Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday and the continuation of my thoughts on Dynasty (1981-1989, ABC), the gaudy primetime soap that defines ’80s drama. Although it’d 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, 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 the fifth year found the show at the peak of its opulence and popularity. Then came Season Six, in which the show was crushed by its own weight (not to mention the spin-off it was attempting to birth), only to stage a miraculous turnaround in the last third of the year that picked up both the ratings and the quality.
Today we’re looking at Season Seven, which many fans consider to be the show’s weakest, with the second half of the year said to represent the lowest point in Dynasty‘s history. My point-of-view, however, finds the year not quite so bleak (especially in comparison to an upcoming season — the eighth), for while I would qualify the year as being another inevitable disappointment (what else is new, Dynasty?), I don’t think the quality of the scripts are any more brainless or repetitive than what we’ve seen before (particularly in Seasons Four thru mid-Season Six). Rather, I find Season Seven’s issues to be mostly decision-oriented instead of foundational; that is, the year isn’t written any worse (in fact, in some cases, there are clear signs of improvement) than the last several, but there are simply too many ill-conceived story decisions — a more ostentatious sign of either success or failure — that don’t work that they tend to symbolize a total lack of merit. (And the bad decisions are numerous!) However, my refusal to find Season Seven foundationally awful may be a somewhat odd position (or at least unpopular); actually, I think most of what doesn’t work, and why it’s not connecting with the audience, has as much to do with general Dynasty fatigue as it does a reduced quality. Let’s face it: the years as television’s most-watched show are over, and as tastes quickly tired of the ’80s fantasy that the series was cultivated to project, audiences were less able to excuse never-solved problems. Even watching today, our tolerance for foolishness has weakened by Season Seven, and most of what we’ve seen lately has been unquestionably dire (with last season’s final entries rising up as “one last hurrah”). The first half of this year gives us more same-old, same-old in terms of narrative; the final half decides to do things differently… and, as it turns out, while both fail to satisfy, the same-old, same-old was better. Let’s dive in to this problematic year, shall we?
Bad decisions abound: the first being the routine way in which the show chooses to handle the aftermath of last season’s main story. Coming off an intensely focused stretch of episodes that re-centered the series’ central conflict on Alexis’ (Joan Collins) desire for revenge against Blake (John Forsythe), Season Seven opens exactly where the previous year finished (campy cliffhanger and all). But with Alexis and her partner-in-crime, on whom she knows never to turn her back, Blake’s brother Ben (Christopher Cazenove), having achieved what they set out to accomplish, there’s really only one place for the story to go, and that’s to Blake’s mission to regain his house and his company, of which Alexis formally gains control in the second episode. This is naturally a less interesting development than last season’s, so the show tries to spice things up by having Alexis purchase a local newspaper, so she can use her newfound power to further her crusade against Blake, specifically as it pertains to the fire at La Mirage, for which Blake is the prime suspect (until the late Claudia, who probably gets a grand total of five mentions throughout the entire season, is revealed as the culprit). But, as alluded above, there’s a terrible sense of sameness about the whole of this storyline — we’ve seen Blake vs. Alexis before, and while her getting total revenge against him at the end of last season’s finale was a novel scenario we hadn’t ever seen before, Blake’s fighting back against her is terribly old-hat, and Dynasty isn’t up to the challenge of making their sustained rivalry fresh. It’s like eating leftovers that have been reheated several times. Part of this failure stems from our own aforementioned fatigue with the series, as character development was too long eschewed in favor of dramatic centerpieces, thus keeping the show from evolving itself beyond five-year-old stories, and part of this is the show’s inability to recognize its own rut… at least, initially.
