2018 marked the 40th anniversary of the premiere of Dallas, the CBS prime time soap opera that ran for 14 seasons, including the second-most watched series episode in U.S. broadcast history (the cliffhanger-solving Who Done It?, with at least 90 million viewers), and gave television its hands-down greatest villain: actor Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing, the evil, scheming, downright degenerate Texas oilman who captivated the imaginations of America’s last unified TV viewing audience.
By Paul Mavis
Pulling down my dusty Season 1 DVD boxed set, I thought I’d put the first episode on—just as an exercise in nostalgia—confident I’d crack up at a few of J.R.’s one-liners and glint-eyed reaction shots before I’d quickly pack the disc off again to DVD library oblivion.
Well…I didn’t stop watching until all five episodes of the “miniseries” proto-first season were over. Dallas, I had somehow forgotten, always holds up.
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I love Dallas. The real Dallas (the original television series). Why? Because it goes right for the throat. It grabs you by the balls and doesn’t let go. It’s going to entertain you or else. There’s none of today’s entertainments’ apologetic, hesitant tone to it, no forced irony, no hand wringing over society’s ills, no pandering to the insistent, destructive forces of political correctness.
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Its epic, sweeping narrative—as broad and overripe as its Texas framework, and worthy of Dickens in its complexity of character and plot—uses the themes of family, power, money, and sex to drive narrative specifics, but in the end, Dallas is first and last about winners and losers.
And America used to be obsessed with winners and losers. That constant striving to win is what drove us as a nation, what defined us as Americans, and ultimately, what made us great: would we win at what we attempted—whether on the playground, the boardroom, the bedroom or the battleground—or would we lose? For good or bad (mostly good, on the whole), we Americans wanted to be winners, the best at what we attempted, to succeed at all costs…or die trying. Dallas knew that.
I fear that obsession to excel and win is dying away now in the Land of the Offended and the Home of the Victimized (“We’re all winners, kids…except the privileged white cis ones!”), but…at least that now-lost civilization’s pop culture can be rerun, thanks to DVDs and streaming. It’s not the same as when 80-plus million viewers would collectively gather in front of their TVs on Friday nights to kick off their weekend with the outrageous Ewings, but a shadow is still better than the void.
Creating a ground-breaking one-hour serialized drama that would redefine prime time and produce a character that would become truly legendary in the annals of TV history couldn’t have been further from anyone’s mind, once the barely respectable-but-utterly unimpressive ratings came in for Dallas’s first five episode “miniseries” season. Creator/writer/producer David Jacobs originally pitched to the CBS network his concept for future Dallas spin-off Knots Landing, a one-hour drama about a group of middle-class couples living in a California cul-de-sac. The networks wanted something bigger—a “saga”—which inspired Jacobs to marry elements of Romeo and Juliet with Kane and Abel, and to drop it all down into George Stevens’ Giant (although I’d make a case that Dallas is cut more from Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind’s cloth than Stevens’ Rock Hudson/Elizabeth Taylor/James Dean epic).
As originally conceived, Dallas’ storyline involved the decades-long feud between two families…and everybody inbetween. Years before, independent “wildcat” oilmen John Ross “Jock” Ewing (Jim Davis) and Willard “Digger” Barnes (David Wayne) had a deadly falling out when weak, drunk Barnes accused savvier Jock of swindling him out of not only a fortune in oil reserves but also the hand of kind-but-steely matriarch, Miss Ellie Southworth (Barbara Bel Geddes). Big, handsome, ruthless Jock went on to run Miss Ellie’s inherited cattle ranch, “Southfork,” as well as independent oil company, Ewing Oil…while scrawny, spineless Digger became a Bowery bum.
The Ewing and Barnes feud is reignited when Jock’s favorite, youngest son Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy), impulsively marries Digger’s gorgeous shopgirl daughter, Pamela (Victoria Principal). Bobby, a playboy and more specifically a pimp for his daddy’s oil company (handing out those “Bs”—“booze, broads, and booty [money]” to buy customers), takes to married life, insisting on becoming an executive at Ewing Oil. This doesn’t sit well with snake-eyed J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman), Jock’s eldest son and the workhorse at Ewing Oil (the third Ewing son, drunk weakling Gary, isn’t introduced yet in this first mini-season). J.R.’s been carrying the load for Jock for years, and he’s not about to let the prodigal son step in and take over. Nor is J.R. too happy about having a Barnes under Southfork’s roof…particularly since Pam’s brother, attorney Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval), is legal counsel to an investigative committee looking to destroy Ewing Oil.
