The very first image we see in the new Dynasty is a glimpse of America’s most infamous nepotistic plutocrats—and now, first family members. Along with the Murdochs and the Kardashians, the Trumps are a piece of a mini-montage that displays the titular Carrington family’s pop cultural peer group. The family may not seem like the ideal group of characters to guide us into a lighthearted midweek television program, and that’s because they aren’t. The shot is both a scene-setter and an indicator of the challenges in store for a series that simultaneously aspires to convey retro fun and of-the-moment glamour.
The CW’s attempt to reboot Dynasty is a double throwback: The series is a revival of the quintessential ’80s soap, and dials down the makeup and hairspray while keeping the drama. (Who says “the ’80s never ended” better than Donald Trump?) But Dynasty also recalls an earlier era in the decade-long history of the CW. Along with Revenge producer Sallie Patrick, the new Dynasty was developed by none other than Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage of The O.C. and Gossip Girl. The latter was the last hurrah of a certain kind of teen drama: nakedly materialistic and not simply averse to moralistic messaging, but gleefully opposed to it.
The last wave of the CW ’80s reboots—90210, Melrose Place—aired directly in Gossip Girl’s shadow, though none managed to capture its zeitgeist-defining magic. It’s understandable that Schwartz and Savage would take a swing at one of their obvious influences, though their catfighting oil heiress wheelhouse is no longer such an organic match with the CW, whose current drama offerings tend toward the outright fantastical (iZombie), the self-consciously progressive (Jane the Virgin), or some combination of the two (Riverdale). To bring an open celebration of capitalism’s excess into the teen TV landscape of 2017, Schwartz and Savage would have to change things up.
That imperative becomes clear in the final product, an enjoyable yet scattered romp that suggests its creative team hasn’t lost their eye for addictive drama. On the one hand, the new Dynasty hews faithfully to the setup of the old: The Carrington family—once in oil, now broadened to “power” for maximum double entendre and relevancy (there’s a fracking subplot!)—is rocked by patriarch Blake’s (Grant Show) sudden marriage to his employee Cristal (Nathalie Kelley), which immediately puts Cristal at odds with Blake’s ambitious older daughter Fallon (Elizabeth Gillies). On the other hand, this Dynasty’s strenuous efforts to give the property a more diverse, self-aware, and generally contemporary gloss prove inherently contradictory. Dynasty may eventually figure out how to have its champagne and drink it too, but it hasn’t yet.
Take the character of Fallon, the entitled yet capable rich kid who carries a very different set of connotations in the era of Ivanka and Lean In. Her voice-over makes liberal use of pop-feminist catchphrases like “mansplainer” and “the future is female,” albeit in the service of her personal quest to rise from VP to COO of her father’s dubiously moral company, not any greater political cause. There’s enough to this tension between individualism and collectivism to fill several books, but the show largely glosses over it, content to live with its own inconsistencies. Dynasty could actually mine this hypocrisy were it not so conspicuously engaging in another kind. It’s a show synonymous with women pulling each other’s hair and maneuvering behind each other’s backs, but tries to present itself as hip to the kids’ preferred female empowerment rhetoric. Sure enough, the Dynasty premiere delivers an all-out Fallon vs. Cristal brawl by the 40-minute mark.
Other updates are less fraught and therefore more successful. The homosexuality of Fallon’s brother Steven (James Mackay) is no longer as inherently groundbreaking as it was 30 years ago, so it’s been augmented by a yen for environmental activism. In the past, Steven led a costly protest against his own father’s drilling that sounds suspiciously like the demonstration at Standing Rock; before the prodigal son returns home for Blake’s surprise wedding, he’s building houses in Haiti. Though his sexuality is still a point of contention with the retrograde Blake, Steven’s politics provide a more substantive distinction from the rest of his family, with potential for a richer kind of conflict than deciding who deserves to run a multibillion-dollar company. The updated character also allows for a voice of dissent for the show to define itself against while paying lip service to its inevitable critics. It’s a smarter approach than the muddled figures of Fallon or even Cristal, a PR associate who brags she “can’t be bought” while barely blinking before she accepts a job as the COO of a multinational corporation from her new husband.
One of the most profound ways Dynasty has changed is also the most immediately noticeable. Casting diversity is par for the course in the modern CW show, and Dynasty, a show once as lily-white as the rarefied class it claimed to portray, doesn’t disappoint. Steven’s initial love interest is a gender-bent version of Heather Locklear’s Sammy Jo (Rafael de la Fuente), who’s now Latino, as is his aunt Cristal. Blake’s rival Jeff Colby (Sam Adegoke) has been reimagined as a scholarship student at Fallon’s high school turned self-made billionaire, transforming him from a lesser facsimile of the Carringtons’ inherited wealth to an intriguing counterpoint to them—and adding an extra layer of depth to his attraction to Fallon, another carryover from the original series. In this telling, both Jeff and Michael, Blake’s ambitious chauffeur, are black, joining Cristal and Sammy Jo as previously white characters recast as people of color.
It’s unclear what role, if any, race will play in the actual plot. This new Dynasty may go above and beyond in its efforts at modernization, but ultimately, it’s stuck in a sort of uncanny valley: It can never go as far as a full reimagining of the wealth soap like Empire, but the gestures it does make toward adjusting often feel awkward and out of place. Unsurprisingly, Dynasty is better off aiming for timeless over newness. Women tearing each other down over an old white guy’s money may be problematic, but when it’s served up to us on a silver platter, who are we to turn it down?