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

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 television drama. When discussing both the first and second seasons, we saw how the series tried to define itself 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 season and ushered in the “Golden Age” of Dynasty. 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 series at the peak of both its opulence and popularity. Then came Season Six, in which the show seemed 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 season that picked up both the ratings and the quality. Unfortunately, this rejuvenation didn’t carry through to Season Seven, which attempted to shake things up in its middle — disastrously…

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This brings us to Season Eight, the series’ penultimate and probably the weakest of the entire run, but not because it’s the “worst” with regard to storytelling — because it’s the least entertaining. We’ve stuck through a lot of ridiculously bad material in the last few months of these posts, but with only a few notable exceptions, Dynasty‘s saving grace has always been its sheer ability to keep us watching — because it was either so knowingly campy or tragically misguided that we couldn’t look away. But by the time we’ve reached the eighth season, the show’s capacity to entertain has all but dissipated; the series’ metaphorical light has faded away due to the consistent barrage of ill-advised, unfortunate writing. Frankly, it doesn’t matter how Season Eight stands in comparison to the last two or three years; the fact that it’s been so long without major improvement means it’s the weakest. And while I don’t want to excuse this particular year of its flawed decision making (which we’ll, of course, discuss in a figurative moment), one can surely blame some of the year’s inability to delight on said preceding seasons, which have increasingly alienated a loyal fan base to the point where they just don’t care anymore. And for a primetime serial there’s only one thing worse than sparking contempt: sparking indifference. That’s where we we are by Season Eight.

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But let’s talk about the year itself, which is usually cited by many as the series’ lowest point, with its only rival for that dubious honor being the seventh, which I thought had its moments (in the beginning of the year, that is) before changing course midway through in a justifiable, but poorly executed attempt to revamp the series yet again. This led to a string of episodes more inconsequentially rendered than anything we’d seen thus far. In contrast to that bifurcated season in which plans were consistently evolving, the eighth is automatically much more focused. After dealing with the residue of the prior year’s finale — namely the Carringtons being held hostage by the vengeful Matthew Blaisdel (Bo Hopkins), in a storyline that attempts to connect the series to its roots but fails because it’s used for a cheap cliffhanger that does nothing for the regular characters or their relationships, along with the near death of the suddenly joyful and love-spouting Alexis Morell Carrington Colby Dexter (Joan Collins) — the season moves forward with three main arcs: a new villain in the form of Sean Rowan (James Healey), the re-ignition of the Alexis-Blake (John Forsythe) animosity through a year-long gubernatorial race, and the power play at Denver-Carrington between Steven (Jack Coleman), Adam (Gordon Thomson), and Fallon (Emma Samms), who has returned from the deceased The Colbys with her soon-to-be-ex-husband Jeff (John James).

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There’s a lot in there, and if we’re going to credit this season (which is admittedly undeserving of much emotional investment) for anything, let’s note that it’s one of the best-plotted years we’ve see since maybe the third. Now we’ll start with Sean Rowan, Alexis’ mysterious rescuer who we soon learn is the son of the late Joseph Anders and brother of Kirby. So he’s back, and like all the villains on this show, bent on achieving revenge against Blake, and particularly Alexis, who soon becomes Mrs. Rowan. There are a handful of reasons why this storyline is a complete failure. First, getting Alexis married to Sean is a convenient plot point that’s never motivated by these scripts — it happens quickly, it isn’t explained, and character has been sacrificed for story. Second, the actor is a joke and can’t be taken seriously. Third, while the show is making it a point to tap into its history, there seems to be little regard for what actually happened. That is, it not only makes little sense to do a story about Kirby and not have her be a part of it, but it also is a stretch — plain and simple — to believe that Kirby, who was close to Fallon and Jeff — had siblings about whom both the Carringtons and Colbys were unaware. Fourth, the story involves Leslie (Terri Garber), among the most obnoxious and unnecessary additions to the cast since Peter De Vilbis, who naturally helps drag down the arc. And lastly, Sean’s revenge plot — which necessitates implicating both Denver-Carringotn and ColbyCo in an illegal arms deal — is so schizophrenically executed, that we don’t care. We just don’t care.

