Aaron Spelling knew how to make Dynasty a success—by letting it go crazy

Aaron Spelling knew how to make Dynasty a success—by letting it go crazy

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodeswe examine shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced or reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

“Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public,” goes the H.L. Mencken quote, and it applies to a great many American television producers, past and present—none more than Aaron Spelling, arguably the most successful American TV producer ever. The list of shows Spelling ushered to the small screen is long and crowded with huge hits, including Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat, and Beverly Hills 90210. It includes a handful of critical successes—most notably The Mod Squad and Family—but for the most part, it’s a résumé covered in well-meaning trash. For a good portion of the ’70s and ’80s, anyone wanting to argue that TV really was a vast wasteland could simply point to the large number of Spelling shows dotting the landscape.

And yet it’s hard to hate Spelling, even if it’s easy to hate many of his shows. What keeps his reputation from sinking along with the programs he made is twofold. For one thing, anyone who attracts that much success in the United States is generally seen to be doing something right, and Spelling spread his wealth around, both on charitable donations and on building up his own lavish lifestyle. (Americans have always enjoyed a self-made impresario who flaunts his wealth.) The other reason is that Spelling is honestly and completely invested in his shows in a very earnest way. He really does believe his way of making television—cribbed equally from his days writing one-act plays and the glitz and glamour of old Hollywood movies—is the best way to come up with a hit, and his track record more or less backed him up. American viewers have almost always rejected intentionally bad TV, but bad TV made with a certain clarity of purpose frequently ends up rising to the top. That describes almost every series Spelling made. They might have been bad—rock-bottom terrible, even—but they were produced with utter sincerity, and they were hard to hate because of that.

Spelling’s chief talent was in finding ways to navigate the tumult and confusion of American life and boil tidbits of the news into comforting drivel. He came up at roughly the same time as Norman Lear and the team at MTM Productions, who were all trying to use television to confront important social issues via sitcoms. Spelling, at least as presented in David Marc and Robert J. Thompson’s book Prime Time, Prime Movers, is someone who took the political conflict of the era and buried it way down in the subtext, building atop it programs suggesting that the generation gap could be solved if kids and their parents just worked together, man. Marc and Thompson point to Spelling’s first significant hit—The Mod Squad—as just such a program. It’s mostly remembered now for being a breakthrough in terms of bringing youthful styles to TV, and it was, but it was also a more conventional cop show dressed in hipper clothes. The kids on the titular squad respected their superiors. They worked for the betterment of society through public institutions. And they might have looked like hippies, but they were decidedly not of the counterculture. They were, in their own way, the yuppies that many baby boomers would become.

Marc and Thompson also note how good Spelling was at reading both political winds and ratings tea leaves. When public faith in government institutions began to dry up, combined with the rising social upheaval of second-wave feminism, Spelling came up with Charlie’s Angels, a program at once designed to appeal superficially to feminists but even more to straight dudes who just wanted to ogle some attractive women. What’s more, the Angels worked not for any government institution, but for a private firm. The government couldn’t protect you anymore. Time to look to the mavens of business and industry to make the world a better place. 

Or take the program that might have been Spelling’s biggest hit—and the only program he ever produced to reach the top of the year-end Nielsen chart—Dynasty. To watch Dynasty today is to be slightly mystified as to how the program could have ever gotten so popular, to the point where it attained wide critical acclaim and even won a Golden Globe for Best Drama Series. Like so many Spelling programs, it feels frozen in time. The Reagan-era excess drips from the program like honey. Spelling’s shows were almost always escapist, even when they were built on political foundations, but few were as nakedly escapist as this one, which urged viewers to laugh at the campy excess of its central characters while also envying their wealth. It was a formula that proved immensely successful, until all at once it wasn’t anymore.

Dynasty rose out of Spelling’s ability to see what was getting popular in the Nielsens and predict that the public would want more of it. It was very explicitly an attempt to clone the enormously popular Dallas, which had lifted CBS past ABC in the ratings. ABC, which had been stuck in third for as long as it had existed, had ridden a wave of Spelling programs to the top. It was only natural it would turn to him again to return to that position. Like most primetime soaps of the ’80s, Dynasty started with something approaching serious intentions. The idea was to take the over-the-top characters and crazy twists of Dallas, but ground them more firmly in the business world. Like Dallas, Dynasty was set amid a troubled clan of oil barons, so the more it could do to distance itself from that program outside of being set in Denver, the better.

From the start, Dynasty wanted at least a patina of class. The series was created by Richard and Esther Shapiro, married writers who had toiled in the made-for-TV-movie salt mines for much of the ’70s, on titles like Sarah T.—Portrait Of A Teenage Alcoholic (directed by Richard Donner) and Minstrel Man. Both had written on series television in the ’60s, their first gig coming on Route 66, but for the most part, there’s little in either’s filmography that would suggest something as crazy as Dynasty. George Peppard was originally slated to star, but he was replaced by John Forsythe before filming began on the pilot. Forsythe was just the right actor—he seemed very important and serious, but he was able to give everything just enough of a wink to let you know he realized it was ridiculous. Rounding out the cast were Linda Evans as the soon-to-be second wife of Forsythe’s character; Pamela Sue Martin as the passed-over daughter who acted out via promiscuity; and Al Corley as Forsythe’s son, one of the first regular gay characters on a drama in American primetime television history. (The part would later be played by future Heroes star Jack Coleman. The excuse for his new appearance? Plastic surgery after an accident.)

