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

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! A while back I teased that there’d be more hour-long dramas from the 1980s coming up on this blog, and after the success of my Moonlighting posts (although that’s more of a dramedy than a straight drama), I’ve decided that Dynasty (1981-1989, ABC) is the next recipient of our attention. Once a month I’ll be sharing my seasonal thoughts and selections for the best episodes from each year of Dynasty, starting today with the first. Now, here we have an interesting phenomenon; 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) in a way that no other drama of the ’80s managed to do — with the noted exception of Dallas (1978-1991, CBS), the first in this era’s wave of primetime serials and the only other series to retain its iconic status today.

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I initially had written several long paragraphs here explaining my decision to cover Dynasty, a show that — rest assured, I know — is not very often well-written or worthy of our attention based on its quality, especially in comparison to Dallas, a show of equal importance that actually deserves to be held in higher esteem. But when I first announced coverage of this series back in the comments of another post in May, I was able to reiterate my thoughts much more succinctly. Therefore, I’m going to reprint those comments here (with thanks to Brandon and all the other readers who initially contributed to the discussion)! The question poised was about the other primetime soaps, Falcon Crest (1981-1990, CBS), which premiered in the late fall of 1981 (during Dynasty‘s second season) and Knots Landing (1979-1993, CBS), the more grounded spin-off of Dallas. In a nutshell: I’ve seen a little bit of both Knots Landing and Falcon Crest. I believe that the former has a lot of merits, but would require a big time commitment to discuss, while the latter isn’t exceptional. Now, regarding the other two…

In complete transparency, I’ll tell you that I actually toyed with covering Dallas instead of Dynasty, as I have complete sets of both series (and actually believe the former to be the more narratively sound), but there were three big reasons that ultimately persuaded me to cover the latter this August instead.

1) I know Dynasty better, having first screened the entire series about a decade ago (when I was but a middle schooler battling chronic insomnia), while most of Dallas I’ve seen only once… So at this moment, I feel more qualified to discuss Dynasty.
2) I think Dynasty is easier to enjoy sans “strings.” When it’s good, it’s good; when it’s bad, it’s bad. From this simplicity comes an ability to embrace its consistent entertainment value without ignoring its unending (and I mean UNENDING) list of missteps. In contrast, the qualitative “shades of gray” that exist more readily on Dallas require a sharper critical eye to dissect, thus making the series’ entertainment value less durable in the wake of its faults. In other words, Dallas commands greater respect, which means the unrespectable moments are more heartbreaking — even if, for the sake of argument, they’re never as low as Dynasty‘s.
3) I believe Dynasty represents the ’80s better than any of the other dramas — artistic merit (and Dallas’ seminality) aside. And with the decade’s other televisual entertainment being highlighted on Tuesdays of this year, the ’80s became the angle through which I wanted to introduce coverage of another drama. From my perception of the two shows’ contrasting styles, Dynasty ultimately felt due for coverage now (or never), while Dallas could and might be discussed at any time and during any era on this blog.

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With all that noted, I have to reinforce that I love Dallas and will, ideally, cover the series at some point. However, it won’t be now during our look at the ’80s and, due to my nighttime drama fatigue, it probably won’t be anytime soon. You see, I remain a sitcom guy at heart; that’s my love, that’s the focus of my study. I regard dramas differently. While I still aim to approach these shows with similar notions of quality — I want the writing to be character-driven, believable, and creative — I am not as emotionally or critically invested in their success as I am with comedies. Part of this is naturally a function of my own personal leanings, and part of this is because I believe dramas are fundamentally easier to both create and enjoy. (“Dying is easy, comedy is hard…”) Comedies aim to invoke a specific response: laughter. Dramas have a broader objective: to make us feel (or think). There are, arguably, more ways to do that, and as a result, I think the writing becomes slightly less imperative to the generated outcome. (Drama lovers, don’t throw things — I’m a sitcom guy, and I recognize this bias!) Additionally, because there’s no tangible benchmark of success, outright failure occurs less often — dramas have many goals, and more ways to achieve them.

