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. In the third and fourth seasons, we saw the show’s storytelling unravel, as style became more important than substance.
And this brings us up to Season Five, the show’s most popular year, in which the glamour, the mythology, and the image are at their grandest; Dynasty, the country’s #1 most watched show, and the ’80s are now indistinguishable. When I think about this decade in American history, ideas that come to mind are difficult to differentiate from moments on the show – the cars, the gowns, the attitude. Was Dynasty reflecting the decade’s beauty, or was it informing it? I think, as in the case of most popular culture, the relationship becomes so symbiotic that it may be more fruitful to have a “chicken or the egg” debate. So let’s just acknowledge how rooted the series is into its time and place – the thesis of this entire series of posts – and talk about the show, specifically. You see, this is also the year that most often comes to mind when people think of the series itself — the stories, the characters, and most importantly, the look that tends to come from this era in the show’s life. (No surprise: the most popular season of every series is usually fortunate enough to become the “cover photo,” if you will, of our memories.) But this is an interesting prospect because Season Five, of course, is not the best season of the show (those days are long gone), but it’s both stronger and weaker than its direct predecessor, Season Four. Let me explain. Season Five is more focused than the one prior, but it’s uneven — there are periods of inferiority and periods of elevation, and they come in a succession of waves throughout the season, such that consistency is even less of a guarantee than usual. So while I could tell you about how awful the beginning of the season is, as both the characters and the audience suffer from the absence of Fallon, I could also tell you that the middle of the season is incredibly exciting, with direct plotting, worthwhile new characters (a few anyway — especially when compared to last year’s duds), and a sense of momentum that leads us spottily to the iconic finale, where a royal wedding is interrupted by a mass shooting.
Oh, those Moldavians and their predilection for massacres! Or more apt, those Dynasty writers and their predilection for gimmicks! The desire to bring a narrative involving foreign royalty into the Dynasty forum makes sense within the context of the ‘80s, in which European royalty once again gained an American cachet thanks to the likes of Princess Diana, but it’s about as organic here as a soda pop. The lack of finesse with which this story comes about is galling, made worse by the fact that the very introduction of Amanda (Catherine Oxenberg), the daughter Alexis (Joan Collins) secretly birthed and gave away after she was exiled from Denver by Blake (John Forsythe), was poised, given the casting and the character’s history, for such a story from the beginning. (And since the “pipe” was first layed for Amanda’s arrival near the end of the fourth season, one might guess that the ideas were already being developed then.) In other words, Amanda’s raison d’être is a contrived storyline. (Typical misguided Dynasty!) I personally don’t have many good things to say about the character, for while she grants the show its most buzz-worthy cliffhanger (and feeds into the show’s sense of sensationalism, the crux of its identity), the emergence of a new Carrington child not only feels like a cheap Fallon placeholder, but also a narrative retread of ground already covered with Adam. Of course, it also doesn’t help that Oxenberg is one of the stiffest and least believable additions to the permanent core cast, which otherwise isn’t unaccustomed to stiffs. So even though there’s a mildly watchable (read: campy) triangle that develops between Amanda, Dex, and Alexis, our decision to accept her character means that we have to forsake some of our standards of narrative and performative quality.
But this triangular construct is recurrent throughout the season, and I must admit, the thematic continuity is sublime, giving the show, for the first time since the end of the third year, a purpose. It seems like there’s, once again, somebody driving the show’s figurative stories, and this is the principle reason that I am sometimes motivated to be more laudatory of the fifth season than its garishly unfocused predecessor. Let’s start with the big triangles, which I think most gave the season its lofty “peak” reputation: the ones involving our power couple, the very-seldom-wrong Blake and the almost-never-flawed Krystle. With Blake and Krystle in a happy place for the bulk of the fourth season, and the birth of a melodramatic baby in December ’84, Dynasty once again decides to make their relationship contentious to wrest out some easy drama. But, although this conflict initially seems quite forced, the interaction of two tempting outsiders is perhaps the only way these writers know how to explore some of the moral ambiguities that, as in the very beginning of the series, should be driving both their narrative and the show itself. Thus, the closer Blake and Krystle come to doing “wrong,” the better the show functions. The trick? Motivating the behavior. The show does a solid job this year with Krystle (Linda Evans), who becomes interested in horses and has a near romance with Daniel Reese (Rock Hudson), her sister’s old beau — and the real father of Sammy Jo (Heather Locklear), who re-enters the series near the end of the year in a strong way that looks forward to a controversial story next season. The gravitas of Hudson’s performance and the history that the show gives the characters makes an attraction between the two seem believable.
