In retrospect, watching all nine seasons of the original Dynasty (ABC, 1981–89) was a strange choice. I was looking for something escapist, a wormhole to a parallel universe that seemed somewhat less on the verge of apocalypse than our own, and nostalgia seemed like as good a route as any. Of course, this wasn’t a plan of my own invention: nostalgia is a well-established marketing strategy, a way to produce brand loyalty retroactively, and thus the reboot of Dynasty on the CW network (2017–) is certainly in part responsible for my indulgence in the original.
Dynasty, Dallas, Falcon Crest—all those prime-time soaps of the 1980s glorifying a uniquely American conception of fantastic wealth and provincial royalty—were a televisual version of the 1980s that I had missed at the time, and which now felt like something I was missing. Certainly, I was familiar with some of it through cultural osmosis: I knew that Dallas featured “J. R.,” who was shot at some point, and that Dynasty was defined by Joan Collins and the name “Carrington.” In other words, I knew the brands.
My initial enchantment with (re)visiting the Dynasty of the 1980s was predicated on looking at it as a series of hilariously unconnected dots, none of which I wanted to think about beyond their obvious absurdity. The series is itself so narratively incoherent that it allows for the brief illusion that it has no continuity with anything at all. But the moment I was asked to contextualize my viewing experience, the fun was sucked right out of it. The world of Dynasty is not, in fact, a parallel universe. Despite its internal incoherence, Dynasty is part of a narrative that, no matter how ridiculous the premise, has the vicious coherence of history. Connecting the dots leads right to here and now, where virtually no one wants to be.
Dynasty is part of the fantasy world out of which Donald Trump oozed, and through which America became willing to watch him as if he were worth looking at. Overlapping with the show’s nine-year run was Trump’s increasingly successful mission to spread his name like a disease, putting his vile mark on hotels and racism like he was pissing on fire hydrants. It was not new that people looked at rich people solely because they were rich, and it was not the first time that a family brand in the United States was formed through an alchemical mix of self-congratulation and racist pandering. But the 1980s were a time when global capitalism and the promotion of American “family values” might have emerged as logically opposed, but were instead married by branding, in lieu of sense.
Shows like “Dynasty” suggest that the association of ostentatious wealth with moral virtue has sedimented over a long period of time.
The nostalgia-driven American marketing of a wholesome and pure family life is traditionally the domain of middle-class, home-related goods like Betty Crocker or Hormel. The Ewings, the Carringtons, the Colbys, et cetera—the fantastically wealthy family names at the heart of 1980s prime-time soaps—demonstrated that family brands and corporate greed were not just compatible, but were easily intertwined.
Dynasty is the type of lore that allows the singularly incompetent, corrupt, delusional, predatory, and grotesque figure of Donald Trump to register as somehow more honest than other political figures. Though his supporters’ frequent references to him as a straight shooter who “tells it like it is” are blatant endorsements of his willingness to be openly racist, Trump’s capitalist bravado and shameless self-branding are equally central to his current role. The psychic acrobatics involved in, say, evangelical Christians’ support of Trump are mind-boggling to many, but the “Trump” brand means luxury to much of America, and shows like Dynasty suggest that the association of ostentatious wealth with moral virtue has sedimented over a long period of time. It wasn’t pulled out of thin air.
Dynasty itself is so iconic and diffuse that it’s hard to provide an actual account of it. Ostensibly a drama about a wealthy oil family, the Carringtons, the show has a soap opera–like narrative structure. Boasting a significantly larger budget than that of a daytime soap, Dynasty is a show about excess that uses excess as its primary narrative device and aesthetic. Both its iconicity and that excess are embodied in Joan Collins’s character, Alexis, the deliciously villainous ex-wife of the Carrington patriarch, Blake (John Forsythe).
Collins is not part of the first season’s cast, so initially there is little to hang one’s hat on. Dynasty’s pilot and opening season centers on Blake’s remarriage to his former secretary, Krystle [sic] (Linda Evans), and the adult children from Blake’s marriage to Alexis: sexy, spoiled Fallon (Pamela Sue Martin) and sullen, mostly gay Steven (Al Corley, later replaced by Jack Coleman). The show’s treatment of Steven’s sexuality was what hooked me—a sophisticated inanity formed by an eccentric blend of homophobia and gay activism. In the pilot, a clash between Blake and Steven begins with a discussion of work ethics that transitions into a conversation about the manipulation of oil markets and ends with Blake deriding the declassification of homosexuality as a disease. When a John Forsythe monologue begins with the assertion that “I’m about as Freudian as you could hope for in a capitalist exploiter of the working classes,” I’m definitely sticking around to see where it goes.
