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

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 few 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 distinguish the series’ style even further, giving it a palpable joie de vivre. With Season Three, we saw the writing unable to sustain all of the narrative threads that had been introduced — and while each figurative train got to its station, the journeys there were hazy, cluttered, and difficult to trace.

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Now we come to Season Four, the first official year where, as a fan, one must be willing to lower his/her standards in order to find much enjoyment. This is generally the place in which we’ll remain with this series for the duration of its run — of course, television doesn’t have to be particularly artful to be entertaining, but it helps — and there a couple of reasons for this obvious comedown in quality, even from what was, very notably, a rough year prior. The broad, easy answer is that bad decisions are made. In years past, we saw bad executions of ideas that varied from good to great, but this is the first time where, from conception, stories and character arcs are fundamentally flawed. We’ll get into a discussion of some of those poor choices below; first, however, let’s discuss why they’re being made. Frankly, I don’t think the show cares as much about the storytelling as it did before, for its objective now is purely to keep the audience entertained enough so that the ratings remain tops and its “street cred” as the hottest, sexist, most glamorous show on TV is intact. Image > substance.

UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 04: DYNASTY - cast gallery - Season Four - 10/4/83, Pictured, back row, left: John James (Jeff), Michael Nader (Dexter), Al Corley (Steven), Gordon Thomson (Adam), Geoffrey Scott (Mark); middle row: Pamela Sue Martin (Fallon), Deborah Adair (Tracy); bottom row: Pamela Bellwood (Claudia), Linda Evans (Krystle), John Forsythe (Blake), Joan Collins (Alexis), Kathleen Beller (Kirby), (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

And this is ultimately what’s become of Dynasty: it’s no longer about what the characters say or do; it’s about how they look and how they appeal to the audience. Gone are the days when the scripts were interested in exploring the moral complexities that plagued members of elite society. Now we’re in the ’80s, and this is the season where the show and decade become inextricably linked — sitcoms and other dramas would do so in the year following — where “greed is good” and image is more important than ever, as the series’ signature opulence no longer serves as distinguishing atmosphere, but as the show’s whole identity: a conformist representation of all that we’re supposed to find glamorous and fantastical. It’s the ’80s and style is king. Unfortunately, this is corrosive to emotionally potent storytelling, for with the character’s lifestyles more important than their inner lives, all conflict then becomes, if not totally external, then more blatantly obvious, allowing, as we saw a bit last season, the show to morph into a plain ol’ good vs. evil construct, with those who do bad clashing with those who do good. Now, I’ll not knock this template — it’s successful for a reason — but here it’s easy and steers the show away from its original thematic message (the moral ambiguity of characters in a certain class), thus stripping it of something to say. With that, we move from drama into camp.

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Above I mentioned that bad decisions were being made, and there are indeed quite a few looloos here. Briefly, I want to acknowledge the things that do work. First, the season begins and ends strong. Coming off one of Dynasty‘s classic cliffhangers, the season premiere is quick, intelligent, and exciting, seeming to set us up for a more focused year than the one prior. Quality, unfortunately, devolves in the two episodes following, as unfocused storytelling becomes the modus operandi once again. Then, at the end of the season, the last two episodes see the arrival of Diahann Carroll, who joins the cast as Dominique Devereaux, a character with a secret with which the show tantalizes us in these final offerings. Not only does she share a dynamite scene with Alexis (Joan Collins), but she also sets herself up to be another take-charge dame who can go up against Alexis in a way that Krystle, now the undisputed goody-two-shoes, can’t really do believably. Meanwhile, speaking of Krystle (Linda Evans), I’m actually not going to complain about the material she gets in Season Four, for when I think of Evans on this series, I think of her never getting juicy material. But that’s often proven untrue — particularly in the first few years. (And even Season Three, although not really delivering a fluidly satisfying arc, gave her enough big beats so that it looked decent on paper.) Here in Season Four, her arc involves working for Denver-Carrington and reuniting (and remarrying) Blake (John Forsythe). After two years of strife and another year of faux-strife (after which they split), it’s appropriate to see them in a temporarily good place, for sorrow has no power without joy.

