The Rewind Beneath My Ewings
“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 year or two 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 knows her oil. And her TV. Wisely pitching this revival as a continuation rather than a dreaded “reboot”, the new Dallas coyly straddles 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 opts 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’s always more interesting when they take centre stage), new Dallas realised that the Ewing kids Jon-Ross and Christopher are where this show has to now work. Just like Bobby and JR back in the day, Jon-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 is better paced and possibly less ridiculous. It is certainly better directed with some cool visual flourishes nicked from Scorsese and 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) is not only channelling the dignity of Barbara Bel Geddes’s Miss Ellie, she is pitched too with grace, sympathy and a fortunate love of horses. Thankfully Ann Ewing remembers the time-honoured Dallas trope of endlessly brushing horses as everyone else tries to save the family firm. She also brings to the Ewing barbecue a whole heap of vampish villainy and backstory – with an unpleasant story thread of domestic and child abuse.
And of course there is Larry Hagman, the show’s villain and chief protagonist. Hagman was clearly ailing throughout shooting. But never once do 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 is 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”. 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 JR poised as chief villain. And chief hero. Old characters cameo back and forth to please the purists, but they take no prisoners with backstory. There is 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 to either mourn JR or line-dance on his grave. 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. This is where the charm of this new Dallas works. It is continuation not revival. And if a new character is needed then why not carry on riding that nostalgia wave and cast The X Files’ Mitch Pileggi or even The Six Million Dollar Man himself (Lee Majors) as an ex of Sue Ellen. Makes sense. As does keeping the opening titles which – whilst losing the iconic individual turns to camera that made the opener so great/bad – how many TV themes or opening titles these days make such a fanfare as Dallas did and does again?
Whether new Dallas continues is questionable. Hagman’s passing was not signposted and ratings have lessened. But how JR’s death and subsequent “masterplan” is handled could be the perfect way to end both the second series of this return to Southfork and the show’s 35 year legacy. As a television show it could survive the loss of JR. The drama, whilst enlivened by Hagman, was not eventually predicated on him. 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 back in the opening titles!
Words: Mark O’Connell (@Mark0Connell)
Dallas continues on Five, Tuesday evenings. Mark O’Connell is the author of Catching Bullets – Memoirs of a Bond Fan.Jump to comments