40 Years Ago: ‘Dynasty’ Takes on ‘Dallas’ for Soap Opera Success
When ABC's Dynasty premiered on Jan. 12, 1981, its glitzy storyline about a wealthy family in Denver was intended to compete with another popular prime-time soap opera: CBS' Dallas, which featured a similar affluent Texan family.
"We wanted to do something that would be fun, an American fantasy," Dynasty's cocreator, Esther Shapiro, told New York magazine in 1985. She developed the show, which was conceived partly in response to the 1979 oil crisis and originally titled Oil, with her husband, Richard. "We thought people had seen enough stories where families fell apart. We wanted a strong, 19th-century sort of family where people were in conflict but loved each other in spite of everything."
Ratings for the first season of Dynasty were unremarkable, with Dallas still going strong after three years on the air.
"I thought one of the great weaknesses in Dynasty were the stories," said John Forsythe, who played the show's central patriarch and oil tycoon, Blake Carrington.
"I tried to generate some excitement about getting better stories, but, unfortunately, it's easier to talk about than to do. ... The concept of the show was not as strong as Dallas, for example. Dallas was the classic show of its time, and ours was considerably tougher to delineate."
Watch the Opening Credits for Season Two of 'Dynasty'
For Esther Shapiro, the far-fetched nature of the stories was, in many ways, the whole point.
"The biggest problem is getting people to move away from reality," she said. "Writers have the idea that the more gritty, the more real, the better ... but not here! This is my Star Wars, my Indiana Jones."
Dynasty eventually became its own kind of classic, picking up steam after the first season and drawing comparisons to another well-known prosperous family.
"Dynasty came on the air just a few weeks after Reagan's inauguration, and there are certain similarities," said Shapiro. "A powerful executive married to a devoted woman, with a difficult ex-wife, a sensitive son, a rebellious daughter ... and beyond that, the idea that having money and flaunting it, enjoying it, is okay - they have that in common, too."
The show was never meant to depict the first family, but its association with the Reagan era stuck anyway. It was really the glamorous drama that kept viewers coming back for more.
"My agent said, 'They want you to be in Dynasty,' and I said, 'What is that, a Chinese restaurant?'" recalled actress Joan Collins, who played Alexis Carrington Colby, Blake's ex-wife who appears at the start of the second season. "But I loved the role. One of the only things that upset me about playing Alexis is that so many people thought that I was just like that. Even some of the cast would say, 'Oh, my God — that sounds so real. Did you really mean it when you yelled at me like that?' I said, 'No, darling. It’s called acting.' And this was exacerbated by one of the producers putting out stories like 'Joan Collins threw a fur on the floor and stubbed a cigarette out in it.'"
Despite its slow beginnings, Dynasty ultimately became the No. 1 show in the U.S. by 1985, even earning fans across the world. And though the saga came to an end in 1989 after nine seasons, a modernized reboot version launched in 2017 featuring all the familiar Carrington and Colby faces and the family drama.