Dublin’s 2023 St. Patrick’s day parade will be marshalled by Patrick Duffy, who (as any 80s TV fan can tell you) was the star of Dallas, the 14 season soap sensation which ran from 1978-1991.
So enormous was the impact of this weekly late evening TV drama, that even the uninitiated could still hum along with the iconic theme tune from memory, or tell you about J.R being shot (but probably not who shot him, no spoilers here!).
But is Dallas watchable in 2023, and what was the hype all about in the first place? We’ve spent the last several months watching the entire 14 season run – over 350 episodes, so we’re well prepared to be your guide.
Set in and around the eponymous Texas metropolis and it’s cattle-ranching surrounds, Dallas began as a small 6-part series created by David Jacobs for CBS.
A Romeo and Juliet love struggle of two fresh young newlyweds, Bobby (our Patrick!) and Pamela (Victoria Principal) set among a feud between families of Texas ranchers-become-oil tycoons, the Ewings and the Barnes’.
Dallas was cast with a heavyweight legacy of old Hollywood Western actors, Jim Davis, Barbara Bel Geddes, and supported by well known star of “I Dream of Jeannie” Larry Hagman as J.R Ewing as well as Linda Grey, Charlene Tilton, Ken Kercheval and Steve Kanaly.
Later, the show featured many notable guest actors and recurring stars, such as Priscilla Presley, Howard Keel, Ian McShane, William Smithers, Morgan Woodward, and even a career launching role for Brad Pitt as a high school heart-throb.
After it’s first season was an instant hit, the show’s second season, renewed as a 24 episode weekly serial, shifted to focus more on the schemes and ways of J.R, whose oft repeated catchphrase, “I always get what I want” seems to boldly announce the decade of flash consumerism and hungry aspiration that was to come.
The impact of the show was profound and genuinely historic. At it’s peak, during the “Who shot J.R” saga, 350 million people around the world tuned in to find out the identity of his would-be killer.
It’s still the most watched single broadcast television episode of all time and probably always will be as the medium declines.
From week to week, Dallas projected a lifestyle of power, money, manipulation and sex, draped in ostentatious and decadent style, fashion, setting and form as one of the most consistently top viewed series.
For viewers in Western countries, Dallas epitomizes the glitzy dreams of the 80s yuppie generation and Reaganism, but it’s impact elsewhere was far more significant. The last Premier of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev was quoted in 2020 blaming the fall of the communist regime on the syndication of the show on television across the bloc, and it’s understandable why.
Dallas sincerely serves a deep critique of the corruption of wealth and power under capitalism, but for soviet audiences, for whom basics were scarce and life was bleak, the allure of the oil baron’s life proved irresistible.
In May 1989, an episode of Dallas was shot in Moscow, and perhaps the sight of J.R Ewing strolling through red square, trying to sleaze a deal with some shady tycoons really did destroy an empire, we’ll never know for sure, but sure enough, the Berlin wall came down just a few months afterward.
But aside from profound and historic, why binge Dallas today?
Why have your Onlymassive crew gotten hooked cosying up each night for some scotch-soaked 80s drama? The show is truly a relic from another era, in often shocking, frustrating, delightful ways.
If you’re put off by problematic plots, outrageous twists, audacious retcons and surreal repetition, this isn’t the show for you.
In the 80s, serialized TV was still very episodic, where the setting and stakes are reset in each episode, while the cast might move around, the core premise is consistent.
There is always a struggle for control, or to the peril of the family business, Ewing Oil, sometimes gripping, sometimes leaving the viewer incredulous.
Characters who have been killed off may return, actors may change, an entire SERIES (and several new characters) is erased with one single hasty scene inserted to the final episode, and only the foreknowledge of the executive producer and a single actor.
Dallas features some fantastic, worthy storytelling for it’s female cast, however alongside this, interesting women characters are repeatedly introduced, before being sidelined and pigeonholed into housemaidens, shallow femme fatales and trophies to be manipulated into bed.
The men are almost universally romantically unfaithful at any opportunity, and at worst commit in passing what would be regarded today as incredible acts of stalking, physical assault and honest to goodness treason (more than once J.R orchestrates a coup abroad to suit his interests), while also projecting a vision of masculine identity and men’s relationships with one another that is deep, turbulent and insightful.
Dallas frustrates and delights because at it’s best, it’s a modern fable, rich in the complexities of it’s people and setting, at worst it’s an indulgently sleazy, lazy, insultingly tedious and repetitive slog (if you’ve had your fill by the end of Season 9, that would be the moment to stop in our view).
Today’s world is a very different one to the glitzy, over the top setting of Dallas and it’s warped mirror on the world in which it was made.
So many decisions were made that showrunners could never dream of getting away with today, with the ever-critical megaphone of social media, and that, as well as the historic significance, makes Dallas retrospectively fascinating to watch.
The viewer is transported to a state of unreality that even Twin Peaks can’t hope to approach with it’s deliberately crafted strangeness, where without a hint of irony or self-consciousness anything sincerely could (and very often does) happen.
The world created in this series is fictional, but the dream and spirit it embodies are still weaved through modern culture, in more than just “I shot J.R” meme tee-shirts. There’s a giddy delight in watching J.R scheme down another foe, or Sue Ellen’s cathartic destructive alcoholic outbursts, and subsequent recoveries.
Most of all, we watch because the delivery of this titan comes with dollops of sentimental appeal, as the heartfelt bonds between the on-screen family and cast endure through the high stakes and the absurd.
You wouldn’t want the Ewings to be your real family, but safely through the convexed screen of a wooden TV, or in the tired slumber of a soviet labourer, we can all dream.