When CW President Mark Pedowitz took over the position in 2011, one of his primary goals was to provide gender balance to the network’s schedule, which had catered to young women under Dawn Ostroff using shows like Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and Hellcats. Through the use of various DC properties (e.g. The Flash, Green Arrow, Supergirl, and the characters involved in Legends of Tomorrow) and the incredible resiliency of Supernatural, Pedowitz was able to provide The CW with the type of ratings stability that has made network saving moves like their billion dollar Netflix partnership possible. Under his tenture, things perked up enough for the network that they began re-expanding their brand in 2014 with Jane the Virgin, adding fellow critically acclaimed romantic dramedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend the following season.
But where both Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are fairly niche, and where it’s become next to impossible for shows to breakout due to there being hundreds of options and about as many different ways to consume content, the network has spent the past couple of seasons utilizing well-known female-skewing intellectual properties in hopes of finding their next network cornerstone. 2016-17 saw Riverdale, a brooding Twin Peaks-ian teen drama centered on iconic Archie Comics characters, capture the cultural zeitgeist and parlay a summer of Netflix word-of-mouth into an exceptional season premiere, while 2017-18’s hope was a new millennium update of ’80s soap Dynasty. Lasting nine seasons and over 200 episodes, the original was known for verbally and physically demanding catfights, operatic plot twists, and full-throated embrace of ’80s opulence, a time capsule of Reagan-era excess that helped lay the foundation for the past 30 years of television soaps.
Despite making some necessary changes, be it moving the show to Atlanta, being more inclusive with casting, and tweaking Steven Carrington’s (James Mackay) story so that the source of tension between him and father Blake (Grant Show) wasn’t his sexuality, the show debuted to mixed reviews and tepid ratings. However, with the show’s massive Netflix distribution deal and status as the lone CW show solely produced and distributed by CBS Studios helping its fight for renewal, as well as Nicollette Sheridan’s debut as Alexis Carrington on the horizon, now’s as good a time as any for soap fans to delve into the reimagined world of the Carringtons and see just how this family (or this version of that family) fits into 2017-18. Especially considering the fact that after an okay but not wholly inspiring start, the show has been on the type of creative tear these past few months that others in its genre would kill for. But how exactly has Dynasty managed to find its creative mojo and make leaps and bounds towards fulfilling its potential?
One of the more destabilizing aspects of the show’s opening run was that it’s point-of-entry character was Fallon Carrington (Elizabeth Gillies), a ferocious hellcat as comfortable in her sky high stilettos as she was excoriating her father’s new wife Cristal (Nathalie Kelley). While Gillies has always given a very strong, assured performance that’s fully aware of the show she’s on, it took Dynasty some time to dig into who this fabulous creature actually is beyond the amazing blowout and one-liners dripping in acidic disdain. She was a supporting character forced to shoulder the responsibilities of a narrative lead whose righteous anger at not being promoted in the family business wasn’t enough to fully explain her stormy, often unprovoked fury, turning her into a sometimes unpleasant fulcrum on which to rest a new series. However, the show has fully figured and fleshed Fallon out over the past few months, leaning into her need for validation from her father, her abandonment issues as a result of her mother leaving, and her status as a powerful, constantly underestimated young woman in a male-dominated industry to explain the coarse way she can have with people. This type of emotional complexity, seeing the difficulty she has in being honest about her feelings for fear of being taken advantage of and how deeply ingrained the notion of business being the only way to her father’s heart is, is what’s made Fallon Carrington a more well-rounded character, her words carrying more weight now that we know her intrinsic motivation, while retaining every inch of fabulousity that she began the series with. Though Gillies is a heck of a screen presence in Fallon’s lighter moments, obviously delighted to be swinging the biggest dick in the room and getting the chance to play corporate puppet master, there’s something very real about watching someone as accomplished and put together as Fallon grapple with her emotional weak spots. And that realness is what’s turned the center of Dynasty into a richer, more rootable character.
Traditionally, a character like Cristal would’ve been the way for outsiders to be introduced to the world of the Carringtons. Coming from a blue-collar background, seeing the Carrington excess through her eyes and having the show framed through her perspective, at least initially, was probably the path of least resistance toward setting up 2017 Dynasty. The contrast between her old life and the life she’s marrying into, a life of endless parties and free-flowing champagne, would’ve been a proper springboard for a lot of the class commentary that Dynasty weaves into its tales of #RichPeopleProblems. However, the show slow played her characterization, keeping her as a narrative cipher (and Fallon’s punching bag) until the secrets of the life she left behind came pouring out. This made Cristal a fairly passive character at the beginning of the season, to the point where you wondered how she and Blake could’ve gotten together to begin with, but the longer Dynasty has gone on, the more she’s proven to be formidable in her own right. Not only was the recent arc relating to her time in Venezuela catching up to her wildly entertaining, it played into the show’s themes about the nature of family and gave her the baptism into the Carrington brand of 1% iniquity that provided a lot of personal agency. Cristal isn’t a clueless young woman who finds herself trapped inside the Pandora’s Box of high society horror that is the Carrington mansion; she’s not someone who’s been smooth talked into marriage by an older, more experienced man who only wants her for her physical assets. She’s a person with a decidedly rough past trying to find the stability she’s been lacking through her relationship, arguably the purest heart in the Carrington estate but still tough enough to go up against Fallon when necessary.
