[20 August 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Dynasty symbolized, for many viewers, the epitome of the decade of the ‘80s—oil millionaires the Carrington’s lived out the fantasies of the American public. They had power. They had good looks. They had whatever their hearts desired. People were obsessed with this show, and watching it became a huge cultural phenomenon.
While the show was taken seriously at the time of its release (winning Emmy and Golden Globe awards), the garish excess of the show’s look has not exactly aged with grace. It’s not such a huge surprise to discover the show was produced by hitmaker Aaron Spelling (of The Love Boat, Beverly Hills 90210, and Melose Place), a man who spent most of his life writing and producing shows about the upper crust and their outrageous behavior.
Fast forward 20-odd years or so to 2007, and coincidentally, everyone is still obsessed with the filthy rich and their soap opera antics. Dynasty might not be the water cooler sensation it once was, but it’s a damn good guilty pleasure. While its ridiculous that people are so enraptured by poorly-behaved, spoiled heiresses like Paris Hilton or Anna Nicole Smith, it’s not really such a stretch (or nearly as offensive) that they flocked to this show’s second season, the season that introduced the world to the woman everyone loved to hate: Alexis Carrington, played by the vampy Joan Collins.
Alexis makes her surprise return to Denver (after being sequestered away in a self-imposed “exile” in Acapulco for the previous 16 years), to either get ex-husband and Donald Trump/ Vince McMahon-style magnate Blake (John Forsythe) back in her bed, or send him to prison. It could really go either way and she would be happy. Alexis lives for conflict. Showing resplendant in her huge-brimmed chapeau, gigantic dark sunglasses, and stilettos, Alexis is a surprise character witness for the prosecution who will testify at Blake’s trial as to his apparent history of violent behavior.
It seems Blake nearly beat a man to death in front of Alexis (back while they were married) and now he’s on trial for murdering his bi-sexual son’s lover after catching them en flagrante delicto (the son is Steven, played by Al Corley). The fact that Blake is an unabashed homophobe is no matter; he is found guilty, but still let out on probation. When confronted by his son, Blake remains steely and unapologetic, wishing Steven about would be “more of a man!”
Granted, the show’s exploration of such a taboo (at the time) subject in such a prime spot should be at least recognized. In a time when Ronald Reagan was President, Michael Jackson was in his heyday, and Bob Mackie’s sequined, Joan Crawford-inspired chemises were considered the pinnacle of haute couture, gay issues were just beginning to be talked about on a larger scale. Steven’s bisexuality (and really, this character was just as big of a slut as any of the other bed-hopping cast members) was discussed ad nauseum – it seemed everyone on the show had an opinion about it.
Mostly, though, it was just accepted, even though the character struggled to gain the respect of his father, a conservative, powerful man. In the long run, Steven ended up getting that respect from his father. In this aspect, Dynasty can be considered a pioneer, but keep in mind that the lover of Steven’s that died a violent death in season one was not the last gay man to be murdered on the show, and the word “fag” is used casually in conversation between two characters who are not gay.
Alexis knows better than to alienate her son (and her monologue to him about how she’s known many “homosexual” men who have gone on to lead “normal” lives is a hysterical must-see). This vixen knows that her very presence in Steven’s life will rattle and shake the Carrington’s at their core. Steven is quick to re-embrace his mommy dearest, never mind that she left him when he was eight. He seems to be fine with that.
Steven’s sister, Fallon (Pamela Sue Martin), is quite another story, though. This character is proto-Paris, through and through: a manipulative, father-obsessed, substance-abusing, attention-grabbing harlot. She is prone to insulting just about everyone except her father, to whom she is unnervingly devoted. There is a strong, weird, incestuous overtone to her relationship with her father, especially when Alexis drops the bomb that Blake is quite possibly not her biological father. It is really hard to tell if Fallon is upset or really, really happy about the twist. Since Alexis left when Fallon was so young, it is easy to see why the young woman has such “daddy” issues, and why she is so unhappy about her mother’s return: she doesn’t want to share him with anyone, and she views her own mother as a threat to her time with Papa.
