Dynasty Retrospective -- A Look Back at The Original Smash Before CW Takes a Second Slap at the Premise

Written Slapping Off Insults Like the Stooges by Bridger Cunningham

Related imageWednesday, October 11 marks the revival of 80's guilty pleasure Dynasty, rife with a polished new cast and just as much camp as the original.  Just like the original series' 1st season, iconic shrew Alexis Carrington is nowhere to be found, but most of the other ensemble characters are there with a liberal helping of diversity.  And this time around, the setting changes from Denver's lucrative oil industry to an unspecified company in Atlanta.  Like the original, Cristal (Krystle in the original) works for the wealthy 50-ish billionaire Blake Carrington.  In the original, Krystle was a white blonde secretary.  In the revival, she is Hispanic and employed at the same level as Blake's vicious daughter, Fallon.  The revival also features gay son Steven.  In 1981, a taboo as this was the first contract gay character on TV.  In 2017, just another welcome character for exploration.  Unlike the original, Sammy Jo is present from the beginning.  1981's version cast a light on beauty Heather Locklear, whereas 2017 sees Sammy Jo still scheming, but one major change as Sammy Jo is transformed into a man!

Before delving down the rabbit hole further on the revival, let's anchor back to the original.  The soapy premise was developed as a direct knockoff of CBS' uber popular Dallas, also traversed in the oil industry.  Consequently, the pilot was simply titled "Oil," and the primary family had the surname "Pankhurst."  ABC polished up its copycat product, refining the grimy name to "Dynasty" and giving the family a more appealing WASP name of "Carrington."  Also tweaked was George Peppard in the role of Blake as he did not jell with the cast or the character.  Initially slated to start in the fall of 1980, the 1980 Actor's Strike pushed the premiere to Monday, January 12, 1981 at 10:00.  Ratings were modest and tied performance with Dallas spinoff, Knots Landing.

The first season centered on Krystle Jennings Carrington (Linda Evans) entering into the wealthy Carrington clan.  Her business-savvy husband Blake (John Forsythe, fresh off his stint on Charlie's Angels) tried to ease her transition with lavish gifts, resulting in continued awkwardness.  Blake's children had mixed feelings about their father's younger bride.  Steven (Al Corley), conflicted with his sexuality, took kindly to Krystle's gentle nature.  The same could not be said about his vindictive sister, Fallon (Pamela Sue Martin, of Nancy Drew fame), who plotted with chauffeur Michael Culhane (Wayne Northrop), also her bedfellow.  Michael was not the only Carrington staff member who resented Krystle's arrival, as snarky British butler Joseph Anders (Lee Bergere) took every opportunity to needle the new Mrs. Carrington.  His attacks were so vicious, Fallon even laid down her sword for a brief moment and gave Krystle pointers about how people in their class handle common situations and how to fight back against unruly staff members.

As if that ensemble was not large enough, two more folds entered the series, on contract!  Blue collar oil wildcatter Walter Lankershim (Dale Robertson) recruited Denver-Carrington geologist Matthew Blaisdel (Bo Hopkins), Krystle's former lover.  Matthew's frail wife Claudia (Pamela Bellwood) recently returned from a mental institution and struggled in her marriage and dealing with a 13-year old daughter, Lindsey (Katy Kurtzman).  And of course, there were not enough upper-class folks in the inflated roster, a rival family called the Colbys remained on the fringes with 20-something love interest Jeff (John James) entering into an arranged marriage with Fallon as she struck a deal with his uncle Cecil (Lloyd Bochner), her father's business rival.

Season 1 performed alright, but producers decided to retool the premise to speak to its audience.  They took the action away from the grimy oil fields and centered the action in the mansion.  The cast was adjusted, eliminating characters Michael, Matthew, Walter and Lindsey.  Producers decided to even out the pacing and attract specific audiences.  Steven's sexuality was timely and edgy for the early 80's, but received criticism from both opponents and the LGBT community who lambasted inaccurate portrayals of gay men.  Season 1 ended in a controversial note as Blake accidentally pushed Steven's lover Ted Dinard to his death.  As he stood trial, the cliffhanger of the season was Blake's first wife, Alexis Carrington, being called to testify in his trial (obscured in suspense as the role had not been cast).  An aggressive casting call nearly straddled Sophia Loren to take on the role, but ultimately British beauty Joan Collins succeeded the casting call and reinvented the premise.  Showrunners decided to take drastic action to become a household name, accelerating the outrageous writing and plot twists to get the water cooler talk going.

