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.

'Dynasty' still from the 1st season.
Linda Evans in Dynasty

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.

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."

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.