is by his side unwaveringly, thus robbing the series of the potential conflict stemming from her fish-out-of-water placement and the threat that she could leave at any time. Interestingly, even the series recognizes how much of a rut into which they’ve gotten these two characters, so a contrived break-up occurs in the penultimate episode. But without the proper build, their storyline doesn’t work with any real authority. The same can be said for the notorious lily pond fight, which works because of Fallon’s rejection of Alexis in favor of Krystle (with whom she magically reconciles — we’ll discuss that below), but doesn’t benefit from the mounting tension that had made their encounter from the season prior so memorable. This lack of Krystle/Alexis build goes back to the series’ inability to do everything it wants to do, for the series has a storyline that could allow more acrimony between the two leading ladies: Mark Jennings (Geoffrey Scott).
Although I said there was no pinpointable moment where the series declines in quality, the addition of Mark Jenning’s character comes the closest to giving us a possibility. His arrival was planned since early Season Two, so it’s understandable that the show is finally exploring the story. However, this arc encapsulates (almost) everything that hampers Season Three. First, his character is brought in to put a wedge into Krystle/Blake because he’s still legally married to his ex. But the decision to not have Krystle even slightly tempted by Mark means that his presence is purposeless — no matter how a single script might try to wring out some melodrama (like in the stupid conversation where Krystle demands three months to hammer things out with Mark, naturally angering Blake). Additionally, Mark’s super-objective of winning back Krystle doesn’t seem to motivate a lot of the character’s decisions. Instead, he becomes a pawn that the show uses to create conflict. He goes from having a casual liaison with Alexis, for whom he cultivates some feelings, to becoming platonically — and then, finally, romantically — involved with Fallon (Pamela Sue Martin), for whom he also cultivates some feelings. But no real drama emerges from this scenario either as Mark’s intentions are unclear, and both Alexis’ and Fallon’s come during the year’s out-of-focus final half, remaining trivial. So he’s ultimately, pointless.
But Fallon’s position on the series is the most confounding. At the start of the season, she seems to have her finger in every story. Not only is she engulfed in the crazy kidnapped baby plot (which has Claudia carted off back to the institution and off the show), but the Carrington daughter also decides to go into business running one of the company’s hotels, engages in some flirtation with Adam before she knows he’s her brother, and plays into Alexis’ hands by hiring Mark as the hotel’s tennis pro. She alone drives several of the early episodes, only to disappear into the background in the latter half of the season, during which the character suddenly decides to accept Krystle — which makes no sense, given that there’s been nothing of substance that would change Fallon’s mind about her step-mom’s behavior, and even worse, further robs the show of a source of authentic and thematically centripetal drama. Furthermore, despite being estranged emotionally from Jeff, Fallon’s not even involved in anything that we would anticipate from the entitled but feisty character to whom we were introduced (read: steamy affairs with ill-suited men). Where is Fallon — what happened to her?
As it turns out, Fallon’s arc changed considerably from the original season outline; not only was she to knowingly conspire with Alexis to hire Mark, with whom she was to have an affair before Jeff was ill with the poison, but she was also to turn on her mother and brother when they went after Jeff’s shares of Denver-Carrington, entering into a legal battle that would have livened up the second half of the season (and also maintained the wonderful suspense in the poison paint storyline that ended up abandoned for several episodes until being picked up again in the finale). When Fallon loses the show’s focus and then becomes attached to a character who serves no purpose (Mark Jennings), she in turn loses her spark… and the whole show suffers, because, long before Alexis entered the picture, Fallon was a major source of conflict in Blake and Krystle’s life. Some have suggested her character was indeed diluted as a result of Alexis’ presence, but I think that isn’t the case: I think the show simply didn’t have enough energy to continue the Krystle/Fallon antagonism, while also showing the latter as she ran a hotel and dealt with her attraction to Adam, not to mention the complications of her attraction to Jennings and the residual drama with Jeff. The show simply couldn’t handle all the juicy things they’d thrown at this rich character, and in the end, something had to give — and it was Fallon.
There are two other things that bog down the season — one is tangential, and one isn’t. The first is the introduction of Kirby (Kathleen Beller), a character who often invokes a mixed response from the audience. She’s the majordomo Joseph’s (Lee Bergere) daughter, and she has an attraction to Jeff, even though he’s still stuck on Fallon. Meanwhile, Adam takes a liking to Kirby and rapes her. When Jeff and Kirby finally get together and marry following Jeff’s divorce from Fallon and his recovery from the poisoning, she still has to deal with the ghost of her rape because she’s pregnant — with Adam’s baby. It’s a wonderfully dramatic moment and the whole storyline feeds into the rivalry between Jeff and Adam, one of the year’s better angles, but up until then, we’re just waiting for Kirby to earn full-definition, for while she has a discernible personality, her objectives, like Mark’s, are never clear and seem to be always shifting — never in organic response to the action. While she has feelings for Jeff, her inability to recognize how doomed their relationship will become only seems to negate the integrity of her goal; if she really wanted to be with Jeff, she’d know it wouldn’t be so easy. Kirby has the possibility for complexity, especially in her first few episodes, but that’s soon lost when the character becomes another pawn for story and nothing else. To wit, Kirby’s treatment mirrors the year’s sensibilities: go for the big stories, and contort the characters accordingly.
The final thing with which the season must contend is Steven, who we learn went overseas to work on an oil rig that explodes, leading everyone to believe that he’s perished. But not so — he’s been in a Singapore hospital undergoing extensive cosmetic surgery. When the bandages finally come off after several months, there’s a new actor, Jack Coleman, playing Steven — and he looks much glossier than the old one. Unfortunately, Coleman doesn’t have the same emotional gravitas that Corley, as an original cast member, had inherently mustered, and he comes with a different sense of the character: one that’s been described as more wooden and restrained. However, I think this goes beyond acting choices to a fundamental understanding of the role; instead of playing Steven as a homosexual with heterosexual tendencies (which should be a no-brainer, since the character essentially “came out” at the end of last season), Coleman tends to play the role as a heterosexual with homosexual tendencies. Of course, that’s not so much a problem here in Season Three, when Steven’s only big story constitutes arguing with Blake over the son that he had with Sammy Jo (Heather Locklear), who dropped him off in exchange for more cash, but it’s a disconnect from Steven’s origins, which was an initial arc that, for the most part, had been one of the show’s most rewarding.
On paper, the whole third season Steven arc is a plot that clicks, especially because the cosmetic change is justified within the story. But in execution, we run into some snags. Again, Coleman really can’t pick up where Corley left and be convincing, especially when the show is concocting the custody drama in place of an honest exploration of the tension that still exists between father and son. And while it could be argued that the custody arc, which only works because of Krystle’s emotional bond to the child (remember, she lost a baby last year), is just a means of exploring Steven’s daddy drama, instead, it feels like a means of generating an easily exploitable story. (More next month…) Furthermore, the logic doesn’t work: Steven knows his dad flew around the world to find him, but why is he so quick to charge Blake, per Alexis’ suggestion (even though she was the one who paid off his wife the first time), of acting not in the child’s best interest? It’s contrived and just feels imposed by an outside force independent of the characters and the choices they’re making. Even worse, the addition of this story totally deflates all the other arcs, leaving room for only this and the ColbyCo takeover of Denver-Carrington. This is the moment when the season can officially no longer handle itself, with the bulk of the stories not picking up until the final few entries, when the show realizes that it’s gone off track and needs to recenter itself in order to build to its cliffhanger.
And yet, for all of the big problems with the season, it’s still part of an era marked by higher quality (especially in comparison to that for which the show is generally known — Seasons Four, Five, and Six), and more importantly, it’s still wickedly entertaining. Wickedly. So 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 39: “The Roof” (Aired: 10/06/82)
The hunt for Danny leads to Claudia; Michael learns his real identity.
Story by Eileen Mason & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Gwen Arner
With Dynasty embracing melodrama in last year’s finale, the beginning of the season only intensifies matters, as the whole kidnapped baby storyline consists of one overwrought scene after another. The fact that most of them manage to remain so entertaining is a testament to the audacity of the writing and the commitment with which its made. This is a great episode for Pamela Bellwood’s Claudia — the culmination of all the tragedies that have befallen her thus far.
02) Episode 40: “The Wedding” (Aired: 10/20/82)
Alexis plans to wed Cecil; Adam meets his father.
Story by Eileen Mason & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Jeffrey Lane | Directed by Irving J. Moore
Most fans will remember this installment for the campy scene of Alexis marrying Cecil (in her full wedding regalia) while he’s in his deathbed, but I’m highlighting it here for several reasons. The first is Claudia’s farewell scene — another heartbreaking performance by Bellwood — that, with hindsight, should have been her official end. The second is the script’s welcome focus on Fallon, who seems to drive most of the episode’s stories. And the third is the great scene between Adam and Blake, which sets their relationship up in a not-so-great place.
03) Episode 41: “The Will” (Aired: 10/27/82)
Everyone gathers for the reading of Cecil’s will.
Story by Eileen Mason & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Katherine Coker | Directed by Gwen Arner
I think one of the primary strengths of this offering, in addition to the continued usage of Fallon as a willful and important player (which, as I’m sure you know, won’t last long), is that the episode sets up the business conflict between Alexis and Blake that simply must exist if the show wants to keep featuring the former as a regular. This episode is the culmination of many ideas that had been ruminating in the season prior, while also clearing the way for new arcs.
04) Episode 42: “The Siblings” (Aired: 11/03/82)
Blake investigates Michael; Fallon continues flirting with Adam.
