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, while Season Five found the show at the peak of both its opulence and popularity.
And now we’re up to the troubled sixth season, which opens in a manner that may best be described as the morning hangover that follows a long night of fun and debauchery. I’ll put this tortured metaphor aside before it goes any further and note that Season Six finds Dynasty jumping from the most watched show on television to seventh place for the year – and that high number is only a testament to some major behind-the-scenes heavy-lifting designed to save the ailing series during the course of the season, which nevertheless began right where the last left off — in that figurative Moldavian corner into which the writers had gotten themselves. Yes, the infamous Moldavian Massacre is most often cited as the cause of Dynasty‘s downfall and there’s a lot of persuasive arguments that can be made to support the claim. Of course, as is usually the case with bad decisions on drama series, it’s not necessarily the decision itself that’s the problem (i.e. the Moldavian cliffhanger isn’t harmful to the series in and of itself), it’s the way said decision is explored on the show that’s the problem. You probably have the same question that I do: why, after a brutal shooting in which no one in the chapel appears to be moving, are there only two character casualties? That’s right: only TWO casualties, both of them — Luke and Lady Ashley — guest stars. Two unimportant deaths is the cop out of all cop outs – and the audience isn’t fooled. (In addition to those two, I’d have killed Claudia, all the Moldavians, maybe Amanda, and crippled at least one of the Carrington men, if not two.)
Evidently, the cliffhanger was meant solely for shock without any thought given in advance as to the consequences, and the writers, naturally, wouldn’t want to say goodbye to anybody important unless they absolutely had to (like when Pamela Sue Martin demanded out at the end of Season Four), but when a series commits to a cliffhanger, it has to follow through believably and with ramifications that prove large enough to justify having done the cliffhanger in the first place. Specifically, when a drama does a big bang of a season finale in which it looks like every regular has been killed, the following season premiere has to deliver a believable number of fatalities — and important ones, too. But Dynasty doesn’t, and because this pay-off is so weak, we divest from the entire show, believing it to be completely nonsensical, and also, more importantly, not above cheap and deceitful ploys used only to peak our interest – irrespective of narrative intention or quality. In other words, the show lied to the audience for an entire summer about the stakes of the Moldavian Massacre for the sake of a single juicy moment and then refused to follow through in the fall, and that’s worse than being a disappointment — now it’s a fraud. We’ve sort of known this all along, but were more willing to give the series the benefit of the doubt, for such theatrics were endearing and not at the audience’s expense. But this revealed lack of respect for the audience is the reason that Dynasty fell from grace when it did. Everyone – actors, viewers, critics – knew what the problem was – Moldavia malcontent – but there was so much going on at the time that it took a little while for anyone to question the emperor (the producers) regarding the absence of clothes (good writing).
Meanwhile, in addition to the half-hearted Moldavian aftermath, Dynasty had to spend the first eight hours of its new season preparing for its upcoming spin-off, The Colbys (1985-1987, ABC), which will get a whole Wildcard post of its own in two weeks (with some brief musings – nothing too ambitious), necessitating that the early part of the year contend with the introductions of Jason Colby (Charlton Heston), who needed to enter into a contentious business arrangement with Blake (John Forsythe), to help make for a seamless transition and allow for future crossovers, and Jason’s son Miles Colby (Maxwell Caulfield), who would be courting “Randall,” the woman previously known as Fallon (and previously played by Pamela Sue Martin, but now played by Emma Samms – can you keep up?), a fact known to no one but the audience, all the while giving Dominique (Diahann Carroll) a love interest (Ken Howard) that would make it easy for her to jump back and forth between the shows, and lastly, preparing Jeff (John James) for the departure that would serve as the spin-off’s catalyst. (That’s all we’ll talk about The Colbys for now; stay tuned for more…) These functional and time-consuming spin-off needs mean that every other storyline occurring at this time on Dynasty gets a lesser amount of play per episode, thus making every single story creep along at a pace that’s even slower than usual. This flawed rhythm does three things: it makes bad stories even worse, it makes good stories go bad, and it makes it difficult for the audience to tell the difference.