Dynasty exists in a realm beyond nostalgic expectations, even beyond pastiche or parody. Narrative immersion proved impossible when I was frequently interrupted by something so “#extra” that I felt compelled to share it on social media. These moments ranged from a particularly absurd outfit to the show’s fumbling efforts to address queerness. Along the way transpires, well, anything and everything, from a random Henry Kissinger cameo, to a vicious brawl between the two leading ladies, to Rock Hudson, in his final role, playing midwife to a horse—with footage of an actual foal’s live birth spliced in.
So, for a while I saw Dynasty as a thoroughly enjoyable fiasco, a series of outrageous social media–ready moments, about which I did not have anything in particular to say. After all, what can one add to a scene in which Heather Locklear appears in court to accuse her ex-husband of having taken her to a gay restaurant?
Despite the nonsensical twists and turns of each episode, Dynasty’s pacing is slow, its temporality elliptical and amnesiac. Relationships, motivations, and personalities change at the drop of a hat, and unintentional surprises abound. Dynasty’s intended shocks are rarely shocking, yet its banalities are jaw-dropping. Every character has the ability to shift inexplicably into a different narrative role. The only consistent figure is Krystle, who is so overwhelmingly beige that her character development is imperceptible to human sensory mechanisms. Perhaps a pigeon could hear her character’s arc.
That Krystle’s desire to work with horses is presented as significant evolution in her plotline indicates how confounding her presence as a lead character is. The longer I watched Dynasty, the more her cloying blandness became an object of agitated fascination for me, contributing to my overall sense of the show’s otherworldly wackiness. The vacuum of Krystle is offset by Alexis’s commanding presence, but also by Dynasty’s rampant displays of wealth in the form of oil-rich families, with their private planes, mansions, servants, cars, outfits for every occasion, and lens-flare-inducing jewelry. After Alexis arrives, wardrobe becomes the driving force of the show, and narrative incoherence seems to grow in direct proportion to the increase in scene-stealing fashions. In this world, even the smugly down-to-earth Krystle happily tools around in her Rolls Royce, wearing fur coats more obscene than PETA could imagine.
Contemporary television—with its transitional flourishes, fast talking, quick cuts, and endless winks at itself and the audience—expends obvious effort trying to pull off what the Dynasty of the 1980s accomplished “naturally” with mise-en-scène and bad writing. Riverdale, Scandal, and Empire all aspire to Dynasty’s seemingly effortless excess and outlandishness. But whereas the stylistic overwroughtness of recent shows is intended to signal the knowing hipness of a hypermediated culture accented by racial and sexual diversity, Dynasty’s surreal narrative disjointedness is inextricable from the relentless consistency of the show’s whiteness and stodgy patriarchal ethos. The combination of absolute nonsense and the violent assertion of power, each enabling the other, is now familiar and blatant, embodied in the repugnant American president, senate, and newly confirmed supreme court justice.
But in the context of the show, such figures are granted the status of ego ideals via the logic of the family brand. The Carringtons themselves are, of course, Dynasty’s most coveted product. Whatever one’s relationship to the show’s core family, the brand name “Carrington” is what Dynasty means. Much of the show’s narrative obsessively centers on establishing who is or isn’t a Carrington. Whether it’s someone marrying into the family, a poor relation seeking financial aid, or a long-lost child returning as an adult (this happens twice), the drive to become part of the Carrington family is repeated ad nauseam.
Even when a person of color finally materializes in the form of Dominique Deveraux (played by the legendary Diahann Carroll), her arc follows that of every other major character introduced into the show. A diva built to rival Alexis in a way Krystle cannot, Dominique, too, is a Carrington and her only apparent aim is to be recognized as such.
Unlike the other surprise Carringtons, Dominique is already rich and famous in her own right. What she insists on is Carrington name recognition, demanding that her half-brother Blake, in particular, acknowledge her and her association with the family brand. Dominique’s blackness goes almost entirely unmentioned and the racial aspects of her backstory as the unrecognized child of a white patriarch are unspoken, even as her appearance on the show rebrands the Carrington name, newly associating it with (very stylish) racial diversity qua family values.
No matter how they get there, every Carrington family member ends up working with, for, or against Blake’s company, Denver-Carrington. To be a part of the Carrington family is to be a part of the Carrington business, because that is what the Carrington brand means: what makes Blake a “good” patriarch and the Carringtons a “good” family is the purity of Blake’s capitalist drive.