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The only thing we do care about (somewhat) is the characters, particularly our core three — Blake, Alexis, and Krystle (Linda Evans), the latter of whom is put on the figurative back burner this season (until it’s time again to trot out those Season Seven headaches that will give the show an excuse to cart her away next year) in favor of the race for governorship between Blake, his opponent (who, no surprise, ends up winning), and Alexis, the “spoiler” candidate who enters just to spite Blake because it was she — not he — who was originally being groomed as his party’s nominee. It’s a basically unrewarding storyline, save a trio of installments that find a temporary momentum (but is more pomp than circumstance), yet one can understand why it happened: last season’s “let’s have everyone get along” concept led to utter boredom. The decision to put the show’s two most oppositional forces back in conflict makes sense, even if, by this time, no matter what happens, the development is ridiculous. You can’t go home again, and the entirety of this  storyline is evidence of this truism… Of course, the show is only half-commited to this narrative, anyway; the season’s real focus is on the young characters (in a blatant bid to stay relevant in the shifting TV landscape)…

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The framework for this structure is the conflict between the Carrington kids, as Blake has to relinquish control of his company during his campaign and chooses Steven, which causes drama. But each of the trio gets stories under this thematic umbrella. Here’s what works: Steven running the company and, for the most part, becoming like Blake, which is an interesting evolution for the character and serves as a strong rationalization for his departure at the end of the year. Before heading Denver-Carrington, Steven’s primary arc involves owning the football team, which is saddled with a cocaine problem (they’re really trying to be “edgy” and “contemporary,” right?), and although the drama between Steven and his siblings that arrives midseason largely feels contrived, the early focus on his development is interesting — and buoys the entire year, for Steven really hasn’t had material of merit since Luke Fuller in Season Five. Unfortunately, his siblings don’t fare as well. Adam is saddled in a dreadful story involving his wife Dana (Leann Hunley), a more likable addition than Leslie but fundamentally un-engaging, who can’t conceive because she aborted his child back when they were teens… so instead they get a surrogate, who ends up keeping the baby when her husband re-enters the picture (giving the show an opportunity to feature a non-wealthy family again, but like the Blaisdels, we just don’t care about them either). The whole thing is predictable, schlocky, and a waste of time — as was the Adam arc at the end of last season.

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And this brings us to Fallon, who returns to Denver with Jeff following her “abduction” in the series finale of The Colbys. Talk about a wretched storyline! Where does the show go from here? Either she’s crazy or the show is now supernatural — and true to form, Dynasty refuses to commit to either. Instead of explaining the scenario as a psychotic relapse (which would be tired and repetitive, but believable), the show decides to go along with her belief that it actually happened, using it only to drive a wedge — once again — between she and Jeff, who (thankfully) avoids Leslie and enters into a forced triangle, that makes no sense, with Sammy Jo (Heather Locklear). And once that’s accomplished, the awful alien story is dropped without explanation in favor of some forced Carrington sibling drama (which also involves Michael Nader’s Dex). The complete abandonment of the alien storyline is not, itself, a bad thing, but the fact that it existed in the first place necessitates proper resolution, and because this doesn’t come, it casts a pall over her entire season. It’s important to note, however, that the depiction of Fallon here is better than we’ve seen it in years, and sort of complicates the oft-repeated narrative that Season Nine restored the character’s original personality (when played by Pamela Sue Martin), for while I believe that to be mostly true, the seeds of said restoration can be seen here — Fallon is fiery than ever, and the show attempts to explain what had happened to her character as a result of her losing herself and becoming too “like Jeff.”

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That’s an interesting notion and indicates a self-awareness we can’t credit solely to Season Nine. But, I’m getting ahead of myself — that’s for next month. In the meantime, Season Eight benefits from a tighter construction and a few (very few) interesting character choices, but otherwise, it’s collectively no better than its predecessor, and ultimately pays the price: the audience’s enjoyment. By 1987, the decade’s tastes had evolved beyond the fantastical glitz and glamour offered by Dynasty. Now realism was prized, and that was something of which Dynasty never had an abundance. Nevertheless, I have picked seven episodes (that’s all I could assemble) that I want to highlight as being my favorite — the ones that best give you a flavor for the eighth season. They are listed here in airing order.

 

01) Episode 180: “The Announcement” (Aired: 10/14/87)

Alexis is confused over the reaction she gets from her rescuer; Fallon tells Steven about her abduction.

Story by Jeff Ryder & Frank V. Furino | Teleplay by Frank V. Furino | Directed by Don Medford

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The fourth installment of the season, this entry makes today’s list for re-sparking the rivalry between Blake and Alexis, which despite being hackneyed and trite, is nevertheless vital for the series’ successful functioning. Additionally, this outing boasts one of the best scenes of the season, as Fallon and Steven have a heart-to-heart about her abduction and he proposes the aforementioned theory about Fallon having lost herself by becoming so much like Jeff.