But the casting of Hudson would come to be known less for its narrative potential than it would for the massive wave of press (at a time when the show was naturally earning copious amounts of press as a result of its status), because Hudson had been diagnosed with HIV, and it was still unknown how contagious the disease was; a simple kiss was considered risky. It all seems difficult with which to connect now, but in the ‘80s, the very existence of a kiss between the infected Hudson and the sweet, everywoman (yeah, right) Krystle gave the storyline an enhanced sense of daring that contributed to the hype and made the storyline even more sensationalistic and engaging. And yet, if we strip away all the figurative ‘80s face paint, Evans and Hudson have a wonderful dynamic. Not since Matthew Blaisdel has there been a man who’s seemed a legitimate romantic threat to Blake, who is, meanwhile, being courted by Lady Ashley Mitchell (Ali MacGraw), an old friend with whom Blake reconnects in the hopes of helping secure a business deal. Of course she has ulterior motives, and with Blake’s continual alienation from Krystle (someone has been sending him incriminating photos of Krystle with Daniel, while she’s been getting photos of Blake with Ashley), this Lady seems like she could be victorious. But we don’t buy this side of the triangle angle for two primary reasons. The first is MacGraw’s acting, which is artificial — not stylized, as one who might want to defend Oxenberg could claim — but just plain false, stopping cold the energy of her every scene. Second, Forsythe is clearly uninterested in making Blake a complicated figure, and his refusal to go forward with the projected outline, which had them going through with an affair that would prompt Krystle to seek a divorce, serves as a roadblock that halts any smidgen of potential — both in this story and in Krystle’s with Daniel.
So, with our leading man making his demands, the show makes an abrupt pivot over two episodes that transfers Lady Ashley from being a love interest for Blake into being a love interest for Jeff. (Bad storyline rule #101: remove yourself as quickly as possible.) But, ah, poor Jeff (John James). He takes the loss of Fallon hard and gets involved with Nicole Simpson (Susan Scannell), Peter De Vilbis’ ex, who gets Jeff caught up (or rather, her writers get him caught up) in a moronic treasure-hunting story. (Shades of Indiana Jones, perhaps?) It’s the lowest point of the season. But after a drunken evening, they wake up married, and she moves into the Carrington house, where she has to compete with the ghost of Fallon, a portrait of whom resides over the mantle. Of course, Nicole was a doomed character from the start; she got a rotten story and was going to be compared to one of the series’ strongest characters. So, her sudden departure, as Jeff must be readied for the contracted but now irrelevant Lady Ashley, is a welcome turn of events for him – even if it means he has to play off MacGraw. But, it really doesn’t matter; Jeff’s just killing time — in fact, speaking of Fallon, while Pamela Sue Martin will never be seen in the flesh again, her character does return in the third-to-last offering of the season — now played by Emma Samms, who recreates a flashback scene with James, gets her likeness magically imposed onto the Fallon portrait, and appears in California with amnesia – just in time for the spin-off. Get ready for The Colbys, folks; it’s coming, good sense be darned!
Let’s carry out the triangles metaphor even further, shall we? After a year in which Claudia (Pamela Bellwood) and Steven (Jack Coleman) were a little too compatible for what we knew of both characters, Season Five is finally ready to explore precisely why they can’t work: Steven is gay (those were his words, remember). Naturally, Claudia turns to another man for emotional (and that ain’t all) comfort as Steven fights his attraction to new coworker Luke Fuller (Billy Campbell), with whom he eventually cohabitates and begins a relationship following Claudia’s confession of her transgression. Of course, this makes her a prime target for the lecherous gaze of Adam (Gordon Thomson), whom the show morphs once again into a villainous figure, as he plots to undermine Jeff at work and very nastily manipulates Claudia’s turmoil for his own gain. I have mostly positive things to say about this story — the Claudia/Steven/Luke stuff is predictable Dynasty hokum (you gotta love how people on this show always seem to walk into a room at inopportune moments), but it remains watchable, and for once, works for the Steven character. Meanwhile, Adam’s renewed antagonism gives the show the spark it needs — especially as Alexis’ nastiness is being mitigated by the other stories in which the scripts place her, including a forced potential romance with the King of Moldavia (Joel Fabiani), as the show’s desire to make Alexis a queen trumps any notions of these writers possessing a common sense (or even an intelligence greater than the vapid characters to whom they give voice). More on this subject next month…
Can the triangle motif be extended one more time? Well, I suppose we could argue that Dominique Devereaux (Diahann Carroll), who finally reveals that she’s Blake’s half-sister from an affair his father had years before (with a black woman, naturally), is pitted between her desire to seek revenge on the Carringtons and her desire to be accepted by them. I have mixed feelings about the story — or rather, the way the story is handled. I absolutely adore Carroll’s presence on the series and think that having her as Blake’s sister is ingenious, especially when it leads to a shockingly fantastic episode (because you don’t really expect such quality in an era where the delights are so transient and situational) in the middle of the season in which she, Blake, and Alexis go to visit the dying Tom Carrington. But the unavoidable disappointment of Dominique is that she’s never allowed to step into her full potential as either a villain to Blake (our protagonist) or, at least, as a formidable adversary to Alexis (our lovable antagonist). Part of this lies in the quick abandonment of her quest for vengeance, and part of it comes from more shifting intentions – stemming from the quick departure of Billy Dee Williams as her husband, Brady. A regular, Brady was actually supposed to be the man to whom Claudia turns for sexual healing (instead of just a small guest star), but Williams got another gig and left abruptly. As a result, Dominique’s arc essentially concludes when she is accepted by the family, leaving her precious little to do in the remaining half except walk around looking well-groomed and spitting out faux-clever retorts. (But who doesn’t on this series, right?)
