‘Falcon Crest’ (Season 2): Melodrama & glamour ramp up in 2nd season

“Falcon Crest is a cancer; it contaminates everybody it touches!  Get away, if you can!”

By Paul Mavis

Relative realism gives way to increasingly ridiculous melodrama…thank god. As you regular Drunk TV readers are already aware (you know…there’s help out there for you. The first step is acknowledging there’s a problem), we love our vintage prime time soaps here, particularly the shenanigans going on at Napa Valley’s Falcon Crest. Well, after several years of spotty DVD releases and streaming availability, it’s time to ramp up the pressure on the Bros’ Warner to release the rest of the series.  And I can’t think of a better way than a tactical nuclear strike to repurpose an old review of Falcon Crest’s second season.  That’ll show ‘em!

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Let’s bring you up to date, briefly, with the mischievous knavery going on in the storied Tuscany Valley vineyards. Newcomer to the Valley and utterly ruthless businessman Richard Channing (David Selby) is out to screw everybody. The bastard son of Angela Channing’s (Jane Wyman) dead husband, Channing now controls the majority stock holdings in the powerful San Francisco Globe, the Channing family newspaper. Backed by the mysterious “Cartel,” fronted by adoptive father, Henry Denault (E.G. Marshall), Richard is coming to the Valley to exact revenge on the Channing family (for being abandoned as a child), as well as to discover the identity of his long-lost mother. Not buying his phony fraternal act is half-brother Chase Gioberti (Robert Foxworth), who has enough on his plate, worrying about his screenplay-writing wife, Maggie (Susan Sullivan) running off with slimy Hollywood producer Darryl Clayton (Bradford Dillman), his dippy daughter Victoria (Jamie Rose) falling for married weasel Nick Hogan (Roy Thinnes), and his even dopier son Cole’s (William R. Moses) arrest for the murder of Carol Agretti (Carlos Romero)—who just happens to be the father of Melissa Agretti (Ana Alicia)…who now carries Cole’s baby.

Melissa’s husband, rich, spoiled, vindictive playboy Lance Cumson (Lorenzo Lamas), isn’t giving up on his arranged marriage with the little hellcat, however.  He knows that baby, whose parentage is falsely attributed to him, is the link between the spectacular Falcon Crest winery and the fabled grapes grown at the Agretti vineyard. And since Lance stands to inherit a sizable portion of Falcon Crest, he does what he’s told to do by Falcon Crest matriarch and chief web-spinner, Angela Channing, his grandmother, who wants that Agretti land at all costs—particularly since she now has to fight off the vengeful, land-hungry Richard. Angela easily controls weakling daughter Julia (Abby Dalton), Lance’s mother, but she has no control over total screwball Emma (Margaret Ladd), who’s off gallivanting across the country in search of a sanitarium. Enter Jacqueline Perrault (Lana Turner), Chase’s wayward mother and hated enemy of Angela’s, and the pot is ready to boil over in the Tuscany Valley.

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In my review of Falcon Crest’s first season, I discussed the balancing act the series walked between the Waltons-esque realism generated by the show’s creator, Earl Hamner, and the dictates of CBS, which wanted a nighttime soap filled with sex and backstabbing not at all unlike their monster hit, Dallas.  No doubt buoyed by the success of that first mid-season offering of Falcon Crest (it was the 13th most-popular show for the entire year), CBS couldn’t be blamed for encouraging the more florid elements of the series to dominate during the 1982-1983 season, particularly since ABC’s Dallas-inspired knock-off, Dynasty, was exploding each week in the ratings, elevating high-gloss junk into pop art.

Straight dramatic themes obviously still ground Falcon Crest here (Chase and Maggie’s troubled marriage, the Cole/Melissa/Lance triangle concerning baby Joseph’s parentage, Victoria’s affair with a married man are all pretty standard dramatic conventions). But the accompanying frameworks are becoming more outsized and…luxurious now:  Maggie isn’t going to sleep with someone from the PTO, she goes to Hollywood to possibly cheat; baby Joseph is a pawn not between three people who work at Wal-Mart, but between multi-millionaire vintners. Meanwhile, more outrageously melodramatic plotlines are steadily drawn into the mix: the wonderfully epic evilness of Richard Channing’s revenge plot; the loony attempted killings of various Falcon Crest denizens. Those decisions to veer Falcon Crest towards camp paid off, with the series shooting into the Nielsen Top Ten (it finished 8th for the year).  

