Friday, January 15, 2010

A Quick Trip to Dallas

Sometimes remarked upon as the first prime-time soap opera, which it is not, Dallas was certainly a mammoth rejuvenation of the genre and a trailblazer in its own right. It’s success led to a spin-off (Knots Landing) and very many copycats, the most successful being Dynasty and Falcon Crest.

Set on the Southfork ranch and concerning the Ewing family, an oil business hierarchy consisting of hard-nosed father “Jock” (yes, that’s right!) played by Jim Davis and his sons J.R. (Larry Hagman) and Bobby (Patrick Duffy), the show depicted a never-ending struggle for “control of Ewing Oil” along with a multitude of other storylines and scenarios. As the series opened, Jock and his wife sensitive Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) were stunned to find that Bobby had married Pamela Barnes (Victoria Principal), the daughter of one of Jock’s biggest rivals and Ellie’s ex-love, thus creating a sort of Romeo & Juliet sensibility. J.R., one of the most manipulative and ruthless (and popular!) villains ever seen on TV to that time, made it his business to rid the family of this new member. In fact, the series was intended to focus on Bobby and Pam, but J.R.’s popularity led to him becoming the character most identified with the show.

Other characters included Pam’s wacky brother Cliff (Ken Kercheval), chief thorn in J.R.’s side despite his battles with alcoholism, and J.R.’s wife Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), also an alcoholic, first a minor character not even listed in the opening credits, but soon to become a primary figure in the series. In time, these two would wind up as a couple, infuriating J.R. even more, though very few couples stayed together forever on Dallas. There was also Lucy (Charlene Tilton), the daughter of (mostly) unseen third son Gary, who acted out her angst by bedding down the ranch foreman Ray (Steve Kanaly.) In one of TV's looniest ever "twists," Ray was later revealed to be the illegitimate son of Jock, thus rendering these trysts uncle-niece incest, though the writers opted to act as if the liaisons had never happend.

The first episodes played out as a mini-series, with the self-contained stories generally having a beginning, a middle and an end. It was more of an adult family drama than a linked-together “soap.” This actually continued for quite some time until the legendary cliffhanger "Who Shot J.R.?" galvanized a trend in this and other similar series of always leaving the plot in mid-air "until next time". The stratospheric ratings for the season opener following his shooting guaranteed that all of the other soaps would try to outdo each other in this way, often featuring multiple cliffhangers with various lives hanging in the balance.

The shooter was eventually revealed to be Kristin, Sue Ellen’s little sister and J.R.'s secretary (and lover), played by none other than Bing Crosby’s daughter Mary. Her character would eventually wind up dead, too, as many folks did over the years on the series. (Some of them had trouble staying dead, but that’s another matter!)

While there was occasionally a dot of wry humor here and there, the early seasons tended to keep a serious tone, avoiding the camp aspects that were present in other series (and eventually this one.) In fact, Hagman, Gray, Davis and Bel Geddes were all Emmy nominated in those early years, with Bel Geddes taking home a statuette in 1980.

The show also tackled many social issues at a time when there were few outlets for such things on TV apart from The Phil Donahue Show during the daytime. This was the era of The Love Boat, The Dukes of Hazzard, Three’s Company, Mork & Mindy, etc…, though Family and Lou Grant also managed to counter the fluff that prevailed on television. Miss Ellie was stricken with breast cancer and had to have a mastectomy. Lucy had a boyfriend who turned out to be gay. Ray agonized about having to remove a nephew from life support. Sue Ellen took on a lover two decades her junior (though the social merit of a storyline like that could be debated! Christopher Atkins played Sue Ellen's son's swimming instructor, allowing him the amusing opportunity to parade around in little blue trunks.) This approach became a trend among other soaps as well, especially on the sister show Knots Landing (which, in a bizarre twist, had actually been created prior to Dallas, but shelved until after that show’s success.)

Davis, who stoically battled cancer without discussing it amongst the cast, died in 1981, the first major cast member to leave the series (and obviously not of his own choosing!) The writers nevertheless kept “Daddy’s” memory alive always and referred to him, his imposing portrait maintaining a significant place in the house long after his death. Bobby and J.R. (usually) strove to do what he would have approved of, sometimes falling short. Howard Keel as Ellie’s second husband Clayton Farlow then took over the patriarchal role, though J.R. never accepted him.

A far more crushing departure came in the 1984-85 season when Bel Geddes decided her health prevented her from continuing. A dreadful decision was made to replace her with Donna Reed. Reed, a lovely and respected actress (an Oscar-winner, in fact), was completely, utterly WRONG for the role and there was hardly a moment's peace during her tenure on the show. Her presence wrecked much of the quality of the scenes, though it was hardly her own fault. She never, ever should have been cast. With her bouffant hair, heavier makeup and showier dresses, Reed couldn’t have been further removed from Bel Geddes, one of the most natural-looking actresses ever. Bel Geddes had long been taken to task in the entertainment press for her frowsy clothes on the series. Perhaps someone thought that the character needed a makeover, but it didn’t work. Eventually, Bel Geddes dragged herself out of sick leave to reclaim the role herself and Reed was fired. Reed sued the producers and received a hefty out of court settlement, but was dead of cancer within a year with many people claiming that the stress of the whole matter hastened her illness.