Yet, as you may have been able to tell, there’s more to outright enjoy here in Season Five than in Season Four, for the unashamed embracement of the series’ outright camp – coming from almost everywhere now (especially that royal wedding storyline – which we’ll discuss at length next month) – is paired alongside an elevated (albeit, shifting) focus: the kind we missed for most of the season prior. Now, the popular ‘80s-defining (or ‘80s-defined; take your pick) soap opera knows what it is, and doesn’t attempt to downplay its inherent flaws – it plays to them: the character subordination in favor of story; the inability to derive conflict from discernible character flaws; the emphasis on image over substance. (The last is a charge some too easily throw at the decade itself.) But at the same time, Dynasty is not yet completely resolved to the critique that its storytelling is irrelevant and sophomoric. On the contrary, this season finds the show actively trying to tell taut, believable, and ultimately exciting stories (and maybe this is thanks to Camille Marchetta, who was a producer for this season and this season only) – or, at least, tell us that it’s trying to tell taut, believable, and ultimately exciting stories. You see, this ever-present sense of performance is what gives the series a lot of its camp value, and readers, rest assured that Season Five suffers no shortage in this department! So, 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.
01) Episode 92: “The Rescue” (Aired: 10/24/84)
The family holds Fallon’s funeral; Steven tries to get his son back from Sammy Jo.
Story by Camille Marchetta | Teleplay by Dennis Turner | Directed by Irving J. Moore
Although always melodramatic, the opening installments of the fifth season seem particularly mired in larger-than-life moments that play without any sense of naturalism or reality. Such is the case in this excursion, which contains Fallon’s memorable funeral, during which Collins can’t muster tears and Jeff gets “angry.” Nevertheless, the offering is the most forward-moving of these early ones, and some stuff, like the Sammy Jo story, does stand out as a result.
02) Episode 96: “The Secret” (Aired: 11/21/84)
Amanda announces her secret to the press; Claudia drifts apart from Steven.
Story by Camille Marchetta | Teleplay by Dennis Turner | Directed by Jerome Courtland
Before becoming contrived, the tension that builds between Krystle and Blake starts at a more organic and believable place, dealing primarily with the conflict between their contrasting ideals as they pertain to his business. Also, this is a big episode for the season, as the entire world is made aware of Amanda Carrington (a beat telegraphed way back last season), a story complete with an eye-roll-worthy fake slap from Alexis. Additionally, Luke Fuller is introduced and Dominique finally reveals her long-teased and overhyped secret.
03) Episode 100: “That Holiday Spirit” (Aired: 12/19/84)
Alexis marries Dex; Krystle reunites with her sister’s old boyfriend; Amanda is a Carrington.
Story by Susan Baskin & Camille Marchetta | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Curtis Harrington
Even though my standards for dramas are much lower than my standards for comedies, I still blanch at the forced sentimentality that often comes from holiday shows. This is Dynasty‘s only Christmas entry, and there are actually some big storytelling things going on — the introduction of Daniel (Rock Hudson), the confirmation of Amanda’s parentage, Alexis and Dex’s nuptials, and Blake’s rejection of Dominique — a powerful turn to a story that had been fizzling.
04) Episode 102: “The Will” (Aired: 01/09/85)
Blake visits his dying father with Alexis and an acceptance-seeking Dominique.
Story by Susan Baskin & Camille Marchetta | Teleplay by Noreen Stone | Directed by Nancy Malone
This is a stellar entry — and that’s not something that can often be said with regard to Dynasty, even if we use it solely in the context of the series. Part of the reason it works so well is that it’s very episodic, contending with the death of Blake’s dad (Harry Andrews) and capping Dominique’s initial arc for acceptance in the Carrington family. Also, the will provides another source of contention, particularly for Dominique and Alexis, but it will only be half-realized.