While many surmised that Moldavia was the main reason for the show’s declining quality, the other common target for the sixth season’s issues came from a storyline that began last year in which Sammy Jo (Heather Locklear) paid a woman, Rita, and her director boyfriend, Joel (George Hamilton), to help get the inheritance left from her father by kidnapping the trustee, Aunt Krystle (Linda Evans), and replacing Krystle with lookalike Rita, also played by Evans. It’s a deliciously soapy story, Evans tries hard to sell it, and it could have worked. But it doesn’t, and the pacing is the primary issue: Krystle is kidnapped at the end of 605 and not released until 616 — that’s an interminably long time for such an arc, especially one that requires fast, plot-heavy movement. You see, when the action is slowed down, there’s a fundamental loss of intelligence that follows. As the show looks stupid for thinking the audience wants to see the beloved heroine held hostage by a lunatic for an extended period of time (three episodes, okay; eleven episodes, no thanks), the fact that the characters themselves take so long to figure out what’s going on makes them look equally moronic, thus zapping them of even more believability (this is a crucial loss, because they never were the most believable of characters anyway and needed at least the illusion of humanity for our emotional investment). Furthermore, Sammy Jo’s morality complicates things; because she seems unsure of the scheme, it makes little sense that it takes her so long to change her mind. Either this turnaround needed to come after an appropriate (but not elongated) build, or she needed to remain totally committed to the plot. Because she’s always wishy-washy, and because nothing comes of it (the conflict isn’t even hinged on her), the whole storyline falls apart, regardless of how hard Evans works at playing Krystle, Rita, or even better, Rita pretending to be Krystle. (And it’s her best work on the series.)
Ratings were falling and reviewers were disgusted — this popular show that seemed to define what television strived to represent in the ’80s was self-destructing as a result of the clash between image (cliffhanger) and substance (aftermath). When the cast and crew furiously gathered in December 1985 to drum up ideas on how to salvage the season, they came to the conclusion that in addition to the Joel/Rita storyline, which had essentially been written and filmed (save a final two-episode pay-off in South America, in which Blake was to go after them once and for all), the season was suffering from Moldavian residue, namely the characters of Galen (Joel Fabiani) and Prince Michael (Michael Praed), the latter serving as Amanda’s (Catherine Oxenberg) husband and the former lingering around only as an excuse to explore Alexis’ (Joan Collins) queenly ambitions — both of them existing to remind the audience of how poorly handled the massacre aftermath had been. It was decided here that the show needed to get back to its three core characters, and to do so meant ending the Joel/Rita arc where it stood, dropping the two Moldavians as quickly as possible, and reshooting parts of the most recently produced four episodes (617-620). Most of the latter changes involved replacing scenes of Moldavian stuff (including a fantasy sequence in which Alexis is crowned queen) with scenes that better fleshed out the conflict between Blake and Krystle with Alexis. The dropping of the elements that weren’t working allowed the series to zero in on its strengths, and it’s no surprise that the show’s quality improved drastically as a result — as did the Nielsens.
Dynasty went back to basics, starting in 617 (the first one with reshot scenes) and crystalizing in 620 (the last shot before the holiday hiatus, but bolstered by scenes added in January) as the show introduces Blake’s evil brother Ben (Christopher Cazenove), whose deep resentments toward his brother give the arc a Shakespearean quality, and grants Alexis a singular purpose: destroying Blake Carrington once and for all by stripping him of a portion of his estate (by contesting his late father’s will), stealing the South China Sea leases by framing Denver-Carrington as a dishonest player, and then secretly backing a loan that, when dropped for lack of collateral, will allow Alexis to purchase all of her ex-husband’s holdings. Her mission, which finds Alexis teaming up with the untrustworthy Ben, allows the season’s final episodes a forward momentum and a sense of long-missing direction, which elevates the nature of the scripts significantly, especially when Ben gets in on the double-dealing action against Alexis. Meanwhile, the addition of Kate O’Mara as Caress Morrell, Alexis’ equally vengeful sister with a poison-pen book, complicates Alexis’ standing and makes the season’s classic cliffhanger less certain — until Ben ships “Cassie” back to prison. (More below…) The addition of these powerful characters and the adoption of a Blake-Alexis conflict that’s motivated and linear gives the last third of the year the best episodes that Dynasty has seen since early Season Three. This is no hyperbole — I’d forgotten how good some of these late sixth season offerings are; the difference between the first half of the year and the latter half is incredible — some of Dynasty‘s worst against some of its best. (And interestingly, there’s no difference in personnel — the entire year was plotted by Diana Gould and Scott M. Hamner, with the heavy influence of the Shapiros, of course, indicating that the show and its staff were capable of quality, if they actually tried.)
