Critic's NotesWhen Dallas' Was the Capital of America
By Heather Havrilesky, The New York Times
' 'Riff' Column - Jun. 3, 2012
In the 1980s, there were two competing visions of wealth on TV: Dallas and Dynasty. People tend to lump the two nighttime soaps together, but aside from the characters' habit of resolving major conflicts in the swimming pool, the two shows couldn't be more different. Dynasty constructed a fantasy of domestic royalty and jet-setting escapism, offering a portrait of the rich as diamond-strewn, evening-gown-clad ghosts drifting from their private jets to their enormous mansions as servants rushed about carrying silver platters. Dallas, by contrast, stayed firmly rooted in middle-class American values, presenting a picture that was more Big Boy breakfast buffet than Breakfast at Tiffany's. With its cowboy hats and flocked wallpaper and Hatfields-versus-McCoys-style feuds, Dallas was as provincial and preglobal-economy as it gets. Even Southfork's décor, with its dark paneling, garish paintings and low ceilings, mirrored the claustrophobia of the country club: cramped, wall-to-wall carpeted spaces packed with small-minded people lugging their gigantic egos around behind them like overstuffed golf bags.
But Dallas was never designed to inspire so much as to haunt. Unlike the Carringtons, who were always dashing off to overseas business meetings or throwing glitzy events or calling their brokers to sell stock, the Ewings were slow-moving, repeated themselves often and had an unmatched tolerance for long, uncomfortable silences. They certainly didn't have glamorous problems: Sue Ellen was an alcoholic, Lucy popped pills and slept around, Jock was an overbearing patriarch and Bobby was a little brother with an inferiority complex. Although its characters may have been preoccupied by the oil business, Dallas was mostly about struggling to maintain your identity not to mention your sanity within the suffocating confines of the middle-American family. Those interminable scenes in the den at Southfork, in which the whole clan gathered to toss back drinks, their elbows always brushing past plants or nearly knocking over lamps, their bodies always shifting uncomfortably in their armchairs, captured the airless prison of dysfunctional kinship.
While Blake jetted off to Tokyo and Alexis intimidated Krystle with her (then-exotic) British accent, what most concerned the Ewings of Ewing Oil wasn't the relatively modern (and now shockingly common) goal of international success. The Ewings simply wanted to keep power within the Ewing family and to keep outsiders from infiltrating their ranks. (He's not our kind was a common refrain.) The most important discussions at Southfork centered on whether you were or weren't a real Ewing. Whether Bobby and J. R. were feeling affectionate or angry, they referred to their parents as Mama and Daddy. Anyone who would dare to insult Jock or Miss Ellie could expect a sock to the jaw. Defectors were reminded repeatedly that without their family identity, they were nothing. Despite our differences, Bobby, you're still a Ewing, Jock told Bobby through gritted teeth when Bobby tried to leave Southfork at the end of Season 3. We've only got each other. We've got to stick together.
From the first moments of TNT's Dallas remake (or continuation, because the show picks up 20-odd years after the original story left off), something is askew. It isn't just the sudden, verdant lushness of Southfork, which in the old days always had the flat, yellowing look of a place you would never want to get stuck. It isn't the bland, Abercrombie & Fitch-model prettiness of the show's young stars Jesse Metcalfe, Jordana Brewster and Josh Henderson that has nothing in common with the regular-folks charms of Patrick Duffy, the creepy-uncle appeal of Larry Hagman or the homecoming-court runner-up magnetism of Charlene Tilton. Where the big fish of Southfork once circled their small pond with the clumsy resignation of trapped creatures, this new generation of Ewings talks and moves with the slick efficiency of characters in a swashbuckling high-capitalist adventure directed by Michael Bay. When we witness J. R.'s son John Ross and his girlfriend, Elena, whooping it up over newly discovered oil, or we see Bobby's son Christopher chatting excitedly about the promise of methane drilling while pacing back and forth in his pristine office loft, the contrast becomes especially clear: These younger Ewings are all about action and entrepreneurship, about seizing the day and making a name for themselves in the wider world outside.
In fact, this extreme-makeover version of Dallas could take place anywhere on the globe; call the show London or Mumbai or Beijing, and you've got the same fit humans tapping away at their laptops and pumping their fists over the latest business deal. Aside from John Ross's cowboy hat and the occasional outdoor barbecue, this is just another gaggle of energetic, beautiful people with international ambitions and very little body hair, bedding and double-crossing one another to a generic twangy-guitar soundtrack. None of the claustrophobia or the character of the original series remains. No one in China cares what a Ewing is, after all. All that matters is the ability to reinvent yourself, over and over again, in accordance with the market's demands.