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Now, I don’t mean to disparage the genre — television drama is an art form unto itself, and the medium’s natural opportunity for serialization allows for the presentation of complex characters and deep emotional investments — richer than anything we’d find elsewhere. So even more than comedies, primetime dramas illustrate the limitless potentials inherent to television storytelling. This is what this medium does best. (I actually love dramas too. I really do!) As a result, none of what I’ve expressed above is meant to excuse Dynasty of its many and repeated textual deficiencies. Variations in quality still exist and matter (we can ALWAYS tell the difference between a character-driven arc and one that’s story-driven), and while I think enjoyment here is far less predicated on artful construction than on the simple existence of the genre’s foundational serialization, as consumers of entertainment, we owe it to ourselves to be discerning spectators, and just as we do with comedies, we should seek out the material that affects us most. In the case of Dynasty, we’ll be entertained often and affected by a whole lot of material — it will just very seldom adhere to our aesthetic principals of triumphant storytelling. And that, my friends, is why the show is perfect to be discussing right now in the context of the 1980s. Like the decade, these posts won’t always be pleasurable, but they will be interesting.

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Okay, so let’s begin. Although the show would come to be defined by both the triangle (of sorts) that existed between Krystle, Blake, and Alexis, and the two women’s no-holds-barred catfights, Season One begins in much more earnest: clearly an ABC attempt at Dallas. Produced by Aaron Spelling, the three-hour pilot of Oil! initially starred George Peppard, who was replaced by John Forsythe when the series was picked up for the ’80-’81 season and retitled Dynasty, as Blake Carrington, a Denver oil tycoon who marries his secretary Krystle (Linda Evans). Her difficulties assimilating into his fabulous life of wealth form the pilot’s emotional center and were intended to continue as the crux of the series’ conflict. On Krystle’s “side” is Blake’s son Steven (Al Corley), whose homosexual past has put him at odds with his father, while Steven’s sister Fallon (Pamela Sue Martin), an ambitious daddy’s girl with a promiscuous reputation (she’s even fooling around with the chauffeur, played by Wayne Northrop), refuses to embrace Krystle as a member of the family. Complicating matters even further is the reappearance of one of Blake’s geologists, Matthew Blaisdel (Bo Hopkins), who had previously been romantically involved with the new Mrs. Carrington. Matthew has a daughter, Lindsay (Katy Kurtzman), and a wife, Claudia (Pamela Bellwood), who has just been released from an institution after having suffered a nervous breakdown. As a middle class family, they serve as a dramatic counterpoint to the wealthy Carringtons.

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The three-hour pilot finally aired in January 1981 and was followed by 12 more installments, making for a 15-episode first season. I won’t go through all the machinations of the plot (you can find that elsewhere), but there a few key stories we must discuss, especially in relation to the first season and why it’s unique. As mentioned above, Krystle as the “fish out of water” is our entry into the series, and that continues throughout the season, with stories concerning the staff’s treatment of their new lady of the house, and the continual rejection endured from Fallon. But more interesting in our look at Krystle is the surprising nuance with which she’s rendered, for while we tend to think of her as a goody-two-shoes, Season One presents a character with flaws — the most visible of which is her continued attraction to Matthew, even though both of them are married. Furthermore, her relationship with Blake is quite dark, as his character is actually painted as ruthless and, for lack of a better word, shady. In fact, one of the defining moments of the season involves his rape of Krystle after he learns that she’s been lying about taking birth control. These aren’t the behaviors of morally upright characters (as they would later become), and this heavier rendering presents them much more interestingly than they’ll ever be again. And because the show is centered around the two of them, the way they’re written (and what they’re given to do) is of utmost importance. That their material basically works here is a feat that we shouldn’t take lightly in the months ahead.

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But the character who really takes control of Season One, earning distinction as the show’s most exciting presence, is the precious Fallon, played with vivacity by Pamela Sue Martin, whose rebellious balls-to-the-wall portrayal is alluring, even as she’s scheming with her father’s rival Cecil Colby (Lloyd Bochner) to marry his nephew Jeff (John James) in exchange for Cecil’s financial help in bailing out her father. Even when she then proceeds to treat Jeff like garbage throughout their quick marriage, all the while carrying on her affair with the chauffeur (and even attempting to bed Cecil himself), we still like her. In fact, there’s a delicious irreverence to her character that serves to offer a sharp commentary on the virtuous failings of the wealthy elite (the show’s brief thematic interest in Season One) and thus feeds into the overarching narrative of Krystle’s willful indoctrination into this lifestyle — can she survive in a world full of Fallons? But Martin gives her character enviable strength and an indomitable will, so even when she’s behaving like a spoiled brat, we’re actually on her side — totally engrossed in what she’s doing and understanding why she’s doing it. Multi-faceted on both the page and the screen. A rarity.

