It dominated Irish TV in the 1980s — and now Dallas is coming back. Suzanne Harrington on the return of JR and Bobby Ewing.
IF YOU remember the late ’70s and early ’80s, you may be excited by the resurrection of Dallas, the American soap opera that formed a glittery bridge between the visual glamour of Hollywood movies and the cliffhanger dynamic of weekly TV. At its peak it had a global audience of 300m and its principal character made the cover of Time magazine. That’s the character, not the actor who played him. This was a long, long way before the invention of reality TV — Dallas was the ultimate in unreality TV, and we could not get enough of it. For thirteen years, we were glued, even as the plots became unstuck and our disbelief was suspended to the point of no return.
Except it has returned — Dallas is back. Back, back, back. Older, saggier, madder, but back. Lucky us — TV3 will screen the new series in Ireland, and in the UK it will be shown by Channel 5. The three most important original cast members — JR, Sue Ellen and Bobby — have been wheeled out of retirement to do their thing, although, so as not to make it farcical, the plot does not centre around an 80-year-old oil megalomaniac, his goody-two shoes brother and his wobbly-lipped ex-wife, but their offspring.
You might remember two rather unattractive toddlers, who periodically popped up in episodes in between the mudslinging, deal-making and back-stabbing, only to be whisked away immediately by maids in blue-and-white uniforms — well, these toddlers have now conveniently grown up. And it is this generation around whom the plot swirls.
They are John Ross and Christopher Ewing, sons of JR and Bobby, and played by Josh Henderson and Jessie Metcalfe, both taken straight from the handsome department at central casting.
With these two as the central focus — because, like Bobby in his heyday, they really are easy on the eye — the story ploughs on, against the sleeker digital backdrop of 2012, rather than the shiny, clunky, unsubtle wealth of the 1980s. It will, of course, retain its core ridiculousness as narrative drive, which is what makes it so appealing.
Although, not to everyone. Already on air in the US since June this year, it has had some harsh reviews — the New York Times called it “stodgy”, and USA Today said it was a “cash-in”, with “wooden” acting and “risible” dialogue. Do we care? Of course not. It was never Shakespeare — more EastEnders, but with smoother accents and a higher wardrobe budget. Back in the day, it was the most sophisticated, sexy, compelling thing to ever come into our front rooms.
That would not have been hard, when you consider pop culture in early ’80s, recession Ireland — Johnny Logan, Brendan Grace, Mike Murphy, Bosco, showbands, RTÉ1 and RTÉ2, Wanderly Wagon, and a general feeling of having the life sucked out of you. It was the era of Ann Lovett, the 15-year-old who died alone giving birth in a field, when even bog-standard contraception was not freely available, where Dublin was awash with heroin, being gay was illegal, you couldn’t get divorced, there were no jobs, and everyone was leaving.
The only interesting thing on telly was Vincent Hanley’s MTUSA, showing new-fangled music videos of big-haired performers like Pat Benatar and Bonnie Tyler — Sinead O’Connor had not yet been invented. When it came to soap opera, all we’d had was The Riordans — and, okay, so using an outside broadcasting unit was clever and innovative, but that grisly old farm in Leestown was a long way from Southfork.
We needed Dallas. We were desperate for sunshine, for glamour, for nonsensical escapism that looked good and sounded even better when spoken in a honey-dipped Southern drawl. We had enough ugly, enough grey, enough grim — we wanted something completely different that captivated us and took us somewhere very other for an hour a week. And also, because it was so completely preposterous, it served as brilliant, but unwitting, comedy for a down-to-earth Irish audience — Dallas made us laugh, without ever meaning to.
I mean, come on. Texan oil billionaires (or millionaires, as they would have quaintly been known back then) all squashed into one house? And not even a particularly huge one, either.
What was all that about, other than ease of plot for scriptwriters doing group scenes? And why was it so windy? They were always eating breakfast in a hurricane.
Maybe it was all a dream. You know, like the time when Bobby was killed off, but audiences reacted so badly that he had to be resurrected from the dead, which, even by soap opera standards, is tricky. Unless you turn a whole season of the series into a dream. Which is exactly what they did. “Oh, Bobby,” sighed Pam, as her husband emerged robustly undead from the shower at the start of the next season. “I had a terrible dream.”
And still, we watched, fascinated, half-laughing, even as Miss Ellie turned into someone else — which had been done in soaps before — but then TURNED BACK INTO HERSELF AGAIN. Now this, this had never been done. Miss Ellie was JR and Bobby’s momma, played by Barbara Bel Geddes. When she left the soap, Miss Ellie was played by some imposter called Donna Reed, who looked nothing like Miss Ellie — that is, Barbara Bel Geddes — other than that they were both female. Then Barbara Bel Geddes came back, so Miss Ellie became Miss Ellie again. And we kept watching. Open-mouthed.
Obviously, the bit that everyone remembers is ‘who shot JR’? Genuinely, nobody knew. In those innocent, preinternet days, you could keep a secret from 300m viewers just by not telling them. At the end of the 1979-1980 season, the t-shirt du jour for every cultural ironist bore the legend ‘I Shot JR’. Larry Hagman’s character was what we would today term sociopathic, and so, as well as a lot of money, he had a lot of enemies.
The plot was set up so that any number of furious relatives or associates could have shot him for his double-crossing, power-crazed, philandering ways.
Most especially his poor ex-wife Sue Ellen, who still lived in the family ranch, when JR was not having her locked up in the sanatorium every time she hit the vodka. Despite her mad-wife status, Sue Ellen remained impossibly glamorous and remarkably sane; in the 2012 series of Dallas, even though she’s 71, Linda Gray appears not to have aged much at all, leaving JR looking very old indeed. (The plot is that JR has been staying somewhere residential, being treated for clinical depression, and suddenly bounces back, aged 80, evilness restored. Which is even less credible than Bobby’s shower scene.)
Bobby and Pam were the good-looking boring ones. In real life, Pammy used to be married to a plastic surgeon, which may explain her disproportionate bosoms; she left the series suddenly, the plot explaining that she had become hideously disfigured in a car crash and couldn’t bear for her husband and baby son to see her looking ugly.
We swallowed that one, too. Victoria Principal, on record saying that she doesn’t approve of plastic surgery, will not be returning to the 2012 show.
Bobby will be back, now grey-haired, a sort of bargain basement Richard Gere. He is played by Patrick Duffy, who exceptionally old readers may remember as The Man From Atlantis — when he turned up as the nice brother of an evil oil baron, you felt compelled to check if his hands and feet were webbed.
And cousin Lucy, known unaffectionately by Dallas audiences as the ‘poison dwarf ’, also returns.
You kind of don’t want to see her, because she was so beautiful then — albeit funsized — that seeing her after 30 years of ageing might be slightly dispiriting.
That’s the thing with the return of Dallas. It’s unlikely to attract a new audience, despite the presence of hunky John Ross and Christopher Ewing; it will be watched by oldies, who will be reminded of just how old they are now, when they see the ageing process reflected back at them.
Never mind. It’s probably all a dream.
Brand New Dallas: The Series Preview is on TV3 Monday, 9pm. The pilot episode will be aired in September.
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