SUPPORTING GREAT TELEVISION

Reagan and Dynasty: Secrets of Their Excess

In Commentaries on January 20, 2011 at 6:00 am

Nancy and Ronald Reagan in 1985, top, and “Dynasty” cast members Joan Collins, John Forsythe and Linda Evans. (The Reagans were photographed by Harry Benson; the “Dynasty” cast photo appears courtesy ABC/Everett)

Today marks the 30th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration, an occasion that is sure to inspire tributes aplenty on Fox News Channel and more half-witted haiku from professional tweeter Sarah Palin.

For me, no commemoration of the Age of Reagan is complete without discussing Dynasty, the prime time soap opera that functioned as a pop culture barometer of our shifting values during those years.

Other critics have noted the parallels between the glamorous show and Reagan’s presidency, but they tend to focus on the optics – the sense of opulence that the first lady brought to the White House (expensive china, designer gowns) and the president’s resemblance to Dynasty star John Forsythe, who shared his matinee idol looks and benign, paternal demeanor.

There’s also the neat alignment between Dynasty’s eight-year run and the Reagan administration – ABC introduced the series nine days before he was sworn in; its finale aired in May 1989, a little more than 100 days after he left office – as well as how the show (and arguably, Reagan’s presidency) peaked during the 1984-85 television season, when Dynasty became the most popular series and Reagan won his landslide reelection.

Ultimately, Dynasty’s celebration of moral ambiguity is what really cements its status as a symbol of Reagan era excess.

Like rival soap Dallas, which made a hero of wicked J.R. Ewing, Dynasty asked its audience to admire antagonist Alexis Carrington Colby (Joan Collins) as a woman who always got what she wanted, even if it required trampling others.

Similar values were on display in the White House during this period, when the 40th president demonstrated his devotion to slashing taxes for the wealthy and boosting defense, even if it meant inflating the deficit and weakening the welfare state.

***

Unlike presidents, who almost always enter office under an aura of goodwill, television shows are rarely overnight successes – and Dynasty was no exception.

The series debuted in January 1981 and struggled in the ratings for many months.

Interestingly, these early episodes offer a middle-class sensibility that would be considered decidedly un-Dynastyish today.

Oil, the show’s three-hour pilot, introduced viewers to secretary Krystle Jennings (Linda Evans) who, while preparing to marry her former boss, Forsythe’s oil tycoon Blake Carrington, determines she won’t lose touch with her roots.

“We’re still going to see each other,” Krystle tells her secretarial-pool pals.

“You’ll come up to the house every weekend. What’s the good of having 48 rooms if you can’t have your friends over?”

Other workaday characters included Matthew Blaisdel (Bo Hopkins), a rugged geologist who worked for Blake; Matthew’s homemaker wife Claudia (Pamela Bellwood); and his friend and eventual business partner Walt Lankershim (Dale Robertson), whose cowboy boots and walrus mustache would have made him a good fit with Dallas’s Ewings.

Dynasty was also refreshingly topical at the outset.

Oil, which aired as the Iranian hostage crisis was winding down, opened with troops seizing Blake’s tankers in the Middle East.

The episode also showed Blake’s daughter Fallon (Pamela Sue Martin) sermonizing in defense of the oil industry (“You want to make this country energy independent? Who’s going to pay for it? The government’s going to do the exploration?”), while gay, liberal brother Steven (Al Corley) clashed with their father.

“I may not work,” Steven tells Blake at one point, “but at least I don’t steal and I don’t rob from the people of this country by artificially pushing up the price of gasoline!”

***

As Dynasty progressed – and as Reaganomics took root – the show abandoned its middle-class storylines and steadily slid into the realm of fantasy.

The president signed his first tax cut – dropping the top rate from 70 percent to 50 percent – in August 1981, a few months before Dynasty began its second season, when producers dropped Matthew and Walt from the cast and introduced Collins as regal Alexis.

Poetically, on the spring day in 1985 when Reagan approved his advisers’ proposal to “reform” the tax code – a scheme that became law the following year and slashed the top rate again, this time to a ridiculously low 28 percent – Dynasty reached new heights in outrageousness: the Moldavian massacre cliffhanger, when the characters were attacked by revolutionaries at a wedding in a fictional European kingdom.

After Moldavia, the producers stretched themselves thin, launching heralded spinoff Dynasty II: The Colbys – a vehicle for Reagan friend Charlton Heston – in the fall of 1985.

At the same time, the plots on the parent show grew ever sillier (a Hollywood producer kidnapped Krystle and installed a lookalike in her place; Krystle and Alexis’s catfights became annual occurrences).

The Reagan administration demonstrated similar overreach through the Iran-Contra affair, which marred much of his second term.

And in January 1989, Reagan – like all two-term presidents – departed office amid chatter that the public was “fatigued” and ready for change; Dynasty left the airwaves four months later, finishing its final season as prime time’s 71st most popular show.

***

Dynasty’s capacity to echo economic and cultural changes makes it difficult to dismiss the show as mere prime time fluff.

Consider Dynasty: The Reunion, a four-hour miniseries that aired in the fall of 1991, two years after Reagan left Washington and Dynasty was cancelled.

The story finds the Carringtons on hard times: Blake is pardoned after being wrongly imprisoned, but his mansion is up for auction and an international consortium has taken control of his company.

This is a kinder, gentler Dynasty – one that acknowledges the recessionary realities of the moment but also anticipates the rise of globalism: Blake eventually reunites his family and regains his company, but not before lecturing a rival about the need to put “country before profit” and not making “deals with both sides.”

“There’s no morality,” the rival says. “There’s no sides.”

“You’re wrong,” Blake responds. “In the end, that’s all there is: morality, love, family.”

Morality?

Love?

Family?

Ronald Reagan himself probably couldn’t have delivered those lines better.

Of course, whether or not the president would have believed such sentiments is an altogether different question.

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