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Original ‘Dynasty’ Producer, Reboot’s Showrunner Dish on CW’s Update of ’80s Soap Opera

Reboots are a risky proposition: How do you honor the original while bring a creative spin to the new version? The CW’s new “Dynasty” is a decidedly modern take on the classic ’80s soap. The characters, the setting, the storylines — and yes, the catfights — have all been reimagined for 21st-century viewers.

It was executive producer Sallie Patrick’s work on ABC’s “Revenge” that made her the ideal fit to be showrunner for the revival (alongside Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage), according to the woman who had the ultimate say: Esther Shapiro, the legendary producer of the original, along with her husband, Richard. Over brunch in the Shapiros’ Beverly Hills home, the two women talked with Variety about their secrets for writing for soaps, what they learned from TNT’s “Dallas” reboot, and the challenges of being a female showrunner in Hollywood.

What were your first impressions of each other?

Shapiro: The minute I met her I liked her, and when I read her script I loved her. She has a great sense of humor, and she’s got her own take on the characters and that’s what I really like. Everything is different, and yet everything is the same. I could not be happier than to have her on the show. I don’t say that easily.

Patrick: It’s been kind of a dream to meet one of your icons — one of the people who really set up the genre of primetime soaps.

Esther, what advice did you give Sallie?

Shapiro: Really, just a few things that worked for me. I always say that even villains are on the side of the angels, and you have to remember that and give their point of view. Otherwise Alexis would never have been the character she was; none of them would be. But I would never try to tell her how to plot the show. If some things don’t sit well with me, I’ll point that out, but that doesn’t mean they have to change it.

Patrick: I think what was so wonderful, especially the first season of “Dynasty,” was the honesty and truth to emotion. That character honesty was true then, and that would endure now, because honesty always does.

Shapiro: I think the emotion is the thing. That’s the whole secret — to play it out and to let the audience get it. Audiences are so different now. We had three networks then. People would come by from the tabloids and go through my garbage and see if we threw any scripts out, because they wanted to find out what’s going on. You have a lot more outlets now.

While it honors the spirit of the original, the new version makes several drastic changes. How did you negotiate them?  

Shapiro: I gulped when they first picked Atlanta [as the setting, instead of Denver], but I know that it’s a good place to shoot because of the tax [credit]. You also have a lot more ethnicity in the show, so I think you have a chance to say some things. I also kind of gulped with [Sammy Jo, whose character was turned from a woman into a man as Steven’s love interest]. It’s not that I didn’t like the story or the change, but in 1985 we would have had to introduce it more slowly and take the audience along. We had to do that with Steven. Back then, some people didn’t believe that anybody could be bisexual. We had a network tearing its hair out that we even had a homosexual character on. But we just persisted and did it.

Patrick: That is what’s so great in 2017 — making the decision to make Steven 100% out of the closet and to be able to tell stories without questioning his sexuality is pretty awesome. And then obviously making that decision informed turning Sammy Jo into a man.

“Making the decision to make Steven 100% out of the closet … is pretty awesome.”
Sallie Patrick

Shapiro: The character that was hardest for me to adjust to was Cristal [played by Nathalie Kelly, a Latina actress]. I sound like a deplorable I know when I say we had this blonde goddess who was the love that lives forever [Linda Evans played the original Krystle], but as I began to think about it, it made a certain amount of sense. And it would certainly bring in a whole bunch of story possibilities that we didn’t have before.

Patrick: Being from such a different world really helps accentuate the fish out of water story. So that was part of the decision to make her Latina too.

Shapiro: You don’t want to play the same thing over again. I mean, we had Fallon going on a spaceship.

Patrick: Someday, if we’re only so lucky, we will do that.

Shapiro: If you would want to put the fear of death in a cast, just order a gun [from the props department].

Esther, how involved are you in the scripts?

Shapiro: I just read it after they write it, and if they want me to comment — I mean, I comment anyway. I tell them what I love and what I have a question about or if I have an idea for something, if I want more women or something like that. But no, I don’t get involved in the scripts. I learned long ago you can only have one or two captains of a ship. You can’t work like that, it’s very crippling. If you say something it should be meaningful.

Patrick: She also offers reminders of the core of the show, what’s important. Family versus family business, how it is of course a show about power and energy but it’s also about how the family struggles with their own power and containing their children and how it reflects on Blake’s character.

Shapiro: That’s exactly right. This is a man who does brilliantly in business, but can’t really keep control of his family. He struggles with that, and that’s what makes him sympathetic. I remember when John Forsythe was playing Blake, he would come to me with script suggestions. It took me weeks to figure out that what he wanted was be in the first and the last scene. That’s what he really wanted. He didn’t really care about the rest of it.

Sallie, how did you reinterpret the catfight?

Patrick: The greatest impressions I have from watching “Dynasty” were the fashion, but also these women who had these very visceral emotions that they took out on each other for various reasons. But generally, Blake was at the center of the catfights between Krystle and Alexis. In our version, we found a great spot organically to have them fighting over this job that they were both vying for, which really represented the dynasty, which is the core of the show. The way in 2017 for me to understand it as a working woman is someone whose career is incredibly important and to have it yanked away. Whether it’s angst or jealousy, catfights always have to come from the wellspring of the emotion of the character.

Shapiro: You’re not going to advocate violence and say that women should learn how to fight, but on the other hand they’ve got to stand up for what they believe. What you’re doing is exactly right; it comes from a place of honesty, of emotion, and they’re really vying for something.

“Dynasty” became emblematic of the Reagan era. Do you think the new “Dynasty” is going to become emblematic of the Trump era?

Patrick: In the world we live in, I think it’s inevitable that conclusions will be drawn. But I think generally it’s not that we’re trying to make a commentary on politics — we’re trying to make a show about family, and if we throw shade on certain dynasties while doing so, then that happens.

Shapiro: For years people had wanted to do “Dynasty,” and we never really liked the idea of just doing the next generation until Sallie came up with the idea of doing it this way. I thought it was a fantastic idea to just contemporize it. I looked at “Dallas,” and they had a whole bunch of second- and third-generation people that the audience didn’t know, didn’t care about. They kept asking, where’s Larry Hagman?

Patrick: The power of the show is in the core dynasty. If we had started with a third generation, it would have been watered down.

Shapiro: You also have a sense of humor, which is huge and very important. One of the things they missed in “Dallas,” I think, was they didn’t get any humor in it. And [here] you had it right from the first scene.

Patrick: We have to have humor to survive 22 episodes a year of network television.

Esther, you were one of the original female showrunners, and now you’re handing it off to another female showrunner. What does that legacy mean to you?

Shapiro: A lot. I love it. I like working with men but it’s like going to a female doctor. They talk to you more and you know more about everything and you can get in the details. It’s just comfortable.

Patrick: It is an honor to be working with one of the first female show runners. It’s a big deal.

Shapiro: In my youth I was kind of outspoken. I would call the network three times a day for six weeks to get a three hour pilot. That’s just an example of the way I was and sometimes I was a little too brassy I think, but I cared about it. Nobody said no.

Patrick: You have to fight to get your show not only on the air but then to keep it what it is and make sure that it doesn’t get manipulated into something else. You are in a way like a Mama. You have to be maternal.

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