Telly Talk Oracle
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- September 2000
The ongoing saga of Denver oil tycoon Blake Carrington and his family (a show the ABC network hopes will compete with CBS's DALLAS, easily the biggest program on earth in 1980).
A somber drama at first, the torments of Krystle, Steven, and Claudia are center stage. The acting is good, and so is the writing. Bill Conti's score and theme add poignant grandeur to the pilot. The pacing is a bit slower than may be required to become a smash hit, but the groundwork for the series is being nicely laid (or is it "lain"?). No, the glitz and glamour aren't anywhere near as flashy as they would later become, but in some ways they're deeper; someone once described Season 1 of DYNASTY as being "all cabernet and dark chocolates and mahogany" and while that might be a slight exaggeration, it's easy to understand the sentiment: the middleclass Blaisdel family may be getting more screen time than some viewers may appreciate, but the Carringtons would never feel more legitimately "rich": the interiors of the mansion are brooding and believable, life on the estate has a certain rarefied flavor, the cultural observations and literary references are convincing of a family bred if not necessarily well.
All the plots nicely coalesce to bring the season to a natural, tragic and fated climax as Blake goes on trial for killing his son's gay lover, resulting in, in the final frame, the arrival of his ex-wife, Alexis, to testify as a hostile witness for the prosecution.
The decision (at first wisely) is made to speed up the pacing and add some glamour to DYNASTY to turn the series, which barely survived the cancellation axe after Season 1, into a bona fide hit. (To be fair, it was against M*A*S*H that brief first year).
Joan Collins seems perfectly cast as Blake's gorgeous and morally challenged ex-wife, with Blake's and Alexis' bitching about why they divorced so intriguing because the viewer suspects they're both largely telling the truth about the other.
Collins captures exactly the Mysterious Slut elements the role requires, and, as an added bonus, it turns out that she and Linda Evans' Krystle seem to display a pitch-perfect adversarial chemistry on-screen. While you can't write that sort of chemistry, you can write to it, which the series initially does masterfully.
And having the nasty ex-wife living three feet from the mansion in her petit trianon was inspired, giving her essentially the run of the new wife's house, much to the latter's frustration.
There's a little bit of the late-'70s TV mini-series odor to Season 2 of DYNASTY. I think of it every time I see the wonderful cobweb-strewn night scene between Alexis and butler Joseph in her darkened art studio, or Alexis' foreboding "reading" from her Rome clairvoyant, or Alexis' references to brawling with an unnamed Oscar-winning actress, or Blake's European villa-hopping to save his oil business and harassment by the faceless Logan Rhinewood ... The past seems real, palpable, if not necessarily present: the secrets, the shadows, the series' National Enquirer tone...
The casting helps immeasurably somehow. Even the ones who may not be the most brilliant of thespians seem nonetheless perfect for their roles.
Because of the increasingly frenetic feeling over Season 2, enhanced by Ben Lazarone's campily operatic score in the latter part of the year, one could easily overlook how this seemingly pell mell lack of structure in fact obscures brilliant structure... Whether this is the accomplishment of new writers/consultants Bob & Eillen Pollock, or line producer Ed Ledding (Ledding was the only Season 2 staffer not with the show in Season 3) is an open question, but Ed de Blasio's equally operatic dialogue is every bit as effective as it still gives legitimate character drive to the bitchy barbs.
Even the poorly edited art studio catfight (then a shock to see the two leading ladies of a television series duke it out) worked, more-or-less, because it seemed like a kitschy anomaly, and grew naturally out of the conflict (and it was the last time the show's soon-to-be-infamous physical slapdowns ever would). And the trendsetting wardrobe was still not so outrageous as to seem excessive or silly.
The finale to Season 2 would, in retrospect, become something of the entire series' spiritual peak, the ride on horseback that Blake and Krystle would take up Scorpio Peak at Sky Crest with Blake left dangling on the precipice somehow metaphorical. It was a key cliffhanger in many more ways than one.
It looked like DYNASTY was going to become the best TV show ever made... and even Warren Beatty quite-improbably called up executive producer, Aaron Spelling, after the Season 2 finale aired and said, "You have the best show on television!"
It's been said (perhaps by me) that if melodrama aims dead-center for the cliche, then you may actually come up with something wonderful, because you find that the cliche (contrary to its reputation) is actually rarely tapped into or perfected. If true, DYNASTY achieved this balance beautifully in Season 2.
If one looks today at the old Nielsen ratings charts, one might not realize how big DYNASTY had already become. Because the ratings from early in the season (before most people had discovered the show) are averaged in to those from the latter part of the year, the final rating for the 1981/82 season only places DYNASTY at 19th place... Not bad, certainly (especially for an era when the three American networks dominated, with little competition from cable or home video, and none from the Internet) yet still not reflective of how huge the series had already become by the end of Season 2, when it had jumped up near the top of the weekly charts and had, for all intents and purposes, become the most talked about show on the air.