05) Episode 104: “Foreign Relations” (Aired: 01/30/85)
Steven decides to pursue a romance with Luke; Blake seeks help with the South China Sea deal.
Story by Susan Baskin & Camille Marchetta | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Kim Friedman
Now in the second half of the year, all of the stories begin heading down more pointed paths. Steven’s feelings for Luke begin to actualize, and there’s even another scuffle between Adam and Steven. (There are a lot of guy-on guy-fights at this point in the series). We also find the debut appearance of Ali MacGraw as Lady Ashley Mitchell, with whom Blake is reunited. (She is Blake’s answer to Krystle’s Daniel Reese.) Surprisingly tight and decently plotted.
06) Episode 105: “Triangles” (Aired: 01/30/85)
Alexis plans to take over Dominique’s company; Steven wants to reunite with Claudia.
Story by Susan Baskin & Camille Marchetta | Teleplay by Dennis Turner | Directed by Irving J. Moore
As mentioned in my seasonal commentary, the fifth year is built around the idea of triangles, and one of the more interesting explorations of that theme in this entry is Brady’s conflict with Dominique’s insatiable desire to be a Carrington, thus prepping Williams’ premature exit (for his own series). One wishes that in the drama between Alexis and Dominique, the latter was as much of a fighter in practice as she walks and talks. But it’s a solid representation of the year.
07) Episode 106: “The Ball” (Aired: 02/06/85)
Amanda meets a prince; Lady Ashley pursues Blake; Krystle grows closer to Daniel.
Story by Susan Baskin & Camille Marchetta | Teleplay by John Pleshette | Directed by Jerome Courtland
We really have two episodes in one here, as half of the cast is in Acapulco (you know how Dynasty loves to have its characters hop around to exotic locales) and the other half remains in Denver. With the introduction of Prince Michael of Moldavia (Michael Praed), this entry begins a story that will last about a year, grant the show its most explosive cliffhanger, and come to define the entire series, mostly unfortunately. Also, this episode climaxes in the infamous kiss between Hudson and Evans.
08) Episode 107: “Circumstantial Evidence” (Aired: 02/13/85)
Blake and Krystle each receive incriminating photos; Alexis buys some of Blake’s leases.
Story by Camille Marchetta | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Curtis Harrington
This is another busy entry with a lot of strong scenes in both Acapulco and Denver. (Of course, this is one of those times where “strong” is relative — this is still Dynasty, if you’ve forgotten). But I tend to think of this offering as indeed working, with plenty of solid stuff involving Alexis, who’s purchased 25% of Blake’s leases, is trying to take down Dominique, and is struggling romantically with Dex. Also Jeff and Nicole get a meaty scene about Fallon.
09) Episode 113: “Reconciliation” (Aired: 03/27/85)
Blake and Daniel survive the plane crash; Krystle tells Daniel that he’s Sammy Jo’s father.
Story by Donald R. Boyle & Camille Marchetta | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Nancy Malone
Months before the entire regular cast would survive a shooting, Blake and Daniel (who’ll die before the end of this season) survive a plane crash… it definitely requires a suppression of logic. But the crash seems to allow for both the abandonment of the weak Blake/Krystle conflict, which started interestingly and then became too predicated on temptations that went nowhere, and a renewed textual focus that’s, unfortunately, unique to this offering only.
10) Episode 117: “Royal Wedding” (Aired: 05/15/85)
Sammy Jo schemes while the rest of the family is in Moldavia for Amanda’s ill-fated nuptials.
Story by Susan Baskin & Camille Marchetta | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Jerome Courtland
Aha, this is the episode that climaxes in the notorious Moldavian Massacre and although the big problem with this storyline will come next season, this excursion makes for an odd watch. Even without an explicit knowledge of what’s coming at the end, the offering jumps back and forth between pensive leisure (and there are some surprisingly thoughtful moments) and a heightened tension, the kind that feels foisted upon the outing by the season’s own forgone conclusion, decided months ago. Manipulative, but important — and utterly interesting.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “Fallon,” a not-quite-so-ridiculous outing in which Alexis is arrested again and Jeff learns that Fallon has died, “The Verdict,” an incredibly melodramatic offering in which Alexis is found guilty for the murder of Mark Jennings (thanks mostly to testimony from Steven), “The Avenger,” which strings two stronger episodes together, and “The Collapse,” which has several individual scenes that excite, despite not coming together as a wholly satisfying entry.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post — and please return next month for my thoughts on the sixth season of Dynasty! Also, don’t forget to tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!