Now, before I share my thoughts on the strongest offerings, I’ll address a few of the other seasonal arcs. (There’s so many of them — that’s part of the problem!) Claudia (Pamela Bellwood), without traceable motivation, marries Adam (Gordon Thomson), who’s back to playing a villain, and then disappears for a few episodes because of the actress’ pregnancy. Her arc this season involves feeling disenfranchised and cheated by the Carringtons (there’s a whole story involving an oil well), thus tapping into places that the character really hasn’t been allowed to explore since Season Two. It’s potentially powerful, but ruined by the actress’ pregnancy, the Adam relationship that makes little sense, and the cheat ending, in which the show gives Claudia (really, Bellwood) an undignified exit that also shows a lack of respect for the audience. Additionally, the love triangle with Alexis, Dex (Michael Nader) and Amanda continues, and a new triangle pops up between Amanda, Sammy Jo, and Clay Fallmont (Ted McGinley, currently starring on Sitcom Tuesdays), brother of Steven’s (Jack Coleman) potential lover Bart Fallmont (Kevin Conroy), and son of senator Buck Fallmont (Richard Anderson) and his wife Emily (Pat Crowley), who is a key player in Ben’s ability to contest his father’s will. More on them below (and next month)… So, with all that noted, 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. (Also, remember that two-hour installments are treated as two separate entries.) You’ll notice that every outing featured below is during/after the mid-season retooling; I wanted to include at least one from the first part of the year for the sake of study, but there was no genuine way to pretend that any entry from fall 1985 could represent the year’s best.
01) Episode 133: “The Vigil” (Aired: 01/22/86)
Blake is rushed to the hospital; Rita and Krystle have a confrontation.
Story by Diana Gould & Scott M. Hamner | Teleplay by Dennis Turner | Directed by Irving J. Moore
The 16th hour of the season (which contains 31 total) is the actual turning point of the year, moving us away from the inferior first half to the much better second. Although this episode wasn’t re-shot in the same way that the following installments were, there is a sense of mounting momentum to the offering’s narrative, particularly because Krystle finally leaves that blasted attic, but not before the show makes time for a twinsie catfight. A pivot.
02) Episode 134: “The Accident” (Aired: 01/29/86)
Alexis is skeptical of Krystle’s story; Dominique’s daughter comes to town.
Story by Diana Gould & Scott M. Hamner | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Kim Friedman
When it was decided to alter the course of the season, this installment became the last appearance of both Joel and Rita, thus ending the entire misbegotten mess. To replace the scenes of their escape to Rio, the show wisely decided to return to the Krystle vs. Alexis construct by adding a subplot of the latter trying to prove that Mrs. Carrington had been involved with her captor. These new Alexis scenes are sharp — the season’s best stuff so far.
03) Episode 136: “The Divorce” (Aired: 02/12/86)
Alexis catches Amanda in bed with Dex; Adam begins digging up dirt on Bart Fallmont.
Story by Diana Gould & Scott M. Hamner | Teleplay by Susan Baskin | Directed by Irving J. Moore
There were a lot of re-shoots in this one, which involved excising almost every scene with the Moldavians (including the infamous dream sequence of Alexis being crowned its queen) and replacing them with more stuff to flesh out the Amanda-Dex affair. As with the above, we see more emphasis being placed on the three core characters, with another additional (and fun) scene where Krystle gives Alexis a lap full of food. Another turning point.
04) Episode 137: “The Dismissal” (Aired: 02/19/86)
Amanda and Prince Michael officially split; Alexis realizes she’s still in love with Blake.
Story by Diana Gould & Scott M. Hamner | Teleplay by Dennis Turner | Directed by Irving J. Moore
Galen is gone and Michael, who was supposed to embark on an affair with Sammy Jo, makes his final appearance. (Good riddance to bad storylines!) With this episode, Dynasty embarks on the story that will make the 11 ensuing episodes of the season the best that the series has seen since the pre-Mark Jennings days: Alexis’ vow of vengeance against Blake after he spurns her romantic overtures. This has always been the root of her character’s existence on the series and all the conflict we’ve seen since her arrival, but we’ve never seen it so direct and distilled. We’re going back to basics — and the show is improving by leaps and bounds.
05) Episode 138: “Ben” (Aired: 02/26/86)
Alexis tracks down Ben Carrington; Krystle and Alexis have a brawl.
Story by Diana Gould & Scott M. Hamner | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Kim Friedman
This was the first episode shot after the hiatus, meaning that the plans to salvage the season were already in play, necessitating the removal of more Joel and Rita, whom Blake was going to find. We certainly don’t miss them, for this busy little episode has to make time for another catfight between Alexis and Krystle (the most campy yet — rollicking around in the mud), and the introduction of Blake’s embittered brother Ben, whom Alexis tracks down in the outback.
06) Episode 139: “Masquerade” (Aired: 03/05/86)
Steven and Adam fight about Bart Fallmont; Alexis schemes to surprise Blake with Ben.
Story by Diana Gould & Scott M. Hamner | Teleplay by Robert Seidenberg | Directed by Jerome Courtland
As with the above, this entry didn’t need any re-shoots, but did require extensive re-writes, to remove the final drops of the Joel-Rita storyline and hasten the introduction of Bart Fallmont’s family, which was set to occur in the following entry. It makes much more sense to see them here, particularly as most of the drama comes from the conflict between Steven and Adam over the latter’s leak of Bart’s homosexuality, which yields a brawl at another big soiree.
07) Episode 142: “The Trial (II)” (Aired: 03/26/86)
Blake is forced to surrender a quarter of his estate; Ben threatens his ex-lover.
Story by Diana Gould & Scott M. Hamner | Teleplay by Dennis Turner | Directed by Don Medford
In past coverage of this series, I’ve made it clear how I feel about extensive trial sequences, but most of that overwrought and unrealistic material is reserved to the first half of this two parter, in which Ben contests his father’s will by proving that dear old dad had blamed his wife’s death on the wrong son. It’s a story-heavy entry, but an important one, and this one outshines its predecessor with juicer moments, like the reveal of Ben’s ex-mistress: Emily Fallmont.
08) Episode 146: “The Rescue” (Aired: 04/30/86)
Blake and Alexis blame each other for Amanda’s attempted suicide; Ben takes care of Caress.
Story by Diana Gould & Scott M. Hamner | Teleplay by Dennis Turner | Directed by Nancy Malone
I’ve never been an Amanda fan — she’s an ill-defined Fallon replacement added merely to give the show a royal wedding — and I don’t think Oxenberg can pull off the attempted suicide routine from this episode and the one prior. But I do appreciate the material given here to Blake and Alexis. Also, this episode boasts a lot of really tight and exciting (the finale is getting close) moments, like Ben’s abduction of Caress, following her attempted blackmail of him.
09) Episode 147: “The Triple-Cross” (Aired: 05/14/86)
Alexis schemes against Blake, unaware of Ben’s own plans to outmaneuver her.
Story by Diana Gould & Scott M. Hamner | Teleplay by Diana Gould | Directed by Don Medford
Credit must be given when it’s due — this is perhaps one of the most intelligent episodes of the entire series, for it centers the bulk of its drama around the business dealings and maneuverings of Blake, Alexis, and Ben, all of whom are trying to come out on top of the others by securing those South China Sea oil leases, which Alexis has sabotaged for Blake, and Ben has sabotaged for Alexis. Wow — if only the entire series could have been something like this entry.
10) Episode 148: “The Vendetta” [a.k.a. “The Choice”] (Aired: 05/21/86)
Alexis prepares to bankrupt Blake; Dominique’s engagement party goes up in flames — literally.
Story by Diana Gould & Scott M. Hamner | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Irving J. Moore
Despite a rocky start, Dynasty‘s sixth season concludes with one of the best finales of the entire series. Most fans will remember the iconic moment of Alexis commandeering the house and throwing Blake and Krystle out (a powerful scene ruined by the campy chokehold Blake puts on Alexis), but there is no shortage of outstanding moments here. There’s a fight between Ben and Dex (a long time coming), a confrontation between Alexis and Dominque, when the former reveals that the latter’s fiancé (and baby daddy) lied about ever having been married, a wet catfight between Sammy Jo and Amanda over Clay, and a chilling exit for Claudia that brings things full circle for her character, despite seeming abrupt and disrespectful. This episode is a high we may never seen again.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: almost every installment in the latter half of the season, especially “The Warning,” in which Caress attempts to blackmail Emily. From the first half of the season, highlights include the second half of “The Titans,” in which the Colbys go to a Carrington party (in advance of the spin-off), “The Close Call,” in which Linda Evans does some surprisingly fine acting, and “The Roadhouse,” which includes an odd sequence at, you guessed it, a roadhouse. Again, if I could have honestly claimed that one of these last three were among the year’s finest — better than the ten featured above — I would have added it to the list. But I simply couldn’t do that. They are of a lower quality.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post — and please return next month for my thoughts on the seventh season of Dynasty! Also, don’t forget to tune in on Monday for the first in our NEW monthly Musical Theatre series!