To the season’s credit, it does figure out that there’s a stifling lack of inspiration with this narrative, so the scripts, helmed by new producer Laurence Heath,”dress up” the Blake vs. Alexis storyline with several frilly distractions. Among them: Alexis’ reconciliation with Dex (Michael Nader), his partnership with Blake to rescue Alexis’ sister Caress (Kate O’Mara) from the prison off to which Ben had her carted last season, and Caress’ plan to simultaneously get revenge on Ben and Alexis, while also extorting money from Emily Fallmont (Pat Crowley), the wife of senator Buck Fallmont (Richard Anderson). As we learned last season, Emily had an affair with Ben, and one of their liaisons occurred at the time of his mother’s death, a fact that would reveal his (and Alexis’) testimony against Blake to have been perjury. It’s an appreciably knotty story and at times invokes the complicated shadings of other, better written series (like Peyton Place), but for Dynasty, the Fallmonts are tantamount to “getting bogged down in the weeds,” for we simply don’t have the emotional connection to them that we do to the others, and using bit players to save regular characters from their own stagnation is not a tactic for sustainable success. Additionally, Caress, a brilliant addition in the season prior, is used here as nothing more than a device — a four-episode tactic to help Blake regain ownership of his house — and once she’s served her purpose, her half-hearted revenge ambitions are abruptly halted in time for a hasty departure. It’s a head-scratcher of a bad decision; Caress is an asset, why not use her? That noted, there are some powerful moments in this arc, and Crowley really sells home the senator’s wife’s not-so-quiet desperation (again, shades of Peyton Place). Her eventual death (a moment of cheese) and letter to Blake (a wonderful deus ex machina) is what leads to Blake’s regaining of his empire… a whole ten episodes after he first lost it. (Oy…)
Here we have another bad decision — a classic scenario in which a story that isn’t all it’s cracked up to be is dropped quicker than initially planned, allowing the show to move on physically from what wasn’t working, but, in the process, leaving a bad taste in the audience’s mouth because of its ill-treatment. Now, although one might commend the show for recognizing its inability to sustain this storyline (and here I’d like to reinforce that these writers are not as stupid as their story decisions might indicate), the arc’s truncated lifespan renders it less consequential than it should be, thereby invalidating the entire arc, including the strong episodes at the end of the year prior. So for whatever worked in this giant storyline, both last season and this one, its weak resolution, although not unanticipated from Dynasty, really does hurt the year. However, let it also be noted that there are quite a few good moments here, some of which may be, if not better conceived, then simply better written than what we’ve seen in years past. For instance, there are times this year in which characters don’t have to be told things explicitly — they’re depicted as smart enough to deduce them (you know, like real humans). It may seem like a small positive, but it does wonders for the characters’ intelligence, and therefore, the series’s credibility; this is one of the reasons why I think many are too extreme in their malignment of the season. However, once again, it’s all overshadowed by more rotten stories — like the gimmicky return of Michael Culhane, Season One’s vengeful chauffeur (Wayne Northrop), whose plot against Blake also involves romancing Amanda, now played by Karen Cellini, an American actress with only a sight physical resemblance to her predecessor and a completely untraceable characterization. Many fans point to this stupid re-casting, which the producers used to exert their power and alert the stars of their replaceablity, as one of the year’s major missteps.
