Alexandra Jacobs
May 09, 1997 AT 04:00 AM EDT

When Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter plummeted off a balcony on May 11, 1989, in Dynasty‘s final cliff-hanger, she might as well have been clutching a placard reading ”With Me Goes the Age of Excess.” Blake had been shot. Krystle was in a coma. And so were the ratings of the ABC prime-time soap that had, for eight mercurial years, bottled the essence of the ’80s into a fancy flacon. ”It was a trek into fantasy,” says cocreator Esther Shapiro.

A trek, maybe — on stiletto heels. The Aaron Spelling production launched Jan. 12, 1981, a week before Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. At first, it was dismissed as a thinly plotted, if better decorated ”Dallas in Denver.” The chiseled John Forsythe, who’d voiced the unseen Charlie on Charlie’s Angels, says he patterned Dynasty patriarch and oil tycoon Blake Carrington after pal and then MCA chairman Lew Wasserman: ”very tough, very decent, very honorable.” But it was the end-of-season arrival of Blake’s ex, Alexis (Joan Collins on Margo Channing autopilot), and her catfights with beatific second wife Krystle (Linda Evans), that sent Nielsens soaring over mansion rooftops. ”People love to laugh at the rich,” sighs Spelling.

Yet Dynasty broke more ground in TV history than on its fictional oil fields. Blake’s son Steven (Al Corley; later, Jack Coleman) was one of prime time’s first openly gay characters. Blake’s half sister, Dominique Deveraux (Diahann Carroll), was also an on-screen rarity: a wealthy African-American female. Carroll, Collins, Evans, and others portrayed women over 40, even 50, with robust and obvious sex lives.

Afforded an unheard-of $18,000-per-episode costume budget, designer Nolan Miller encased these leading ladies in a parade of glittering gowns and power suits, accented with Nerf-ball-size shoulder pads and jewels rented from Cartier. ”It was,” believes Forsythe, ”a revival of MGM pictures of the ’30s and ’40s. Anytime you have a fallow time in the country, there are audiences looking for something.” They found a trail of spin-off items, from $10 bottles of Forever Krystle cologne to $200,000 chinchilla coats. The most costly line extension, however, was 1985’s Dynasty II: The Colbys, which siphoned some of the original’s core cast members. Fraught with offscreen infighting, Dynasty couldn’t share the wealth with its sibling. Forsythe believes that scripts reflected an increasing complacency. By the end, he says, ”no one was watching the store.”

Just after President Bush’s first hundred days, Dynasty was over, revived only for 1991’s plot-resolving miniseries. ”We’d done everything we could,” says Spelling. Still, Melrose Place‘s Amanda (Heather Locklear, who played Krystle’s niece Sammy Jo) clearly learned something at Alexis’ knee.

May 11, 1989

Moviegoers were frothing at the mouth for K-9. Readers pondered both Going Within: A Guide for Inner Transformation and The Satanic Verses, while listeners found solace in Bon Jovi’s ”I’ll Be There for You.”

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