Shoulder Pads and Petrol Politics
It should come as no surprise that Dynasty: The Complete First Season oozes the ‘80s. As Al Corley (who played Steven Carrington for the first two seasons) remarks in “Family, Furs, and Fun: Creating Dynasty,” Dynasty reveals the “essence” of the decade. Pamela Sue Martin (who played Fallon during the first four seasons) agrees, though she admits to worrying at the time that, considering the show’s nearly immediate popularity, people around the world might think Dynasty depicted what all of America was “really like.”
She’s right to have been concerned. For even if Dynasty never represented any “truth” about the U.S. back then, it did represent a sort of dominant national fantasy of American life and burgeoning neocon ideals. To sum it up: excess, excess, excess. Big shoulder pads, big hair, big jewels, big houses, big oil companies, and the lives of the mostly idle rich: it’s all there in Dynasty, in big spades.
I freely admit that I watched Dynasty religiously as a teenager, from its premiere in 1981 to its eventual demise in 1989. All I really remember now is the opulence, the outrageous plotting, and the camp—the military coup in “Moldavia” cliffhanger and the bitch fights between Krystal (Linda Evans) and Alexis (Joan Collins). The primary disappointment in this collection is the absence of Alexis. She doesn’t show up until the last moment of the season finale, as a surprise witness sprung by the attorney prosecuting Blake Carrington (John Forsythe) for the murder of Steven’s former lover, Ted (Mark Withers).
But the season includes any number of unanticipated pleasures. The first is that, in the beginning, Dynasty was rather a serious show. Its first episode established the “reality” of the 1980s (and today), that the rich got richer on the backs of the poor and working classes. “Oil, Parts 1 & 2” pits struggling oilman Matthew Blaisdel (Bo Hopkins) and his family (wife Claudia [Pamela Bellwood] and daughter Lindsay [Katy Kurtzman]) against the power and influence of Blake Carrington. The storyline includes that Matthew had a relationship with Krystal before she and Blake married, but the thrust is Blake’s attempt to drive Matthew out of business, to claim the land rights to an oil field he is sitting on, by whatever means necessary. Blake’s strategy for success is always the same: squash the little guys.
Series creators Esther and Richard Shapiro recognized, as they retell on “Family, Furs and Fun,” that this interclass tension tested negatively throughout the first season. As the Shapiros say, “The audience didn’t want the working class stuff.” Apparently, Dynasty cut a little too close to home for some in its first season. The Shapiros would rectify that, and the cliffhanger of season one leaves Matthew in prison and Lindsay dead; Claudia, after an affair with confused gay boy Steven in the first season, would return to marry him in Season Two.
Steven is, of course, one of the other remarkable and complicated aspects of Dynasty. Previous to Steven, the only openly gay and central character on television had been Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas on Soap, but he was played mostly for laughs. What’s notable about Steven and his incorporation into the main structures of the series is how “normal” he is. And so Dynasty reflects the emergence of gayness (for men only, it seems) into mainstream consciousness in the ‘80s, as well as dominant cultural anxieties over that emergence. Blake, in particular, struggles with Steven’s gayness, remarking at one point on the 1976 depathologization of homosexuality by the APA. This is a disappointment for Blake; otherwise he could have established a “Steven Carrington Institute for the Study and Treatment of Faggotry.”
But he nonetheless recognizes that homosexuality is not a “disease,” and despite his obvious homophobia, tries to understand this through his son. Which is not to say Dynasty‘s depiction of Steven is all progressive and positive. Steven is a hopelessly conflicted character who wants the love and respect of his father, but realizes this will only come by repudiating his sexuality, and who decides at last that dad’s acceptance is worth such a dire cost. Corley argues that this “vacillating” in the character was mostly driven by producer and writer concerns about audience homophobia. The stories could have been more challenging, Corley asserts, if they just kept Steven gay. Nevertheless, looking back over the course of Season One, Steven seems a much more complex character than the gay cookie-cutter representatives we have today, in our more “enlightened” times.
By far the biggest surprise and pleasure of the set is Dynasty‘s indictment of then contemporary, and still current, U.S. petrol politics. The series opens with Blake’s oil company, Denver-Carrington, in hot water in the Middle East. There’s been a coup in the unnamed county where D-C is doing business, and U.S. companies and interests are forced out. We are even shown a departure scene at an airport, featuring Arab men and women chanting and waving “Yankee Go Home” signs. I can recall similar scenes, even more directly violent, staged by insurgents in occupied Baghdad today.
These scenes set up the financial troubles that will comprise the major story arc for Blake and Krystal over the first season, but the far-reaching “troubles” in the Middle East couldn’t be more timely today. And neither could the petrol politics; several times, as the Mideast oil problems come up, Blake waxes on about getting the politicians they’ve “bought” in Washington to help him out. Shades of the Bush clan? Watching these scenes I couldn’t get the recent image of President Bush walking hand in hand with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah out of my head. In fact, revisiting Dynasty: The Complete First Season, for all its camp and fun, does nothing so much as recall the ongoing cronyism of U.S. government and energy corporations. It’s not much of a stretch to see in this Dynasty what Kevin Phillips has called, in his estimation of the Bush family history and presidencies, the American Dynasty.