Dallas was one of those shows in the 1980s that ran for so long that it lodged itself into the fabric of American culture. “Who shot J.R.” has not only become a catchphrase, but an important milestone in television history, on par with the finale of M*A*S*H*, Rhoda’s wedding, or Lucy’s baby. And the “it was all just a dream” resolution of Bobby’s death, where he just pops up in the shower has become synonymous with terrible TV moments. Often pitted against the glitzier Dynasty, Dallas is the saga of the Ewing family, an oil family based in Southfork, a sprawling ranch outside of Dallas, Texas. The patriarch, Jock Ewing (Jim Davis) rules his family with the proverbial iron fist. His wife, Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) is his dutiful wife, who asserts herself as an equal partner in the marriage. The Ewings have three children: J.R. (Larry Hagman), the unscrupulous, ambitious head of Ewing Oil; youngest son, Bobby (Patrick Duffy), who returns home to run the family’s cattle ranch; and prodigal middle son, Gary (guest star Ted Shackelford, who was spun off into Knots Landing). Along with the Ewing sons, there’s also Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), J.R.’s alcoholic wife, Pamela (Victoria Principal), Bobby’s virtuous wife, and Gary’s wild child daughter, Lucy (Charlene Tilton).
Like the great family dramas of PBS, the bulk of Dallas deals with the convolutions of the various family members, all of whom try to outdo each other or cheat one another. Initially, in the 5-part first season miniseries, the focus was on Bobby and Pamela’s wedding. In the Romeo and Juliet-like plot, Pamela’s family, the Barnes was in a contentious feud with the Ewings, and both sides pressure the young couple to choose sides. It was only when the writers realized what a find they had in Larry Hagman’s dastardly oil baron, J.R., that the focus shifted on him. And the result was a far more enjoyable and interesting show.
Few shows center on the machinations of a villain, especially one as unsympathetic like J.R. Like Joan Collins’ Alexis from Dynasty, J.R. provides the show with the most interesting and flamboyant presence. His badness borders on cartoon (you expect to tie a damsel in distress to a pair of train tracks), but he’s irresistible. He’s a terrible guy with no compunction to screw over his family if it means accomplishing his goals – all of which is connected to money and power. In the greed of the 1980s, J.R. was the perfect epitome of the tycoon shark, constantly moving forward, snapping away at victims in his wake. Hagman doesn’t have to be subtle and is extravagant and over-the-top, but that’s okay, because for a villain like J.R. to be fun at all, it has to be full-tilt with no shadings of morality or humanity. J.R.’s not meant to be empathized with, and he was created solely so that folks can describe him as someone people “loved to hate.”
And because of Hagman’s forceful performance, it’s easy to forget just how great the other actors are. In fact, it’s easy to forget because of the inherent campiness of the soap genre, just how well-acted and (sometimes) well-written the first two seasons are. The writers look to other literary traditions when crafting these overheated potboiler episodes. The tragic and pathetic Sue Ellen has shades of Lady Macbeth, and she grows more interesting as the season progresses; and Gray matches Hagman with a much more realistic performance, that may not be as flashy or memorable, but much more firmly rooted in truth. Lucy feels a bit like Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll meets Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita – she’s an adolescent temptress who uses her pouty, sullen brattiness to turn men’s heads. Interestingly enough, because Bobby and Pam are so good and altruistic, their story lines tend to be dull. The only off note is Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie – the theater vet is a wonderful actress, but feels shoe horned in the trashy show (her diction and mannerisms feel stagey and forced).
Because the show begins in 1978, some misogyny and political incorrectness is to be expected. For example, men are wont to slap around women, and there is a definite double standard in the way promiscuous women are treated as opposed to promiscuous men. And if one is looking for a character of color with some substance, good luck, because the only black people in Dallas are maids, drivers, and waiters. Interestingly enough, when homosexuality is introduced in Lucy’s story arc, it’s treated with surprising grace and tolerance (for late 1970’s standards).
When compared with Dynasty, Dallas is far more believable, and no less addictive (though it’s less enjoyable because it takes itself more seriously). The show’s rhinestone-encrusted heyday of the 1980’s come for a little bit – and in fact, often the appearance of the show is a bit drab – poor Bel Geddes, in particular, is saddled with some awful costumes of house dresses and work shirts. And though most will watch the show for nostalgia, Dallas is a surprisingly thoughtful show, that has aged pretty well.
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