In 1980, America kicked Jimmy Carter to the curb and voted for Ronald Reagan. He was a former movie star, charismatic, and harbored a general disdain for the poor. He embodied the American dream: the idea that you’re better than your circumstances, and that you deserve fast cars, big homes, and overflowing bottles of Champagne.
That was the allure of Dynasty, the glitzy prime-time soap opera from Aaron Spelling that bowed just eight days before Reagan was inaugurated as the 40th president of the United States. It’s also no coincidence that after Reagan left office in 1989, the series was canceled months later—its zeitgeist moment had passed. But now, as the CW prepares to reboot Dynasty for the Trump generation, boasting a show about the so-called 1 percent of the 1 percent, it’s time to remember the importance of the original series and the great heights the new Dynasty will have to climb to reach the continued relevance of its predecessor.
Dynasty started off glacially. It was initially an attempt for ABC to cash in on the popularity of network competitor CBS’ Dallas by presenting a sophisticated take on the prime-time soap. John Forsythe’s Blake Carrington was crueler than he was in later seasons—and the personification of toxic masculinity. He raped his wife Krystle; he harassed his son Steven (the first gay character in prime time, as played by Al Corley then Jack Coleman. after Steven had to have facial-reconstruction surgery following an oil explosion). Subsequent seasons would see Steven grappling with his homosexuality by marrying and having a child with a woman (Heather Locklear’s Sammy Jo), but the first season had meaty scenes like Blake calling his son a “faggot” and accidentally killing his boyfriend.
The ratings were sour, however, so in the second season Joan Collins joined as the devious Alexis Colby. The show immediately became a delicious parade of fashion, shade, and catfights. A hit was born. But underneath its veneer was a commentary on the excess of the ’80s. Class struggles abound. Alexis often fended off people she felt were after her children’s money or her own and Steven even discusses AIDS with his father—never mind the fact that Rock Hudson, as his own AIDS diagnosis was revealed to America, was also starring on the show, creating tabloid fodder as his co-star Linda Evans had to kiss him on camera.
Not all of this was by design, of course. Most of Dynasty’s relevance is due to happy coincidence, or the fact that the show embraced the fun of the ’80s with reckless abandon. By contrast, it’s impossible to recreate the conditions that birthed such an iconic series.
Many have claimed that Empire was a worthy successor and at first it seemed so, with Cookie poised to be the second coming of Diahann Carroll’s Dominique Deveraux, who joined Dynasty in its fourth season. Carroll made television history in 1968’s Julia when she became the first black actress to lead a TV series. After that, she joined Dynasty and mixed it up with the all-white cast. If Empire was truly in the spirit of Dynasty, then Taraji P. Henson would have more female rivals. Dynasty worked when it was about powerful women trying to get one over on one another—perhaps it was the bitchier, mean-spirited cousin to lighter fare like Working Girl. There was also something to be said about the ’80s having a television series in which women ruled the boardroom. Empire, on the other hand, is a surprisingly male-dominated soap opera that does little to infuse women into the world of hip-hop beyond exploring the same cliché roles that have existed since the ’90s.
The new Dynasty has ambition, for sure. Krystle is now Cristal (Nathalie Kelley), a Latina woman who marries into the Carringtons. And Steven’s lover Sammy Jo is now a man (Rafael de la Fuente). But other than that, its main aspirations seem to be to reboot Dynasty’s catfights and cliffhangers for a younger crowd on the CW. I didn’t watch Dynasty when it originally aired, having been born halfway through its run, but I did grow up on prime-time soaps and teen dramas like Gossip Girl. This new incarnation, by the latter’s creators, isn’t even as sophisticated as that series. And it somehow looks cheaper. Dynasty was about real estate and fashion and glamour porn; this new version looks very much like it was filmed on a budget. If anything, Big Little Lies has more in common with the original Dynasty.
The series was canceled on a big cliffhanger in 1989, when ratings waned and America turned its back on the ’80s. They wanted programs like The Cosby Show, not the fantasy of the Carringtons. But when it was thriving, the show was full of pulp and venom, and its cliffhangers kept you coming back. In the age of streaming, it’s hard enough to do cliffhangers, though perhaps a giant like Shonda Rhimes will succeed at her new home on Netflix. But as for The CW’s Dynasty, attempting to thaw a bottle of Champagne 30 years later and serve it to a new audience… it’s burned.