❉ Alun Harris continues his investigation of how camp soap ‘Dynasty’ became a victim of its own success…
Last time we looked at ‘Dynasty’ before and just after Alexis arrived and I made the assertion that the programme was doomed from the moment Alexis became the star.
Alexis wasn’t from ‘Dynasty’. Krystle, Blake, Fallon et al were credibly established characters doing their own thing in their own city. Alexis arrives from another country…no. Not from another country. Alexis arrives from another world. She’s from a programme completely different to ‘Dynasty’. I can’t even suggest where she comes from. The character and performance are so unlike everyone else around her that she’s uncategorisable. Or she’s Servalan in Denver, and the audience loved it.
This is where it all goes wrong. This is, in fact, where it goes wrong for any television series which becomes incredibly successful and then starts to wonder what they did that worked so well.
Quite simply, this is not how television should work. The viewers should never dictate what happens, and if you spend time trying to second guess what it is that the viewers want to see, you’ll forget what it was that made them want to watch in the first place. ‘Dynasty’ is perhaps the most potent example of that.
Alexis is the only person who keeps pointing out that Blake is a dangerously violent bastard and she’s the only person who keeps on pricking the bubble of pomposity in every other character.
The warning signs are there early on – Cecil Colby revealed as a Bond villain in a particularly unexpected twist (unexpected not because it’s clever but because it’s so breathtakingly ridiculous, particularly in the reveal which sees him swivel his chair, turn to camera and speak directly to the viewers. It’s not a clever moment, it’s not a great shock, it’s the point at which the series began to veer into parody) and Alexis doing, well, pretty much whatever she was doing.
There are two things that go wrong here. The first it the makers assuming that Alexis is the most interesting person on Earth, and the second is trying to outdo whatever they did in the previous season in the mistaken belief that this is exactly what the viewers want. It’s not. Yes, the viewers liked Alexis and wanted to see more of her, but that’s mainly because Joan’s performance is so grand and because despite being depicted as some kind of villain Alexis is actually quite likeable. She’s the only person who is remotely accepting of Steven’s homosexuality, she’s the only person who keeps pointing out that Blake is a dangerously violent bastard and she’s the only person who keeps on pricking the bubble of pomposity in every other character. It’s not surprising the viewers loved her – she’s fun. She’s fun in a programme which was lacking any semblance of fun in its first season. She’s fun to watch. That doesn’t mean the audience wants her to start making elaborate plans to destroy Blake, or to take over whatever company she so chooses in order to hurt Blake, or to do any of the things she does. They just want to see her being her while everyone else carries on doing what they do.
But that’s not what happens. Alexis becomes the focus – at one point she’s framed for murder by a male senator out for revenge who dresses up as Alexis and throws someone off a balcony. The last sentence is something I find amazing that I have ever written yet by the stage of the programme in which this happens it’s almost mundane – and the series loses direction completely. Suddenly everyone’s character becomes as large as Alexis. In all honesty, it’s the only way they could play scenes with her. Hell, even her fourth husband, a man we initially meet in the countryside chopping wood – a fairly routine thing for anyone to be doing – is revealed to be the long-lost son of the family’s former butler out for revenge. And he’s one of the more credible characters.
Suddenly everyone has a flamboyant character, suddenly everyone’s performance is arch and any acknowledgement at reality becomes perfunctory at best.
And it’s not just Alexis – suddenly everyone begins to behave more like her. Any pretence at the reality established in the first season goes out of the window. Suddenly everyone has a flamboyant character (except Steven, natch), suddenly everyone’s performance is arch (particularly when they share a scene with Joanie) and any acknowledgement at reality becomes perfunctory at best. What makes matters worse is that the plots become far, far more important than the characters so that quite often people have to act out of character for things to happen. Over the course of nine seasons some character changes are inevitable, but not to this extent. How the actors coped with this is a mystery, and one which provides great entertainment for a regular viewer. Just sit back as Joan struggles to find a way to make Alexis’s latest escapade remotely credible. Gasp at Heather Locklear’s ability to make Sammy Jo a believable character. Best of all, watch Pamela Bellwood. Of all the cast, Claudia Blaisdel is the most thankless part. Claudia changes character completely whenever the plot needs it, sometimes in the middle of a season, sometimes in the middle of an episode and a few times in the middle of a single scene.
How Pamela Bellwood could act any of this is beyond me (given the confused and slightly pained expression she adopts throughout, it seems to be beyond her too, which is probably why she gave up two thirds of the way through and asked to leave) and it’s quite unforgiveable when the key staff on the writing team remain the same throughout the series. One would expect them to know what their own characters would be capable of doing, yet they’re so intent on outdoing the season finale the previous year that logic, character and basic common sense go out of the window.
Suddenly you have all of the characters assembled in a fictitious European country for a royal wedding at which point there’s a coup and armed guerrillas burst in to the ceremony and mow everyone down with submachine guns.
This is the second thing which damaged the series irredeemably – their season finales. Early on it’s all standard stuff (a trial/a car crash) but then they have to up the ante (a kidnapping/a heart attack/a horse riding accident) and then again (a burning building containing Krystle and Alexis/paternity revelation) and then obviously it needs to be bigger (major car accident/shock arrest for murder) until suddenly you have all of the characters assembled in a fictitious European country for a royal wedding at which point there’s a coup and armed guerrillas burst in to the ceremony and mow everyone down with submachine guns.
The Moldavian Massacre is a great moment; it’s the moment that cemented ‘Dynasty’s viewing success, lead to a spin-off but it’s also the moment that destroyed the series.
To be fair, the Moldavian massacre is a genuinely stunning finale (and that the production team were so good at building up to their increasingly insane finales doesn’t really help either – sadly they were never that good at resolving them. One imagines all the staff in the writers room trying to outdo one another as they pile incident onto incident before breaking for the summer, completely forgetting that they never bothered working out how to resolve things) but the following season fails to pay it off in the slightest (to the extent that the programme itself seems to forget it even happened just a few episodes later) with the rather disappointing explanation that only a couple of minor (and only recently introduced) characters are dead and everyone else is fine. To call this anti-climactic is something of an understatement.
The Moldavian Massacre is a great moment; it’s the moment that cemented ‘Dynasty’s viewing success, lead to a spin-off but it’s also the moment that destroyed the series. Disappointed viewers finally realised that no matter how exciting things got they were never going to pay off properly, and soon ‘Dynasty’ was dropping down the charts. This is what happens when the people making a series start deliberately playing to their audience. This is what happens when the writers forget what they’re supposed to be doing and start to do what they think other people think they should be doing. This is what happens when a programme starts to believe its own hype.
The Nazi gold and alien abduction weren’t even that surprising in the final years of ‘Dynasty’ – what’s most surprising is that it took nine seasons before someone finally pulled the plug.
❉ ‘Dynasty’ the complete series is available on DVD from the usual sources.