On Dynasty, the Carringtons were fighting and scheming over oil. On Dallas, we had the Ewings battling and backstabbing over both oil and cattle.
More recently, on the The Sopranos, Tony and his family - two families, really - clashed and killed over drugs, gambling, prostitution, power, and respect.
All of which brings us to the Duques, a large, wealthy Cuban-American family that runs an immensely successful rum and sugar business in South Florida. The family members, and their rivalries and struggles, are at the center of a new prime-time soap opera called Cane, which premieres at 10 tonight on CBS.
The program, which gives American audiences something they rarely see - an affluent, successful Latino family - has a first-rate ensemble cast, headed by Jimmy Smits (The West Wing, NYPD Blue), Hector Elizondo (Chicago Hope), and Oscar winner Rita Moreno.
Not long after charming but tough family patriarch Pancho Duque (Elizondo) finds out that he's dying, he receives a juicy offer from the family's bitter rivals, the sleazy Samuels clan, to buy his sugar-cane fields. Then they'll sell him molasses for his rum at below-market prices.
Pancho has a tricky decision to make. He could cash out of the sugar business and concentrate on producing rum, which would make big bucks and please his impulsive son, Frank (Nestor Carbonell, Lost), who has a secret romance going with a comely member of the Samuels clan.
Or he could sustain the family legacy and reject the offer, following the advice of his adopted son, Alex Vega (Smits), who doesn't trust the Samuelses one little bit, suspecting their involvement in a kidnapping and murder years earlier.
Besides, Alex argues, there's plenty of money to be made in sugar. He's learned from cultivating political sources that the government is poised to support the manufacture of ethanol using sugar instead of corn.
"Sugar is the new oil," he says. "Today you're putting it in your coffee, [but] tomorrow we're going to be driving our cars with it."
Pancho eventually sides with Alex, much to Frank's chagrin. But that's nothing compared to how he feels when Pancho breaks the news that he's putting Alex in charge of the entire Duque empire. "I love you Frank," he tells his slack-jawed son, "but you're just not the right man for the job." (This sounds suspiciously like Don Corelone talking to second son Fredo in The Godfather.')
"No, this is not OK with me," Frank protests.
"I'm not asking for your permission," Pancho responds.
Franks' subsequent slow burn presages what's sure to be an ugly protracted rivalry of Cain-and-Abel proportions, one that's sure to get as hot as the Florida sun as the season progresses.
The slick, stylishly produced series is sure to be filled with more conflict, betrayals, and dark secrets as the plot thickens in future episodes, but the key to its success is Smits. The smoldering, 52-year-old actor has always had a powerful screen presence with charisma to burn, from L.A. Law right up through The West Wing. And he's never been better than he is here.
But his character in Cane is not the Boy Scout-type that we're used to seeing him portray. Alex is a solid family man, but right and wrong aren't always so clear to him, and that's never more evident than in the premiere episode's shocking conclusion.
It will be worth tuning in again to see what twists and turns lie ahead for the family as they, ahem, Duque it out with the bad guys, and with each other.
If you're looking for what just might be the best new television show of the fall season, skip the major networks and find your way to The CW network, a fledgling operation whose most successful programming to this point has included such delights as America's Next Top Model, Beauty and the Geek, and Friday Night SmackDown!
But with its devilishly clever new comedy series called Reaper, premiering tonight at 9, The CW finally has a show that could wildly expand its demographic, not to mention its ratings.
In a nutshell, the show is about a slacker named Sam (Brett Harrison), who finds out on his 21st birthday that his parents sold his soul to the Devil long before he was born. When Lucifer (Ray Wise, who is even more wonderfully creepy here than he was in Twin Peaks) shows up to confirm this, he tells Sam that his new job is to capture fugitive souls who have managed to escape from hell.
Armed only with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner, Sam embarks on his quest, accompanied by his goofball buddy Sock (hilariously played by Tyler Labine, who seems to be channeling a barely reined-in version of the manic Jack Black), who is only too happy to mix it up with Beelzebub.
There's a little bit of Ghostbusters in Reaper, but with Kevin Smith (Clerks, Dogma) directing and Harrison and Labine ad-libbing some of their best lines, the show is smart, fresh, and most of all, really funny.
If people are able to locate the network on their channel guide and get a look at Reaper, it's a good bet they'll be hooked.
If not, it would be a sin.