❉ 35 years ago today, Joan Collins walked on to our TV screens in Dynasty, turning the show into the most watched programme in America. But at what cost?
How the fuck did a series that began so seriously end up with aliens and hidden Nazi treasure?
I’ve recently completed a re-watch of ’Dynasty’ (and spin-off ‘The Colbys’) and mid-way through the final season I found myself wondering how the fuck a series that began so seriously ended up with aliens and hidden Nazi treasure. It’s not even something that jumped out at me as I was watching. It’s not something that happens suddenly. Well, it is in the case of the aliens. Come to think of it, it is with the Nazi gold too. But these aren’t plots which arrive out of nowhere. Okay, it is in the case of the aliens, mainly because we see them suddenly descend from the sky. I’m not making sense. Let’s go back to the very beginning…
‘Dynasty’ launched in 1981 as ABC’s answer to CBS’s ‘Dallas’. Both concern rich families with a background in oil. For those who have only seen the later episodes, ‘Dynasty’s first season is surprisingly mundane. Yes, we have the Carringtons, a ludicrously wealthy family who live in Denver, but the focus of the series is on the family, their friends and rivals, and their business interests. Much of what happens is seen through the eyes of Krystle, Blake Carrington’s new wife.
Krystle comes from a normal, working-class background, and is unused to the wealth of her new position. The opening episodes see her meeting her new family and their friends and trying to learn how to live in what can only be termed obscene opulence. Linda Evans plays Krystle and in a somewhat thankless role is saddled with being the nicest person in the programme. In many ways, though, she’s quite fortunate as this means her character (bar the occasional moment) is consistent throughout the run. Krystle is nice, it’s what she does and it’s what she’ll carry on doing.
Blake is not a nice man. Blake is, in fact, a complete cunt, something the series goes out of its way to remind us whenever it can.
It’s a fairly standard way to start a series (new character meets the existing characters, and through them the audience meet them too) and the first season continues very much in this vein – business wranglings, family arguments and the accidental killing of your son’s boyfriend. Yes, you read that right. In a shocking moment towards the end of the first season Blake discovers his son Steven embracing his former lover Ted and accidentally kills Ted by beating him badly and then smashing his head against a fireplace. Blake is not a nice man. Blake is, in fact, a complete cunt, something the series goes out of its way to remind us whenever it can.
Blake’s temper veers between psychotic and abusive throughout. Early on he rapes his wife because she has a bit of a headache. I realise that it was the early ‘80s, and attitudes to many things have changed for the better, but even then there was nothing remotely acceptable about this. Worryingly ‘Dynasty’ is quite a rapey series, some of them committed by people who actually later marry their victims. Stockholm Syndrome would have been a better title for the show. Most of the characters seem to suffer from it.
Forsythe has an uphill job making Blake sympathetic, and yet he frequently manages it. Forsythe deserves far more praise than he ever earned for his performance.
The only reason that Blake is in any way tolerable is that he is played by the immensely likeable John Forsythe. Famously, fellow silver fox George Peppard declined the role when he realised just how much of a cunt Blake was going to turn out to be. Forsythe has an uphill job making Blake sympathetic, and yet he frequently manages it. Forsythe deserves far more praise than he ever earned for his performance. (Fun game to play for people coming to the series for the first time: Watch how Forsythe visibly has to psyche himself up in order to play some of his more hostile scenes. It really doesn’t seem to come easily to him.)
For a gay viewer at the time, Steven’s existence was very much welcomed. He may not have been particularly gay but at least he was there.
So, anyway, Blake’s son Steven is gay. Gay characters were not common in television drama in the early ‘80s; in fact it’s possible that Steven was the only one. It would be nice to report that Steven was a breakthrough for the depiction of the modern gay male, although this sadly would be a lie. Steven’s sexuality is well intended (and for a gay viewer at the time, his existence was very much welcomed. He may not have been particularly gay – he marries two women during the series – but at least he was there) although the role could have been more…well, just more.
The flower budget for the series alone could probably buy you a few seasons of ‘Game of Thrones’.
There’s a trial for Blake after he kills Steven’s lover (I say ‘lover’, but as the most we ever see them do is hug, it’s a bit of a stretch. Anyway, the hug’s enough for homophobic Blake to kill him, so maybe it looked sexier in person, if not on screen) and the season ends on a bit of a cliffhanger – minor character Claudia Blaisdel’s in a car accident and a surprise witness appears at Blake’s trial. “That’s my mother” gasps Blake’s daughter Fallon as the credits roll.
This is where the series goes wrong.
The first season may sound somewhat unlikely in my pithy write-up, but it’s mostly solid drama with some decent characters and some interesting moments of boardroom politics. It’s the sort of thing Gerry Glaister could devise in the UK in his sleep (if you don’t know who that is, stick around and I’ll eventually write something about ‘The Brothers’ or ‘Howards’ Way’) but as American series go it’s not all bad, and the cast are at least strong.
The programme wasn’t a particular success, despite being expensive to make – the extravagant lifestyles of the Carringtons and their Colby business rivals is thrown across the screen whenever possible. The flower budget for the series alone could probably buy you a few seasons of ‘Game of Thrones’ – and clearly something needed to be done to make it more interesting for viewers. Blake needed a serious rival (something at this point lacking in Cecil Colby, although the second season would try to fix that) and his female equivalent, Alexis, probably seemed like a good move. As his ex-wife and mother of his children, on paper Alexis would have been a credible character; allowing for more drama and a rival for both Blake and Krystle.
They cast Joan Collins.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Joan Collins. I like Joan Collins a lot. But then I also like John Lithgow, Paul Darrow and William Shatner. I like actors who give big performances, actors who ignore the rest of the cast and give performances so big that they seem to be in a different programme to everyone else. Joan is this to a degree previously unseen.
Once Joan Collins arrived, it was a top 10 show, and two seasons later it was the most watched programme in America.
In the first scene of the opening episode of season two of ‘Dynasty’, a series which had previously been about families and oil and business, we move into high camp. It’s not that Joan’s bad as Alexis, it’s that she’s so stunningly good. I can think of no other programme in which a character has appeared on screen a year after everyone else and so successfully become the star. There is nothing small about Alexis – about her costumes, her dialogue, her performance, even her hand gestures. Joanie’s going to town in the role and having a whale of a time. It saved the series. It prevented ‘Dynasty’ being axed at the end of the second season (which is what would have happened – perhaps even mid-way through the second season). A programme which had never appeared in the top 20 did so shortly after Joan Collins arrived. By the end of the season it was a top 10 show, and two seasons later it was the most watched programme in America (more than 20 million people regularly tuned in).
These are astonishing numbers, and they gave the production team pause. How do you maintain figures like that? What made the viewers want to watch in the first place? What can you do to replicate that success for another season?
Next time, we’ll look at exactly what the producers decided to do, and how it ultimately came to destroy the programme…
(Author’s note – I did intend to end on a cliffhanger. Having considered the cliffhangers ‘Dynasty’ managed, there was no way I could top them, so I didn’t bother.)
❉ ‘Dynasty’ the complete series is available on DVD from the usual sources.