The 1980s nighttime soap Dynasty has a special place in my childhood because it was fabulously popular among my family members, and even though I was a kid, I often was asked to watch the show and translate some of the dizzying plot twists to my grandmother. Dynasty has become a camp classic, a guilty pleasure, and something of a dated artifact. Much of the legacy of Dynasty and its enduring popularity is due to its star, Joan Collins, who injected the show with an endearingly bitchy performance as the scheming villainess, Alexis Carrington.
The funny thing is the first season of Dynasty doesn’t feature Collins – Alexis hasn’t made her way into the Denver lives of the oil baron, Blake Carrington (John Forsythe), his trophy wife Krystal (Linda Evans), or his brood of dramatic children, Fallon (Pamela Sue Martin) and Steven (Al Corley). The first season of the show is trying to develop some kind of personality – during the initial few months, we’re treated to an Upstairs, Downstairs type of show, where the upper class go through various scandals and love triangles, with the working class must also contend with dramatic dittos of their own.
Blake Carrington owns Denver Carrington, a huge oil corporation. He marries his secretary, Krystal, much to the consternation of his wild child daughter Fallon, and to the sniffing derision of his snobby staff (yes, the maids and butlers are snobs). Because this is a melodrama, there are scores of intrigue and betrayal: Krystal had an affair with Matthew Blaisdel (Bo Hopkins), an oil rig operator, who has recently reunited with his lovely wife, Claudia (Pamela Bellwood), who just checked out of the mental institution. Matthew’s big drama is that he’s trying to wring money out of an oil well, that may or may not be any good. Denver Carrington has tried buying the possible gold mine, but its offers have been rebuffed, and Blake’s pissed because all of his overseas revenue from oil is tied up in pesky political instability (this was filmed during the Iran Hostage Crisis).
And even though Blake professes his love for his family, he won’t be winning any trophies for father or husband of the year: his son, Steven, is gay, and is seen as a monstrous disappointment to the family; meanwhile, Blake’s continuously suspicious of his wife, and not convinced that Krystal’s over Matthew (and we’re not sure, either). He also sees his daughter as something of a tart – always in danger of shaming the Carrington name.
Because the show hasn’t settled into a rhythm, we’re not sure what kind of show it is, and who the characters are. Dynasty was seen as the chief competitor of the other nighttime soap juggernaut, Dallas. And Dallas‘s influence can be seen in the early characterization of Blake – he’s made out to be an evil oil tycoon, much like Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing. He considerably softened during the rest of the show, but in the first season, Blake does some crazy stuff like raping his wife, hiring goons to beat up his daughter’s lover, and then killing his son’s gay lover. Yet, in classic soap opera convention, we’re still meant to understand why the other characters forgive him, and go back to him.
It would be an understatement to say the sexual politics are severely messed up. The women in the show are merely there for their men’s egos – they’re manhandled continuously, and their agency and autonomy are tied up in richer men’s hands. Also Steven’s homosexuality is treated very shoddily – sometimes he’s gay and then other times, he’s quick to jump into bed with women. Meanwhile, Fallon – despite being ostensibly an intelligent woman – is little more than a prize fillie, bred to be a prize for an eligible bachelor from a good family. The men have much more control and self-determination on the show.
Because of the whip lash-inducing twists and turns, the actors are given some pretty incredulous stuff to work with, and they do it all with earnest, grim performances. Forsythe manages to elevate his work and inject some gravitas, despite the absurdity of his character’s situation. As the saintly wife, Evans is rather flaccid and a bore. Hopkins is seemingly channeling either Marlon Brando or James Dean, and reaches for Method intensity, but merely comes off as broad and over-reaching. The only cast member who seems to get the humor of the show is Martin, who walks away with her scenes, with a cartoony, stylized performance that is appropriate for a show like this.
Of course the real issue is the lack of Joan Collins – the only reason the show is remembered fondly. The catfights between Alexis and Krystal are legendary – they’ve entered camp lore. Much of the first season of Dynasty betrays a team of writers who tried to craft a sincerely dramatic show – thankfully, later on, they embraced the inherent stupidity of these crazy plots and the show become much more than it had any right to be.