Frankly, while I do think it’s a misstep, I don’t find it as bad as many others do, primarily because Amanda has been an irrelevant and ill-defined (not to mention poorly played) character since her introduction. Nothing changes here. The real problem with the storyline, as far as I’m concerned, is Michael, a character who served no purpose in Season One, but nevertheless returns for another tired “I want revenge against Blake” premise that occasionally intersects with Alexis’, but simply feels like an unsuccessful and half-baked attempt to reignite old, second-rate embers from past glory days. This lack of direction becomes most evident when Amanda disappears after the 13th episode — in another ‘let’s drop what’s not working’ decision. With ratings down and Cellini not clicking, axing Amanda wasn’t a difficult conclusion (and she became so inconsequential that we didn’t need a grand farewell), but her sudden departure meant restructuring the entire latter half of the season, in which her romance with (and, as intended, upcoming marriage to) Michael was to be one of the year’s driving forces. Amanda disappears while Blake and Alexis are in Singapore and we never hear from her again. Poorly handled? Yes. Do I care? No… Well, I care a little. You see, with Amanda gone, the Michael arc is renovated — gone are mafia ties in favor of a return by Neal McVane, yet another character bent on revenge. (Yawn.) Again, we really don’t care, but with McVane back, the show uses him as part of its plan for Adam (Gordon Thomson), now in a relationship with secretary Dana Waring (Leann Hunley), by revealing that Adam may actually be Michael Torrence, which leads to both blackmail and a downward spiral of booze that gives Thomson juicy material in the second half of the year, but is the epitome of tripe, thanks to the character’s camp-filled inception, association with the camp-tastic Alexis, and camp-infused portrayal. On paper, it must have looked like a good idea; in execution, it’s unrewarding and laughable.
But there was another last-minute change that impacted the year’s stories. This one is bigger then Amanda, for it involves our perennially unevolved heroine, Krystle (Linda Evans), who was being prepped for a brain tumor and eventual death midway through the following season, when Evans’ contract was going to expire. But when the actress re-signed for one more year, the entire melodramatic arc (the seeds of which can still be seen early in the year with Krystle’s mysterious headaches) was postponed until Season Nine (where it would be slightly better handled — stay tuned) and replaced with a dreadful story involving little Krystina and her need for a heart transplant. This is a dramatic story that could have promised great, emotionally devastating material for Blake and Krystle. (I get excited thinking about what could have happened if they killed the tot! Wouldn’t that have been an interesting journey for Krystle?) The problem with the plot, aside from the fact that we’re dealing with a kid (who is cloying and dull), is that it comes along with a bad decision: Sarah Curtis (Cassie Yates), mother of the kid whose heart is put into Krystina. The writers use this character to REPEAT the Claudia drama at the start of Season Three. (What were they thinking!?) It’s overwrought, unoriginal, and a major source of the second half of the year’s narrative funk… And yet, these are all small changes compared to the sweeping renovations that occurred in the middle of the season. At the time, the Shapiros were suing Aaron Spelling to block shares of his company’s stock. It was a contentious situation that they eventually resolved mid-year. The resolution of this conflict led the Shapiros to conclude that they’d let Dynasty get “too nasty” as of late, and in an attempt to “fix” the show (a.k.a. bolster once-again sagging ratings), they’d ameliorate some of the darkness and hate, in favor of lightness and love. Uh-oh…
Dynasty to become about love? It was clear some big changes were in order, but doubling down on fantasy was a ballsy move. How is this new direction actualized? We see it throughout the entire back-half of the year — the way every character is written changes — and many of the stories are altered to make way for this lighter and brighter take. With the exception of Michael/Neal McVane, all quests for vengeance are dropped. Ben, who was supposed to trick Alexis into marriage to protect himself against Blake (and would thus further Adam’s descent into drug addition), suddenly makes amends with his brother, and is given the sappy story of reconciling with the daughter he abandoned, Leslie Carrington (Terri Garber), the replacement for Amanda, who herself was a replacement for Fallon. She’s a diluted copy of a diluted copy, bringing nothing to the series except eye-rolls, and an excuse to keep Clay Fallmont (Ted McGinley), who served no purpose after he split from Sammy Jo (Heather Locklear) mid-season. Their dull romance is an excuse for the Shapiros to flirt with the incest storyline they’d always wanted to play (remember Fallon and Adam?), but they’re obnoxious and just serve as a distraction from characters about whom we actually care, like Sammy Jo herself, who, believe it or not, has a terrific season of growth (following last year’s travesty). Locklear gets moments of humanity both in her false pregnancy and in her attempts to reconcile with Steven (Jack Coleman), which gives him the opportunity to play more of the sexually-conflicted material with which the character was first associated. Interestingly, he accepts himself as gay more readily now than ever before (at least, in the Coleman era), but the tension here makes sense — he was attracted to Sammy Jo before and it’s not a stretch to believe that he could be again. It’s slow-moving, but occasionally with sensitivity — one of the year’s only good decisions.