While Dynasty has seen a lot of good come from the evolution of Fallon and Cristal, as well as softening and decentralizing the rivalry between the two, two other characters that have bore the fruits of the show’s creative run have been Jeff (Sam Adegoke) and Monica Colby (Wakeema Hollis). Originally, the former was the hideously wealthy third corner of the love triangle with Fallon and Carrington chauffeur Michael Culhane (Robert C. Riley), whose tension with Blake popped up a time or two, while the latter was a way for the show to humanize Fallon through their decades-long friendship. Now Dynasty has set the Colbys squarely against the Carringtons as an old family secret recontextualizes not only Jeff and Monica’s relationships with Fallon but the way the two look at their currently incarcerated father. Though the culmination of the Colbys’ plan to bring down the Carrington empire has yet to play out, the show’s decision to have the two families circling one another, gradually uncovering the level of deception that existed between them, has been exhilarating to watch for a number of reasons; in addition to making Monica and Jeff more active parts of the show, existing with their own sense of agency rather than being tangential appendages to Fallon’s story, it’s given Fallon a proper adversary to go toe-to-toe with and the show a more personal conflict in which to mine. Given that this particular plot twist occurred after we knew and had invested in the Colbys, slow playing the discovery of how the Carringtons negatively impacted their life made the reality of the situation that much more impactful, as has the decision to paint the Colbys less like scorned villains looking to bring down the Carringtons and more like (justifiably) angry, hurt kids looking to make this (seemingly) untouchable family feel a fraction of the pain they’ve been forced to carry. It’s a damn near Shakespearean chess match of a storyline fitting of any quality TV soap, a series of shocking reveals grounded in the necessary character work it took to get here and a moral compass unafraid to examine the role the Carringtons play in the misery of themselves and others.
But as great as it can be watching Fallon match wits with characters as smart and determined as Jeff and Monica, the biggest reason that Dynasty has taken this step forward is that it remembered what kind of show it is. Building up the show’s characters so that the narrative doesn’t sink under the weight of its twists is understandable, especially since the best TV twists are rooted in character, and while the opening run was a little dry and staid for something whose foundation is Crazy-Ass Soap, it’s made the creative leap the show’s taken that much more enjoyable and encouraging. Aside from the thrill that came when watching the show shift into overdrive that first time, Dynasty has managed to heighten its reality without losing sight of its characters, burning through a ludicrous amount of plot without having to sacrifice logic, pace, or humor in the process. Most impressively, it’s a show that, even with its giddily nimble storytelling that has only gotten more self-aware, can have a slowdown episode that still furthers the plot; shows like Dynasty that burn through a lot of plot make the mistake of thinking they need to go 100 MPH at all times or else the audience will get bored, leaving them to naturally run out of gas or, as often has been seen, skid off the cliff in pursuit of its latest thrill. Here, though, is a soap rooted in character, something that doesn’t have to keep trying to top itself in order to boost its social media numbers. Don’t get me wrong, Dynasty is still a nutty little gem of a show whose utilization of twists keeps the viewer off-balance in the best way, as you never really know when the rug will be pulled out from under you. It’s just that that fizzy energy is backed by stuff the show can lean on when it doesn’t want to put its collective pedal to the metal, especially since Dynasty is not beholden to the season-long serialization albatross that has sunk many of its soapy brethren.
One of the reasons I was a little skeptical about a Dynasty reboot in the year 2017 was that the idea of watching rich people fight over insignificant nonsense flies in the face of America’s record income inequality. We see enough of the 1% behaving badly on the news and in our Twitter feeds that a fictionalized account might not be the most appetizing thing, particularly given how much TV there is to choose from. However, Dynasty has done a mighty fine job of avoiding the pitfalls of its concept while indulging in the excesses of good popcorn TV. The two major arcs since the show decided to dive head first into Crazy Town have been operatic in scope while grounded in character-based issues, while Fallon’s added depth has allowed her to become a richer, more reliable lead and Cristal’s newfound toughness makes any conflict she’s involved in a much fairer (and more narratively intriguing) fight. In addition to interrogating the Carringtons and how their financial and social power has corrupted their sense of morality, it’s finally allowing itself to have fun and indulge in the snippy, catty sense of humor that should launch a thousand Tumblr gif sets; tonally, there’s nothing like Dynasty on television and while the show’s dips into the political arena have been mostly solid, its primary value is as televisual oasis, a haven for escapism thanks to its caffeinated pacing, outrageous costume budget, and impressive lead performance from Elizabeth Gillies. Although in this era of Peak TV, it might be more difficult for shows to get that second chance if they’re not the best versions of themselves from day one, Dynasty has actively been trying to up its game while ensuring its stability going forward, an interesting calculation that could sustain this creative run for quite some time. It might not have reached its peak just yet, but this is a show that’s trending upwards and therefore, it’s something you should seek out.
Dynasty returns to The CW Friday, March 9th at 8:00.