The Dynasty That Could Have Been
The legendary primetime soap's surprisingly arty debut season.
1981 gave America its first female Supreme Court justice, its first test-tube baby, a resolution to the Iran hostage crisis, and, most important of all, Dynasty. At first only modestly popular, the series eventually became the top-rated show on television, and its excesses became synonymous with those of the decade. It endured for nine seasons—220 episodes rife with catfights, amnesia, look-alikes, and even a wedding disrupted by terrorists from a country called Moldavia.
Thirty years afterthe series premiere, it's possible to look back and see the unrealized promise of its less-than-blockbuster first season—the Dynasty that couldhave been, before ratings pressures and the introduction of diva Joan Collins put an end to challenging story lines. As improbable as it sounds, the series' first 13 episodes represent what might be called Dynasty's "arthouse" era, a brief period before its characters were flattened into the caricatures that came to define the prime-time soap genre.
Dynasty debuted in the shadow of CBS's Dallas—also about an oil baron and his family, but, you know, in another state. At least during its debut season, however, the series was more than just a cheap imitation of a rival's success. The pilot alone managed to touch on class tensions, gender inequality, the impact of Middle East instability on American oil prices, and even homosexuality—all while showcasing Linda Evans' impeccably blow-dried hair. Though always unabashedly a soap at heart, Dynasty, in its first season, established a number of compelling narratives that broke free of genre convention.
Initially, the series followed two families from different socioeconomic strata: that of oil baron Blake Carrington and that of middle-class striver Matthew Blaisdel. Through Blaisdel and his wildcatting partner we learn about the scrappier side of the oil business, and with surprisingly gritty realism. (The Blaisdel plots tended to unfold at glamour-free locations, from the rig to the crew's dive bar to the boxing gym.) The Blaisdels' story line was meant to give the series the epic scope and struggle of Giant, but primetime viewers didn't respond. "The audience told us almost immediately: All they wanted to do was be in the mansion," Esther Shapiro explains on the DVD of the first season. "[They] couldn't care less about the oil fields. They didn't want to see grubby rooms." By Season 2, a caricature of upstairs-downstairs life complete with butler and housemaids (but absent any real class resentment) replaced the middle-class world of the Blaisdels.
The anguished Season 1 story line of Matthew Blaisdel's wife Claudia suffered a similar fate. Claudia is first introduced in an artful, extended sequence: Matthew drives their teenage daughter to pick up her mother, who is checking out after 18 months in a sanitarium. In a delicate talk in the parking lot, he prepares his daughter for a fraught reunion, only to discover that Claudia has checkedherself out unannounced weeks earlier. Ultimately, the family comes together at the diner where she has quietly been waitressing. All of this is handled with a naturalistic touch, free of the expected histrionics and melodramatic musical cues. (In their own prime-time way, Claudia's family scenes evoke A Woman Under the Influence.) Claudia struggles through her transition back into suburban home life with convincing pathos and impressive spirit. (At one point, she recites Dorothy Parker poems as a pick-me-up.) But by Season 2, with the writers pandering to viewers who wanted to be "in the mansion," the Blaisdel family could not survive. By the middle of the second season, Matthew and Lindsay had been written out of the series with a handy car crash and by Season 3, Claudia had gone from struggling painfully with an illness to being full-on, soap-operatically crazy.
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.
Still from Dynasty © American Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved.