When Dallas premiered in early 1978, it was
just what America’s doctor ordered. The previous decade had turned us
wussy, and there seemed to be no cure for our malaise (even our
president said so). The United States had been reeling from the same
old miserable mantra (Vietnam, Watergate, the oil embargo, inflation,
Laverne and Shirley…). The country needed something – anything – to
get it back in touch with its kick-ass greatness and to motivate its
Dallas was it – this big, steaming, strong
cup of Texas tea went down easy and easily satisfied, but it was only
served caffeinated. It gave us the kick in the solar plexus we needed.
It also became the export that made American TV the talk of the planet
Dallas gave us back the American Way – glamour, greed
and gams. Even Jock Ewing, patriarch of this oil-rich dynasty, called it
the three B’s: booze, broads and booty.
At first a smart soap opera (later it would sink
into the ridiculous and be forced to compete with its many uninspired
It was something America hadn’t seen on television
in a long time, if ever: a family so rich and powerful that they even
had their own doctor. It was a clan of multi-millionaires who still
lived at home and shared a bathroom and one telephone line. The women
were not only stunningly gorgeous but they drove Camaros and woke up in
the morning in full makeup. And the men, unlike Archie Bunker and the
other working-class TV Joes of the 1970s, dazzled us with their lusty
quest for power and their bulging wallets.
It was so ludicrous, so over the top that it
actually made sense and proved perfectly logical. The 80s and Ronald
Reagan would naturally follow, and that glitzy decade and that stoic
president had Dallas to thank.
The series began with a bad idea, and the big
audiences were not immediate (in fact, a competing TV movie starring old
geezers Fred Astaire and Helen Hayes whipped their asses in the
ratings). Dallas was initially a confusion of Cain and Abel,
Romeo and Juliet, and Hatfield and McCoy: Bobby (Patrick Duffy), the
youngest of the Ewing clan and the family mensch, marries a hot
piece of ass named Pamela Barnes (Victoria Principal). She is of the
dreaded working-class Barnes family, who eons ago used to be partners
with the Ewings until daddy drank away the profits and left the family
Pam is us, we are lead to believe. We get a glimpse
into money, power and glamour though her huge eyes. However, she is
nobody’s fool, and she is going to move right into that ranch (the
soon-to-be famous Southfork) and take her rightful place as both a
Barnes and a Ewing. Maybe – just maybe – there is hope for all of us
yet, and Pam will deliver us from evil (more about JR later).
In those early episodes, she’s good as black gold,
honestly dedicated to her husband and truly caring for her in-laws and
new family. They warm up to her too. She’s also easy on the peepers:
while at a disco that just happens to be playing the rousing Dallas
theme song, Bobby tries to cut in on her while she’s busy disco dancing
with her breasts.
This, of course makes for easy uneasiness, and it
seems as if the series was originally intended to center around the Pam
character. However, it became apparent that the real hot sauce comes
from Larry Hagman as older brother/demon seed JR Ewing. Hagman traded in
one role of a lifetime (Major Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie) for
another. We watch as he takes his sweet old time nurturing his evilness,
eyebrows and drawl and all.
Before the end of the second season, JR has the
most interesting “Things To Do Today” list of all: he has his former
secretary killed, forces women who know too much onto buses headed out
of town, beds babes with feathered hair and designer jeans from here to
Houston, commits his pregnant wife to a sanitarium and secretly rewrites
his own father’s will. But he still calls his mother “mama,” and we hate
to love him.
By 1980, the “Who Shot JR?” cliffhanger episode
will become the last great obsession of the pre-cable-TV world (although
the real question is, “Does Larry Hagman really think that he’s JR Ewing
in real life and is his ego measurable in cubic feet?”).
While Bobby gives his main squeeze a big wet one,
poor Sue Ellen (JR’s wife, played with awesome brilliance by Linda Grey)
only gets a dry peck on the cheek. Sue Ellen is like a Stepford Wife
gone haywire: a former Miss Texas with impeccable manners who had been
well trained for gold digging by her social-climbing mother. Forget JR:
Sue Ellen is clearly the most interesting character in the series, but
not even the writers know it. Although all of the Ewings drink like
fishes, it’s Sue Ellen who is labeled an alcoholic because she can’t
seem to hold her liquor.
She loves JR, and (seemingly) the feeling is not
mutual. JR’s freak is that he loves women who hate him (he admits this
in bed), so the more Sue Ellen despises him, the more in love he falls
with her. This awesome dynamic makes for some of the most wicked
chemistry between two TV characters ever. And the fact that she’s
carrying someone else’s baby only makes JR be meaner to her, which makes
her hate him more, which makes him fall harder for her. Got it?