Story by Eileen Mason & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Daniel Benton | Directed by Irving J. Moore
Adam and Fallon’s incestual flirtation is good ol’ fashioned melodrama, and for reasons that I won’t even attempt explaining, the horror of seeing them together is part of what makes it so fun. (In fact, I wish the show was bolder in its exploration of this arc.) Also, the highlight of the episode is probably the dinner that Adam has with his new father and step-mother, which as one could imagine, is not at all a pleasant experience. Another transitional episode.
05) Episode 45: “La Mirage” (Aired: 11/24/82)
Fallon throws a party for the hotel’s opening; Alexis tries to block a deal.
Story by Eileen Mason & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Stephen Black & Henry Stern | Directed by Irving J. Moore
When I mentioned above that there was a point in the season where the writing loses its steam, I was referring to the difference between this installment and the one following. While the prior two shows saw the introductions of Mark and Kirby, both unique to the “new wave” of Seasons Three and Four, this offering represents several lasts: the last time Fallon is interesting, the last time Kirby seems more complex than confusing, and the last time the show seems connected to its start. A crescendo of sorts — not totally satisfying, but important.
06) Episode 48: “The Search” (Aired: 12/15/82)
Blake refuses to accept Steven’s death; Adam rapes Kirby.
Story by Eileen Mason & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Alf Kjellin
This is an episode that didn’t originally make the draft of today’s list but was added because of the offering’s emotional weight, particularly as it pertains to Alexis and Blake and the way they both deal with the potential loss of their son Steven. Dynasty works great when it draws upon the history that exists between these two archenemies, for it complicates their dynamic and gives the show a sense of feeling that doesn’t come across artificial or imposed by showrunners.
07) Episode 51: “Madness” (Aired: 01/12/83)
Jeff continues to grow aggressive; Adam involves Alexis in the poison scheme.
Story by Eileen Mason & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Stephen Kandel | Directed by Irving J. Moore
Although I believe the season had already run out of steam, I look to this offering as another mini-climax, which finds the poisoned Jeff arc at its most interesting, and therefore seems to promise juicy things ahead. Wrong. The arc does continue for a few more episodes, but it’s all but abandoned when Steven re-enters the scene: the moment to which I referenced in my introduction, when the show can no longer handle itself. This engaging arc is one of the year’s most original, but instead of letting it guide the action, it’s thrown to the side for preordained dramatics. (They should have stuck to their original Fallon plans here too, but I digress…)
08) Episode 59: “The Dinner” (Aired: 03/30/83)
Krystle tries to help Blake and Steven; Alexis splits Mark and Fallon.
Story by Eileen Mason & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Philip Leacock
As is usually the case with serialized dramas, at the end of years in which the plot has been lost, these final outings see a lot of self-correction, as each narrative regains momentum to both meet the resolution that has been promised and also clear space for whatever new threads are to be introduced to carry us through the next season. This offering is all build, but it features solid moments, the best of which is the Blake/Krystle fight; half-hearted, but seminal.
09) Episode 60: “The Threat” (Aired 04/13/83)
Krystle and Alexis fight; Steven takes Danny home; Krystle leaves the mansion.
Story by Eileen Mason & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Bob Sweeney
Ah, is there anything more important that can be said about this episode other than it houses the iconic lily pond catfight? Well, although I discussed above that it’s not genuinely satisfying (because it’s unmotivated), there are several parts of this entry that are, like the growing dynamic between Steven and Chris, the tension that develops between Alexis and Joseph, and the most articulate scene between Blake and Krystle all season. It comes mostly out of nowhere because the motivation is nebulous, but it hits the right thematic notes — just like the episode itself.
10) Episode 61: “The Cabin” (Aired: 04/20/83)
Steven moves in with his lawyer; Alexis makes enemies; Kirby gets bad news.
Story by Eileen Mason & Robert Pollock | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Irving J. Moore
Surprisingly, I’m really pleased with this finale, which is Dynasty‘s answer to “Who Shot J.R.?” as the entire episode is structured to give Alexis a lot of enemies, and thus, a lot of suspects for the cliffhanger case of arson that threatens both leading ladies. Ultimately, it’s not the drama that makes this episode strong, it’s the focus, which is even more apparent when juxtaposed against so many meandering offerings this year that made due without it. Every story has a natural trajectory here; and the effects of concentrated storytelling can’t be understated.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “Mark,” which does wonders for setting up the Jeff-Adam conflict, “Kirby,” which introduces Kirby and features an opportunity for Krystle to be angry at Fallon, “Samantha,” which is memorable only for the intensity of Blake’s grief and his insistence that Steven is alive, and “The Vote,” in which Alexis’ plans to overtake Denver-Carrington gain momentum (closest to making the above list).
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post — and please return next month for my thoughts on the fourth season of Dynasty! And don’t forget to tune in on Monday for another Arthur Schwartz musical!