Dynasty: Revisiting the primetime soap's surprisingly arty debut season.

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May 25 2011 2:28 PM

The Dynasty That Could Have Been

The legendary primetime soap's surprisingly arty debut season.

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The foil to vulnerable Claudia was Blake Carrington's razor-sharp daughter Fallon. Whether intimidating the household staff or greeting an entire football team of former lovers, Fallon was the classic spoiled bitch. But in the show's early episodes, she has our sympathy, thanks to her completely unrecognized intelligence—she's as ruthless a risk-taker as her father, and a natural talent at business and backroom dealings. During her father's wedding reception, she has a fantastic monologue, berating a moderate Republican suitor for criticizing big oil: "Some people would say this country should be divided up into collective farms and run by a politburo. ... There ought to be dancing and singing in Washington over oil-company profits!" But a role in the family company is not in the cards for her: "There are no blacks, no Jews, no Eskimos, and no women," she explains. And so she applies her talents to destructive pursuits, whether it be seducing her father's business partner or competing with her stepmother, Krystle (Evans). The idea of Fallon as a stifled modern woman had no place in the series once Joan Collins joined the cast. With the introduction of Collins as Blake's exuberantly wicked, two-faced ex-wife Alexis, potentially nuanced female characters were reduced to a Madonna/whore dichotomy: You can either be a Krystle (gentle, soft-spoken, essentially good) or an Alexis (scheming, sexual, essentially evil).

Fallon's brother, Steven, is the prodigal son, leaving Denver for a decadent life in New York's East Village only to return to his father's arms and his role as heir apparent. As the first openly gay central character in a prime-time drama, Steven struggles with his sexuality in a way that book-ends the first season, which opens with his coming-out to his father and culminates in Blake's trial for the murder of Steven's lover. In the pilot, Steven and his enraged father have an impressively honest eight-minute confrontation (exceptionally long for television) in which Blake reveals that he knows of his son's boyfriend. Flailing, he tries to bridge the gap with Steven, awkwardly espousing his own view of gay sex as a temporary, curable "sexual dysfunction"—before demanding that his son "straighten [him]self out."

As played by Al Corley, Steven is right out of another James Dean film, Rebel Without a Cause, harboring a sensitivity and inner life that he can't share with his father. These qualities inspire surprising moments that would make no sense in the later iteration of Dynasty: Steven and his boyfriend, Ted, trade lines from Ben Jonson and Jonathan Swift; Claudia Blaisdel, with whom he unexpectedly begins an affair, tells Steven that he has "a tenderness that transcends gender." Steven ultimately witnesses Ted's death at the hands of his father: the network's coda to his life as a gay, or bisexual, man. With the hope of a second-season ratings boost tightening ABC's grip on the show, Steven straightened himself out with an affair (and eventual elopement) with racy blonde Heather Locklear. Corley, who protested this reversal, was soon replaced by another actor, with the only-in-a-soap excuse of an "accident" having led to emergency facial plastic surgery.

Season 2's embrace of revenge scenarios and saucy zingers from Collins saved the show from its ratings purgatory, but creators Esther and Richard Shapiro have been open about their disappointment with the direction the series took as it grew in popularity. "Had the series been left to us, and been a less huge hit, I think we would have seen these characters realized pretty much the way they are [in Season 1]," Esther says in the season one commentary track. "When Alexis came into it, it changed the tenor. … And that's the way they are now on television: you have your traditional villain, and I think that plays to a different denominator."

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The legacy of Dynasty can clearly be seen today in the primetime soap Desperate Housewives, which revitalized the genre, and even in the hysterical pitch of the Real Housewives reality franchise. But Dynasty's first season stands apart. It was an over-the-top melodrama, sure, but one that, against all odds, had an honest, emotional core. Lurking beneath the facade of monochrome pantsuits and epic shoulder pads were convincing glimpses of failed American ambition. At least, until 1982 rolled around.

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