They’re both big-budget prime-time soap operas and they have an enormous amount in common - they’re both focused on family and business dramas among the rich and powerful, in both cases families that have made fortunes in the oil business, and both feature larger-than-life characters and deliciously outlandish plot lines. Both Dallas and Dynasty glory in their trashiness without the slightest sense of embarrassment.
The differences between the two series are subtle but definite. Dallas features characters who are essentially real-life characters, albeit somewhat exaggerated, while the characters in Dynasty are perhaps just a bit too over-the-top to believable. The story lines in Dallas, in true melodrama style, make considerable use of coincidence but they remain at least vaguely plausible while Dynasty often crosses the line into pure fantasy (which is not a criticism since that’s just the type of show it is).
Dallas also features characters who are slightly easier to like. Jock Ewing, the family patriarch, is a tough old buzzard who had been a very unscrupulous operator in his youth. With age he’s mellowed a bit and even regrets some of his past actions, and he is genine and passionately devoted to his family. His wife, always known as Miss Ellie (Barbara bel Geddes), is a warm and sympathetic personality. Their youngest son, Bobby, is a bit of Goody Two Shoes although as the series progresses he develops a bit more grit. Bobby’s wife Pamela (Victoria Principal) is probably the most straightforwardly sympathetic character in the series. The grand-daughter Lucy (Charlene Tilton) is a bit of a Wild Thing and a bit of a spoilt brat although she becomes progressively more stable and less selfish.
And then there’s J. R.’s wife Sue-Ellen. Their marriage is not exactly a successful one. In fact it’s a disaster. Sue-Ellen can barely stand to have J. R. touch her. J. R. is always chasing other women. And Sue-Ellen is slowly getting crazier and crazier.
The idea of making the Ewings not just oil tycoons but cattle ranchers as well is a good one. You get two different worlds of wealth and power both offering their own opportunities for intrigue and drama.
Dallas takes political corruption for granted. Politicians are either up for sale to the highest bidder or they’re scheming selfish power-crazed sociopaths, or more usually they fall into both categories. The series also takes it for granted that the world of big business is a world of merciless sharks, with J.R. Ewing being even more shark-like than most. On the other hand J.R. isn’t pretending to be a philanthropist or a saint so really it’s the politicians who are the more contemptible.
When judging the acting you have to remember that this is a soap opera and the acting is supposed to be somewhat on the melodramatic side. Bearing that in mind most of the performances work pretty well. Jim Davis does the crusty old family patriarch thing to perfection but with a strong dash of ruthlessness and bloody-mindedness as well. Victoria Principal makes Pamela Ewing warm and sympathetic without being bland. Linda Gray as Sue Ellen is totally over-the-top but it’s hard to see how else she could have played it and she is fun.
Of course it’s Larry Hagman as J.R. who is the star. What’s most impressive is that at times he really can make us feel sorry for J.R. despite his awfulness. J.R. is in many ways like a little boy desperately trying to prove himself. Hagman’s performance really is a joy.
So far I’m up to the halfway point of season three and I’m thoroughly enjoying myself.