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The only other character really matching Fallon’s extraordinary depth is her brother Steven, played by Al Corley, whose deep-seated issues with his father Blake are introduced in the pilot, continued in the early episodes as Steven takes a job with Matthew Blaisdel, with whom his father is in competition (both in business and romance), and then crescendoed in the year’s final string of episodes, as Steven’s former lover Ted Dinard hits his head and dies after a struggle with Blake. This sparks a trial in which Steven must testify against his father. Cue lots of dramatic moments, an integration of the Blaisdels (which justifies their previously unnecessary existence), and the introduction of Alexis (but that’s for next season…) This conflict between father and son is perhaps the series’ most potent at this time, and while Steven’s inner struggle is exactly the kind of fodder needed to turn a good serial into a great serial, Blake’s accompanying inability to accept his son for who he is paints him as a bit of an anti-hero, in the same way that J.R. Ewing functions on Dallas. (In my book, that’s a plus!)

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And while comparisons between the two series will always be made, they’re never more warranted than in this first season, in which Dynasty, while not yet as glitzily heightened as it would become, still exudes wealth in a way that the Ewings don’t, and because of that, this series offers something that that viewers aren’t getting from Dallas: fantasy. There’s a romantic quality to Dynasty that, even in the times in which it tries to be gritty, is fundamentally appealing and new to the nighttime serial genre. This primetime soap isn’t just going to give us edge-of-your-seat drama (which, at this point, it’s occasionally delivering), it’s also going to give us an aesthetic — a style of living, looking, and storytelling. It’s going to give us, before we know it, the ’80s — at least, a representation of the ’80s, part picture (informing), part mirror (reflecting). It’s undeniably exciting, and it takes about half of this first year for the show to realize this as the course it was meant to take, for the early episodes are bogged down by a lot of the Blaisdels, who are meant to invoke a “rich man, poor man” contrast to the Carringtons.

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But their moments are often boring; Lindsay’s obnoxious, Matthew is well-played but is irrelevant once Krystle commits herself to Blake, and Claudia’s scenes feel very self-indulgent (a result of the show’s never-that-great dialogue). The only saving grace for the latter comes from the way that the show narratively ties her into Steven’s arc, as they begin an affair that complexes the entire situation for both families. As Steven struggles with his sexuality, the man who believes himself to be gay finds that he has feelings for a woman — a married woman with mental health issues. A married woman with mental health issues whom Blake’s attorney forces to testify on the stand in a moment of soaring melodrama. This wonderful convergence of the separately woven stories is divine — the mark of a series that boasts construction of perhaps a worthwhile quality — and also justifies Claudia’s continued position on the series (as her husband and child, mercifully, disappear before the Season Two premiere).

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Yet while Dynasty‘s reputation of inconsequential writing is only half-deserved, one shouldn’t be deluded into thinking that Season One is an appropriate representation of the series and where it’s going. The quiet, languid pace (sometimes even too languid), which with these (mostly) character-driven stories move here in the first season is eventually going to give way to a fast-and-slow roller coaster of ridiculousness, grounded only by an arc’s ability to retain a trace of believability. One could make a case for the latter being more entertaining, and as we’ll see in upcoming posts, there are moments where this is absolutely the case. But the quality of the scripts are just sharper here at the beginning of the series’ life, and while Alexis’ arrival will really bring the series the additional vitality needed to make Dynasty an iconic piece of television (and her first season will strike that proper balance between how the series began and what it became — stay tuned), Season One presents several characters with an enormous potential that’s already being explored admirably — Blake, Krystle, Fallon, and Steven. How the show maintains this success remains to be seen. (Spoiler: it ain’t going to be great.)

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In the meantime, I have picked six episodes that I want to highlight as being my favorite — the ones that best give you a flavor for this season and how the storytelling is progressing. They are listed here in airing order.

