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

What you're watching.
May 25 2011 2:28 PM

The Dynasty That Could Have Been

The legendary primetime soap's surprisingly arty debut season.

(Continued from Page 1)

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."

Advertisement

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.

Alex Mar is a writer/director whose work has also appeared in New York magazine and Rolling Stone. Her first film, the documentary American Mystic, will be released this year.

TODAY IN SLATE

Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Oct. 19 2014 1:05 PM Dawn Patrol Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critically important 5 a.m. wake-up call on voting rights.
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
  Life
Outward
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Oct. 17 2014 1:33 PM What Happened at Slate This Week?  Senior editor David Haglund shares what intrigued him at the magazine. 
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 19 2014 4:33 PM Building Family Relationships in and out of Juvenile Detention Centers
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Space: The Next Generation
Oct. 19 2014 11:45 PM An All-Female Mission to Mars As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.