Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Return of TV's Super-soap Dallas! by Ivor Casey

Today it may seem like one of those old shows deliberately avoiding an integral examination of society and class or the subordinate. However when the oil-baron super-soap Dallas first hit TV screens over 30 years ago it did manage to break down barriers for popular culture, besides bringing its audience into unequalled escapist fantasy. Now almost twenty years since it last aired, it has been announced that a new series of Dallas, focusing primarily on the next generation of characters, is in the pipeline. Once again, TV viewers confined to their homes due to the recession, just like in the 1980s, will be brought into a surreal world of glamour and absurd yet delicious drama and plot lines. 

In Spring of 1978, a five episode pilot was screened and after proving popular the first season was commissioned to begin in September. Lasting 13 years Dallas became the most successful television series of all time, gaining over 350 million viewers world-wide. Its plots and success made news headlines and it became one of the most talked about entertainment sources for a decade. Especially with the “Who Shot JR?” plot which set the trend for all TV cliff-hangers since.

It is now seen as the foremost example for academic critique of American cultural imperialism and hegemony, with its original series referred to as 'a cheap TV show dumped on developing countries'. Nevertheless Dallas did and still does manage to help people put aside their troubles for an hour and see the fun side of extreme wealth, or maybe even the actually unglamorous side as the wealthy constantly appeared to be up against some troubling experience after another. Nothing like it had ever been on television before and never had a weekly series been an event. Revolving around the feuding Ewing and Barnes families Dallas incorporated everything desired for a passive entertainment TV show, with greed, power, murder and deceit. It was clearly politically incorrect and it certainly favoured chauvinism, but it managed to break some social barriers, even if it didn’t use the platform it held for many positive and constructive reasons. In Ireland conventional parents and priests ridiculed its content as blasphemous for its high pitched sexual innuendo, too liberal for TV. However, its massive popularity here conveyed an ever changing Ireland. Its main reason for such hype and controversy was the sexually rampant and shrewd businessman, JR Ewing, played by Larry Hagman, who is reported to be reprising his role in the upcoming series. It was JR and his company, Ewing Oil, that became the centre focus for the show as it emphasised how successful businesses can achieve. With ferocious greed, back-stabbing, ruthlessness, walking over your own mother to get ahead, the show detailed key ingredients of corporate success. JR was a corrupt, evil and manipulative womaniser but this made his character all the more appealing.

It could be found that an ideology representing capitalism and self made millionaires, glorifying the so called ‘American Dream’, suggested to the viewers around the world that you could have whatever you wanted, once you worked hard for it under a Capitalist system. Dallas was followed by similar dramas such as Falcon Crest and Dynasty which followed a parallel pattern. With regard to social themes, while Dallas stayed away from racism it failed to ever include a main character of any minority group or race other than Anglo - Caucasian men and women. The main characters were the apotheosis of the white, heterosexual, western male. It can be argued that the series was mainly about the oil business but that it also managed to cover topics not common in TV dramas prior to this and included stories, if only ever briefly, involving homosexuality, affairs, mis-carriages, ill-health, down syndrome, divorce and extra-marital sex. A two hour episode in 1980 dedicated a story to the matriarch of the drama, Miss Ellie, played by Barbra Bel Geddes, being diagnosed with breast cancer and having to undergo a mastectomy. However, possibly the most ever current of social issues raised in the series was the alcoholism of JR Ewing’s neglected wife, Sue Ellen, played by Linda Gray. One particular plot line, which highlighted the effects of alcoholism at its very worst, showing its victims on the brink of death, helped raise the show above the candy floss delights of wealth and power. Sue Ellen was frequently shown as the down trodden and unfortunate wife of an evil man.

Nothing has replaced Dallas with its original and classy technique of mixing glamour and wealth with tension and grandiose suspense. Although most soaps are cheap and fatuous, with low production values, Dallas was shot like a movie. Dallas was expensive, hard-hitting and intriguing entertainment, with very little as equally stylish made since. What remains to be seen is if the new series will live up to the original, which has found a whole new generation of fans due to its regular repeats across TV and the successful sales of all its seasons on DVD. Besides Larry Hagman, the new Dallas is reported to have Patrick Duffy on board as Bobby, as well a possible return for Linda Gray as Sue Ellen. The show will also star Josh Henderson and Jesse Metcalfe taking the reins of the new generation. It will begin filming closer to summer with a screening in Summer 2012.

- Ivor Casey

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