Then there was the infamous incident in which Duffy decided to depart the show for supposedly greener pastures. At the end of the same season Donna Reed was on, his character Bobby was killed by the insanely jealous sister of his (by now ex-) wife Pam. The following season, he was buried and Bel Geddes was back as Miss Ellie (though Tilton was now let go.) Sue Ellen allowed Bobby’s death to send her on a significant and hellish alcoholic binge. New relatives Jack and Jamie Ewing were brought in to pick up the slack left by Duffy’s departure and Tilton’s dismissal. Jack was played by Dack Rambo, one of the humpiest stars of the 70s and 80s, whose jeans could only barely contain his (apparently supernatural) genitalia! It was also not uncommon to find him lolling around the Southfork swimming pool in a speedo. A glamorous villainess appeared in the form of Barbara Carrera.

However, ratings dipped a little and Hagman (who had evolved into a producer for the show) missed Duffy, having little or no interest in the gay Rambo and disliking the female-heavy direction the series had taken. So Duffy was wooed back with more money. But what to do? Bobby had very visibly died onscreen and they didn’t want a twin or an imposter. They ultimately decided to turn the entire 1985-86 season into an elaborate dream that Pam had had! So she woke up, heard the shower running and stepped into the bathroom to see Bobby in the shower! Everything that had previously transpired since his murder was written off as a dream. It was a bizarre way to handle things and, though it did help extend the life of the series for a time, ratings never fully rebounded and, in fact, many fans felt cheated and unable to trust what they were viewing any longer and they gave up on watching.

Only a year after that, Principal decided that she’d have enough and Pam was also written out, horribly burned in a car crash and opting to leave her family. Rumors persist that she resented the way other ladies, particularly Gray, managed to get the meatier storylines when she had been pegged as the primary female lead at the beginning. Incidentally, though I may be in the minority, I preferred the way Principal looked in the beginning – with her brunette hair and no bangs – to the way she looked later with a shaggy cut of pungent auburn. It might be also that the makeover happened just as Pam was becoming an unendurable whiner about pretty much anything happening at Southfork.

Only two actors remained on the series from beginning to end and those were Kercheval and Hagman. Duffy, however, was only out of the loop for one season. (Incidentally, few people ever realized that, though they portrayed brothers reasonably close in age, Hagman was actually 18 years Duffy’s senior, old enough to be his father!) J.R. manipulated endlessly throughout the 13 seasons, but somehow managed to leaven his evildoings with humor and interest so that the character remained an audience favorite, for some an obsession.

When the highly popular imitator Dynasty began to pose a real threat in the ratings, Dallas began to lose its ground in reality and also inflicted the worst excesses of 1980s fashion (which came about chiefly through Dynasty) on the ladies. If anyone thought that shoulder pads and sequins looked ridiculous on Joan Collins and Linda Evans, they would be decimated at the sight of some of the concoctions foisted onto Gray, Principal, Susan Howard and others. Only guest star Carrera was able to pull the look off. Nolan Miller had a knack for those clothes (even though he was capable of missteps, too!) and Dallas had no Nolan Miller (though they did hire Travilla for a little while in the mid-80s.)

Though Dynasty had the more opulent opening titles and a classy theme song, nothing can top the opening theme music of this show and the memorable way in which its stars were listed (with three shots of their faces appearing at once, a scheme that has been parodied often.) Click on the link below for one version of the credits, featuring what is probably the cast most identified with the series.

As the show wound up (though it had not yet been decided for certain whether it would return for another season), J.R. took part in a Christmas Carol/It’s a Wonderful Life-type of experience in which he saw what things would have been like had he never been born. He was escorted on the journey by a mystical character played by the (annoyingly, if you ask me) impish Joel Grey. It was implied, but not shown, that he ended the episode by shooting himself, though a later reunion movie (one of two that were both highly rated) explained that he’d shot “the devil” in a mirror.

Though dated now, this was EVENT TELEVISION when it premiered. Fans went mad for the show all over the world (it still holds a record for the show being translated into the most languages and seen in the highest number of countries.) Games, books, bubble gum cards, paper dolls and even a little-known set of action figures were all marketed to tie-in to the show. A Texas company even came up with J.R. Beer!

The series did overstay its welcome, but such is the way of TV, to milk something until it is completely dry before discarding it. A legion of fans keeps it alive, first in syndication and now on DVD, and remembers how fun it all was in its day (and today as well, to those inclined.) There are plans for a pilot, even now, for a second-generation version of the series all about J.R. and Bobby’s sons, with Hagman, Duffy and Gray making cameo appearances in it.


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