Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! As we continue with our monthly coverage of Dynasty (1981-1989, ABC), the most definitive primetime soap of the 1980s, it’s time we take a look at The Colbys (1985-1987, ABC), Dynasty‘s expensively produced, but critically and commercially unembraced two-season spin-off. Now, I’m going to try and keep my thoughts brief here, for not only am I, at the time of this writing, heavily embroiled in all things Dynasty, Married… With Children, and The Jack Benny Program, but I also find The Colbys to be a deviation from this blog’s primary emphases. Dynasty is justified because of its place in shaping ’80s popular culture and reflecting trends that were also evident in the era’s sitcoms, while The Colbys is only here because of its relationship to Dynasty and what it reaffirms about its forebear. So my thinking was to use this post to discuss (again, briefly) The Colbys, which for the sake of our Dynasty coverage’s continuity also felt necessary, and specifically how the former’s successes and failures have nearly everything to do with its relationship to the latter…
Let’s talk a little background. ABC had been trying to spin-off Dynasty for years, originally with Jeff and Fallon. When Pamela Sue Martin left at the end of Season Four, that idea had to be put on hold — but only temporarily, for the great success of Season Five reignited interest in the concept, and it was decided to move forward with the idea — whether or not Martin returned. Of course, she didn’t, necessitating a replacement in the form of Emma Samms, a familiar face on daytime who was nevertheless an odd choice for the role of the fiery Fallon. The concept of the new series had Jeff Colby (John James) moving out to California to work at his Uncle Jason’s (Charlton Heston) company Colby Enterprises, at the behest of Jason’s sister Constance (Barbara Stanwyck), who gives him some of her company shares, much to the chagrin of Jason’s wife Sable (Stephanie Beacham). There, Jeff discovers that Fallon is alive but an amnesiac, believing herself to be “Randall” — and married to his cousin, Miles (Maxwell Caulfield). This love triangle would maintain throughout the show’s two seasons, even after Fallon’s memory returns and she remarries Jeff. (Spoiler alert: Miles rapes her, she becomes pregnant and, at the first season cliffhanger, doesn’t know who is the father — ultimately, it’s Jeff.)
Meanwhile, another love triangle forms the crux of the series’ drama (i.e. Krystle-Blake-Alexis) with Jason caught between his wife Sable and her sister Francesca (Katharine Ross), Jeff’s mother, and the love of Jason’s life. (It turns out, not-so-surprisingly, that Jeff is actually Jason’s son.) His desire to be with Frankie is complicated by Sable’s scheming, her teaming up with rival Zach Powers (Ricardo Montalbán), and the second season return of Frankie’s husband Phillip (Michael Parks). Rounding out the cast are Miles’ twin sister Monica (Tracy Scoggins), a business woman who goes to work at Titania Records for Dominique Devereaux (Diahann Carroll, who appears frequently in the first season — alongside her love interest/baby daddy Garrett Boydston, played by Ken Howard) and has lots of man troubles — she always seems to like the unattainable ones — and their youngest sister Bliss (Claire Yarlett), who falls for bad boys and, in Season Two, a defected Russian dancer. Joseph Campanella played Stanwyck’s love interest, and throughout the first year, John Forsythe’s Blake crossed over several times, while Fallon’s two brothers (played by Jack Coleman and Gordon Thomson) made brief appearances.
Interestingly, neither Linda Evans nor Joan Collins ever appeared on The Colbys, with the latter believing that the spin-off would end up hurting Dynasty. She was right. As explored two weeks ago, the sixth season of Dynasty had major issues, part of them stemming from all the prep that had to be done for The Colbys, which didn’t premiere until late November after all the characters were set-up and introduced on Dynasty. Yet for all the harm the spin-off did to the spinner, the spin-off also suffered from the relationship. ABC essentially wanted another Dynasty, and from conception, everything about this new series would be discussed in terms that would be correspondent to the established hit, then the country’s most-watched show; they put up a huge budget to aesthetically out-opulence Dynasty, while seeking out a starry cast of Heston, Stanwyck, and Montalbán to give the show a taste of glamorous cachet. However, style can never fully compensate for substance (as Dynasty would eventually learn), and the show’s try-hard attempts to replicate (or possibly best) Dynasty‘s winning allure only alienated an audience that was just now tiring of the primetime soaps in favor of more realistic fare. And frankly, viewers already had a Dynasty; why would they need another one? Because The Colbys seemed too similar (heck, it was even called Dynasty II: The Colbys in its first few weeks), there was no point in making time for it, especially when it was on Thursday nights up against Cheers and Night Court (both of which, by the way, I’ve covered on Sitcom Tuesdays).
