After NBC raided ABC’s tradition with behind-the-camera docudramas on “Charlie’s Angels” and “Three’s Company,” and CBS spoofed “Batman” in “Return to the Batcave,” the Alphabet network finally wades into the nostalgia-pic realm with surprisingly efficient results. Buoyed by Alice Krige’s dead-on portrayal of Joan Collins, this kitschy remembrance grows tiresome after a while — and doesn’t quite connect the dots in linking “Dynasty” with the Reagan years — but it does capture a specific moment in time, however spindled the history might be.
The use of composite characters and “time compression” notably spares most former ABC programming execs from seeing their names used, which means we can look forward to a cartoonish suit named “Lloyd McPhersonlyne” when “Desperate Housewives: Behind the Curtains” eventually airs 20 years from now.
Still, there’s an amusing quality to the show’s quickly told backstory, as the struggling network — desperate in its own right — yearns for a “Dallas” clone. Meanwhile, husband-and-wife producing team Richard and Esther Shapiro (Ritchie Singer and Pamela Reed) pitch a series on the trappings of wealth that ballsy saleswoman Esther sees as “a modern-day ‘I, Claudius.’ ”
Nice in theory, the concept quickly devolves into an increasingly outrageous soap. Sluggish ratings spring to life once Collins is brought aboard as a female answer to J.R. Ewing: “Well, darling, this is your ninth life,” she purrs to herself before heading to the set. “Don’t screw it up.”
Along the way, writer-director Matthew Miller deftly zeroes in on a number of peculiarly ’80s aspects of the show, from the network’s discomfort with a gay character (“Cure him,” they’re told at one point) to dealing with difficult actors by having their alter egos meet some nefarious end. Strangely, it falls to John Forsythe (Bart John) to articulate what brought the show down — namely, that in the quest to heighten ratings, it lost respect for its audience, a timely message always.
Alas, not everything here works quite that well. Much of the dialogue is too self-conscious (“We defined a decade”) and the overused device of seeing the series’ rise and fall through the eyes of one Middle American family proves trite at best.
It’s odd, too, seeing how Hollywood (in this case by way of Australia) perpetuates its own worst stereotypes. The network execs are myopic cowards, the actors mostly ego-mad. In a persnickety depiction, producer Aaron Spelling (Nicholas Hammond) fares only slightly better than he did in “Charlie’s Angels.” In that context, the symbiotic warmth between the Shapiros — he the overworked writer, she the impresario — proves somewhat refreshing.
“Angels” didn’t set the world ablaze ratings wise, but these projects are so easy to promote it’s likely the trend will continue. So stay tuned for “Love Boat: The Rocky Voyage,” or whatever washes ashore next. At the very least, it’s preferable to TBS or somebody concocting a reality TV version.