October 14, 2019

‘Dynasty’ Creator Esther Shapiro Dishes on ’80s Soap’s Reboot

Captivating audiences with rich, beautiful characters, cliffhanger plots, over-the-top fashion and the occasional catfight, the prime-time soap “Dynasty” was water cooler TV in the 1980s. Three decades later, the youth-oriented CW Television Network is updating the original formula for a millennial audience with a modern take on the series.

“It’s the same characters, but skewed to make them more contemporary,” said executive producer Esther Shapiro, co-creator of the original “Dynasty” with her husband, Richard.

The new “Dynasty” still follows the feuds and foibles of the Carringtons and Colbys and their assorted lovers and rivals, but with a more diverse cast. Main characters are Black, Latino, openly gay and transgender. The setting has shifted from Denver to Atlanta. And the focus is squarely on the ambitious 20-something daughter, Fallon (Elizabeth Gillies).

“All of it speaks to the CW audience and its demographics,” Shapiro said.

CBS Television Studios wanted to revive the show before, starting about eight years ago, but couldn’t find a concept that worked, and “I hadn’t heard any that I liked, either,” Shapiro said. “I didn’t want to tell stories about the old characters’ grandchildren. This one took the original characters and modernized them for a new audience.”

Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (“Gossip Girl,” “The O.C.”) are the creative team behind the reboot, along with showrunner Sallie Patrick (“Revenge”) and producer-director Brad Silberling (“Jane the Virgin”). But Shapiro, an 89-year-old grandmother, said she and her husband have remained involved in the creative process.

“I wasn’t involved in the casting, but they come to my house for meetings and show me stuff. I gave them notes and discussed everything they did at every stage,” she said. “I give them feedback, but I don’t get in their way.”

Shapiro said she advised the new team to preserve what made “Dynasty” work in the first place: fantasy. “There is always a craving in the audience to see how the upper 1 percent lives. Yes, it’s about business and takeovers, but that’s in the background,” she said. “It was the clothes and the diamonds, and the upstairs-downstairs part of it. There’s something perennial about ‘Dynasty.’ That’s not the case with every show.”

Following in the footsteps of Nolan Miller — whose glitzy, big-shouldered gowns for Linda Evans and Joan Collins set trends on the original “Dynasty” — Meredith Markworth-Pollack is the new show’s designer, and famous names in fashion will contribute. “You want to do cutting-edge clothes but you don’t want to go so far that the audience can’t imagine themselves in it,” Shapiro said.

But it took more than clothes to make “Dynasty” a hit.

“I think the key is always story and casting,” she said. “All the other things are important too, but you have to have the right story for the time, and the casting has to be perfect.”

Then come the secrets, nefarious schemes and plot twists that leave audiences in suspense. For those, Shapiro took inspiration from Scheherazade and the Roman Emperor Claudius. “Scheherazade told a very long story to the king to keep from being decapitated, very much like a cliffhanger saves you from being killed by the network,” she said. “And I was very influenced by ‘I, Claudius,’ the poisonings and all the terrible things that they did. Nothing we came up with could beat what the Romans did.”

The success of the original “Dynasty” also had to do with timing, she said. “We had such a spate of crime shows, and I think the female audience was longing to see something from the female perspective.”

Shapiro said she believes familiarity and nostalgia will entice fans of the first “Dynasty” to tune in, and “with a character like Fallon at the heart of it,” younger viewers who watched “Gossip Girl” will, too. “There’s a huge part of the audience that likes soaps,” she said.

While there were no characters identified as Jewish on the original “Dynasty,” and there are none yet in the new version, “There’s a lot of Jewish emotion in the show,” Shapiro said. “We express ourselves more openly. It’s a cliché, but it’s true.”

The daughter of Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Greece and Turkey who met and married in New York, Shapiro grew up in a nonreligious home but celebrated major Jewish holidays. Today, she said, she is “always interested in what’s happening in Israel. I give to Jewish causes.”

Shapiro attended USC and met her husband there in a writing class. “We started collaborating before we got married” in 1960, she said. “We bring different things to the table. We complement each other. Nobody can write better dialogue than he can. I’m really good with people and story. We just clicked on every level.”

The couple wrote scripts for the 1970s TV movies “Minstrel Man,” “Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic” and other film and television projects before Esther Shapiro became an executive at ABC. During her tenure, she oversaw such projects as “Roots,” “Roots: The Next Generations,” “The Winds of War,” “The Women’s Room” and “Masada,” which collectively were nominated for 44 Emmy Awards, winning seven.

“I felt like the secretary of war — every project seemed to be associated with turmoil,” Shapiro said. “But I was very proud of that time.”

And everything that followed.

“Dynasty” premieres at 9 p.m. Oct. 11 on The CW.