During university, I rented a basement apartment with no cable. All I could get was the CBC, which ran Dallas reruns late at night. Every night. Lacking options, I quickly got addicted to the nightly melodramatic adventures of the Ewing Family.
And while it’ll never be considered a critics darling, Dallas remains a TV classic of sorts – inspiring many imitators and teaching TV a thing or two about what it takes to attract and keep a large audience of loyal fans glued to the tube for 14 seasons.
Now that there’s a new Dallas on the way come June, (featuring some of the original cast), it’s interesting to look back on what Dallas taught us what to do (and what not to do):
WE ALL LOVE A BAD GUY
More than any primetime show, Dallas proved viewers love their bad guys. J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) was about as evil as you can get – yet still a delightful, back-stabbing, serial-fornicating cad. And when he got his comeuppance, viewers rejoiced, then tuned in the next week to see how J.R. would get revenge on those who had done him wrong.
Forget goodie-two-shoes brother Bobby and bland Gary, J.R. was our man. J.R. never spent a nanosecond questioning his evil. He embraced it. As J.R. himself once said, “Anything worth having is worth going for all the way.” And when he was shot in that famous season-ending cliff-hanger, it wasn’t so much “Who Shot J.R.?” but “Who didn’t want him dead?”
IT’S ABOUT THE SHOW, NOT THE CAST
Excluding J.R. – who was the only cast member to appear in all 357 episodes – Dallas wasn’t so much about the characters as the premise. Long before Law & Order was serving up a rotating cast of cops and lawyers, Dallas was giving us an ever-changing cast of thousands. Even major cast changes – such as the death of Jock Ewing (actor Jim Davis passed away) and when Miss Ellie switched from actress Barbara Bel Geddes to Donna Reed then back again – didn’t seem to bother viewers. As long as there was sex, intrigue and folks acting badly, the show’s ratings remained as big as Texas. Characters, big and small, came and went at Southfork.
Among the actors to venture onto the ranch included Tina Louise (It’s Ginger!), John Astin (It’s Gomez!), Barbara Eden (It’s Jeannie!), Dack Rambo (Not that Rambo!), James Cromwell, George Kennedy, Barbara Carrera, Priscilla Presley, Canucks Art Hindle and Derek McGrath, and some guy named Brad Pitt. Don’t ask me who they played…
EVERYONE LOVES A MYSTERY
Cliffhangers had been around since the silent era, but nobody did it better than Dallas. Their third season “Who Shot J.R.” campaign was a water cooler sensation that held up through an interminable summer only to reveal the shooter as….I can’t remember. Maggie Simpson? Like most cliffhangers, it was all about the anticipation. The “Who Shot J.R.” episode was the highest rated episode till the finale of M*A*S*H.
Other Dallas season cliffhangers were less effective. After being jerked around once, viewers weren’t buying into it again. Still, the worst cliffhanger was saved for the last episode. Unsure if it would return for another season, the producers served up a bizarre storyline in which a suicidal J.R. went through a Wonderful Life-like journey that showed what life would have been like without him (not too bad for some). The show ended with the Devil encouraging J.R. to kill himself and an off-camera gunshot. Did he shoot himself? Guess not. He’s back for the revived version.
DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE INTELLIGENCE OF THE PUBLIC
Dallas may have been primetime, but it was still a soap. And boy, did it get away with a lot of “whoppers” and ridiculous plot twists over the years (Jock’s alive but with a new face!). Its fans were forgiving, but not always. On one occasion, it was revealed that farm-hand Ray (Steve Kanaly) was J.R.’s half-brother! Wait! Didn’t he once have an affair with niece Lucy? Ewww. Dallas really dropped the ball when beleaguered brother Bobby wasn’t dead and that the entire eighth season had been a dream! Well, I guess that explains why it sucked.
The show never recovered from this pathetic plot twist. And it remains a running joke to this day. Though not one that Dallas itself can’t have fun with. The recent promos for the Dallas reboot feature the jokey tag line “Dallas is back! And No. You’re Not Dreaming”. Why do I find that hard to believe?
The Dallas reboot premieres June 13.