Before Alexis' arrival, using the word "bitch" on television was controversial and shoved the envelope.  That word was not only brandished throughout the show to describe Alexis, but also became a proud source of feminism with casting as Alexis was beautiful, shrewd, haughty and vulnerable all in one richly crafted character.  She was just as nasty as Dallas' JR, all the while prancing through the sets with poise like a lady.  Adding Alexis to the fold reinvigorated the premise and allowed Dynasty to distinguish itself beyond its plagiaristic reputation.  Dynasty made valiant efforts to cater to multiple demographics.  For the women, lust, love, glamour and female rivalries kept their eyeballs on the ladies' latest fashions and power plays.  For the men, the business wranglings kept their interests, along with an infusion of ladies who were all seeing offer to appear in Playboy (Martin, Evans and Bellwood bared it all with the right offer).  Both male and female viewers enjoyed the lavish and polished sets, a departure from the recession the country still had not recovered from.

Image result for dynasty slap fight gifHeather Locklear was added to the cast as Krystle's trashy, opportunistic niece Sammy Jo.  Locklear's arrival was implemented to quell the "controversial" gay story Steven had, as he now had Sammy Jo and Claudia as lovers and later wives.  The greatest "character" to arrive was the haughty rivalry between Krystle and Alexis.  The Carrington wives crafted a trend which has yet to go out of style: a catfight!  Google "Dynasty Catfight" and enjoy a haughty display of ladies gone bad, smashing beautiful sets and slapping each other silly like The Three Stooges.  As much as viewers enjoyed lavish parties and weddings, they awaited the next throw-down between the principle ladies.

Ratings continued on an upward trajectory, hitting their zenith in Season 5 when the show reached 1st Place.  Ironic, as ABC slid to 3rd Place in the overall season ratings.  The upward trend in the ratings facilitated high budgets and discussion of a spinoff called The Colbys.  However, this series jumped the shark this season in the now infamous Moldavian massacre in the season finale.  The premise had newfound Carrington daughter Amanda (Catherine Oxenberg) marrying Prince Michael (Andrew Praed) from the fictional land of Moldavia.  Initially marketed as a beautiful tribute to Prince Charles and Diana Spencer's 1981 wedding, the tone soured at the close of the episode when terrorists riddled the wedding chapel with bullets.

The massacre was meant to not only "shock" viewers as they had in the past, put also acted as a power play by producers as several cast members' contracts were in negotiation.  Blood was dispersed liberally across the cast, making it known to viewers and the cast any of the characters could die.  Season 6 resumed with everyone dusting off debris and washing off blood like a little kid getting scraped on the playground as only two minor characters died.  By this time though, producers burned out the shock fuse in its fans and little could keep them glued to their sets.  Cast members were checking in and out of the series like hotel guests, even with a few characters being recast midway through the series.  Doppelgangers, fires and back from the dead characters no longer shocked fans the way they did when Krystle and Alexis first decimated the set in a rage and display of poor behavior.  And the spinoff tanked inside two years.  In short, the series played out.

Ratings began sharp descents southward, falling out of the Top 20 by 1987, crashing to 69th Place by Season 9 in 1989.  Did something change creatively during the last half of the series?  Not quite; it was a mere overdose of outlandishness.  Showrunners failed to recognize their drastic measures may have initially launched she show, but viewers were already hooked.  They loved the characters, the sets, the corporate intrigue, the clothing and just looking at the show's beauty.  It was a pleasant distraction from both the late 70's/early 80's recession and the Cold War.  Dallas held the same appeal and succeeded as it never exhibited the outrageous measures Dynasty overdosed on.  And that is why all of Dynasty's competing nighttime soaps outlived their presence.

While outlandish, Dynasty was not a bad show.  Bad shows do not see 1st Place, nor do they get revived decades later in an effort by networks to relive an era's nostalgia.  So what can the revival learn from its predecessor?  They are already on the right track by resurrecting a beautiful backdrop.  An iconic opening will also embed visuals in the audience's viewing habits.  The most grounded feature the original series had was the lavish opening, always promptly updated and exhibiting the highest class.  Writing is the key to success, as seen by the CW's successes with Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries and The Flash.  CW is aided by a lucrative deal with Netflix to gain exposure, so soft ratings may not harm the fledgling revival.  Dial down the outlandishness and focus on writing and glam.  America has just recovered from one of its most devastating economic depressions and is due for some pleasure.

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