Thursday 30 March 2017

Dallas, seasons 1 to 3 (1978-80)

Having been a real pop culture snob in my younger days I missed out on a lot of terrific trash television. I’m now trying to rectify this omission and two of the shows I’ve been catching up on are Dallas and Dynasty.

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. 

These are all people who are fairly normal and likeable. But don’t panic - there are other characters who are anything but normal and anything but likeable. Most of all of course there’s the older son J. R. Ewing (Larry Hagman). J. R. is one of television’s most memorable villains. He has the business ethics of a cobra and in his personal life he’s a magnificent blend of arrogance, cowardice, hypocrisy, duplicity and all-round nastiness. In spite of all this he can’t quite be described as a mere melodrama villain. In his own way he’s devoted to his family and at times he displays an odd sort of vulnerability, as if all his scheming and determination to win at all costs is an over-compensation for a sense of self-doubt. Even when he’s at his most conniving I can’t help hoping he succeeds at whatever his latest scheme happens to be!

There’s also the deliciously oily Cliff Barnes. The Barnes and Ewing families have been feuding for decades. Cliff is a slimy political operator who lives for one just thing - he wants to destroy the Ewing family. Most of all he wants to destroy J. R. Ewing. He’s sneaky and vicious but his plans are usually so obvious that he’s unlikely ever to succeed. With J. R. set up as a melodrama villain it was a sound idea to avoid the temptation to make his nemesis heroic. Cliff is much more contemptible than J. R. - J. R. at least has some kind of vision even if it’s a self-aggrandising kind of vision while Cliff’s jealousy makes him merely petty. It might be difficult to admire J. R. but he’s a big man while Cliff Barnes is a little man, psychologically and spiritually.

The contrast between Jock Ewing and his old rival Digger Barnes is rather similar. For all his ruthlessness and lack of moral scruples Jock actually built something. Digger might be in some ways a nicer guy but he’s not a man who could ever build anything. We can grudgingly respect Jock and J. R. while it’s hard not to despise Digger and Cliff.

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.

The series strikes the right balance between the business activities of the Ewings and their personal lives.

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.

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