Greed, Melodrama and the Unexpected: What Made Dallas TV’s Greatest Happy Accident

The revival of classic soap opera 'Dallas' may be able to breathe new life into the glamor and melodrama of the Texan oil world, but it will never reach the insane, amoral heights of the original

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As ridiculous as it sounds, I find myself conflicted about the debut of TNT’s Dallas revival tonight. I’m overwhelmed by a weird, fond nostalgia for the original. Not only was the show a particular favorite of my grandmother when I was growing up, with the show’s theme a constant in our house, but one of my most vivid early memories is of a television news report about the excitement surrounding the revelation of who shot J.R. On the other hand, the prospect of a new, modernized Dallas makes me nervous for the show’s legacy as one of the most fascinating, most disastrous shows in American television history, one that ended up revolutionizing the face of television and predicting a change in culture by celebrating and glamorizing all the things we’re not supposed to want to do. During the show’s original 1978-1991 run, some may have suspected that the show was the work of the Devil himself, and considering the show’s final episode, Dallas‘ creators apparently didn’t entirely disagree.

Of course, the origins of Dallas were much more humble — not to mention accidental — than its subsequent long shadow might suggest. According to its creator, David Jacobs, the show was essentially a by-product of wanting to do an entirely different kind of program: In an interview he gave in 2000, Jacobs explained that “my first idea was Knots Landing [but the] response from CBS was that they… wanted to start out with something a little richer, more of a saga. The first thing I thought of was Romeo and Juliet and the word ‘saga’ suggested Texas.” From such small beginnings, a 14-year epic about humanity’s worst impulses (and fashion choices) was born.

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The show’s earliest episodes bore little resemblance to the Dallas that comes to mind for most people these days; not only was the show launched as a five episode mini-series focused on the Montague and Capulet-style love affair of Bobby Ewing and Pam Barnes with Bobby’s brother, J.R., just a minor character, but it also had stand-alone episodes rather than the labyrinth of continuing storylines that most people remember. In fact, even the switch to ongoing, overlapping, narratives — the first time that had happened on a prime-time show since the late ’60s serial Peyton Place — happened without prior planning, according to story editor Camille Marchetta:

The writing staff was watching dailies one day and we heard Sue Ellen announce that she was pregnant. While you would think we might have realized the ramifications in advance, I can honestly say it was only then, when we heard her say it, that we realized it would be impossible to deal with that subject in a single episode, that it would take many to play it out. We spent the next few days mulling over this problem and as our discussions turned up more and more interesting story possibilities, we decided to present our case to the studio and the network for continuing in a serial format.

“The show really took off when it became serialized, when it became more of a soap opera,” recalled producer David Paulsen, going on to underscore the importance of improvisation and happenstance in the show’s success: “You know that there are certain questions out there like the Barnes/Ewing feud and so forth but details of it only come as the writers need and discover them. Suddenly you get an idea and the audience says, ‘Ah, now I know what that was all about!’ Well it wasn’t about that until we thought it up, sometimes years later.”

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In the face of such seeming ineptitude, you might wonder just how the show became the success it did. The answer to that can be summed up in just five words: The seductive power of evil. Sure, perhaps “evil” is overstating things a little, but here’s how the Television Academy Foundation describes the series on its website:

For prime time in the late seventies, Dallas was sensational, featuring numerous acts of adultery by both J.R. and Sue Ellen, the revelation of Jock’s illegitimate son, Ray Krebs, who worked as a hired hand on Southfork, and the raunchy exploits of young Lucy, daughter of Gary, the third, largely absent, Ewing brother. It was the complicated stuff of daytime melodrama, done with big-budget glamour — high-fashion wardrobes, richly furnished home and office interiors, exteriors shot on location in the Dallas area.

Surprisingly, that really does explain the appeal of the show in an admittedly wordy nutshell: People liked to see characters do the kinds of terrible things that they’d never get away with in real life in such opulent surroundings and outfits that suggested that they didn’t just escape censure for their behavior, they got rewarded for it. How could anyone resist the voyeuristic thrill of peeking into that world on a weekly basis?

It’s possible that everyone involved in making the show believed that they were creating a modern morality play. Certainly, producer Jacobs seemed to. Talking about the heart of the show, he described a far more austere one than appeared on screen: “The core of the show is the dining room table. That’s where things happened,” he said, “Basically, it was about interpersonal relationships.” Interpersonal relationships, maybe, but with one all-important, additional twist: Given the mechanics of serial television, and the meta-textual need to keep popular characters not only in the show but at the center of the action, the recurring villains of the show — members of the family gathered around the dining room table, remember — were safe from jail, death or any meaningful, permanent retribution. Removing that lack of closure, the struggle between good and evil became uneven and unfair. Especially when you bring J.R. into the mix.

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Thanks in large part to a performance that elevates scenery-chewing to an art form all its own, Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing quickly became one of those rare characters that outgrow their story and take on a far greater cultural significance, something that his creator believes was all down to timing. Writing in the New York Times in 1990, Jacobs explained that “J. R. Ewing’s appearance on the global TV screen coincided with the beginning of the Reagan Presidency, and J.R. was a man of his times. Like his 70s counterpart, Archie Bunker, who gave voice to prejudices and attitudes that were no longer socially acceptable but still widely felt, J.R. proved unexpectedly appealing. His unapologetic commitment to self-interest, his unabashed belief in the corruptibility of others linked him to a generation that would soon be told that greed was O.K. and read on bumper stickers that Jesus wanted people to get rich.”

