Ah, Dynasty: the bastard child of night-time super-soap Dallas. Fans of the series who bought Season One on disc, and who very well may have thought that CBS/Paramount had forgot about them (Season One was released over two years ago), will be pleased to see that Season Two of the slap-happy bitch-fest that featured big hair, big shoulder pads and big-time over-acting, is now available in all its campy glory. With the wise decision on the producers' part to ratchet up the gloss and the backstabbing this season, while adding all-time favorite villainess Alexis Carrington (Joan Collins), and super-tramp Sammy Jo (Heather Locklear), sleepy Dynasty suddenly became a ratings contender, with audiences clamoring for more.
In 1980 and 1981, as ABC enviously watched the meteoric rise in the ratings of CBS' powerhouse Dallas, naturally they looked to exploit their own night-time sudser; after all, ABC had been a leader in the field, bringing out the iconic smash Peyton Place back in the 1960s. Pushing through a project entitled Oil, developed by TV vets Esther and Richard Shapiro, the network had the newly titled Dynasty ready for the viewers as a mid-season replacement in January, 1981. Not unlike aspects of Dallas (with the later spin-off of Knots Landing), Dynasty explored the intersection of a super-wealthy family (the Carringtons), who controlled a vast, powerful oil company, and a middle-class family (the Blaisdels) who worked in the lower tiers of the oil industry, and whose family struggles mirrored those found at the Carrington mansion.
Unfortunately for ABC, audiences stayed away. Too obviously an inferior Dallas knock-off, with viewers particularly indifferent to the boring domestic tribulations of the middle-class Blaisdel family, an immediate re-tooling of the expensive series was undertaken by producer Aaron Spelling. Something was needed to make Dynasty stand out. Where Dallas had nasty, mean-spirited financial subplots focusing on the oil industry (and a relative realism to its dramatics), Dynasty was going straight for the women viewers, emphasizing glamour, glitz, romance, and dirty, nasty sex. A mysterious, beautifully dressed stranger was seen walking into the courtroom during the season's finale (Blake was on trial for murdering his gay son Steven's lover), with the network subsequently orchestrating quite a lot of hype over the summer, priming viewers for the mystery revelation at the start of Season Two. As well, the entire Blaisdel angle of the series was dropped, save for keeping mentally unbalanced Claudia Blaisdel (Pamela Belwood) in the cast. Dreary middle-class worries be damned; Dynasty was going to wallow whole-hog in the lives of the super-rich and super-powerful.
Expectant audiences tuning into Season Two were rewarded with the introduction of one of the all-time best TV villains, Collins' Alexis, Blake's ex-wife. Dynasty was no longer a semi-serious attempt to do a standard family drama set against big oil, but an amped-up, glitz-heavy soap seething with sex and sin. The re-tooling worked spectacularly - as did a judicious day and time change. Escaping its deadly 9:00pm Monday night slot, where it was getting slaughtered by M*A*S*H and the NBC Monday Night Movie, Dynasty moved over to weak night Wednesday at 10:00pm (so as not to scare the kiddies who may have stayed up for ABC newcomers Greatest American Hero and The Fall Guy). Limp competition from failing series vet Quincy, M.E. over on NBC, and non-starter Shannon on CBS, no doubt helped Dynasty's chances enormously. Audiences responded overwhelmingly to the changes; Dynasty went from almost being canceled, to finishing out this second season 19th for the year in the Nielsen's, climbing higher each subsequent year until it hit the coveted number one position in the 1984-1985 season.
I hadn't seen the series since it first ran, so I wasn't sure what to expect when I started wading through the 22 episodes of Dynasty: The Second Season. Having reviewed the past three season releases of Dallas, I was a little spoiled by that series' superior scripting, direction and performances, and I wasn't sure how well Dynasty was going to hold up in comparison to the mighty Dallas. Well, I have to admit that I had a marvelous time watching Dynasty: The Second Season. In comparison to Dallas' "realism," Dynasty's presentational style may be cheap, but it's engaging as hell, with the plots never pausing for a moment to ponder subtleties of character motivation. Don't let the expensive gowns, beautiful cars, and the lavish sets of Dynasty fool you: this is cheap, crude melodrama at its most basic - and most enjoyable.
The dramatic framework of Dynasty is as old as the hills, with tit-for-tat revenge in both business and personal lives creating the most base thrills for the audience (it's hard to imagine today, considering the almost X-rated material that's available on basic cable shows, that Dynasty caused quite a bit of controversy when it came out). Of course, audiences always "rediscover" such devices when they're repackaged to fit the times, and Dynasty did this quite adroitly, enhanced by ABC's slick house style in the production design and lensing. The series' main story arc ostensibly revolves around oil baron Blake Carrington's (every woman with a daddy complex's dream, John Forsythe) efforts to keep his family united. In reality, most episodes of Dynasty devolve into Blake, knee-deep in financial trouble (which is usually background filler), trying to stay out of the way of the squabbling wildcats in his life, best illustrated by the epic battle between former wife - and obvious spawn of Satan - Alexis (played to utter perfection by delicious Joan Collins) and current wife Krystle (played as well as can be expected, considering the sometimes sappy character, by Linda Evans). As much as business matters in Dallas, where complicated oil deals and financial setbacks involving wills and probate courts are routinely strung along multiple season story arcs (and the viewer is expected to remember them), business doesn't matter in the slightest in Dynasty. Only games of sexual one-upmanship and constant, bitter emotional betrayals are deemed necessary here.
