When The CW débuted its remake of Dynasty in 2017, I didn’t think it would last. At that time, the network’s schedule was not, as it is now, pretty evenly divided between DC superhero shows and…well, remakes of old TV shows — see 4400; Kung Fu; Walker; Roswell, New Mexico; Nancy Drew; and Charmed now; prepare to see Babylon 5; Sweet Valley; Powerpuff; Zorro; and Good Christian Bitches later. Also, when Dynasty premiered, the buzziest dramas weren’t primetime soap operas; they were ultra-violent epics (Vikings; Game Of Thrones); procedurals (Grey’s Anatomy; Suits); teen-targeted mysteries (Pretty Little Liars; 13 Reasons Why); and sci-fi fare (Stranger Things; The Walking Dead). The new Dynasty was a throwback — literally, in that it was a contemporary iteration of a series that originally ran from 1981-1989, but also a throwback in its classic soap format and tropes. Now, not only is The CW’s Dynasty picking back up its fifth season (following a two-part holiday special back in December); it’s made network TV safe for a whole raft of new soaps with old-fashioned appeal.
In the ’80s, shows like Dallas (which spun off Knots Landing), Dynasty (which spun off The Colbys), Hotel, and Falcon Crest gave ordinary viewers the chance both to live vicariously through impossibly wealthy characters, and to judge their horrendous behavior. Double-crosses in business dealings were the least of their misdeeds; affairs, assaults, identity thefts, and murders were commonplace. The fifth season of Dynasty memorably anticipated Game Of Thrones‘s Red Wedding by ending on the Moldavian Massacre at a lead character’s nuptials — handy timing, since it’s usually around this point in an actor’s run on a show that their contracts come up for renegotiation, and a cliffhanger in which multiple characters might die could make the stars who portray them a little meeker in their demands. In the ’90s, Dynasty Executive Producer Aaron Spelling was behind two of the biggest hits on the fledgling Fox network: Beverly Hills, 90210 and its spinoff, Melrose Place, which made the primetime soap genre essential for a whole new generation of viewers. (Spelling even brought back the finale massacre: the third season of Melrose Place ends with a bomb going off at the titular apartment complex, though given the proximity of its airdate to the Oklahoma City bombing, the possible casualties were edited out of the episode and pushed to the Season 4 premiere.)
The soap opera is such a malleable format that, as cable networks and programming platforms have proliferated, so have spins on the genre. Beverly Hills, 90210 opened the door for more teen soaps (The O.C., Gossip Girl). Prestige soaps air on PBS and HBO (Downton Abbey; Oz). Unscripted shows (90 Day Fiancé; the Real Housewives franchise) can offer steadier employment than some five-episode-a-week daytime soaps may.
But what’s made Dynasty so much fun is that it’s not trying to be a take on the genre at all: it’s just an extremely well-made update of the original show, and it gives you everything you want. The characters are unimaginably rich and endlessly venal. The settings are luxe. The fashions are elevated. And anyone might betray, bankrupt, or kill anyone else at any time for any reason.
For close to five years now, I have been yelling about how great this show is — what a pleasure it is to watch a series that knows what it is and doesn’t strain too hard to be important or disappear up its own ass with self-congratulation. This Dynasty is such high camp that two performers aren’t enough to portray its central divas, Cristal Carrington and Alexis Carrington: Daniella Alonso and Elaine Hendrix are, respectively, each the third actress to play her role in this series — and when the show returns tonight, Alonso will play both Cristal and the exact double her scheming brother Beto Flores (Geovanni Gopradi) is deploying to help him win back control of the Flores family business. Alexis, serving time after being framed for murder, jokes to her recently returned long-lost daughter Amanda (Eliza Bennett) about breaking out of prison in “a Parent Trap deal”; Hendrix, of course, played the evil Meredith in the 1998 Parent Trap remake featuring Lindsay Lohan as the mischievous twins. Blake and Alexis’s daughter Fallon (Elizabeth Gillies) is a gifted vocalist who often stops the action dead to sing a number — but it’s easy to forgive such self-indulgence when she’s just as adroit with wisecracks and slapstick; she returns to the action in tonight’s episode after spending most of the holiday special comatose following a gunshot wound, as one does. Other plot points hinge on drone footage, a hostile takeover to be staged at a charity gala, and corporate espionage scuttled by an inconvenient rat. This is classic soap shit.
