When 'Dallas' Ruled The Airwaves

The pending return of “Dallas” to TV June 13 (on TNT) has produced a flood of reminiscences about the original series.  You can’t help but smile at the thought of the conniving J.R., his boozy wife Sue-Ellen (who would have fit right in on “The Real Housewives of Dallas”), the goody-goody brother Bobby and HIS wife, the busty and glamorous Pam. Just typing these names makes me want to break out a bourbon and branch.

Nostalgia aside, “Dallas” was one of the most important TV shows in the history of television -- and to a very great extent, we are still living in the world that “Dallas” created, both on TV and in real life.

Prior to “Dallas,” most TV dramas consisted of standalone episodes -- short stories, really -- that didn’t advance the plot from one week to another.  But “Dallas” popularized the novelistic series, which was adopted not only by other prime-time soap operas like “Dynasty,” “Falcon Crest,” and “Knots Landing,” but also by serious dramas like “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” and “L.A. Law.”



“Dallas” also helped shape the ethos of the 1980s.  Debuting in 1978, during the dour Carter years, the series reflected and even helped accelerate the exuberance of the Reagan ‘80s, when conspicuous consumption and unbridled capitalism somehow seemed OK.  You can’t listen to the rousing theme song without wanting to launch a corporate takeover. 

And for better or worse, “Dallas” helped shape how the rest of the world thought about America and possibly even played a role in defeating communism. According to an “American Icons” segment on the “Studio 360” radio show, the broadcasts of “Dallas” behind the Iron Curtain, with their depictions of American freedom, wealth and dynamism, gave oppressed peoples an alternative vision of how life could be lived and contributed to the unrest that ended of the Cold War.

“Dallas” bestrode the television landscape at a time when broadcast television itself was at the pinnacle of its power.  In 1981“Dallas” had an average household rating of 31.2 compared to a 14.5 rating for last year’s top show, “American Idol.”  Even more remarkably, it generated these huge numbers on a Friday night! Nothing like that could happen today, thanks to the fracturing of the TV audience by the cable networks that was just beginning in the early ‘80s.


The sheer dumbness of television content also seemed to reach its apotheosis with “Dallas.” Even at the time, it was recognized as a guilty pleasure – a show to relax you when you wanted to turn your brain off.  These were still the days when the entire family watched television together, so the plots needed to be undemanding and palatable to a mass audience.  No one ever needed to read a recap on to understand the show’s nuances.

The plots followed standard soap opera storylines, with internecine family squabbling at the center of it all. Characters lost and recovered their memories (or did they? Maybe they were imposters?  This trope stolen by “Downtown Abbey,” of all shows.) We also saw characters experience and recover from impotence, alcoholism and breast cancer.  There were too many marriages and extra-marital couplings to keep track of, to say nothing of the long-lost sons and cousins that kept showing up at Southfork’s front door (a plot device also borrowed by “Downton Abbey.”)  And of course there was boardroom intrigue, with various family members ousting each other from Ewing Oil. 

It was fun until it became absurd.   The big blow -- maybe the biggest reboot in the history of television -- was the producers’ decision to erase an entire TV season and chalk it up to Pam’s dream.  It had been thrilling and completely unexpected to see the once-dead Bobby Ewing materialize in the shower during the cliffhanger at the end of season eight, but to find out later that the previous year had never happened seemed like a dirty trick.

I think “Dallas” is remembered less fondly today than it should be because the producers tried to milk every last dime out of fans’ dwindling affection for the show.  Rather than pulling it off the air when they had run out of creative juice, they kept slogging ahead with increasingly far-fetched stories.  I could look the ridiculous details up in Wikipedia except that I prefer not to be reminded of them -- but I seem to recall something about J.R. marrying a hillbilly named Cally and ending up in a prison work camp, while one of Bobby’s new wives was kidnapped and killed during their Paris honeymoon.  I mean, really?!

By the end of its run, all the vitality and freshness of the early seasons has calcified into melodrama, and those of us who had once had so much fun watching it were heartily sick of the entire thing.  Let that be a warning to “The Office,” “Glee” and other shows that have grasped at plotlines that strain credibility and threaten the reputation of the entire show.

I haven’t decided yet whether I will watch the new “Dallas.” I am heartened by the report of the TV Board’s own Ed Martin that the new show is a worthy successor, but I don’t know if I’m ready for an 80-year-old J.R. Ewing and boardroom fights over alternative energy.  Sometimes it’s better just to leave your memories in peace.

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