Whatever pretense Dallas might have had for being more than the guiltiest of pleasures at the time faded as J.R.’s popularity and importance to the show rose. As the writers recognized the audience’s love of J.R. and quickly moved to center the show around him — with Hagman smartly renegotiating his deal in the middle of the initial rush to capitalize on the character’s success, escaping to England to play as hard to get as possible as deals were being made — the show’s focus shifted to a weird, cartoonish dark side. J.R. became unstoppable, whether it was his endless parade of wives, mistresses or lovers or his out-maneuvering of business rivals. In the show’s glory days, anything that stood in J.R.’s way was, at worst, a temporary setback — even being shot at close range. But why shouldn’t he be able to survive that? As the character came to personify the times, it’d almost seem heretical to suggest that he wasn’t invulnerable, if not immortal. Greed, after all, was good and the greediest of them all had to be shown to demonstrate what everyone could become if only they tried hard enough — and wanted it badly enough.

In the end, Dallas became a victim of its own success. Having created a hunger for sensational, amoral stories that reflected and magnified its audience’s baser appetites, the show succumbed to competition that out-Dallas-ed Dallas. Copycat shows like Dynasty and (fellow CBS show) Falcon Crest had no problem upping the melodrama and glamor past Dallas‘ limit, adding their own spins (Catfights! Vineyards!) for titillation. Somewhat surreally, the relative classiness of Dallas in comparison with these later shows became something that Jacobs and others took as a strange validation of Dallas’ intellectual and moral value: “Dynasty was a better expression of second Reagan Administration values than Dallas because, while Dallas was about the quest for money, Dynasty was about the things that money could buy,” Jacobs wrote in his New York Times piece. “In Dallas money was a tool, a way of keeping score. In Dynasty money was an end, the grail that was the goal of every quest.” With cheaper thrills on offer, it’s no surprise that audiences would find their attentions wandering from Dallas and end up jumping ship. Even as the show faded into a shadow of its former self, outpaced by the shows it had inspired and out of step with a country that was slowly turning away from the “me generation,, Dallas had one final surprise in store.

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For those who haven’t seen “Conundrum,” the 21-year-old final episode of the original Dallas, here’s a short version that the 20.5 million viewers who tuned in (the show’s highest ratings in four years) saw: J.R., having finally lost almost everything through a number of outlandish plot twists, contemplates suicide before a spirit called Adam appears to show him what everyone else’s lives would have been like had he never been born. So far, so It’s A Wonderful Life, right? There was, of course, a twist: Not only did the J.R.-less alternate reality give the non-Ewing characters a better life while dooming J.R.’s family to depressing, unhappy fates, but Adam is revealed to be an agent of the Devil himself. The devil, it turned out, has had an eye on J.R. for some time, and has sent Adam to ensure that J.R. did, in fact, kill himself. The end of the series is the heavy implication that J.R. has, indeed, committed suicide (Bobby, hearing a gunshot, runs into the room and utters a suitably horrified “Oh my God…” before the most wonderfully inappropriate use of the classic theme music throughout the entire series).

“Conundrum” was an exceptional conclusion to Dallas for a number of reasons. It’s an astonishingly downbeat ending for a show that had managed to avoid down beats of almost any kind for its lengthy run until that point. After all, even the most grim moment could easily be transformed into melodramatic pledges of revenge or opportunities for favorite characters to gloat over their temporarily vanquished nemeses. But it also retroactively recasts the entire show into something akin to a 14-year-long audition for Satan’s attention, which is both audacious and almost mind-bendingly unnecessary. Clearly, a show like Dallas couldn’t have an ending that offered fans the chance to revisit favorite characters and get some sense of closure, nor one that let the show slip away with more of a whimper than a bang. No, instead the audience found itself with either a meta-commentary on the increasingly sensational world of soap operatics, or just one last-minute example of sensationalism from the same people who had no problem declaring that an entire year of the show had been the dream of one of its characters.

Dallas, then, was a show that changed everything — including itself — without a plan, becoming a phenomenon by selling us a fantasy where morality was for lesser, poorer people, and ended with a last minute attempt to redeem itself by telling its audience that (a) the Devil existed, and (b) he was the kind of guy who had been rooting for the same character as you all along, so how do you like that, America? Looking back at it, it feels as if everything memorable about the show was some kind of constantly moving, erratically cartwheeling happy accident that no one could ever fully control; a genuine one-off experience. No matter how enjoyable, shameless and trashy TNT’s new series will end up being — and I fully hope that it’s all three — there’s almost no way it can hope to measure up to its inspiration, or offer up anything more than the two dull and unnecessary reunion TV movies from the late ’90s (in which, should you be concerned, J.R. was revealed to have shot the mirror instead of himself, with all talk of antichrists carefully avoided).

Of course, if the new show should feature a cameo appearance from the Devil or one of his minions, reminding everyone what’s really going on, I reserve the right to withdraw all concerns immediately. If only David Lynch had been available to direct…

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