This review by Judge Brett Cullum comes with shoulder pads, which make the review look fuller and accentuate its bustline.
Our reviews of Dynasty: The Fifth Season (published July 27th, 2011), Dynasty: The Second Season (published August 15th, 2007), and Dynasty: The Sixth Season (published July 22nd, 2012) are also available.
Krystle (to her friends from work before she marries Blake Carrington): I won't change. I swear it.
Glitz, glamour, and greed were found in abundance during the '80s every Wednesday night on ABC's Dynasty. The network asked producers to give them something to compete with Dallas, which was generating staggering ratings for CBS and riding high on its "Who shot J.R.?" storyline. Dallas was about archetypes, and absolutes of predictably good and evil characters. Dynasty dealt in the shock of unleashing myriad villains everywhere, and seemed as if it had been made by a pack of rabid drag queens high from too many Joan Crawford flicks.
Dynasty appeared on the scene in 1981 with an unprecedented three-hour pilot. Surprisingly, though, Dynasty: The Complete First Season is somewhat reserved and straightforward. It was almost respectable early on; hardly the dizzyingly campy series it became later in its eight-year run. And don't let that cover art fool you. The glittery box features the three faces of Alexis, Blake, and Krystle. But Joan Collins (Empire of the Ants) was not cast as Alexis Morell Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan until the second season. The character of Alexis appears only in the season finale, and was played by the wife of the show's editor (under a large veiled hat).
Despite any misgivings I had about revisiting the Carrington clan, I found this set immensely entertaining. Dynasty: The Complete First Season is a pretty good set of discs that serves as an introduction to a show that defined the '80s—whether it meant to or not.
Facts of the Case
Dynasty: The Complete First Season contains the thirteen episodes that made up the abbreviated outing of this mid-season replacement show. It begins with the marriage of Colorado-based oil tycoon Blake Carrington (John Forsythe, the voice in the speakerbox on Charlie's Angels) and his secretary Krystle Jennings (Linda Evans, Beach Blanket Bingo). We meet the millionaire CEO's spunky outspoken daughter Fallon (Pamela Sue Martin, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries) and angst-filled gay son Steven (Al Corley, Bare Essence). In the middle-class part of town we see Matthew Blaisdale (Bo Hopkins, American Graffiti) and his wife Claudia (Pamela Bellwood, Airport '77) struggle with their own problems, which often tie in to the business of the Carringtons. Matthew not only works for Blake at the start of the pilot, but he also had an affair with Krystle while Claudia was in a mental hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown. The first season's stories are equally split between the Carringtons and the Blaisdales, something the show would duly abandon in its second year. It deals with Krystle's troubles adjusting to her new dazzling world of wealth, and Matthew's struggle to get his own fortune from a new venture formed out of revenge against Carrington. We also see Fallon and Steven's struggles to find their own identities, as they mature and have to deal with their wealthy birthright. The show is about each player's relationship with the titular dynasty created by oil and Blake Carrington, and how each will ultimately be their own person, despite all the money and backstabbing waiting for them at every turn.
The business part of the inaugural season's story is an eerily prescient fable about oil and America's reliance on the unstable Middle East. At the start of the set, Blake is forced by political unrest in the Middle East to start looking for oil here in the States. Matthew Blaisdale joins up with a wildcatter named Lankershim, and, mainly because Blake is marrying his ex-love Krystle, decides to try to beat him to some claims in Colorado. It's the corporation versus the small business entrepreneur as the two groups vie for a domestic motherlode. (Surprisingly the show touches on how the energy industry works; it's an insightful glimpse into oil operations. It's something the show had to turn away from later, but it makes Dynasty: The Complete First Season unique.)
Why was Dynasty such a defining moment of the '80s? For one thing, there were scary parallels between Blake Carrington and newly inaugurated President Ronald Reagan. Blake had an outspoken daughter named Fallon who often ignored boundaries, much like the President's daughter. Blake's son is gay; Ron Reagan Jr. was a ballet dancer. Blake married a beautiful, glamorous woman named Krystle, but had a scary ex out there named Alexis. Ronnie had Nancy and Jane Wyman. Throw some jellybeans in the bowls of the Carrington mansion, and the portrait could have been complete. (The creators deny they knew of these parallels, and say it was all a lucky, strange accident.) Throughout the decade several oil tycoons claimed they were the inspiration for the show. It became cool to be filthy rich and debauched. The '80s were ready for a saga of the rich and powerful, as greed was about to become the national pastime. The '80s shaped the course of Dynasty as much as Dynasty shaped the image of the decade. It was a symbiotic relationship nobody could see coming. Honestly, the show was just meant to be a ratings winner for ABC.
