When we think about 1980s television, the supersoaps tend to overshadow everything else. The daytime soaps were in good shape ratings-wise and primetime was dominated by the likes of Dynasty and Falcon Crest. Whenever a miniseries was made, emphasis seemed to lie on beautiful, rich people in designer clothes doing spectacularly nasty things to each other. The soap opera trappings even worked their way into science fiction like V.
But there was nothing like Dallas. From the late ’70s to the early ’90s, the CBS hit became the ultimate symbol for Reagan’s America all over the world. Some people went so far as to say that it helped destroy the Soviet Union.
Conflicts within the Ewing family
Throughout its 13-year run, Dallas always primarily dealt with conflicts within the Ewing family and threats posed to its business. It was Jock Ewing (Jim Davis) who had built the company, Ewing Oil, after striking it rich as a young oil prospector. It was already in those days that his eternal feud with the Barnes family began, since Jock had cheated his former partner Digger Barnes out of his share. 40 years later, viewers were introduced to an aging Jock, his wife Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) and their three sons, J.R. (Larry Hagman), Bobby (Patrick Duffy) and Gary (Ted Shackelford). Digger’s son Cliff (Ken Kercheval) was always prepared to continue the feud to the bitter end, and it didn’t help that his sister Pamela (Victoria Principal) was married to Bobby. Over the years, especially when Jock died (as did Davis) in 1981, oldest son J.R. emerged as a ruthless leader of Ewing Oil; often contrasted by the good-hearted Bobby, J.R. spent a decade stealing, backstabbing, and cheating. One of his victims was his wife Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) who had a drinking problem, but she eventually sobered up and knew how to strike back at J.R. from time to time.
Tumultuous seventh and eighth seasons
At the height of its run, Dallas was sexy, fun, even provocative in some countries, and the dialogue had nasty, sharp one-liners. There were exciting cliffhangers; the one where J.R. was shot became a cultural phenomenon in 1981 as a whole nation spent the summer pondering who might have done it. A low point was perhaps the tumultuous seventh and eighth seasons that saw Bobby killed off and then brought back due to sagging ratings; it was explained that the entire season had merely been a dream. There was fighting behind the scenes and Dallas soon lost some of its touch, beginning a slow, dull decline.
What always worked to perfection was Hagman whose evil million-dollar grin kept the show lively; so did Kercheval as the ultimate loser, and Bel Geddes and Duffy whose characters’ decency were much-needed and appreciated counterweights. Part of the show’s appeal was also Jerrold Immel’s majestic music theme and the now-classic editing of the main title sequence.
No, Dallas didn’t bring down Soviet Communism. But one might be forgiven for thinking so. There was something about that Ewing family history, its constant feuds and Southfork that seemed so tangible as a capitalist dream to millions of people that it was hard to think of the show in terms of sets, actors and scripts. The wizard behind the curtain certainly worked his magic well.
Dallas 1978-1991:U.S. Made for TV. 356 episodes. Color. Created by David Jacobs. Theme: Jerrold Immel. Cast: Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing, 78-85, 86-91), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing, 78-89), Barbara Bel Geddes (78-84, 85-90), Victoria Principal (78-87), Ken Kercheval, Charlene Tilton (78-85, 88-90), Steve Kanaly (78-89), Howard Keel (81-91), Susan Howard (79-87), Audrey Landers (81-84, 89), Morgan Brittany (81-84), Priscilla Presley (83-88), Sheree J. Wilson (86-91), Jim Davis (78-81), Donna Reed (84-85), Deborah Shelton (84-87), George Kennedy (88-91), Cathy Podewell (88-91), Ted Shackelford (78-81), Joan Van Ark (78-81), Dack Rambo (85-87), John Beck (83-84, 85-86), Mary Crosby (79-81), Jenilee Harrison (84-86), Sasha Mitchell (89-91), Kimberley Foster (89-91), Jack Scalia (87-88).
Trivia: Followed by three TV movies (starting with Dallas: The Early Years (1986)) and a spin-off series, Knots Landing (1979-1993), starring Shackelford and Van Ark. Re-launched again as Dallas in 2012-2014, with a partly new cast, for a younger generation.
Emmy: Outstanding Actress (Bel Geddes), 79-80. Golden Globe: Best Actress (Bel Geddes) 82.
Quote: “The only thing that is screwed up in this office, Barnes, is your head, which I would be more than happy to serve on a silver platter if I weren’t worried about my family getting food poisoning!” (Hagman to Kercheval)