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Another thing the show does this season that I find narratively interesting is the de-villifying of Adam (Gordon Thomson), who goes from being the series’ prime antagonist (even worse than Alexis), to a misunderstood victim who leaves Satan (his mother) once God (his father) finally accepts him into his open arms (a.k.a. Denver-Carrington). This switch yields fruit both sweet and sour. The sweet: the evolving dynamic between Blake and Adam is worthwhile, especially when paralleled with Blake’s continued issues with Steven. The sour: Adam’s bad behavior (the rape, the poison scheme, the set-up) is completely exonerated simply because he once experimented with drugs and may be mentally imbalanced as a result. Oh, okay, that justifies everything. (That was sarcasm.) Also, with Adam acting no more as the show’s baddie, Alexis no longer has him as a partner-in-crime, necessitating that she return to full-time prominence as the villain, which would be okay — if the writing was able to sustain her multi-dimenstionality and she wasn’t saddled opposite a bunch of characters who don’t work.

UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 17: DYNASTY - "Gallery" 1983 Michael Nader, Joan Collins (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Yes, the new characters (last season’s included); these are the bad decisions. Well, the first I’ll mention is a so-so decision: Dex Dexter (Michael Nader), who has a tortured relationship with Alexis this season and becomes her new right-hand-man. It’s good to see Alexis with a macho virile mate, but Nader isn’t really a worthwhile sparring partner for the show’s head diva, and there’s not a lot of substance to his scenes. (All pomp, no circumstance.) He’ll become more complex in the seasons ahead, but it’s never going to be the result of anything other than investment as the result of tenure. Yet there’s worse for Alexis than just being paired with Dex, as our rootable villainess is still forced to interact with Mark Jennings (Geoffrey Scott), a character who got a red hot introduction last year and then faded into nothingness when the writers realized both that Krystle was too saintly to ever pay him serious attention and Fallon’s character was becoming too noble to have the sexual fling that was intended. He’s, therefore, a complete waste of space, serving ridiculously as Alexis’ bodyguard. (Spoiler alert: his death is a welcome development. It should have happened earlier — like maybe during the rescue). Also, among the other character additions whom I’d chalk up as a bad decision (the worst of which we’ll discuss in a bit) is Tracy Kendall (Deborah Adair), a small-time villainess with no real function, and no pay-off. (Read: another waste of space.)

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There are a few more missteps that deserve discussing. First, Steven… Last month, I noted that Jack Coleman, who took over the role last year, played (and perhaps, got material) that seemed to contradict the arc that his character, when first played by Al Corley, initially enjoyed in the first two years: the acceptance of his homosexuality. Coleman, instead, plays the character as a straight man who’s regularly battling homosexual tendencies. It’s the easier story. And while last year it looked like his relationship with a male lawyer might further his growth, we see in the cold light of Season Four that this was merely a ploy to lead us into the wretched custody battle that the series was determined to explore. From this trite scenario comes an even worse development: Steven and Claudia (Pamella Bellwood), who’s out of the institution and back into the opening credits, just in time to wed her former Carrington love (a BAD decision). Although I enjoyed the characters’ chemistry in the first season, as his feelings for her served as a great complication to his inner turmoil, and completely understand the ploy the show uses to ensure that Steven gets custody of his son — I have to ask: why, oh, why, does the show try to tell us that they not only love each other, but have a genuine sexual attraction? It’s not buyable, forcing emotional divestment from an arc involving two characters in whom we should have a vested interest! And even worse — the show doesn’t seem interested in exploring the fact that Steven, per his own admission, is gay. Shouldn’t that complicate this marriage of convenience?

