The Middle East is in turmoil. Oil prices have frayed the nation’s economic nerves. A powerful corporate fat cat stands trial for a scandal that could bring him and his whole company down.
A story ripped from today’s headlines? No, they are the plot points for perhaps the most emblematic of 1980s television shows: Dynasty. And now, sixteen years after the show went off the air, Dynasty: The Complete First Season is available on DVD.
Just as the original series was a ratings boom for ABC (it reached number one during the 1984-85 season), the release of the first season on DVD is an important personal development for me. Between work, the baby, and the general gimcrack of today’s television programming, I don’t watch any current-running television programs. My wife and I canceled our cable, so I can’t catch any of the truly great shows in syndication. The DVD player is all I have left.
The first episode of Dynasty aired on January 12, 1981, eight days before Ronald Wilson Reagan swore his oath to the U.S. Constitution. The '80s as we know them now hadn’t kicked in yet. But tax cuts for the rich danced in our heads. And Esther and Richard Shapiro, two Hollywood producers, had the prescience to create a television show that would come to encapsulate all that is cartoonist about the “decade of greed.”
Dynasty is commonly classified as a “primetime soap opera,” but it is indeed more like a cartoon. Most of the characters in this serial drama are avowed Republicans. As such they are greedy, lustful, and hateful of minorities. (Not much has changed there, eh?) The angry Middle Easterners look more like bronzed beatniks. Most of them are played by extras with Italian last names. And, of course, the rich lead shiftless lives of exaggerated extravagance while the poorer characters are wholly sympathetic saints.
There are other problems. The acting is atrocious (with the noticeable exception of the stately John Forsythe). The fight scenes are choreographed with all the precision of an elementary school dance recital. The wardrobes are absurd. And as for the continuity well, what continuity? But who cares? This is a story about power, lust, and greed and you will enjoy every phony-bologna minute of it.
THE STORY ITSELF IS conventional. One-time receptionist Krystle Jennings has fallen in love with oil tycoon Blake Carrington. She is beautiful in a down-home way, but uncomfortable in high society. He is a debonair silver fox worth $200 million (I know, it seems paltry by the standards of today’s oil tycoons). But unlike your average Prince Charming, Blake Carrington is a ruthless businessman with an evil streak. And his children, household staff, and business partners are either slippery eels or dysfunctional lay bouts.
Plus there is an intriguing back story that slowly unravels throughout the first season. Matthew Blaisdel, Carrington’s top geologist, has returned home from the Middle East just in time for Blake and Krystle’s wedding. Only Matthew and Krystle were once lovers. Blaisdel, the disgruntled employee and jilted ex-lover, goes into business against Carrington who, despite appearances, faces a severe cash crisis that could bring down his oil empire. The crisis forces Carrington into a devil’s bargain with his best friend, oil magnate Cecil Colby. He sells his rebellious daughter Fallon into marriage with Colby’s nephew.
Meanwhile, Matthew’s wife has just returned from a mental institution, but shows signs of needing to go back for more medicine. Upon learning of her husband’s past with Krystle, she begins an ill-fated affair with Blake’s homosexual son Steven. There’s plenty of discomfort and confusion when Steven’s ex-boyfriend resurfaces, looking to rekindle their old flame.
Blake, being a perfectly stereotypical Republican, will have none of it and accidentally kills Steven’s ex in an argument. Facing a murder charge and standing trial, all of Blake’s financial holdings and business deals are in jeopardy. Indeed, they are in the hands of one woman. A woman from his past; the prosecution’s star witness.
You know who.
CASUAL FANS OF THE LONG-running show will be disappointed to learn the Joan Collins character Alexis Carrington plays no significant role in the first season until the last episode, and even then only in the final cliffhanging frames. But to the aficionado, her absence is elemental. We need time to learn the back story and absorb all the delicious dysfunction of this family before downing a shot of hundred proof bitch. Moreover, the joy of campy soap operas rests in the way they string the viewer along. If tomorrow’s episode doesn’t promise to be even juicier than today’s, what’s the point?
In another 25 years or so there will be another television show in which all the villains are greedy, lecherous Republicans and the heroes are simple folk with progressive values. That much is certain, the entertainment business being what it is. We can only hope that the story surrounding these stock characters is as juicy as Dynasty was. And still is.