Maybe that old Ewing game of outsiders and insiders, of us against them, of loyalty and closed-minded allegiance, was too specific a product of the patriotism and white-man's-burden supremacy of Reagan's America to reproduce for the Facebook age. Because make no mistake, the megamansion fever dream of Dynasty may have spawned a whole generation of offspring aspirationally named Krystle and Alexis, but Dallas is the show that is most emblematic of its era. How else did a scoundrel as arrogant as J. R. Ewing wind up on the cover of Time magazine in 1980? J. R. wasn't even meant to be the lead character of Dallas, but when audiences were first treated to his smooth patriarchal condescension in 1978, they couldn't get enough. A far cry from the deeply conflicted protagonists of today's TV dramas Don Draper, Walter White, Tony Soprano J. R. was always smugly satisfied with his bad behavior. The show's writers may have flirted with J. R.'s suicide as the ultimate cliffhanger to round out the series in 1991, but self-destruction was never his thing; he was all about backslapping sadism. There was always something familiar about J. R., the way he couched his overconfidence and malice in the relaxed, folksy wisdom of the country boy. Even when he was outnumbered, he never felt outmatched, and the more power he had, the more sure he felt that power was his birthright. Or, as Ronald Reagan put it in his 1984 State of the Union address: We can be proud to say, We are first; we are the best; and we are so because we're free.'
This flavor of swagger isn't as common today, outside Kanye albums and certain self-promotional Twitter feeds. But it once represented a period-specific American grandiosity that felt synonymous with Texan pride. In the '80s and early '90s, plenty of us watching Dallas bought into this mythical vision of Texas as the heart of the country, the last frontier, a land of handsome cowboys galloping across the grassy ranchland, home of the freest and the bravest. Even the campaigns against littering (Don't Mess With Texas!) felt a little menacing, faintly mimicking America's cold-war foreign policy. Reagan tapped into this Lone Star love affair with his frequent allusions to the frontier spirit and near-constant appearances on horseback, waving and smiling like Roy Rogers. His Hollywood-friendly cowboy routine helped pave the way for the far less charismatic Texas oil millionaire George H. W. Bush, who made the best of his home address, despite the fact that he couldn't quite shake the Kennebunkport mud from his rubber galoshes.
In the past decade, though, the bloom came off Texas's yellow rose, as J. R.'s cartoon of provincial arrogance seemed to shove its way into the real world. Between Enron's spectacular flameout, Dick Cheney's South Texas shooting accident and George W. Bush's good-old-boy recklessness on an international stage, it seemed best to forget the Alamo. And this was all long before Rick Perry, the Texas governor, struggled to form simple sentences behind the Republican debate lectern.
Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that in the new Southfork, bourbon-fueled outbursts have been replaced by nonchalant wheeling and dealing. I'll need $75,000 for the driller, Elena tells Sue Ellen, who, like all of the other characters on the show, seems to strike up major business partnerships after a minimal exchange of pleasantries. (I'll have it transferred into your account today, Sue Ellen replies. Thank you, Sue Ellen. My pleasure.) Instead of settling the clashing obligations of family and business with poolside fisticuffs, today's Ewings consistently prioritize the entrepreneurial over the personal. Christopher offers Elena, a former girlfriend, a $20,000 check after they work together to make sure there's never any legal dispute about who owns what. And John Ross asks Elena, If I agree to go back in business with you, what about us? One step at a time, she replies, making it clear that money should always come before love. The assumption that extreme ambition and avarice are natural for young and old alike and that moneymaking schemes take precedence over all else looms over this story like a noxious cloud.
Maybe this is the version of Dallas that we deserve. Amid the swirl of news about the wobbly Facebook initial public offering and a $2 billion loss for JPMorgan Chase within just six weeks, TNT's fantastical tale of rich kids free to pursue their wildest, riskiest, most expensive dreams fits the current times just as well as the original Dallas fit Reagan's America.
So why do I feel a whiff of nostalgia for the stifling nightmares of Southfork, for Sue Ellen swilling liquor and slurring her words, for J. R. chuckling malevolently at his little brother? At least it was obvious that those characters were meant to echo our worst selves and that they would pay a price for their recklessness. When faced with the soulless, fast-moving ciphers of the new Dallas, I find it hard not to prefer trapped people with bad hair and big problems, knocking over lamps and spilling their drinks on the rug. They may have believed that they were first and best, but they never thought for a second that they were free.http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/03/ma...ref=television