Of course the big consequence of this “love is all around” motif comes to Alexis, who drops all antagonism towards Blake and is nice. Actually nice. To everyone. It’s such a radical change that it’s not only difficult to believe, but it’s also not what we want to see from the character. No matter how caricaturey and repetitious she’d become, we still want Alexis to be our villain, and when she’s not, the show suffers — especially when its only antagonists are Michael and McVane, two peripheral characters intended to connect the show to better times, but with little success. Now, I think the idea behind Alexis’ change-of-heart is fascinating and perhaps was worth exploring. She finally got her revenge against Blake, so her crusade his over; there’s nothing left to get or prove or want. Furthermore, the whole Hong Kong/Singapore two-parter (which I’ll discuss below) is the perfect excuse/catalyst for a change in behavior — it’s a big moment with strong emotional growth. But the issues arise when the show is unable to support this turnaround in temperament with self-awareness from Alexis and all the other characters. If the show was clearer about why Alexis was changing her tune and used the ramifications of this evolution as part of the seasonal narrative (instead of a behavioral overcorrection while in the midst of other pre-planned arcs), then the show would be justifying in its text why this gigantic switch occurred. Because this doesn’t happen, the changes feel writer-imposed as opposed to character-driven, and all dramatic potency is lost. Furthermore, the show forsakes many rich opportunities for genuine drama by not having the other characters be more concerned about what’s happening with Alexis. Sure, there are a few scenes with Krystle (the best of which occurs when Alexis comes to the hospital in support of Krystina), but why not explore this further? It’s a missed opportunity. If you’re going to go down a path, go down the path!
Is there anything else? Dominique (Diahann Carroll) sells her company (on The Colbys) to help Blake financially, ends her relationship with her baby daddy, and gets a new love interest who’ll take her away from the series. It’s another year of wasted potential on behalf of this character who could have rejuvenated the series, but was never given the chance. You might call it another bad decision, although one for which this season is only partly responsible…. And, I suppose I should mention the alternatively dull and overblown finale (as the new “peace and love” motif is reconciled against the need for a sensational cliffhanger), which puts Alexis in a ridiculous and unmotivated predicament and features the return of yet another original cast member, Matthew Blaisdel (Bo Hopkins), about whom we’ll talk more next month. Honestly, I’ve written too much about this mediocre year — with its decent writing, but endless bad story decisions, especially in the second “love and light” half of the year — so let’s just get down to the list. I have picked eight 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 149: “The Victory” (Aired: 09/24/86)
Alexis kicks Blake and Krystle out of the house; La Mirage goes up in flames.
Story by Laurence Heath | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Don Medford
Season Seven’s premiere has an enhanced energy that can probably be most attributed to the fumes of the season prior. It takes its place as one of the year’s most memorable almost by proxy, but the heavy story ramifications give the installment a naturally exciting pace, and although we already know we’re in for a season not as strong as the end of the one before, this premiere would point towards a better year than what was ultimately delivered — as usual!
02) Episode 154: “Romance” (Aired: 11/12/86)
Alexis grows closer to Dex while pulling away from Ben; Blake investigates Caress’ whereabouts.
Story by Laurence Heath | Teleplay by Mart Crowley | Directed by Nancy Malone
Fallon and Jeff crossover in this somewhat-routine early Season Seven episode that nevertheless features a few quality scenes. While Jeff voices to Alexis his distaste for what she’s done to Blake, Fallon gives Amanda (in their only scene together) a warning about Michael. I feature this installment in this list because I think it foretells the tonal shift that will occur later in the season, as Alexis’ reconciliation with Dex does have the effect of lightening her timbre.
03) Episode 156: “The Choice” (Aired: 11/26/86)
Blake makes a deal with Zach Powers; Caress plots revenge on Alexis and Ben.
Story by Laurence Heath | Teleplay by Harold Stone | Directed by Irving J. Moore
We have another The Colbys crossover here as Zach Powers (Ricardo Montalban) agrees to back Blake’s “crater” project, not revealing that he is merely a front for Michael, who has put his own money into the endeavor as part of a scheme to enact revenge. Meanwhile, Caress is back and shares a potent scene with Emily Fallmont, in which the former comes armed for blackmail. One of the more consistently recommendable offerings from the season.
04) Episode 157: “The Secret” (Aired: 12/03/86)
Emily reaches her breaking point; Alexis investigates Michael.
Story by Laurence Heath | Teleplay by Dennis Turner | Directed by Don Medford
This is a Fallmont-heavy installment, and it climaxes in the car accident that eventually leads to Emily’s death. There’s a Peyton Place quality to her character’s infidelity and mania that said infidelity will be revealed, and while her character’s motivations seem too convenient (there’s no good reason why she would opt to come clean to Buck after Blake has taken care of the situation), some of the material that the storyline reveals is worthwhile — if tangential.
05) Episode 159: “The Ball” (Aired: 12/17/86)
Blake plots to regain his empire; Sammy Jo learns that she’s not pregnant.
Story by Laurence Heath | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Nancy Malone
With an excuse for a party and some major narrative developments, this is one of the more popular entries from this decidedly unpopular season. Truthfully, it’s not one of the better written offerings here (and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that veteran scribe De Blasio is credited), but as a sort-of capper to this season’s “Blake regains his kingdom” story, there’s an inherent value. Even though one wishes Blake were more complex, we like to see him triumph.
06) Episode 160: “Fear” (Aired: 12/31/86)
Alexis makes a deal with Michael; Krystle and Blake move back home.
Story by Laurence Heath | Teleplay by Dennis Turner | Directed by Michel Hugo
Probably the most memorable scene from this entry is the catfight that occurs between Alexis and Dominique. It’s an unmotivated occurrence that clearly comes across as a cheap excuse to get in the season’s requisite lady brawl — and a way to give Dominique something to do. In many ways, an oddly liminal excursion; the “Blake vs. Alexis” story arc is mostly concluded, but we’re not yet in the part of the season in which they’re lovey-dovey old friends.
07) Episode 162: “A Love Remembered (I)” (Aired: 01/14/87)
After a trauma in Hong Kong, Blake believes it’s still 1964.
Story by Laurence Heath | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Robert Scheerer
Most Dynasty fans, when asked about this year, will cite this two-parter as being the only worthwhile episodes. Frankly, I don’t agree, for I find these installments to be incredibly overrated, containing the soapiest development we’ll see all year: sudden amnesia. (How original!) Now, I understand why it’s appreciated: the relationship that these offerings have with the history between Blake and Alexis, which has an emotional depth worthy of exploration.
08) Episode 163: “A Love Remembered (II)” (Aired: 01/21/87)
Krystle and Dex try to track down Alexis and an amnesic Blake.
Story by Laurence Heath | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Irving J. Moore
Part II is even more ridiculous than its predecessor, with more drippingly melodramatic moments than we’ve seen since Season Five (back when the series had the confidence to be as such). But there, nevertheless, are some incredible moments here, particularly in the goofy sequence in which Krystle tracks down Blake and Alexis. Once again, these episodes are well-loved because of the Blake/Alexis bond, and for the dimensionalization of the latter.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “The Test,” which is only notable for a scene in which Krystle doesn’t buy Alexis’ new change-of-heart and tells her to get lost from the hospital, and “Shadowplay” [a.k.a. “Shadow Play”], the season finale, which features a few well-done moments, but is generally routinely uninspired and overwrought.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post — and please return next month for my thoughts on the eighth season of Dynasty!