Without question, it's the year that put DYNASTY on the map, and the year the show was always trying, however incompetently, to get back to.
Despite Beatty's congratulatory call the previous Spring, Aaron Spelling phoned series creators Richard & Esther Shapiro (who'd only been peripherally involved with Season 2, leaving their pals, Bob & Eileen Pollock to guide the plots) and asked the Shapiros to come back, claiming that DYNASTY was "spiraling out of control." Never a producer seemingly concerned much with quality, "out of control" likely meant money to Spelling. Once the Shapiros had returned, line producer Ed Ledding was gone. And whatever his contribution may have been, with Ledding now absent, the polish and freshness and cohesive cleverness of the previous season is gone as well. Almost completely.
The remaining producers apparently decided if their amping it up a little for season 2 had benefitted the series, then throwing all legitimate storytelling to the wind would be even better. So they further changed the tone of their burgeoning hit show, DYNASTY now taking on a kind of nervous, bourgeois smallness instead.
Immediately, the writing starts to go awry: things don't make sense, non-sequiturs abound, the plotting becomes an afterthought, events are random, narrative cohesion is minimal... Also, the misguided new Static Acting Directive from the producers damages the performances, unnecessarily ruining the feel of many scenes; this new directive seems designed to make the already-poised actors seem even more poised (yet did the opposite) while any narrative logic in the scripts is tossed out the window, with too much dialogue given over to hyperbolic love/hate repartee (and the characters telling each other how fabulous they are) substituting for any kind of focus or flow to the stories... At once, all the characters become equidistant from one another, appear to know each other equally well as if they're all watching DYNASTY every Wednesday evening; they now mostly speak in interchangeable dialogue with individual perspective minimized.
For whatever reason, one scene which for me epitomizes the series' new disorientation is the foolish exchange in the new conservatory set between Blake and Krystle about why they can't go on a second honeymoon because Krystle needs more than 90 days to apologize to her ex, Mark Jennings, for her unfriendliness after Alexis and Fallon tricked him into leaving New York for Denver... Or Krystle's accusation that Blake had hired Jennings as a tennis pro for the dreary-beyond-words La Mirage Hotel in order to punish her in some way, even though, given the place Krystle and Blake are in their relationship at this point, such an accusation seems strangely "retro" at best, the writers grasping at straws.
Gone is any warranted cynicism about wealth and the wealthy, replaced with a dreadful, fawningly '80s "rich-people-are-good/poor-people-are-horrible" mindset. And every corner of the show is now infected, condoning the Carringtons' snobbery.
There is also no longer any sense of location. Any attempts to recreate Colorado, even thru the use of stock footage, are essentially non-existent. The show could now occur anywhere.
Yes, the introduction of snarling, long-lost son Adam (well-cast with Gordon Thomson) and his vaguely incestuous relationship with mother Alexis was a good thing, and the defining storyline of the season. But even that is lessened by the fact that Alexis has been transformed overnight from the grasping and manipulative socialite she was the previous season to brilliant Empress of Industry, with no transition period shown at all. Now that she is the just-add-water Queen of the Planet, she no longer has to purr and scheme and deceive; she simply openly insults and bitches everybody out in every scene, removing the sense of intelligence and mystery she once displayed and, likewise, any sense of her enigmatic back story. She's just a spoiled cow now. Only a cow dressed in fur.
Other new characters are added, but the worst may be the re-casting of troubled occasionally-gay Steven. Al Corley, frustrated by the network's suppression of Steven's sexuality, left the show at the close of Season 2, and the role is re-cast mid-way thru Season 3 with the pinched, tight-jawed presence of Jack Coleman who delivers all his lines through his teeth. It renders Steven's tortured journey irrelevant, as does the writing for him, as his ventures into homoeroticism for the next several years will consist of the rare long, blank glance at the odd nerdy male (that's how you know who's gay) and marrying a succession of women with whom he will remain involved in some capacity long after divorcing them. (And, for those too young to remember: no, this wasn't a step forward even in the '80s).
And Fallon, once a spoiled, sassbox wonder, is de-ovaried and takes on domestic and hotelier duties with resigned placidity. She also decides spontaneously that her dreaded stepmother is wonderful after all.