Apparently I was not the only one watching and wishing for more, because the 2021-22 TV season has brought several other soaps back to network primetime. First up was Fox’s Our Kind Of People. Loosely based on Lawrence Otis Graham’s nonfiction book, subtitled “Inside America’s Black Upper Class,” People takes place in the exclusive vacation enclave of Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts. Leah Franklin-Dupont (Nadine Ellis) is the undisputed queen of the social scene, and next in line to take over the successful family business from her father Teddy (Joe Morton, already a soap veteran post-Scandal). However, Leah’s plans to dominate the community are upended when Angela Vaughn (Yaya DaCosta) comes to town…because it turns out Teddy fathered Angela out of wedlock, and she is out to avenge her late mother. When the camera isn’t trained on Leah and Angela trying to scratch each other’s eyes out, we’re following a queer love triangle involving both Angela’s and Leah’s daughters pursuing the same girl; watching Angela juggle her ex and the up-and-coming local businessman who has close ties to Teddy; and waiting for the next elegant party to be interrupted by the revelation of yet another long-buried Franklin family secret.
“Dynasty‘s plot points hinge on drone footage, a hostile takeover to be staged at a charity gala, and corporate espionage scuttled by an inconvenient rat. This is classic soap shit.”
This fall also brought us ABC’s Queens. Twenty years ago, Professor Sex (Eve), Jill “Da Thrill” (Naturi Naughton), Xplicit Lyrics (Brandy Norwood), and Butter Pecan (Nadine Velazquez) were the wildly successful all-female hip hop group Nasty Bitches; sadly, a panoply of personal issues broke up the band and scattered them to (respectively) motherhood to half a dozen kids; repression of her queer identity for marriage to a man; single motherhood and a struggling songwriting career; and a host gig on a show that is definitely NOT The View. When a hot young artist named Lil Muffin (Pepi Sonuga) invites them to reunite in our day and close the BET Awards, the former bandmates have to decide what kind of future they want. Yes, this is pretty much exactly the premise of Peacock’s Girls5Eva, but it worked there and it works here! The soap elements start flying almost immediately: we get infidelity in two marriages, a surprise fatal brain tumor, an estranged mother’s return, and why wait for a finale cliffhanger shooting when you could just go ahead and do it to close out the pilot? Also: every episode is loaded with original tracks produced by Swizz Beatz, and they slap.
ABC’s Promised Land premiered this January. Taking a page from Falcon Crest‘s book, it revolves around the Sandovals, a family of Sonoma vintners. Where to begin with this absolutely jam-packed pilot?! Patriarch Joe (John Ortiz) has a hard time connecting with his five children — three of whom work for him, one who just returned to the family home after launching and selling a tequila business; the fifth is still in high school. Before long (warning: spoilers ahead for the pilot’s many plot reveals), we learn that Joe’s first wife Margaret (Bellamy Young, another Scandal alum) is also a bloodthirsty business rival angling to rob Joe of his empire, and that their son Antonio (Tonatiuh), the tequila artisan, is working for her as a double agent; the vineyard Joe currently owns formerly belonged to Margaret’s late father; Joe’s second wife, Lettie (Cecilia Suárez), was first married to Joe’s long-gone brother Billy; Billy (Yul Vazquez) is back in town and has become a Catholic priest; and Lettie, Joe, and Billy are not the names any of those characters was born with, because they were all undocumented when they came to the U.S. from Mexico in the late ’80s and are all still using the false identities they assumed back then. Oh! And Joe’s elder daughter Veronica (Christina Ochoa) runs a guy over with her SUV. Again: this is all just in the pilot, and there are so many more bonkers twists to follow; it’s not until the back half of the season that we arrive at the very old human remains buried in the fields!