 

01) Episode 3: “Oil (III)” (Aired: 01/12/81)

Krystle and Blake get married at the mansion; Walter and Blake argue about the explosion on Walter’s oil rig.

Written by Esther Shapiro & Richard Shapiro | Directed by Ralph Senensky

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The final hour of the three-part pilot that aired on one evening and served as the series’ official premiere, this installment makes my list for being the most consistently engaging of the trio, with the greatest number of valuable scenes. As with the other two parts, the cinematography is exquisite, but by now, we’ve started to really understand the characters and how they’re going to function throughout the rest of the season. The stuff between Fallon and Cecil is the highlight.

02) Episode 5: “The Dinner Party” (Aired: 01/26/81)

Blake holds a dinner party where he wheels and deals to obtain new funds for his cash-poor corporation.

Written by Chester Krumholz | Directed by Don Medford

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As with any ensemble series (be it comedic or dramatic), magic is generally invoked when all of the regulars are made to be at the same place at the same time, and on this series, one of the best ways to ensure this dynamic is to throw a party. Aside from the wedding, this is the first formal event, and this time, even the po’ folk like Claudia are brought into the mix, allowing for grand and, at this point in the series’ run, nuanced interactions that come to define early Dynasty.

03) Episode 12: “The Birthday Party” (Aired: 03/16/81)

Jeff disrupts a birthday party for Cecil; Krystle must retrieve a pawned necklace; Steven is confronted by his ex-lover.

Written by Edward De Blasio & Richard Shapiro | Directed by Burt Brinckerhoff

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John James’ Jeff is one of the few characters who exists throughout the entirety of this series’ life, but his down-to-earth conservative depiction, especially at the beginning of the show, doesn’t afford him the same type of electric moments given to say, his wife, Fallon. This installment is a notable exception as Jeff gets filthy drunk after realizing the deal that his uncle Cecil has arranged with Fallon. Meanwhile, Krystle’s guilt regarding the necklace continues.

04) Episode 13: “The Separation” (Aired: 03/23/81)

Blake plays out his hand regarding Krystle and the pawned necklace; Steven’s love triangle collapses.

Written by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Gabrielle Beaumont

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This episode truly starts to propel the narrative to the season finale, as many of the arcs explored throughout the year — like the triangle between Blake/Krystle/Matthew — are starting to be resolved, while new beats, particularly the sudden death of Steven’s lover Ted Dinard in the final moments of the installment, launch the show into the period in which its quality is (maybe) at a feverish peak. One of the most consistent entries on today’s list.

05) Episode 14: “Blake Goes To Jail” (Aired: 04/13/81)

Blake goes on trial for murder and Krystle assumes control of the company.

Written by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Don Medford

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Admittedly, I’m never actually a fan of shows (particularly comedies, but dramas too) that do extended courtroom sequences, because they often exist with a lot of contrivance and little logic (Peyton Place‘s Rodney Harrington’s trial is an exception). Dynasty being Dynasty, the series is never exempt from this foolishness, but this case is easily the best of the lot, primarily because it’s used as a culmination of all the arcs explored throughout the season. Several big moments.

06) Episode 15: “The Testimony” (Aired: 04/20/81)

Both the defense and the prosecution call surprise witnesses at Blake’s murder trial.

Written by Edward De Blasio | Directed by Don Medford

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Continuing what began in the episode prior, this memorable season finale exquisitely manages to tie together all of the loose ends from the first year, including Krystle’s tension with Blake, and the nebulous romance between Steven and Claudia, which comes to a head when Blake’s lawyer calls her to the stand. Of course, most will remember this episode for the shocking cliffhanger, in which we prepare to meet Blake’s ex-wife. More to come next month…

 

Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “Oil (II),” the second hour of the pilot, which concludes with an explosive scene between Blake and Steven that firmly establishes their relationship throughout the rest of the series and remains probably the most interesting scene of the entire premiere, “The Chauffeur Tells A Secret,” which is among the most visually and musically satisfying installments of the year and features the first romantic overture between Steven and Claudia, and “Krystle’s Lie,” which climaxes in the infamous scene in which Blake rapes Krystle — the nastiest his character is ever portrayed on this series.

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Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post — and please return next month for my thoughts on the second season of Dynasty! And don’t forget to tune in on Monday for another early Jerome Kern musical!