The rest of the family is more or less expendable:
the patriarch and matriarch (played by Jim Davis and Barbara Bel Geddes)
are essentially clueless with only momentary lapses of down-home
inspirational heart to hearts. Jock Ewing is a Ronald Reagan prototype
with a gruff voice and a weather-beaten, handsome face. A former good ol’
boy and the founder of the Ewing Oil empire, he now has heart problems
and can’t eat spicy foods or be subjected to drama queens. His overly
protective wife, Miss Ellie, just wants everyone to eat their breakfast
and has a weird rhythm to the end of her sentences (“Jock, I’m worried
about JRrrrrrrrrrrr.”). They’re simple folk who are richer than all get
out; they believe in family values and loud wallpaper.
The middle brother, Gary Ewing (first played by the
zombie-like David Ackroyd and then replaced by complete non-lookalike
Ted Shackleford) makes a quick exit-stage-right out of Southfork. This
is because he’s an artsy dreamer (read: loser) and because he’s given
the greatest gift a Ewing could receive: a spinoff (Knot’s Landing).
His daughter, Lucy, stays behind to become the sexy fire hydrant that is
Charlene Tilton. Lucy, perceptive, spoiled and passive aggressive, has a
field day playing innocent, but lives to instigate with lines like, “I
saw JR in town last night with the prettiest lady.” Then she sits back
and grins as she watches the sparks fly at the dinner table. She
flip-flops between bad girl/good girl/lost girl and does a pretty good
job at all three. For the most part, though, the writers run out of
things for Lucy to do, and she spends a good part of the early series
working on her tan and popping pills.
Pamela’s brother, Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval)
plays the winningest loser in TV history. Not since Charlie Chaplin has
anyone on film been in the wrong place at the wrong time more often, and
JR is always sure to keep him down, be it framing him for murder or
destroying his chances for a Senate seat. Any faint glimmer of hope
Barnes has for revenge backfires, whether it be bedding JR’s secretary
or impregnating JR’s wife: he takes it with a bland grain of Southern
salt. And curiously, he’s the only Texas resident without an accent.
The Mexican domestic staff is silent and obedient;
the assorted yahoos and rednecks are naturally scary, scraggly and
unpredictable, whether they are kidnapping Lucy and free-wheeling it on
a state-wide crime spree, holding the Ewing women hostage, chaining
Bobby to a bed and threatening to rape him or simply getting into a
friendly bar room brawl. Yet the stereotypes are kept to an amazing
minimum (real redneck caricatures are reserved for the 80s and beyond).
Even more importantly, we are gratefully spared from what you would fear
might be a heapin’ helpin’ of country music.
However, do enjoy Greg Evigan (formerly of BJ
and the Bear) as a hip dude with a van that sports wall-to-wall shag
carpeting in the interior (“Don’t make me mad,” he threatens because he
is both gonzo and schizo). We also get Manson-like wild thugs (at least
the digestible TV version) who spray paint the words PUNK and RULE in
the house in which they squat, forcing us to feel uneasy about them.
The surprises come with Joan Van Ark as Lucy’s mama
Val (who will move on as the same character – minus accent – on
Knot’s Landing). Val (real name: Valene) is a put-upon waitress in a
greasy spoon, but is able to quietly get through to the impossible Lucy
the way no powerful Ewing can. And Tina Louise finally ditches her
albatross – Gilligan’s Island’s Ginger Grant – as JR’s smart
secretary who knows where all the skeletons are hidden. She also gets to
deliver a killer dying scene.
It’s the Kennedys Tex-Mex style, and Dallas
will go on to become an American institution and then an international
obsession: thirteen seasons and 365 episodes (try this today, and good
luck). The Southfork Ranch will become a tourist attraction equal to
that of Graceland; the theme song will become as beloved as an anthem,
and JR Ewing will make everybody’s Top Ten Favorite TV Characters list.
Of course, the poor relatives will eventually come
calling: Knot’s Landing, Falcon Crest, Dynasty, Flamingo Road and
The Carringtons will force Dallas to get glitzier (bigger
hair, bigger shoulder pads, bigger slapfests) and sillier (in fact, in
one of the most notorious moves in television history, the 1985 season
turns out to be only a dream Pam had).
Eventually, the cast will move on to the TV-movie
circuit and the series will not be as successful in syndication as it
was in its original run. In addition, this DVD is a huge commitment (29
hours, plus ho-hum commentary and an awkward, fluffy reunion special on
the cable channel Soapnet). However, Dallas is essentially a show
about outsiders (everyone wants to be a Ewing, even the Ewings), and for
pure soap without the bubbles, these first two seasons show you how