Dynasty has been rightly lauded for casting that accurately reflects the demographic makeup of Atlanta, where it’s set: the Colbys, another wealthy family with which the Carringtons are variously entangled, are Black; the original Cristal (it was an assumed name…look, it’s complicated) was Venezuelan, and the current one is from Mexico. In the original series, Blake (John Forsythe) and his son Steven (Al Corley at first; Jack Coleman following “plastic surgery”) violently clash over Blake’s shame and disgust that Steven is gay; it’s pretty much a non-issue for the 2017 Blake (Grant Show, formerly of Melrose Place) and Steven (James Mackay). Whereas ’80s Steven has relationships with women, including Sammy Jo (Melrose‘s bitch queen Heather Locklear!), 2017 Steven marries Cristal’s nephew Sammy Jo (Rafael de la Fuente). This Dynasty is a big tent!
However, Dynasty comes to us from three white creators: Sallie Patrick, Stephanie Savage, and Josh Schwartz (the latter two of whom previously brought us The O.C. and Gossip Girl, among others). The three new shows are all about and from writers of color. Wendy Calhoun and Karin Gist, who are Black, co-created Our Kind Of People, and the detail in their vision of Black life is one of the show’s greatest strengths. Angela is trying to make a success of her mother’s business, a line of Black hair care products; she announces herself to Oak Bluffs by creating elaborate event hairstyles for Leah’s snooty Black society friends. Characters discuss whether Teddy is trying to launder his misdeeds through philanthropy — specifically, facilitating the release of Angela’s incarcerated ex, Nate (McKinley Freeman). And we learn that Leah’s husband Raymond (Morris Chestnut) also has his own decades-old family business — but that his Black ancestors had to bring on a worthless and unexceptional white partner to open doors in the business world that a sole Black proprietor would not be able to access.
Zahir McGhee, the creator of Queens, is also Black, and has situated his characters within the world of contemporary hip hop with a lot of thoughtfulness. Lil Muffin, for example, eventually drops that persona and returns to being Lauren, after realizing how her managers and handlers are just trying to extract as much value from her as they can before moving on to the next hot thing; later in the season, she decides to enroll in law school and uses her platform as a public person on behalf of a wrongly convicted Death Row inmate scheduled for execution. The Nasty Bitches, re-christened Queens, decide to launch their own record label to combat the toxicity of the male-dominated hip hop world: Xplicit Lyrics/Naomi reconnects with fellow artist Lady Z (Remy Ma), and learns why she abandoned her career: her former manager had her blackballed for breaking his jaw, leaving out the part where she did it because he sexually assaulted her. The track it inspires is savage.
Promised Land creator Matt Lopez, who is of Cuban descent, recently told Script’s Sadie Dean what it meant to him to assemble an all-Latinx cast for the show, when each of his stars is accustomed to being the one Latinx performer in a production. In addition to the foundational story point of the central characters’ undocumented immigration status, more recent episodes have addressed the precarity of agricultural field work and labor organizers’ efforts on their behalves. At the same time, we see how Joe’s success in the business world has not insulated him from his white peers’ racist jokes and insinuations about how he achieved it. In Promised Land, as in Queens and Our Kind Of People, the specificity that comes from creators telling their own communities’ stories adds relevance and authenticity that, in this context, only enhances those stories’ scandalous soapiness.
“In Promised Land, as in Queens and Our Kind Of People, the specificity that comes from creators telling their own communities’ stories adds relevance and authenticity that, in this context, only enhances those stories’ scandalous soapiness.”
All three of these new series have an uncertain future: neither Our Kind Of People nor Queens has yet been renewed for a second season, and Promised Land has, sadly, already been demoted to Hulu. (The other two are streaming there as well.) If you are, like me, of a certain age and remember the giddy excitement of watching glamorous people squabble, slap each other, and end up wrestling in a swimming pool, trust me when I say you can recapture that feeling again — and you should, so that we all get to see more of them.
Television Without Pity, Fametracker, and Previously.TV co-founder Tara Ariano has had bylines in The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Slate, Salon, Mel Magazine, Collider, and The Awl, among others. She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great, Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place), Listen To Sassy, and The Sweet Smell Of Succession. She’s also the co-author, with Sarah D. Bunting, of A Very Special 90210 Book: 93 Absolutely Essential Episodes From TV’s Most Notorious Zip Code (Abrams 2020). She lives in Austin.