But the biggest loss is what happens to Krystle, the golden heroine once so soulfully played by Linda Evans. Krystle had at one time provided the moral voice for this show now so contemptuous of such perspective. With the downturn in the writing in season 3, the actors' simultaneous restraint into excessive physical rigidity, and the loss of the producers' interest in anything not reflective of Reagan's smugly mercenary value system, Krystle quickly becomes a vapid and saccharine Stepford wife and exactly the goody-goody Alexis had always (and once unjustly) accused her of. And Evans' performance suffers pointedly: her clear-eyed countenance now increasingly replaced with a cross-eyed squealing of her lines... Just as Vivien Leigh was born to play Scarlett O'Hara, Linda Evans and Joan Collins seemed born to play Krystle and Alexis (as Season 2 gives most vivid evidence). They were perfect casting. Yet as the Good Queen is neglected and trivialized in Season 3 and beyond, the Bad Queen also suffers: Alexis no longer has a valid, statured, female partner with whom to spar.
The balance of the show is now badly off.
By Season 3, it seems clear that the show-runners have developed several strange and misguided ideas about what it is about DYNASTY that makes it work or will make it "better." Regardless, thanks to the clothes, a cast with incredible Q-ratings, and a Spelling/ABC publicity machine keeping the show in the press on a daily basis, the Nielsen numbers will remain mile high for another couple of years.
The 1983/84 year is sometimes cited as the peak season for the wealth-based nighttime soaps of the '80s. And DYNASTY, mentioned even by the Reagans and Princess Diana as a fashion influence, has already changed the cultural vernacular, the word "bitch" taking on a semi-complimentary connotation for the first time (thanks to Alexis, although balancing her villainy with her newly-acquired role model status as a powerful boardroom fixture won't be easy) and even the term "dynasty" -- previously invoked mostly in the context of ancient empires -- is now being used with much greater frequency to describe contemporary families of power. But the electrifying media coverage of DYNASTY is becoming more gripping than the show itself. The goofy, stilted problems from the previous season continue, the characters increasingly lobotomized.
The very first episode of the year is really quite taut and focused (it really is!), but it's all downhill from there: Joseph commits suicide after trying to kill Alexis, but the show never fully explains why he set fire to Steven's cabin with her inside it. We know it has something to do with Alexis holding secrets about Kirby's mother --- but what? She was crazy, we already know that... No matter. After Kirby makes a lame attempt at strangling Alexis, the butler's orphaned daughter agrees to marry her rapist, Adam... Then the show initiates a promising plotline about someone stalking Alexis and ransacking her penthouse suite, yet that plot is dropped and forgotten without explanation... Who was doing it??... Claudia weds Steven so Blake can't take away his child in court, then the couple promptly forgets it was a marriage of convenience... Fallon gets taken in by a slimy slice of Eurotrash, Peter DeVilbis, inexplicably cast with the corpse-like Helmut Berger whose lines appear to be dubbed or shoulda been. When she realizes she's been had by this nasally mumbling opportunist, she runs into traffic and gets one of those Carrington Family Headaches the show seems so fond of; in fact, the headaches get so bad, she suddenly realizes she's loved Jeff Colby all along and wants to remarry him for no convincing reason... Blake's public-relations girl, Tracy Kendall, decides the way to get back at Krystle for taking the promotion she's hoped for is to seduce Krystle's husband in the most lazily-staged, pathetically transparent attempts imaginable... Alexis gets a new boyfriend, the effetely macho Dex Dexter, who just waltzes into her office, lays a kiss on her, and they're together forever! Only their relationship will never make any sense... The cast actually goes to film in Denver for the only time in the series' history, but it remains inside the entire time, ignoring the opportunity to obtain any exterior location footage whatsoever... Diahann Carroll shows up at the end of the year to make a now-obligatory Mysterious Entrance, and she never gets anything else to do for the next three years except hand her brother, Blake, the occasional check to "save my company, dammit!" as she's apparently now his banker.
Nothing goes anywhere. The writers no longer seem to have a story they feel compelled to tell.
At least Alexis briefly takes on a sultry, smoky-voiced sense of her own statured coolness for Season 4, causing her to seem like the only person in the Rocky Mountains who might have even a clue as to what she's actually doing --- although her spontaneous Dietrich solo routine in a cowboy bar to seal some nonsensical oil deal doesn't go far in proving it.
Oh, how good this show seemed to be a just couple of years earlier! For it is unrecognizable now. Only the diamonds and cashmere are of acceptable quality.
Reportedly, the actors have started to complain behind the scenes about all these problems, but the producers tell them "just look at the ratings" to shut them up.
Pamela Sue Martin sized up the problem very succinctly by saying that DYNASTY started out as a witty satire of the rich and famous, but quickly deteriorated into a lame celebration of same. So she left.
Despite the problems, DYNASTY continues to get near-universal praise in the American press, paralleling the Emperor's New Clothes (in this case, literally, but in reverse) "teflon" immunity enjoyed by the Reagan presidency. The show is not just coming to reflect (and be reflected by) the values of the 1980's, it's also reflecting the Denial.