And while later seasons of Dynasty increasingly spun out of control because the series became too self-aware of its own camp aspects (the "Moldavian wedding massacre" would be a prime example), we're seeing just the beginnings of those leanings here in this second season. Collins' character, designed as a direct knock-off of Dallas's J.R. Ewing, is a monstrous "Joan Crawford on steroids" creation that started Dynasty down its self-reflexive road. And she's a character that never fails to entertain, precisely because Collins plays her right to the back stalls. Shoulders always held back at a haughty angle, with an imperious upward tilt to her nose (unless she's coldly peering down at her next victim), Collins is hysterical in her late-career making role. There's no time in Dynasty's plots for subtlety, and Collins compensates by sweeping into her scenes to start immediately chewing the scenery. Delivering dialogue that would mortify Jacqueline Susann ("I'm glad to see your father had your teeth fixed...if not your tongue."), Collins proves a more than adept comedian. And let's not forget our other prime-time vixen added to this year's cast: little sex shooter Heather Locklear as white trash angel turned spoiled Carrington, Sammy Jo. Her scantily clad appearances definitely helped skew Dynasty towards the more desirable younger demographics, and it's not hard to see why, considering the almost spooky fixation the series has on showcasing her rear end, episode after episode (why, you may ask? Because it's perfection, that's why).
With these two hellions butting heads - and rutting in-between the sheets at every opportunity - it's not surprising that the more serious aspects of the series seem rather tame by comparison, including Krystle's gradual disengagement from Blake, Steven (Al Corely) finally coming out of the closet for good, Fallon's (Pamela Sue Martin) near-abortion, Claudia's further mental derailment, and mysterious Dr. Toscanni's (James Farentino) murderous revenge plot against Blake and his family. Certainly, Collins scores the season's highlights, including a hysterical catfight with Krystle (where the stunt doubles are so obviously not Evans and Collins that it must have been intentionally shot that way), that became an audience favorite and a much-anticipated staple in later seasons. However, the season's final episode, where Collins makes love to Lloyd Bochner's Cecil Colby, has to be one of the greatest moments in camp TV history. As we see dissolve after dissolve of Collins and Bochner in what looks like bizarre G-rated porno shots of them making love, Bochner, no doubt not used to the almost supernatural quality and duration of Alexis' lovemaking skills, suffers what appears to be a fatal heart attack. As he screams and grasps his chest, Alexis responds by viciously slapping his face, over and over again to the point of hilarity, as she berates him for spoiling her plans to get back at Blake. While he's dying. Too ridiculous to be sick, it's one of the funniest scenes I've seen this year, and deserves big kudos for being so blatantly audacious and crude. No wonder people couldn't wait for Season Three of Dynasty to start in the fall.
Here are the 22, one-hour episodes of the six-disc box set Dynasty: The Second Season, as described on its insert. PLEASE NOTE: As with most vintage TV series released by CBS/Paramount, there is a small disclaimer (smaller than normal, actually, with no prominent border box for this one) at the back of the DVD slimcase that states, "Some episodes may be edited from their network versions." There is no further explanation of what cuts, if any, were made. I don't have a photographic memory of the show, but I didn't notice anything egregious in the editing. Most of the episodes time out at a little more than 48 minutes, which is about right for the original network run times. It's possible, though, that these are the syndicated versions, which may account for the minor cuts for time. Edited TV shows are one of the hottest topics concerning DVD releases, and as a reviewer, I've taken both sides of the issue, depending on what title I'm reviewing. It's usually a case-by-case basis. Here, with Dynasty: The Second Season, the show is so enjoyable, and the fact that most of the run times seem close if not complete, prompts my favorable rating. I've included run times for all the episodes:
Enter Alexis (46:52)
The Verdict (48:26)
Alexis' Secret (48:10)
Fallon's Father (48:24)
Viva Las Vegas (48:24)
The Miscarriage (48:31)
The Mid-East Meeting (48:37)
The Psychiatrist (47:59)
Sammy Jo and Steven Marry (47:55)
The Car Explosion (48:15)
Blake's Blindness (48:07)
The Hearing (47:55)
The Iago Syndrome (48:11)
The Party (48:20)
The Baby (48:15)
Mother and Son (48:05)
The Gun (48:07)
The Fragment (47:57)
The Shakedown (48:16)
The Two Princes (48:08)
The Cliff (48:07)
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.