As an oil magnate, Blake regularly engages with both foreign and domestic governments, but there is never any implication whatsoever that he or his family has the remotest ideological or political agenda. Blake is interested only in maintaining and growing his company, a corporation with the soul of a family business. Even Alexis’s seemingly political machinations—inserting herself into a deal for oil leases in the South China Sea or using her connections to arrange for a hostile Middle Eastern government to release Carrington oil tankers—revolve primarily around her relationship and rivalry with Blake.
Similarly, when the show introduces corporate plotlines, their narrative value is solely about the family relations involved, which themselves revolve around the family name. To wit: Blake’s main competition is Colbyco, another family-run oil business, inherited and run by Alexis after her brief marriage to Cecil Colby, whose nephew Jeff is accepted as part of the extended Carrington clan even before he marries Blake’s daughter and they have a child—whom they name, of course, Blake. The vague realism of global capitalism serves as backdrop and motivation for this nonsensical family drama.
“Dynasty” is a show about excess that uses excess as its primary narrative device and aesthetic.
Dynasty’s fetishization of the Carrington name brands family values and transnational capitalism as one and the same. The Carringtons are a “real American” family (in the racist dog whistle sense): they are obscenely rich, but their oil corporations are just family businesses like any other. Their “mainstream American” values have simply led them to accrue opulent wealth. They eat at home together, wearing tuxes and ball gowns.
A non-Carrington Carrington, Alexis is Dynasty’s fetish object par excellence. Her deviousness, sartorial glory, caviar eating, preference for apartments over houses, British origin, and open sexuality allow Blake’s well-kept mansion and corporate stewardship to register as down-to-earth, responsible, respectable, and even middle class. And just as Alexis embodied Dynasty and defined Blake’s character, Trump’s (ex-)wives helped position him as the protagonist of a real-life (though still fictional) dynasty, with Ivana and Marla mimicking the show’s fashions as if they had been cast in it.
Among the many things I didn’t want to know about Dynasty is that Ivana’s friend Joan Collins used Donald Trump as inspiration for her portrayal of Alexis. It makes perverse sense that Collins identified her character with Trump, while he in turn emerged as a television character on The Apprentice, doubtless capitalizing on the fabulousness of Alexis’s brutal business style on Dynasty. Somewhere in this pile of turtles, delivering one-liners and firing people began to impress American audiences as being good at business.
Dynasty’s narrative and stylistic connection to the Trumps is indeed so obvious that the first shot of the 2017 reboot’s pilot episode pictures Donald Trump at a ribbon cutting ceremony, surrounded by his family, while a young woman’s voiceover (Fallon? Ivanka?) insists, like the introduction to a bad college essay, that, “we live in an age of dynasties.”
Reflecting both the incoherence of the original Dynasty and the contradictions of American racism, the reboot’s pilot spends its first moments tying its predecessor to toxic whiteness, then systematically disavows the white supremacy at Dynasty’s core by recasting numerous characters as nonwhite. The new series is a prime example of the use of reboots to lazily implement representational “diversity” by casting people of color in roles originally written for and occupied by white people in lieu of telling different stories and developing new characters. But the particular combination of “dynasties” in the three shots that make up the show’s opening montage says it all—Trump, Murdoch, and Kardashian. Trump + Fox News + Reality TV. Add social media and you have a mathematical formula for Trump’s America.
The ease with which the remake self-consciously connects the 1980s Dynasty to Trump’s rise makes me ashamed to have felt, however fleetingly, that the original show was simply funny. It was wishful thinking to revel in Dynasty’s incoherence—the show’s bizarreness is actually frighteningly consistent with much contemporary American “logic.” What Dynasty in its original form presents is so earnest in its nonsense, so contradictory in its thinking, so profoundly stupid, that to see it as the basis for a worldview is truly unsettling. Yeah, it’s all hilarious, like Trump, right up until it isn’t.
It’s not that Dynasty was that formative. It’s not that any of those shows were. But to take pleasure in their silliness and naiveté—and to remake them with multiracial casts as if they were not defined by whiteness in the first place—is to refuse to see that such nostalgia is just brand recognition, part of the same consumer politics that allows Trump to market himself through the violent nostalgia of some fantasized American “greatness.” Of course, I would want to believe that there was a time when nonsense was nonsense, before it became clear that something so truly awful could rise on the wind of its own gassy bloat right into the presidency. But as my own brother so aptly put it the day after the 2016 presidential election: “America got what it deserved. It elected a brand as president.”
This article was commissioned by Sarah Kessler.