Cast your mind back, if you can, to the year of 1981. Bucks Fizz, Adam and the Ants and Soft Cell were storming the charts, Only Fools And Horses aired its first series on BBC One and Gregory’s Girl was playing in a cinema near you. Meanwhile, stateside, ABC had cooked up a suitably glamorous and scandalous competitor to Dallas, the CBS drama packed full of Stetsons and suspense. The world may have recently discovered who shot J.R., but there was still plenty of room for the Carringtons.
Enter Dynasty, a show based around the business and family of oil tycoon Blake Carrington (John Forsythe) whose recent marriage to his former secretary Krystle (Linda Evans) was making waves within the family mansion. With the Colby family in direct competition with Blake’s oil business Denver-Carrington, the show was never short of male egos, and while the men got drilly, the women got frilly. Who didn’t want to see America’s upper class shout and shag in a series of opulent rooms in a host of preposterous plots? As the drama ramped up, so did the viewing figures, with highs of sixty million US viewers when the show was at the peak of its powers in 1985.
Running from 1981-89, Dynasty experienced some teething problems in its first season where the audiences just weren’t biting (get it?) and a steep decline in its final two seasons before its cancellation, but what fell in between was pure TV gold. So, let’s indulge in a look back to a cheesy favourite that captured some of the bigger fashion shockers of the eighties.
Dynasty is up there as one of the most camp television shows of all time. How can it not be? The overacting, the lurching camera, the big hair and the enormous shoulder pads together with some garish make up and even more garish narratives made it the kind of show that you would describe now as a ‘guilty pleasure’. It was so naff, but we’d all rather watch these car crash family relationships and serial bed hoppers than be them. It’s the same feeling you get when you watch The Jeremy Kyle Show.
Who could forget that swelling theme music, which not only played over the show’s iconic credit sequence (complete with a frenzied crane shot of the Carringtons’ mansion and those wonderfully corny character profile shots) but in at least 10 climactic moments per episode. When the music piped up, you knew something important was going down. You also knew you were living it large with the Carringtons when a character’s face was contorted with angst in a lingering and awkward stare while the camera zoomed in dramatically for good measure. Ah, the zoom function! So underused these days.
As if the camera operators hadn’t enough work to do emphasising the inner turmoil of each character, they also had to give us a good old 1980s gawp at the lovely ladies’ legs. Oh yes, the male gaze worked overtime in Dynasty, as leering lenses scanned slowly up calves to introduce female additions to the cast. Sometimes, however, a slow scan or a quick zoom wasn’t enough. We all remember the moment when Blake’s conniving ex-wife Alexis, played as the ultimate femme fatale by Joan Collins, strutted into the courtroom at the end of season one, and you doubtless recall the genius way in which the audience were treated to the reactions of the family. That’s right: the individual freeze frame was employed. Daughter Fallon looked aghast, her husband Jeff Colby (John James) looked concerned, son Steven needed a good hug and Krystle appeared to be preparing for her close up, sweeping her big blonde hair away from her face. Blake looked like he was silently cacking himself.
Something that the Carringtons did very well was marriages. A series didn’t go by without at least one marriage, at least one divorce and, very frequently, a remarriage or a romantic rekindling of a former married couple. Clearly the way they did things in Denver, Colorado was to throw caution to the wind. Why date when you have the money to divorce?
Accidents were another big feature, with characters in and out of hospital as much as they were in and out of each others’ bedrooms. Car accidents were a sure-fire way of ending an episode on a cliff-hanger, while a plane crash provided the opportunity for daughter Fallon, played by Pamela Sue Martin, to disappear for a while presumed dead and return looking somewhat changed, now played by Emma Samms. Odd, really, as Fallon’s brother Steven had previously been met with a similar set of events, where an oil rig explosion in Indonesia transformed him from looking a lot like actor Al Corey to someone resembling Jack Coleman.
Horses were responsible for a number of accidents. Alexis memorably fired a gun to throw Krystle off her horse while pregnant (an especially dark turn, even for Alexis) and young Kirby Anders (Kathleen Beller) took inspiration from the accident that left Krystle unable to have children (for a while) by chucking herself off a horse of her own when she discovered her baby wasn’t the lovely Jeff’s but the child of the scary long-lost Carrington, Adam (Gordon Thomson). It’s okay though, because she somehow soon fell in love with the man that assaulted her. Happy days.
Murder charges were also a big deal, with both Blake and Alexis accused of pushing people into and off things, and when characters weren’t off on a fume-fuelled frenzy (here’s looking at you, Jeff) or having heart-attacks during the throes of passion (poor Cecil), they were often inadvertently flirting with siblings they didn’t know they had or sleeping with the bloke that their mum is also having an affair with. The incest vibes were strong but things mostly stayed above board blood relatives-wise, except when Fallon’s father was briefly thought to be the father of her then-husband.
Amongst the glitz and drama, Steven Carrington was one of the first openly gay characters on a soap, though the show itself featured some toe curling homophobia, principally from Steven’s father Blake. Who can forget that touching father-son moment in the show’s first season when Blake apologises for denouncing his son for his homosexuality, only to sit him down calmly and jibe about opening a foundation called ‘The Steven Carrington Institute for the Treatment and Study of Faggotry’. It’s a rough moment that sums up their tumultuous relationship throughout all nine series and the difficulty of being anything but heterosexual in a world led by a conservative patriarch. Maybe there’s a broader analogy to be made here…
So, what do people most think of when Dynasty is brought up? For many, it’s that pond scene. Seconds after the first use of the word ‘bitch’ on the prime time show, said by none other than the demure, one-piece wearing Krystle, she launches herself at Alexis, sending the pair of them flying into the mansion’s lily pond to fight it out in a blur of flailing limbs and shrieks. In 2009, America’s TV Guide ranked this episode at number 67 on its list of ‘100 Greatest Episodes’; the hate-fuelled female fight became synonymous with the show, that and the shock ‘Moldavian Massacre’ that ended season 5. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that the Carrringtons got mixed up in a military coup in a season that also featured treasure hunting in Bolivia, but it was the biggest cliff-hanger the show ever staged.
Dynasty was a show of feuds and farce; a wonderful snapshot of a fantasy 1980s with a side of American cheese. Can the modern remake live up to its addictive excesses? Here’s a glimpse of what to expect…