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Here would be a fine place to mention Kirby (Kathleen Beller) — a good decision gone bad — whose choices as a character remain as nebulous as ever. Beginning as a narratively rich figure early last year and then struggling for both exploration and logic, Season Four finds her going further down the show’s figurative rabbit hole of idea-subjugated storytelling. The circumstances have her pregnant with Adam’s child but married to Jeff (John James), who still loves Fallon. It’s great drama, and I’m on board. But when she goes back to Adam, the man who raped her and whose child she had hoped to destroy, I’m puzzled as to why. Now, I can come up with several possible explanations. 1) She is a person who needs love; Adam offered, so she accepted. 2) She wants to be upstairs so bad that she simply picked another rich boy to help her get there. 3) She hates herself so much that she masochistically decided to punish herself by committing to Adam. 4) She’s bat**** crazy. Actually, I think it’s a combination of all the above, but the show never commits to exploring her in great detail, instead stringing the character’s arc along until she gets a grand scene with Alexis and one unceremonious departure. Bye, bye; her potential was squandered anyway: destroyed by a storytelling superseded by image — an image that Kirby never fit, whether that was to be exploited for genuine drama or not.

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And, lastly, we come to Fallon, whose portrayer, Pamela Sue Martin, decided during the year that she was not going to return for the following season, necessitating the character’s departure. This yields a pretty exciting cliffhanger, before which viewers are treated to the reconciliation of Fallon and Jeff, a storyline that seemed inevitable since their last split. (As a fan of the chemistry they shared, I’m not displeased by what I see here, even though I wish, as always, that the narrative was better justified by the characters and our clear understanding of their objectives.) But no matter what the show does in her story this year, there’s an unavoidable sorrow with regard to the presentation of her character, and it began in the middle of Season Three, when the show abandoned their plans for the character, and made her mature, agreeable, and subdued — everything that Fallon wasn’t — and, furthermore, didn’t do a great job of justifying this growth. (For instance, it was nice to see Krystle and Fallon make amends, but my goodness, why wasn’t it motivated!?) In Season Four, the characterization is even worse, as Fallon is paired with the worst guest we’ve seen yet, Peter De Vilbis (Helmut Burger), a character and actor so bad that the show even decided to cut short his arc. (For the record, he’s the season’s worst decision — mindless, disengaging, and mishandled.) Fallon’s quick feelings for this conman, while perhaps reflected in her impulsive decision making of years past, simply doesn’t feel believable based on the way he‘s written, and even worse, turns her from victor to victim, something the mighty Fallon, one of the show’s richest characters, should never be.

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The destruction of Fallon’s character mirrors the destruction within the show, which, strange as it may seem, was only rising in popularity, as Dynasty came to officially personify the era to which it was catering. And even though the formerly rebellious Carrington daughter is no longer the complex presence of yesteryear, Fallon’s departure is nevertheless a major loss for the series, and one from which, even when the character returns with a new portrayer, it never fully recovers. So Season Four marks both the end of an era in which the show could still maintain some connection to its origins and the beginning of an era in which Dynasty truly came to define the decade that made it live and soon, made it die. When you think of Dynasty, you think of this season: the insipid storytelling, the magnificent visuals, the embraced camp. One need simply to look at Alexis, the agent who gave rise to Dynasty‘s creative ascent in its second year to diagnose what’s going on here. This larger-than-life character is driving most of the stories (and setting its heightened tone) while maintaining beautifully gowned and coiffed, but surrounded by a bunch of characters who are thinly rendered, and suffering from a mitigated moral complexity that leaves her as a more straightforward antagonist. She’s easy and she’s empty — just like Dynasty. But, it was popular and it’s what people wanted, so let’s get on with the list and see if we can find things to enjoy. As usual, 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. (Note that the story for each episode is written by Eileen and Robert Pollock.)

 

01) Episode 62: “The Arrest” (Aired: 09/28/83)

Mark rescues Krystle and Alexis from the cabin; Kirby tries to lose her baby.

Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Irving J. Moore

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As is usually the case with Dynasty, the beginnings and endings of their seasons tend to hold strong material because the writing is infused with a focus that is otherwise lacking as each year progresses. This premiere is a prime example, as last season’s harrowing cliffhanger is quickly resolved and the aftermaths are dealt with both an appropriate pacing and the characters behaving, for the most part, believably. This is also one of the year’s most consistent offerings. (Also, I love the Dark Shadows inspired nightmare with Kirby and Adam!)

02) Episode 63: “The Bungalow” (Aired: 10/05/83)

Another attempt is made on Alexis’ life; Blake and Jeff try to find Joseph.

Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Alf Kjellin

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While not as seamless as the premiere or in possession of the delectable moments of its successor (which is an honorable mention below), this offering ably continues what was established in the episode prior and succeeds as a result. Its position here on today’s list is mostly a function of the other honorable mentions being too flawed to be bumped up for recognition, as this outing is more middle-of-the-road than the others being highlighted.

03) Episode 66: “The Hearing (II)” (Aired: 11/02/83)

Fallon and Jeff go to Montana; Sammy Jo lies during Steven’s custody trial.

Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Irving J. Moore

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Never appreciating this custody storyline — because the show seemed more interested in contriving the plot than exploring the characters and how they got into the situation — I still have to admit that this is one of the most memorable outings of the year, with several outstanding moments. The Fallon/Jeff tryst is one of those beats that we simply enjoy as fans (as opposed to being great storytelling) and Claudia’s smackdown of Sammy Jo is triumphant.

04) Episode 77: “A Little Girl” (Aired: 02/01/84)

Both Kirby and her baby’s life are in danger; suspicions grow about Peter.

Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Irving J. Moore

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There’s too much melodrama in this installment, and you’ll notice it’s the only one from the middle of the year being highlighted today (mostly because the surrounding episodes are saddled with sloppy storytelling and too many inconsequential moments), but it’s seminal for the season and offers elements that no other outing does — namely Adam’s vulnerability, as both Kirby’s life and their child’s life is in jeopardy. The final scene is pure soap opera hysteria.

05) Episode 83: “The Voice (III)” (Aired: 03/28/84)

Dex catches Alexis in Hong Kong with Rashid Ahmed; Kirby makes preparations.

Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Irving J. Moore

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Given that the final six episodes on today’s list consecutively represent the last six episodes of the season, you would think that the last part of Season Four is exquisite. That isn’t the case; the reason these episodes are here is because, again, they’re better focused, and they contain more individual instances of superiority than in those wallowing middle entries. This outing contains several delights, chief of which is the year’s most campily laugh-out-loud exciting scene: Dex and Alexis brawling in a Hong Kong hotel room after he catches her in bed with Rashid Ahmed. Only on Dynasty!

06) Episode 84: “Birthday” (Aired: 04/04/84)

Alexis learns of Krystle’s pregnancy at a birthday party for L.B.; Fallon accepts Jeff’s proposal.

Teleplay by Susan Miller | Directed by Kim Friedman

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There’s a lightness to this episode that’s mostly unexplored in this terribly dreary season; the difference in tone is partly responsible for its memorability. Some of the strongest scenes include Krystle’s final encounter with Tracy and, probably the installment’s most memorable, in which Alexis slips and accidentally reveals that she has a fourth child — a faux pas for which she quickly tries to cover by passing it off as a miscarriage. Ah, but we all know better.

07) Episode 85: “The Check” (Aired: 04/11/84)

Blake goes to Hong Kong to save a deal; Mark blackmails Alexis.

Teleplay by Dennis Turner | Directed by Jerome Courtland

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As with one of the honorable mentions (“Tender Comrades”), I find this to be among the season’s least stupid. In a year of rampant foolishness and endless bad decisions, an episode where there are fewer mistakes and slightly more intelligent writing is a cause for celebration. But it’s a story-driven installment, transitioning the show from the arcs that were created at the start of the second half of the year to the new stories for Season Five.

08) Episode 86: “The Engagement” (Aired: 04/25/84)

Sammy Jo comes back to Denver; Alexis quarrels with Mark before his death.

Teleplay by Dennis Turner | Directed by Irving J. Moore

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Hallelujah — Mark dies! For this reason alone, this episode is worth watching (even though you have to wait until near the outing’s end for the development to occur), as he really should have exited the series last season, or at the very least, after having saved Alexis and Krystle from the cabin. The foreshadowing here and in the few weeks prior is anything but subtle — that’s never a strength of Dynasty‘s — but the script and direction are nevertheless solid.

09) Episode 87: “New Lady In Town” (Aired: 05/02/84)

Dominique Devereaux moves into La Mirage; Tracy confesses to Alexis.

Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Irving J. Moore

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Dominique is a necessary jolt to the series at this rut-entering time, and while her character’s trajectory will quickly prove unworthy of the hype she engenders in these first few installments, here — where the possibilities are endless — her presence is magical. Once again, Dynasty is terribly unschooled in subtlety, so the script goes too far in milking her mysteriousness, but I suppose it successfully peaks our interest, leading to a fun first encounter with Alexis.

10) Episode 88: “The Nightmare” (Aired: 05/09/84)

Fallon plans to remarry Jeff; Kirby tries again to kill Alexis.

Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Irving J. Moore

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The season finale — the last episode in which Pamela Sue Martin plays Fallon. One can almost tell how anxious she is to leave the show, and given the state of her character’s development, we’re almost relieved to see her go and shake things up — even though it’s a weighty loss for the series. Dynasty‘s finales tend to be worthy of attention for they indulge in all the larger-than-life moments for which the series, and the genre, are best known. No exception here: it delivers exactly what we want. One of the show’s most memorable cliffhangers.

 

Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “The Note,” which has a few strong scenes, including the one in which Alexis learns that Joseph tried to kill her and did so because of her threat regarding his wife, “Tender Comrades,” one of the least stupid episodes of the season (that is, it’s among the few here that contain the fewest unrealistic moments), “Dex,” in which you-know-who is introduced, and “The Proposal,” which has a terrific fight scene between Jeff and Adam.

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Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post — and please return next month for my thoughts on the fifth season of Dynasty! Also, don’t forget to tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!

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9 thoughts on “DYNASTY: The ’80s Personified (Best of Season Four)

  1. OMG I have to catch up on your DYNASTY posts. This is one of the quieter seasons I feel with less narrative loudness (you know what I mean?) but you can definitely feel a significant loss in IQ points between this season and the also. Definitely more image focused. Sometimes fun,but never truly great

    • Hi, Elaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I know exactly what you mean — the next two seasons (in particular) boast louder, more ostentatious story beats. Also, I agree about the loss of IQ points in the writing between this season and the prior; it’s perhaps the biggest dip in intelligence we’ll ever see on this series (and THAT’S saying something)… Stay tuned next month for my thoughts on the best from Season Five!

  2. I’m surprised you didn’t include a mention of “Carousel”. It’s pretty legendary just for the fact that Gerald & Betty Ford and Henry Kissinger appear. Shows you just how part of the zeitgeist Dynasty was to entice a former President, First Lady and Secretary of State to appear,

    • Hi, Brandon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, that installment is a great illustration of the show’s then adoption of the era’s elevated and image-based status. (As an episode of narrative entertainment, however, it’s one of the worst we’ve seen — yet; stay tuned…)

        • Yes, stay tuned for my thoughts on Season Five this upcoming Wednesday!

          The past three entries coincidentally came at the top of their respective months due to other scheduling decisions (November’s Musical Theatre Monday announcement, September’s Susan Harris posts, etc.); upcoming DYNASTY coverage will continue to bounce around — in conjunction with the Wildcard label — to accommodate all the fun stuff ahead.

          So, never fear — and thanks for being interested!

  3. Another spot on review. After being disappointed with season 3, I hoped season 4 would be better. But like you write, this is the Dynasty most people recall – 80’s glamor and bad stories. I guess if you are watching it in the moment, not have any expectations and back when it orginally aired with a group of friends, maybe it is fun to watch….like Linda Evans (i think it was her) said in an interview fans made Dynasty what it became. This could explain the show getting higher ratings at this time.

    Yet, this is when I get a bit of Alexis fatigue…when she baits Kirby to shoot her, doesn’t part of you want Kirby to actually do it, lol!
    I love Martin’s Fallon but she does seem bored this season. In the Season 1 DVD extras, she states that she left at this time (among possibly other reasons) cause of where the writing was. By this season she probably was like this isn’t the show I signed up for, lol!
    I do like Dominique ‘s entrance

    • Hi, Aaron! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, the show cultivated an image-based reputation that thereafter had to be upheld — even though it was detrimental to the storytelling. But who cares, when you’re about to become the country’s most watched show?

      • Hi upperco. Yes, I guess the feeling was ratings were good so no need to fix anything.
        I have been enjoying your detailed reviews. I will comment on the other seasons soon!

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