Despite the pedigree (such as it was) of the Shapiros and Forsythe at the show’s center, the first season of Dynasty was mostly a colossal misfire. The producers had the right instincts in breaking from Dallas, but they went in the wrong direction. Rather than downplaying the show’s soapiness, what would make Dynasty a hit would be playing up that soapiness. Dynasty started out desperately aiming for something contemporary and classy, something that would play up the business angles of the early Reagan era and provide the escapism of aspiration to a country starved on recession. What it needed to succeed, however, was absolute trash. And once it figured that out, it was the absolute finest trash TV had to offer.

Which is how Joan Collins enters the story.

The obvious answer for a season-one cliffhanger for Dynasty was to bring in the mother of Blake Carrington’s (Forsythe) children to shake up the fragile ecosystem the show had established. The series was happy to oblige, having her enter during Blake’s murder trial. (Try though it might, that first season of Dynasty could never rid itself entirely of soapiness.) The first season had struggled in the ratings, so Spelling—who never met a show he couldn’t retool—set to work. New characters, including one played by Heather Locklear, were brought in to spice things up. Two new producers, Eileen and Robert Mason Pollock, were brought in from daytime TV to spice up the storylines. And in the role of Alexis, the series landed British actress Joan Collins.

Television has often been a friendly haven for aging actresses who’ve seen big-screen parts dry up. Where other primetime soaps of the era cast their aging actresses as matriarchs or otherwise wise figures, Dynasty made Alexis one of the great bitch-monsters in television history, a role Collins seemed happy to play to the hilt. Sometimes, a great performance on a TV show can drag the rest of the show over into its orbit by sheer force of its gravity, and that was what happened with Collins on Dynasty. Watch the show’s most famous scene—in which Alexis and Krystle (Evans) tumble into a lily pond and have a massive catfight—for an example. Collins takes a few barbs tossed Krystle’s way and makes a meal of them. Evans either has to step up or get steamrolled. Collins had that effect on everybody on the show.

Collins also underlined something that would become enormously important to the show: speed. In general, TV serials are best served by moving forward as much as they realistically can in any given episode. Treading water almost always equals death for a show of this sort. Think, for instance, of how Breaking Bad can be very slow moving but almost always packs one or two major revelations into every episode. What Dynasty quickly realized was that viewers were familiar with the rules of primetime soaps now that they were proliferating across the primetime landscape. Aided by the Pollocks—another married couple who turned their pens to TV’s formerly most disreputable genre—the show played with the audience’s awareness of those rules and gradually sped everything up, pushing it more and more over-the-top. The Carringtons and Colbys faced major disasters in every episode, and cliffhangers piled atop cliffhangers. The show became known for its excess, camp, and outrageousness, to the degree where a series like Dallas started to feel downright mundane. There are few shows in TV history that could have ended a season with something like this.

Moments like these also represented a subtle break from Spelling’s tradition. In his book Inside Prime Time, Todd Gitlin points to a Cagney & Lacey producer’s story about how Spelling’s factory worked during his time on Charlie’s Angels. Critic Jaime Weinman explains the full story, but in essence, Spelling took one of the most important lessons of children’s theater—repeat beats of information over and over until the audience gets them—and applied it to television. Information was never so obvious that the characters couldn’t talk about it again to open the next scene, or even be repeated all over again a few scenes later. 

By virtue of its genre, Dynasty couldn’t do some of this. To be sure, the show has much of the repetition Spelling shows are known for, but primetime soaps need at least a little uncertainty to thrive. In particular, when cliffhangers were on the table (as in the Moldavian massacre above), there needed to be a certain sense of chaos, a sense that anything could happen. This marked a break from Spelling’s previous work, but it was a break he was happy to exploit on future series, notably the most obvious heir to Dynasty’s throne, Melrose Place (which this feature will get to at some point).

It’s a little disappointing to watch Dynasty now; it doesn’t quite live up to its reputation for craziness. What was once pedal-to-the-metal excess now feels stultified and very slow. Many, many shows have taken the lessons on pacing that Dynasty taught to serialized TV and pushed things even further, with far more compulsively watchable results. (It’s not hard to look at 24 as an extension of the Dynasty model, but aimed at straight guys.) What Dynasty still has going for it is a finely wrought sense of camp and a great eye on the ’80s. It’s a complete coincidence that the series went on the air shortly before Ronald Reagan took office, then went off the air a few months after he passed the torch to the first George Bush, but it doesn’t feel like one. Dynasty is perhaps the foremost TV series chronicling a nation’s desire to celebrate its wealth as extravagantly as possible. If that feels a little hard to parse in these cash-strapped times, well, there’s still Alexis visiting a fortune teller or Fallon getting abducted by aliens on spinoff The Colbys to enjoy. (The show’s politics, while decidedly of an era when conservatism was newly dominant, also contain progressive strains. Diahann Carroll joined the cast in season four as the first African-American woman to play a regular in a primetime soap, and while Blake’s gay son is rarely a sensitively drawn character, there’s at least constant acknowledgement that his attraction to men isn’t just a phase.)

In a way, YouTube is the perfect vehicle through which to discover Dynasty. It’s a place that can boil the show down to just the catfights and craziness, to just the weird, wild, over-the-top moments that made it a must-watch in the ’80s. The show quickly fell down the Nielsen list after the Moldavian massacre—which resolved with only two minor characters dying—as the American appetite turned toward shows that were a little more grounded. (It didn’t help that Collins missed the sixth-season premiere over a contract dispute.) Yet Dynasty had opened the door for excess, for stories that moved faster and faster, for producers like Spelling, the Shapiros, and the Pollocks who would make them run just so. And even now, stripped of all context, clips from the show play like perfect little pearls of weird TV wonder, scenes so strange or audacious that it becomes hard to believe they existed in the first place and not as post-modern parodies of themselves.

Next time: The Untouchables 

Filed Under: TV

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