Aaron Spelling was part of the producing team that conceived Dynasty, but the main creators were husband-and-wife team Esther and Richard Shapiro (who had produced the miniseries The Winds of War). Dynasty: The Complete First Season is a chance to see their vision without the tweaks demanded by the network based on audience polls after this first run of episodes. The Shapiros wanted an updated version of Upstairs, Downstairs—a series that would contrast the American upper class with its middle class. They decided to center the stories on family, but also sought to explore big-business oil in a convincing way. This DVD set contains many episodes that explore the oil industry from the ground up, through the struggles of the decidedly unglamorous Blaisdales, and doesn't contain even one hint of a catfight between two women in garish shoulder pads. It's markedly different than the excess Dynasty proudly flaunted later in its run. Most of the stories are believable, and paced more realistically. The characters get a chance to shine with some well written dialogue and thoughtful regard for their arcs.
The cast was a hard-won ensemble of many types and talents. It was amazing to see who landed the roles, and even more surprising who caught on with audiences. The first choice for Blake Carrington was George Peppard (Breakfast at Tiffany's), but he decided to pass on the role. When the producers named John Forsythe as their second choice, the suits at ABC scoffed, because his voice appeared prominently in one of their other hits, Charlie's Angels. But he wound up with the role anyhow. Forsythe demanded his character be made more likable, and heavily influenced the writers when they were fleshing out the oil tycoon. He immediately struck a chord with the audience, who refused to hate him despite his rather nasty deeds in this first season. Linda Evans had turned down the role of Pamela Ewing in Dallas, and seemed a likely choice to fill the part of secretary-turned-mistress of a mansion Krystle Jennings. Again, the network voiced concern about the choice, because they were convinced she, at thirty-five, was too old to attract viewers. The Shapiros stuck with their choice of leading lady, though. Ironically, Evans became a huge breakout sex symbol when the show debuted. It didn't hurt that Evans looked a lot like Bo Derek. The children were cast from a pool of contract players at ABC, including Pamela Sue Martin and Al Corley as Fallon and Steven (at least in the first couple of seasons). Martin was playing a bad girl after hitting it big with her role as goody-two-shoes Nancy Drew, a calculated risk that paid off in spades. Corley was straight in his personal life, but relished the chance to play the homosexual son. John James, who played Jeff Colby, had to beg the Shapiros to turn him into one of the series regulars. He was persuasive enough, and had women drooling whenever he appeared in his trademark bathing suit. Bo Hopkins, a veteran of Sam Peckinpah films, was cast as Matthew Blaisdale, who was supposed to be a second leading man for the series, after Blake. Everyone thought he would be huge in the series, but unfortunately for him it was Pamela Bellwood, as his wife Claudia, who remained a staple on the series. She somehow punched through and captured the viewers with her beauty and complex acting. She remained with the show—and even moved into the mansion—even though the rest of her family was jettisoned for the second season.
In fact, many of the supporting characters featured prominently in Dynasty: The Complete First Season were shuffled off soon after these shows aired, making this your only chance to see them. Katy Kurtzman plays Lindsay Blaisdale, the whiny teenage daughter of Claudia and Matthew. Her part is largely annoying, since it seems to be compromised only of crying and pouting. Western star Dale Robertson appears as wily wildcatter Walter Lankershim. He comes off as a redneck version of Rip Torn, and I really liked him as an oddball wanna-be tycoon. Wayne Northrop (Days of Our Lives) played the hot chauffeur that was Fallon's boy toy. He has the best male body on the show, and was a formidable opponent for any of the characters. Lloyd Bochner (Satan's School for Girls) made his first appearances as the regal calculating Cecil Colby. Kathryn Leigh Scott (Dark Shadows) appears as Colby's English secretary. And Brian Dennehy (First Blood) comes on strong as a district attorney in the season's final episodes. This was a dazzling array of television and film actors that added a lot of glamour to the already fashionable world of Dynasty.
The production values are handsome, and the mansion becomes a part of the cast as crucial as any character. I was never sure why the Shapiros set their story in Denver (oil barons in Colorado always seemed a little off), but the actual shooting locations were in and around San Francisco, with northern California doubling for the Rocky Mountain State. Dynasty: The Complete First Season features a lot of outdoor location shooting, which was also abandoned as the series wore on. Here's your chance to see the Carringtons commune with nature before they were locked up on small soundstages and interior sets. The fashions in the first season are more reserved, and a little more realistic and down-to-earth. Krystle wears her trademark monochromatic blouse and skirt combos; Fallon seems to favor black and white. The women wear impossibly high heels, but the infamous shoulder pads are kept in check and it all looks natural. The creators definitely knew how to show wealth without taking it over the edge in these early days.