02) Episode 184: “The Testing” (Aired: 11/25/87)

Blake must choose which of his kids will run the company; Leslie makes a move on Jeff.

Story by Jeff Ryder | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Don Medford

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Above in my seasonal commentary, I mentioned a trio of episodes in which there appears to be momentum, and this episode is the start of it. Highlights from this entry include the teleplay’s attempts to justify Alexis’ hasty marriage to Sean by having both her and Dex acknowledge that maybe she made a mistake. Also, the excursion launches the power play at Denver-Carrington when Blake has to choose which of his children will run the company in his place.

03) Episode 185: “The Set-Up” (Aired: 12/02/87)

Dana reveals (part of) the truth of her infertility to Alexis; Adam tries to undermine Steven.

Written by James Harmon Brown & Barbara Esensten | Directed by Harry Falk

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Riding a slight crest of peaked audience investment (and let’s note that this is before Alexis predictably enters the gubernatorial race), this entry simply continues the arcs in a logical and engaging manner. Although it’s not thematically hit hard, the idea of both Steven, with his coke-ridden football team, and Fallon, with her delusions of abduction, being a handicap to Blake is great fodder for conflict, and seems to tie the narratives together with surprising cohesion.

04) Episode 186: “The Fair” (Aired: 12/09/87)

Alexis plans a trap for Blake at her Olde English Fair; Sean blackmails Dana.

Written by James Harmon Brown & Barbara Esensten | Directed by Don Medford

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If you ask fans to cite the most unforgettable moment of this forgettable season, you’ll likely see this episode mentioned, for the outrageous spectacle of all the characters in Elizabethan wear is classic Dynasty opulence, albeit with plenty of quirky camp. Frankly, it’s not a great episode — there’s a lot of standing around until the big moment with the video (which lacks suspense, because we already know what will happen), but at least all the players are together.

05) Episode 189: ‘The Interview” (Aired: 01/06/88)

Krystle debates Alexis in Blake’s stead; Sammy Jo bonds with Jeff.

Story by Jeff Ryder | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Don Medford

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Although the show has moved very far away from its origins, Dynasty was originally structured around Krystle, and while her character maybe isn’t the most interesting to watch, the scripts usually do well when they can focus legitimate conflict around her. This entry benefits specifically from the year’s best usage of Krystle, who debates Alexis on live TV (after Alexis has Blake purposely detained) and then gives her a good slap afterwards in the dressing room.

06) Episode 193: “The Warning” (Aired: 02/03/88)

Jeff reveals that he’s been buying Denver-Carrington stock; Sean bribes Jesse to fight for custody.

Story by Scott M. Hamner & Diana Gould | Teleplay by Diana Gould | Directed by Don Medford

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This is a very narrative-driven installment and given the nature of the stores this season, it’s of course, by no means spectacular. But it’s more consistently paced than a lot of its competition, free of any glaring distractions that hamper the episode’s overall appeal. This particular outing directs the season into its final few episodes, particularly with Adam’s arc, as Sean gets involved to help cause trouble with the Atkinsons and the surrogate baby storyline.

07) Episode 198: “Colorado Roulette” (Aired: 03/30/88)

Sean kidnaps Adam’s son; Jeff is caught between Sammy Jo and Fallon; Blake loses the election.

Story by Jeff Ryder | Teleplay by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Irving J. Medford

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As with most finales, this installment is naturally more concentrated on serving the characters’ arcs than the average entry. Here we get appropriate closure for Steven (with Blake and Adam respectively), mild redemption for Leslie, a predictable love triangle with Fallon-Jeff-Sammy Jo (that nevertheless feels right within the context of the year), the end of both the interminable surrogate story and Blake’s bid for governor, the requisite “who got shot” cliffhanger with Alexis and two of her husbands, and the official preparations for Krystle’s upcoming exit…

 

Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “The Rifle,” simply because Alexis gets shot (accidentally) by Sean, making for a soapy cliffhanger that is among the season’s most memorable moments (quality be darned), and the follow-up, “The Bracelet,” in which the anticipated end of the Alexis vs. Blake story is subverted.

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Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post — and please return next month for my thoughts on the final season of Dynasty!

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