J.R. is also nervous about Bobby scoring Jock’s first grandchild with obviously fertile Pam (yowzer), since J.R. seems to have a problem separating the ideas of “sex” and “being a lady” with his trophy wife, former Miss Texas, Sue Ellen Ewing (Linda Gray). J.R.’s an unrepentant rutter, no question, screwing anything that moves, including his high-end secretary, Julie Grey (Tina Louise)…but he’s bored with Sue Ellen’s proper lady attitude. Often joining J.R. for debauched jaunts is real cowboy, ranch foreman Ray Krebbs (Steve Kanaly), a good ‘ol boy who’s horny and weak enough to be tapping Jock’s beloved granddaughter, 17-year-old hellcat Lucy Ewing (Charlene Tilton), a situation that would get Ray fired if the old man found out (…and arrested if we had known, as was revealed in a later season, that Ray was Jock’s illegitimate son!). It doesn’t help, either, that Ray used to date Pam. Within these tangled, contentious dynamics…it ain’t surprising that maneuvering and backstabbing occupy most everyone’s time around Dallas and Southfork.
When CBS approved Jacobs’ proposal and gave the go-ahead for an unusual trial season, masquerading as an end-of-season “miniseries,” Jacobs was only allowed a back-breaking production schedule of a mere six weeks to lens five one-hour episodes. Writing by night and shooting by day, Jacobs and his crew went down to Texas during the freezing winter of 1978, shooting everything on location in the state, including scenes at Cloyce Box Ranch and its main house, which doubled as the fictional “Southfork.”
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Premiering April 2nd, 1978, the first episode of Dallas did well enough, pulling in a 38 share (back then respectable…but today that number would guarantee the series a five-year order of episodes while jabbering network suits prostrated themselves en masse in front of the producer). However, the next 2 or 3 episodes lost their time slots, before the fifth and final episode convinced CBS to award a tentative half-season order of 13 new episodes for the fall 1978-1979 season. Slowly but steadily, Dallas built an audience until it became a genuine and startling pop culture phenomenon during the summer hiatus of its third season (1979-1980), when the whole “Who Shot J.R.?” cliffhanger galvanized the media and turned Dallas into the number one series on television the following fall.
Much has been said and written about the so-called “money-obsessed” Reagan era 1980s—most of it biased by whatever political persuasion the writer happens to possess. Contrary to popular belief, however, we all weren’t either standing in a bread line or driving a Rolls Royce back then. But shows like Dallas and later, Dynasty, were attacked for supposedly giving the world precisely that false impression about America. I suspect that accusation has more to do with a media that not only looked down its nose at a mere trashy “soap opera” capturing the number one spot on television, but also a leftist media at odds politically with what they thought the show represented (I don’t believe the world is naive enough to think we all lived like J. R. Ewing, anymore than I think England is populated only with the likes of John Steed, Miss Emma Peel, and Miss Jane Marple, with Herman’s Hermits tripping down the lane behind them…although that would be nice, particularly now).
The superficial reading of what Dallas became, then and now, was a pumped up parody of the Reagan era, complete with “redneck” thievin’ oil barons in Stetson hats and pneumatic hussies a-heavin’ and a-pantin’ after their men and their money, in that order. However, if the critics had looked closely at Dallas, they would have seen a show that, thematically, was as old as the hills; an epic American saga worthy of Dickens Meets Sirk, adapted to the established forms of the night-time TV soap opera.
To be fair, Dallas’ scripts may not be in the same literary league as Dickens, but the analogy has merit. After all, many critics of his day dismissed Dickens as a mere purveyor of pulp. In addition to the time capsule he provided of his time, he told long, gripping stories that captured the imagination of his broad range of readers, from the aristocracy to average, uneducated citizens who eagerly awaited his serialized work in penny newspapers and cheap magazines. Dallas consistently does the same thing: big themes like winners and losers, class conflict, sibling rivalry, big business corruption, and of course, romantic entanglements, are dealt with in densely-plotted, entertaining stories that move. Crafted with care, Dallas is melodramatic and (delightfully) ridiculous at times…but so what? When did “melodrama” become such a dirty word? Let’s look briefly at the five episodes of Dallas’ first season.
Digger’s Daughter (April 2, 1978)
“From bed to worse: the long-running feud between the Ewing and Barnes families becomes very personal when Bobby Ewing marries Pam Barnes. But venomous J.R. has a plan to end the wedded bliss.”
Right here, in the first episode, much of the core dynamics of Dallas are laid out by creator/scripter David Jacobs: Jock’s preference for Bobby, and J.R.’s resulting jealousy; Bobby’s and J.R.’s professional rivalry; J.R.’s callous amorality in assuming everyone is as venal and calculating as he is; Bobby’s and Pam’s doomed love affair causing schisms within the Ewing family; the characters’ lustfulness overriding sense and logic (such as Lucy and Ray in this episode); and importantly, the notion of a family seemingly constantly besieged by forces inside and out.