Also jockeying for Blake’s affection, much to Fallon’s chagrin, is the vacant, expressionless Krystle (played by the equally vacant and expressionless Linda Evans). Krystle, in a fit of insecurity after Alexis reclaims her legal piece of Carrington manor, demands of her personal maid repeatedly, “Who is the mistress of this house?!” before going down to have an icy showdown with her new nemesis, who is taking every opportunity she can to get under the woman’s skin. She casually uses the house’s servants for her own purposes, meets with a rich Arabic oil baron to help Blake with a deal, and finally, pays Krystle’s white trash niece Sammy Jo (a nubile Spelling staple, Heather Locklear) to leave Denver after marrying Stephen.
This action leads to a tradition Dynasty would become known for: knock-down, drag-out catfights between Alexis and Krystle. The first in their long relationship happens in the middle of season two in Alexis’ artist studio where she lovingly paints a portrait of her ex. After finding out that, months before, Alexis was personally behind the loud noise (a gunshot) which scarred the horse Krystle was riding, causing a hilarious accident frequently restaged in Krystle’s memory and ultimatly leading to her miscarriage, Krystle storms into her studio furiously; getting in her rival’s face and making threats. Alexis, nonplussed, slaps the woman in the face in true diva style. Krystle (one can only assume because she was once a member of the working class) grabs Alexis by the hair and begins to pound her to a bloody pulp. “When you’re ready for a re-match, just whistle. If you can”, smirks the victorious Kystle as she storms off.
Feminine allegiance and female comradery have no place amongst these jet-setters. These are women who hate other women; while all of the men are clear-cut misogynists. We do, however, owe the woman-haters a debt of gratitude for the prevalence of the word “bitch” on television today – something made widely accepted by the word’s use on the show.
This only scratches the surface of the immediate Carrington family. There’s also a mystery woman named Claudia (Pamela Bellwood, an awful actress) who is somehow connected fundamentally to the clan. Further on in the series two more Carrington children mysteriously pop up out of nowhere, Blake gets an African American half-sister, and most of cast gets machine gunned by Eastern European terrorists in a church during a wedding (the series’ famous “Moldavian Massacre” cliffhanger, another tradition the show would become known for). That’s not even mentioning the Colbys (Uncle Cecil and Jeff – Fallon’s husband and babydaddy), the chief rivals of the Carringtons.
Of course, one of the major dramatic arcs of the show would involve a marriage of convenience between Alexis and Cecil. The two plot and scheme new ways to destroy Blake and Krystle. The pair seems to never be doing anything other than hatching evil plans or having sex. Sometimes they indulge in both. The sex scene between then during the season finale is perhaps the single most shocking thing I have seen this year: shot through a low-fi fuzzy porn lens (with uber-cheap production values to boot – including Collins’ dimestore hooker make-up job and whack/ sleazy saxophone), the two middle-aged, doughy lovers frolic in bed for what seems like an eternity—rolling around in ecstacy, and shoving fingers into each others mouths. At the end, there is a surprising, simulated “orgasm” shot that is bizarre for several reasons, foremost among them being a nude Alexis wildly slapping her partner’s face as hard as she can.
Confused by all of the Byzantine twists yet? If you leave the room for even a bathroom break, prepare to be completely lost. New relationships spring up and die within minutes of blossoming. Thankfully, the collection’s sole extra feature is a helpful, yet boring “family tree” that will provide the lost with a little bit of a guiding light. This is the kind of soap opera where babies get stolen, couples marry on a dime (and divorce twice as fast), people go blind and/or crazy randomly, and a little innocent skeet shooting can all of a sudden lead to a horse accident-caused miscarriage.
Collins is simply in her own universe. She’s deliciously unhinged and over-the-top. There’s no imagining this character being played by any other performer; it is a terrific marriage of character and actress. Collins is playing an archetype, and she sets the standard for every other “super bitch” (a term Collins herself has used to describe the role) that followed in Alexis’ wake. She takes no prisoners in her quest for money. This middle-aged, power-hungry woman who wielded her sexuality as a weapon is timelessly entertaining, and compulsively watchable. Her antics have been aped to death by a score of other prime time wannabes, but none will ever reach her deliriously evil depths.