Who needs white dots and a John Barry guitar overture? Continue reading
Who needs white dots and a John Barry guitar overture? Continue reading
“There’s not, I think, a single episode of Dallas that I didn’t see”
Abba, The Day Before You Came, 1982
I’ve met Lucy Ewing. Oh yes. Her alter-ego Charlene Tilton was strutting like a Texan Babs Windsor to a theatre in Guildford that just happened to be where my mum and I would park for our ‘half-term look around the shops’ treat. For this fan of the Texan Greek tragedy that was Dallas seeing Lucy Ewing was the best half-term holiday anecdote I had for quite a while. I was quickly crushed when friends’ non-interest curtailed that encounter from even being an “anecdote” at all. So when I recently read a few years back ago over breakfast that Dallas was coming back (which was apt as show matriarch Miss Ellie was always receiving bad news over breakfast), I was somewhat guarded. The dying embers of the show’s final seasons saw remaining cast members themselves having to direct, write and set the patio wind machine to “full”, subsequent 1990s TV movies had drowned in the Southfork pool and a movie notion of John Travolta as JR and Shirley Maclaine as Miss Ellie and turning the show that was all about hairspray into some Hairspray II mistake was – unlike that petrol tanker that nearly wiped out Pam Ewing – thankfully avoided.
Beginning in 1978, David Jacobs’ landmark soap was the very definition of riding the moment. Denver rival Dynasty had yet to launch and find its camp feet and the 1980s was ideal for Dallas to ride through bareback with its oil, glamour, wealthy perms and pool parties. If Dynasty was the camp sister-in-law, then Dallas was the masculine ranch-hand flanked by a few drag queens passing off as women. In a time before box-sets and spoilers (the episode reels were flown to Heathrow under armed guard when the UK discovered Who Shot JR ages after America did), Dallas was a weekly treat – a romp of a saga whose heroes and villains would pinball their allegiances at the drop of a Stetson as long as everything ended on a freezeframe cliff-hanger at 50 minutes. But would any of this overcast millarkey ever find new favour in a dusty television landscape of Mad Men, over-concepted sci-fi mysteries and Danish detective heroines in misshapen sweaters?
New show-runner Cynthia Cidre certainly knew her oil. And her TV. Wisely pitching the revival as a continuation rather than a dreaded “reboot”, the new Dallas coyly straddled the worlds of oil and – may Jock Ewing not spin in his grave – renewable energies. Oil is not the quite the story allure it used to be. BP and global warming saw to that (though how delicious would it have been for the new show producers to attribute BP’s woes to a bad JR Ewing deal?). But the greatest renewable energy on show here is easily in the programme’s writing. Whereas the original series – like Bobby Ewing’s famous exit and reappearance – became a bad dream that saw the Ewings petering off to Paris, Moscow and chain gang prison sentences, the new show opted for a smaller family tree with Southfork as hub once again. Death and egos have put many of the original cast at bay, but Cidre’s masterstroke was retrieving Patrick Duffy, Linda Gray and Larry Hagman from the Where Are They Now show circuit. Without balancing the show’s dynamic on the nostalgia casting of this trio (though it was always more interesting when they took centre stage), new Dallas realised that the Ewing kids John-Ross and Christopher are where this show has to now work. Just like Bobby and JR back in the day, John-Ross (Josh Henderson) and Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe) are oil and water, but only so long as the plots allow and their pecs allow. And of course they are rather lovely to look at – with Henderson inching ahead on who this writer would like to wake up to discover having an end-of-season cliffhanger shower in my apartment. Yes, the allegiances and back-stabbings pinball around the plots with scant grace. But wasn’t that – like the windy garden parties, signature canary yellow awnings and revelations around the driveway – the original show’s appeal? Isn’t that why it became a global sensation – because first and foremost it was entertaining?
If anything, this new incarnation was better paced and possibly less ridiculous. It is certainly better directed with Patrick Duffy leaving behind that Texan-mulleted heartthrob nonsense to age into a reassuring patriarchal Jock Ewing figure and the show’s conscience. His new wife and First Lady of Southfork Ann Ewing (played by Brenda Strong) was not only channelling the dignity of Barbara Bel Geddes’s Miss Ellie, she was pitched too with grace, sympathy and a fortunate love of horses. Thankfully Ann Ewing remembered the time-honoured Dallas trope of endlessly brushing horses as everyone else tries to save the family firm. And of course there’s Sue-Ellen’s on/off quaffing of the Bourbon (which even in New Dallas made for some glorious hip-flask clutching cliff-hangers).
And of course there is Larry Hagman, the show’s villain and chief protagonist. Hagman was clearly ailing throughout shooting Season One. But never once did the onscreen results lose that spark, that utter conviction in his character and the show. In an age of unending memes and ugly-fonted wisdom, it was refreshing to get back to the show that invented the putdown, with Hagman still afforded a rich oilfield of one-liners – “Like my Daddy always said – where’s there’s a way, there’s a will”, “You’re just like your Daddy – all hat and no cattle”, “Son, never pass up a good chance to shut up” and “Angry Birds? Honey, I don’t need any more angry birds in my life”. And when he passed on, enter Judith Ryland (Judith Light) – the best TV bitch the small screen has seen since, well, Dallas and Dynasty first came to an end.
American culture cannot get its head round the British pantomime. But Dallas is the only pantomime the Americans ever got right, with Bobby as Buttons, a whole carousel of Ugly Sisters and Harris Ryland poised as chief villain. Old characters cameo back and forth to please the purists (go on – give us Katherine Wentworth), but they take no prisoners with backstory. There was scant pandering here to any newcomers in the audience when Ray Ewing (Steve Kanaly), Lucy Ewing (Charlene Tilton), Gary Ewing (Ted Shackleford), Valene Ewing (Joan Van Ark), Cally (Cathy Podewell) and Afton Cooper (Audrey Landers) drop by. You either watched the show before or you didn’t. Yes Cynthia Cidre and her team of writers spray on some brief exposition and allusions to the show’s past – but that is more to reward those that did watch, not those that didn’t.
Whether new Dallas continues is now questionable. Hagman’s passing was not signposted and ratings have lessened. As a television show it survived the loss of JR. That ”riding the moment” luck has maybe not quite happened for the new show. But it doesn’t need it. It pitched itself as a continuation of the show’s original pulse and drives, in which it has wholly succeeded. Just put Lucy Ewing doing that sassy turn to camera back in the opening titles!