The CW’s version of the 1980s touchstone Dynasty is not your mother’s or father’s soap. This was not just inevitable, but advisable: Multicultural, LGBTQ-friendly, and vocally uneasy about the same luxuries it serves up as eye candy, the show feels very of-the-moment; it even starts with a narrated montage about the idea of family dynasties, kicking off with news footage of the Trumps. This new soap about the super-rich Carrington family of Denver, Colorado, is overseen by showrunner Sallie Patrick (Revenge) and executive producers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, who built their own TV mini-empire with shows like Gossip Girl and The O.C., youth-oriented versions of the prime-time soaps they consumed as ’80s kids. All of Schwartz and Savage’s familiar hallmarks are present in this new show, including rapid-fire and gleefully ridiculous plotting, fast cutting, arch one-liners, and conspicuous displays of wealth: One camera move early in the pilot, gliding toward Carrington Atlantic energy company executive Fallon Carrington (Elizabeth Gillies of Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll) as she kicks back on a corporate jet while snarling exposition into a phone, is composed so that we pay equal attention to the content of her dialogue and the Christian Louboutin Ferme Rouge pumps on her feet.
The original Dynasty, which aired on ABC from 1981 to 1989, was a blatant knockoff of CBS’s then-hit prime-time soap Dallas, set in a similarly glitzy world of high-rolling oil barons and their scheming kids, spouses, lovers, and employees. It started out trying to be more sophisticated and politically engaged than Dallas, but after sluggish first-season ratings, it was retooled as a breathlessly paced, aggressively trashy melodrama, anchored to a couple of high-powered female answers to Dallas’s charismatic antihero J.R. Ewing: first Joan Collins’s Alexis Carrington, then Diahann Carroll’s Dominique Deveraux. The CW’s Dynasty doesn’t bother trying to continue and update the original show’s labyrinthine plotting, perhaps wisely so. A few years ago, TNT tried to update Dallas by appealing simultaneously to devotees of the CBS original and newcomers who never watched it and consequently didn’t care how faithful it was. As a result, although the new Dallas gave juicy roles to older castmembers from the original series (including the once and future J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, who died in 2012), it also set up comparisons between the relative charisma of new and established characters that distracted from the story. This Dynasty starts all over, giving us characters with the same names (in some cases subtly changed, to account for differences in gender or ethnicity) and diving feet-first into the whirlpool of double-crosses and grand displays of outrage, jealousy, and wounded pride.
Intriguingly, this Dynasty initially plays like a merger of the original’s Dallas-with-a-college-degree first season and its subsequent years of jet-propelled sleaze. I’ll be vague in describing the setup, because the most entertaining thing about this pilot is how it sets up a particular configuration of characters that you assume will carry you into the second episode, then rearranges them in the last 15 minutes.
The gist: Fallon, the narrator with the red-and-leopard-print Louboutins, is the head of acquisitions for Carrington Atlantic, the energy company that was founded by her grandfather and handed down to her dad, Blake Carrington (Grant Show of Melrose Place). Fallon expects that she’ll be named chief operating officer because, damn it, she’s earned it, but then she finds out that her main rival for that job, Carrington Atlantic executive Cristal Flores (Nathalie Kelley of The Vampire Diaries), has been sleeping with her dad for quite some time and plans to marry him. Cristal is simultaneously having an affair with the company’s chief field engineer, Matthew Blaisdel (Nick Wechsler), whose wife, Claudia (Brianna Brown), is suffering from early-onset dementia. (A nice touch: In the Blaisdel house, the kitchen cupboards are labeled to remind Claudia of what’s in each one.)
The new incarnation of Blake Carrington is less domineering than John Forsythe’s version in the original: He’s a deceptively bland old-money WASP type who has a gift for seeming as if he’s doing people favors when he’s really just tricking them into carrying out his own agenda, which is usually about filthy lucre. Victim No. 1 is his son Steven (James Mackay), who doubles as Fallon’s confidant. Steven is estranged from his dad by virtue of being openly gay and a left-leaning environmental activist who opposes fracking, an increasingly important profit center for the Carrington family business. He even sunk millions of dollars of his own money into thwarting his dad’s attempt to drill on Native American land (a nod to the Standing Rock protest, which is still ongoing). Dad lures his boy back into the fold by telling him that he wants Carrington Atlantic to transition into environmentally friendly energy sources, and then assigns him to meet with the boss of a wind power firm, an older gay man with boundary issues. Steven suspects that dad is pimping him out, and of course he’s right, though there are more angles to the deal that he’ll discover in due time.
Although this is a very white, straight show, it’s aware of whiteness and straightness in ways that the original never was. The inclusion of gay and nonwhite characters ensures that, even when the show is congratulating itself for being self-aware, it’s at least putting its money where its mouth is. Besides a Latina Cristal and a proudly gay Steven (prime-time’s first gay major character in a drama on the original series, though a self-loathing one who married a woman for a while), this Dynasty gives us an African-American rival family for the Carringtons, the Colbys (who were white in the original show, and eventually the stars of their own spinoff). Jeff Colby, played by John James in the original, is portrayed here by Sam Adegoke (Searching for Neverland); stray bits of dialogue (in particular a reference to him being a “scholarship kid” in school) hint that he’s a self-made billionaire. Both Fallon’s fondness for Jeff and her secret affair with her African-American limo driver and private dirt-digger, Robert Christopher Riley’s Culhane, are presented partly as acts of rebellion against her upbringing. There are other major nonwhite characters who turn out to be important as well, though I’m reluctant to say how; for better or worse, this is a pilot that waits to play its best cards until the last act to compel you to DVR Dynasty and make a habit of it.
The worst thing you can say about this show is that it knows exactly what it is; the best thing you can say about it is that it goes above and beyond that realization. It has hints of wanting to build on one of TV’s biggest soapy fortunes, rather than leech off it like a trust-fund brat. Which isn’t to say that it shies away from wealth porn: There’s plenty of that on display, from the establishing shots of the Carrington family compound, which suggests a new-money McMansion answer to an East Coast blue blood’s estate, to the pastries, Champagne, and luxury gowns that’ll either get showcased in loving closeups or destroyed in a catfight, depending on how things go. The best character so far is Steven, whose conflicted attitude toward his own privilege frequently shades over into self-criticism. He knows all of this luxury has warped his mind, but he can’t give it up. One of the best moments in the pilot is when he learns that somebody stole a wad of $100 bills from his pants pocket. He nearly laughs as he admits he never noticed the theft. Only a person who has never had to worry about money could be so cavalier about losing it.