Discovering Dallas and the start of TV's golden age
When I'm sweating it out in the A.V. Club salt mines, there's one thing I repeat to myself, mantra-like, to keep me going: "Tonight I'm going to watch Dallas." It's the light at the end of the tunnel when my eardrums are tortured by the soul-destroying new Weezer album or my brain is firebombed by documentaries about how evolutionist scientists heart Hitler. Yes, life sucks at the moment, I think wearily, but soon I'll be seeing that goddamned J.R. connive his way to millions at the expense of those poor saps in the Texas oil cartel. If I'm really lucky, maybe I'll even see the unspeakably foxy Victoria Principal emerge from the Southfork swimming pool in a slinky one-piece. Yessir, when you live a hardscrabble life consisting of nothing but backbreaking pop culture commentary, you must rely on the simple pleasures of a 30-year-old primetime soap to get you through.
I owe my current Dallas fandom to Freaks And Geeks, the beloved but star-crossed TV series that is referenced on The A.V. Club every, oh, 15 seconds or so. Dallas, as all loyal A.V. Club readers certainly know, is latchkey kid Bill Haverchuck's favorite show of all time, and since Freaks And Geeks is one of my favorite shows of all time, this was all it took to pique my curiosity about the show Patrick Duffy did before the TGIF staple (and worst sitcom ever contender) Step By Step.
I went into Dallas looking for kitsch, and I haven't been disappointed. Dallas comes from a much simpler era when TV viewers didn't demand realism from their television set. Shamelessly melodramatic and proudly synthetic, from its unbridled emotionalism to its fakey sets, Dallas is an unabashed "TV show" TV show. At no point do you mistake Dallas for a window into real life. That is, unless your real life involves an alarming number of affairs, murders, and drunken miscarriages. Dallas could never be made today in these oppressively ironic times, so it endures as a reminder that Americans were once innocent enough to honestly appreciate the weekly misadventures of oversexed, alcoholic Texans who insisted on living together, under one roof, so they could slowly but surely destroy one another.
I started watching Dallas on DVD a couple of months ago, and I'm now nearing the end of the third season as a hopeless addict. (I say hopeless because Dallas lasted for 14 seasons and 357 episodes. There's a lot of soapy horse still left to pump into my veins.) I already know that this is the season that climaxes with the "Who shot J.R.?" episode, perhaps the single most famous episode of any TV show ever. And I even know who shot J.R., since pretty much everything written on Dallas references it. But there are plenty of other storylines to keep me hooked. Will Bobby and Pam, always the good-hearted souls of the show, save their once-sainted marriage? Will Sue Ellen finally leave J.R. for rich cowboy Dusty? Will Lucy, the rebellious daughter of prodigal Ewing son Gary, wise up to her gold digging fiancée Alan Beam? Boy, this salt mine is killing me, but I gotta survive at least a little while longer so I can find out if Cliff Barnes will find a way to get back at J.R. for spoiling his congressional campaign.
OK, I realize that the small handful of you out there who aren't also watching Dallas at the moment probably don't know what I'm talking about. For most of my generation Dallas is a distant memory, a boring old person show that droned in the background as you played on the floor with your Micro Machines or Strawberry Shortcake. And yet Dallas was one of the most popular shows of its time. From 1980 to 1985 it was either No. 1 or 2 in the ratings. It has been translated into 67 languages in 90 countries around the world–still a record for an American TV series–and 360 million people watched the episode that revealed the identity of J.R.'s shooter internationally. Even if you never watched Dallas you can probably hum its oddly funky theme song.
You can't be that successful for that long and not have some kind of long-range impact. The more I watch Dallas the more I think it's an important though unheralded influence on modern TV shows. Dallas' legacy lies with its incredibly successful merging of the primetime drama with the daytime soap serial. It's a formula that's been employed by pretty much every important hour-long drama of the current "golden age" of television, from The Sopranos to Six Feet Under to Lost. These shows are often described as having "novelistic" structure, with their many ongoing storylines stretching out over several episodes or even seasons. But "novelistic" is really just a pretentious way of saying "soap," and Dallas was doing it back when David Chase was turning out scripts for The Rockford Files.
Like today's classier primetime serials, Dallas was centered on an amoral anti-hero. Only J.R. Ewing doesn't wrestle with the consequences of his actions like Tony Soprano or Vic Mackey on The Shield--not so far anyway. For now J.R. loooves being a villain, cackling over a scotch and water while wreaking destruction on those in his personal and professional lives. You end up liking him not because he's humanized by having a "good" side, but because J.R. has so damn much fun being bad. Due in large part to Larry Hagman's iconic, larger-than-life performance, J.R. is the most gleefully infectious prick you'll ever encounter.
Here's another thing: Dallas is pretty dark and plain weird sometimes. In the very first episode, there's an early scene where cowhand Ray Krebs and underage high school student Lucy get it on the Ewing barn, and Ray gets turned on when Lucy lets him call her Pam, his ex-lover and Bobby's new wife. I doubt you'd see that on primetime TV today, where non-judgemental depictions of kinky statutory rape are in alarmingly small supply. Or how about the episode where J.R. and Krebs go to Waco to sleep with some horny housewives–J.R. and Krebs regularly go to Waco to screw housewives in early Dallas episodes–only to draw the ire of their husbands, one of whom is played by Brian Dennehy. After tracking them back to the Ewings' Southfork ranch, the angry husbands take the family hostage and threaten to rape the Ewing women. At one point Sue Ellen is humiliated by donning her old Miss Texas swimsuit and singing her pageant song. It's a pretty disturbing episode not unlike something out of Twin Peaks, another revolutionary show touched by Dallas.
Work is currently underway on a Dallas movie to be directed by Betty Thomas, who is perhaps best known for The Brady Bunch movies. The project has languished in Hollywood for years, and after trying to make a go of a "straight" dramatic take, the Dallas movie is going to be a comedy. (With John Travolta as J.R., so you know it's good.) It's too bad but predictable–let's laugh at the '70s again! Can you believe the clothes back then? And the hair! Hoo-boy, the hair!
I'm telling you (and Hollywood, if you're listening), Dallas cries out for a serious Battlestar Galactica style update, either on film or (better) TV. As gas prices skyrocket, a show about a greedy oil family from W.'s Texas is potentially rich dramatic material, no? I'd love to see a modern-day TV auteur clear away the dated cheesiness of the original and pick up on what Dallas alludes to but doesn't quite develop, like the dynamic between craggy family patriarch Jock Ewing and his sons Bobby and J.R., who have absorbed his good and evil sides, respectively, and are used by their deceptively benign father to consolidate his power. Dallas is one of the great "shout at the TV screen" shows ever, but it could be artful in the right hands. I'm not holding my breath though. For now I'll just enjoy all the Dallas I've yet to see. As for the haters, it's like my man Haverchuck says, "You suck, Dallas rules!