The Chase and Maggie characters—the morally-upstanding centers of the series—are finally dirtied up a bit this season, with Maggie almost cheating on Chase with Bradford Dillman, while ignoring her husband for her screenwriting work, while Chase, the epitome of the sensitive 80s man-of-action, forgets what’s important in his marriage (which is, apparently, doing what Maggie says) and becomes obsessed with finding Agretti’s murderer. Nothing gums up the works in a juicy nighttime soap faster than stick-in-the-mud, holier-than-thou characters, so it’s good to see that the scripters have given this happy couple a rocky row to hoe.

The arrival of the Richard Channing character, though, has to be the season’s highlight, with actor David Selby creating a memorably mysterious, silky-smooth manipulator who’s tortured by a devastating secret: his mother sold him away as a baby. Achieving a nice completeness of story arc (Richard is introduced with a mission to destroy the Channings, he has his way with his inferior opponents until he’s almost brought down, before he triumphantly returns), the Richard Channing character finally gives Wyman’s sh*t-stirrer Angela a run for her money, providing Falcon Crest fans with not one but two A-level villains when competing soaps like Dallas and Dynasty were dominated by just one apiece.

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I’ve always found Selby a tad stiff in his other projects (I didn’t get him at all in Dark Shadows), but here he’s remarkably good, creating a plausibly motivated (within the context of a soap/serial, of course), dimensional character that he makes quite interesting with some astute, subtle acting choices. Oftentimes, he looks half-amused at the silliness around him, but he’s wise enough to play it straight…with a touch of playfulness to the character that’s just right for tone. Despite the deliciously overblown story arc involving Agretti’s killer trying to strike again, Richard Channing’s subplot provides the real backbone of this season, melding interesting character psychology with agreeably overstated melodrama in the form of all that “Cartel” business.

Certainly, a bit of “Dynasty creep,” (you bet I coined that phrase years back) seeps into Falcon Crest whenever grande dames Wyman and Turner square off (you’d never believe it now, but it was still pretty wild to hear someone yell out, “You bitch!” in 1982 primetime). Whatever the reason for Turner’s departure from the series after this season, it’s too bad she won’t be coming back (from the sources I’ve read, there apparently was a feud going on with lead star Wyman…but that all could have been generated for publicity). The old Hollywood glamour and weight Lana Turner brings to her scenes are delectable, and twice as much fun when she’s hamming it up with Wyman (Selby holds his own with this genuine Hollywood legend, too, when Lana spits out, “Then be damned!” after he spurns his mother’s love, to which he shouts, “I was born damned!”—a moment worthy of any of Lana’s Ross Hunter outings).

But then, increasing ridiculousness along the lines of Dynasty works well within the Falcon Crest mold because the scripters, as well as the directors and the actors, are always careful (at least for this second season) to keep things relatively straight-faced. Yes, it’s silly to see Cole pick up the murder weapon over Agretti’s body (and helpfully wipe blood on his own shirt), or to see Lance and Cole have a kung fu fight amid the barrels of wine, or to see the lush, full Ana Alicia panting and heaving like a bitch in heat when she’s making out with Richard, before letting Lance force himself on her…much to her delight (from face slapping to her groans of sexual pleasure as she hisses, “I hate you!” before he responds, “You’re incredible!”—this is the kind of stuff we live for here at Drunk TV). All silly…but it all works because Falcon Crest isn’t ashamed to be obvious about its intentions.

Ultimately, that’s the kind of nonsense we look for in these examples of 80s primetime soaps, and Falcon Crest doesn’t let us down—albeit, in a very classy way. Attention to character details is always a welcome surprise here (the black-hearted Richard always drinking an innocuous glass of milk; the shifty, amoral Angela stating she prefers the time of day between the darkness and light); those kinds of solid little underpinnings make the more baroque aspects of the show somehow more plausible (this season’s final whodunit is a good example—it’s stupid, to be sure…but you buy the characters’ motivations). We’ll just have to see who bought it in the end when season three rolls around….

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

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