The packaging is the first thing I noticed about Dynasty: The Complete First Season. It comes in a gaudy, glittery diamond slipcase cover that slides off to reveal a case holding two Amray shells with photos of the leads. Each disc is double-sided, so expect a lot of flipping. (Each DVD contains two episodes per side, usually.) Transfers are in the traditional full screen television aspect ratio. The source tapes seem to have aged a lot. Dirt and grain are present, but overall the colors are retained well. Images seem soft—but the show is about to turn twenty-five years old, and this just was the style of that time. It looks like television from that era; no major overhauls were attempted. Audio is a clearly-rendered original mono track that captures the dialogue and the impressive Bill Conti score adequately. Extras are plentiful, with five hours of commentary provided by Esther Shapiro alone on the pilot. She is then joined by Al Corley for the finale. These tracks are insightful, but not without long lapses of silence while the commentators just watch a show they obviously haven't seen in quite a while. Esther repeats the same information from commentary to commentary a lot, but seems rightfully proud of what they achieved the first season. Also included is a solid documentary on the making of the show entitled "Family, Furs, and Fun." The title is a reference to a review in Variety, which used that phrase to describe the show. Pamela Sue Martin, Al Corley, and the Shapiros are the only participants. They provide some interesting insights in between clips from the first season. Also included are further in-depth discussions about Pamela and Al's roles as the children of Blake Carrington.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Television and society have come a long way, true; but I was completely shocked by Dynasty's rather horrific treatment of women and homosexuals. It's odd that those two groups embraced the show with open arms when the series was loaded with a lot of malice for them in content. Rape is shrugged off completely. Krystle is forcibly assaulted by Blake, but never pauses to think it's anything more than her wifely duty, and never mentions it. Both Krystle and Fallon both accept their places as women in the backseat. At least Fallon has the good sense to use it as a weapon, but Krystle seems to be content playing victim for the most part. Homophobia is tolerated. Even when Blake kills Steven's ex-lover, the scripts show him as unrepentant and pitied because he only did it out of love for his son. It's kind of disturbing to see these shows and think that this all wasn't considered wildly offensive. Poor Steven's gay identity is even toyed with, as the writers insert a goofy affair for him with Claudia Blaisdale. Is nothing sacred? Esther Shapiro speaks to the subject in a commentary talking about how "forward thinking" they were to make sexuality fluid. That smacks of revisionism. The truth is the network pushed them to make Steven Carrington bisexual, and it eventually led to an enraged Al Corley walking away from the part (after the second season) because he felt they were maligning his character and not being true to life. I have to admit I was a little angry myself at what the show was saying. It's almost fun to watch just so you can be morally outraged at what pop culture was pushing before waves of political correctness swept all of this away. Never again would we see a woman (wearing fur) who had been raped standing by her man because he killed her stepson's gay lover. At least not on television.
Dynasty might be offensive, over-the-top, and the epitome of melodramatic clap-trap. But Dynasty: The Complete First Season is still a whole hell of a lot of fun. It's great to see the show from the beginning, and it was surprising how smartly plotted and well-paced the first season was. My memories of Dynasty had been blurred by the ludicrous later seasons, which left strange, campy aftertastes in my mouth. In reality this show began simply enough, showing two families who suffered no matter how much money they had. It was fantasy, and it was also quite watchable. Greed and glamour were defined by this show, and it became one of the lenses through which the world saw America. Amazingly enough the show holds up well as guilty entertainment. But is this the set to own if you buy just one Dynasty collection? Hell no. Joan Collins will make her explosive debut as Alexis in the next box set—that's the one to look forward to.
Dynasty: The Complete First Season is free to go as a classy respectable affair dripping with oil and diamonds. It's a politically incorrect mass of dysfunction and melodrama. We'd never tolerate it today as a nighttime soap with the way it treats people, but its more offensive moments would be perfectly fine in a reality series. Anyone want to watch the last season of For Love or Money with people fighting in a mansion over whether money or love is more important and tell me the '80s and Dynasty's influence are over? We're the guilty ones, and this is just one of our pleasures.
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette: "Family, Furs, and Fun: Creating Dynasty"
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