But while the connections to Dynasty were obvious and unfortunately, quite intended, the irony of the The Colbys was that it was not like Dynasty, and its attempts to be like Dynasty only revealed a show trying to appropriate an identity that clearly didn’t fit. Obviously, The Colbys couldn’t be Dynasty. For instance, ridiculous moments like Fallon falsely accusing her visiting brother Adam of rape, or silly cliffhanger tragedies that are resolved in the first three minutes of the next episode (but are nevertheless used repeatedly as a cheap trick to bring opposing characters together) arguably work on Dynasty, not just because we’re used to them there, but also because Dynasty has the confidence — the swagger — to keep us engaged. The Colbys, with its nebulous identity of copycat principles and unsure characteristics, simply can’t do that. So what is The Colbys underneath all the Carrington face paint and mid-’80s shoulder pads? Well, it’s a drama that wants to be taken more seriously than its counterpart, refusing to play toward camp, and hoping to find an elevated humanity in the process. (This noble aim makes for a dilemma, as the show is so optically similar to Dynasty that The Colbys is almost waging war against itself.) And while this air of dramatic supremacy forsakes some of its predecessor’s trademark humor, one realizes the new series actually does have better writing. When it’s being true to itself, the stories are quieter and more character-driven; the relationships are more complex, but narratively focused; and moments of melodramatics are often justified by the players’ seasonal arcs. In short, it’s a tighter and smarter show — a less sensationally fixated Dynasty.
Yet, it takes until the second season for those qualities to really shine through, for the first year is too concerned with its stylistic relationship to the mothership (stay away, Fallon) — so much so that Stanwyck refused to return after the first season. Her departure is an admitted shame — she’s a heck of an actress — but one can easily see her justification, for the struggling show, in its identity-rooted crisis, ended up squandering one of its most precious assets. And in this regard, The Colbys is like Dynasty, for neither was above bad decision making. In addition to the disregard for Stanwyck’s character, we also find constructs — established from the beginning — that simply make exacting organic drama difficult. The first is the daughters, both of whom seem terribly disconnected from the rest of the family and therefore feel tangential to every episode. This is partially remedied in Season Two for Monica, when she goes back to Colby Enterprises and gets an incredibly juicy storyline involving an ex-lover/senator, Cash (James Houghton), their son, and the man’s wife, Adrienne (Shanna Reed), who’s been raising the kid as her own. (The fascinating part of this arc is that while Houghton’s character lacks definition, Reed becomes the show’s most sympathetic presence.) But as Monica gets worthy show-connected material, Bliss remains an afterthought, with little impact on the others.
Other flaws set up from conception involve the unevenness of the triangles. There’s no way in the world viewers would prefer to see Fallon with the arrogant Miles, instead of Jeff, with whom the audience has a half-decade emotional connection. Fortunately, the writers have the smarts to spice up this storyline in the second season by introducing for Miles a wife, Channing, played with verve by Kim Morgan Greene, who’s treated to a more psychologically nuanced characterization than the rest of her young contemporaries, giving some genuine credence to The Colbys‘ goal of dramatic potency. As for the other triangle, the strength of Sable, played brilliantly by Beacham (and you’ll see her again on Dynasty in April — a great decision) who is the show’s antagonizing equivalent to Alexis — but far less a caricature — renders Frankie a complete dullard. As a result, there’s more Dynasty invoked than ever, for we start to see the emergence of the Blake (Jason) – Krystle (Frankie) – Alexis (Sable) dynamic. But this time, there’s no sense of burlesque to the proceedings, only a formation of lopsided interest, resulting from perfunctory premise-driven writing. We tolerate Frankie, who doesn’t have a personality, and love the more emotionally present Sable — we eat up her every word, and understand why she schemes: for her children’s protection, as she feels that Connie and Jason have encroached upon their birth rights in favor of Jeff (and Frankie).
All of these narrative hurdles might have been navigable if The Colbys hadn’t tried so hard — and been forced to try so hard – to be like the #1 show, which was very quickly sinking itself (see this month’s Dynasty entry). But it wasn’t meant to be. For the much ballyhooed Dynasty spin-off, bad decisions met awful timing (and a rotten time slot — would you want to go up against Cheers?) to turn-off the public. Stronger writing than Dynasty wasn’t enough to justify sitting through a show that visually and structurally seemed like a copycat, mired in its now alienating gloss. And because the show had Dynasty‘s design without the immediately gratifying joie de vivre (based in camp), success for The Colbys was all but roadblocked. Nevertheless, the entire series has now been released on DVD, and if you’re a Dynasty fan, I think you’ll love The Colbys, for the second season, in particular, delights in (spaceships aside) strong storytelling and motivated characterizations — better than the former’s respective season, its seventh (coming in February). Now, I’m not going to share a list of favorites because I’ve already written too much about this series, but if anyone is interested, my choice for the strongest entry is the 13th installment from the second season, “Power Plays” (Aired: 01/01/87), in which Sable meets with Adrienne to buy Monica’s child and then causes trouble for Jason in the boardroom.
Come back next week for another Wildcard Wednesday! And tune in on Tuesday for my thoughts on the best episodes from the tenth season of Married… With Children!