More importantly…how did I not pick up on that disco underbeat to the famous theme music? This particular “Southfork” ranch house is architecturally more imposing than the one used for the rest of the series…but the little houses arrangement for all the married couples wouldn’t have been as dramatically effective as putting them all under the same roof to scratch and claw at each other, as happens in season 2. The cold, dark, gray look to these five episodes, thanks to the bitter winter shoot, are so unlike later sun-drenched, scorchy-looking seasons—it helps make for a grimier, grittier feel. Hagman is subdued, looking for his character’s hook, but Sue Ellen’s character is essentially non-existent at this point. Tilton makes a big impact as the perverse little sex-shooter Lucy (at 13 years old, I didn’t know why, exactly, it was wrong for her to make Ray call her “Pam” before they had sex…but it sure felt wonderfully wrong). She’s got Dallas’ often wicked sense of humor down pat. Too bad often boring Bobby couldn’t have stayed a pimp. And Principal does well as the innocent plunked down amid the vipers—it’s surprising to see how central she and her viewpoint and experiences are to the show, before the mano a mano macho headgames between J.R. and Bobby later took over the series.
The Lesson (April 9, 1978)
“What to do about poor little rich girl Lucy? If you’re a typical Ewing, you might ask about school, then set out to make another million. But for Pam, intervening in Lucy’s life could be a way to win acceptance.”
Another solid episode for Principal and Tilton. Pam takes center stage, not shying away from becoming a Ewing, by trying to act like a mother to wild child Lucy; it’s well developed by scripter Virginia Aldrige. Principal affects some real steel in her admonishments to Tilton, while the pint-sized hellion pouts and steams with the best of them (she’s quite erotic, trying to make Kanaly flip that truck with an en route to school make-out session).
The director, Irving J. Moore, seems to be fascinated by Tilton’s and Principal’s rear ends—we’re given long, lingering shots of each (bless you, Mr. Moore). Gray still has nothing to do here, unfortunately, but Bel Geddes gets to lay out a frequent Miss Ellie lament: the Ewing men are strong in business…but weak when it comes to handling their stronger women. J.R. brings Bobby up short: I’ve paid the dues around Ewing Oil and Jock “I Don’t Take Sh*t From Anybody…Particular My No Good Sons” Ewing, and you haven’t (Bobby kinda takes it from him), but this episode isn’t really focused on the men. By the way: everyone is blackmailing someone else. Thank god all is settled at the local disco, where Pam loses major points having her hair streaked and pulled up into a bun like Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca…but redeems herself with a turtleneck that’s two sizes too small (Ray’s vest also looks like it’s going to shoot buttons—an increasing occurrence with the yo-yoing Kanaly).
Spy in the House (April 16, 1978)
“All along, J.R. has suspected that Pam’s marriage to Bobby was nothing more than a Barnes-family attempt to plant a mole inside the Ewing lair. Now he may have the proof.”
Now this one feels like the first “classic” Dallas episode: we’ve got some nasty business dealings, where a Ewing friend has to take a shiv in the back; J.R. treats a sexually frustrated Sue Ellen like dirt; J.R. treats his sexually needy secretary Ginger Julie like dirt; Cliff, hoping to get dirt on the Ewings at any cost, treats J.R.’s sexually needy secretary Ginger Julie like dirt; and J.R. declares open war on that meddling Barnes spy, Pam. All of it works here, from scripter Arthur Bernard Lewis, just as it will in countless variations over the following 13 more seasons.
It’s a shame Tina Louise couldn’t have been a series regular for a couple of seasons—she’s really quite good as the wronged Julie (she finds layers between the bantering she delivers with Hagman and Kercheval that indicate an actress who wasn’t stretched enough). Jim Davis plays “gruff” effortlessly (who wasn’t a little intimidated by his performance as Jock?), while Tilton continues her sh*t-stirring way by making J.R. kiss Pammy and make nice. Duffy also has a nice scene where he drops the hammer on Jock’s senator buddy, Norman Alden (always good in this kind of role). They should have let Bobby stay this dirty; he’s no match for the increasingly strong, savvy Pam. And we finally get a glimpse at how rotten J.R. really is, when he pulls the classic whore move of all time: after getting a resistant Julie to sleep with him, he breaks her loving mood the next morning by kissing her again…while slapping a Benjamin on her face! A classic Dallas moment!
Winds of Vengeance (April 23, 1978)
“A hurricane threatens Southfork. Yet an even bigger storm is about to hit: the Ewing ladies become the captives of men who are more than a little ticked off over J.R.’s hanky-panky with the women in their lives.”
Uh-oh…I think a certain scriptwriter (Camille Marchetta) was watching Key Largo and The Desperate Hours the night before she wrote this….
Within the scheme of things, almost a throwaway episode, but there are some important series mile markers here. We get to see J.R. whoring it up out of town with Ray (that will be one of J.R.’s favorite hobbies in the seasons to come). We get the first glimpse of Miss Ellie’s compassion, when she asks an unresponsive Sue Ellen to help Pam feel more welcome in the house (up to this point…Miss Ellie has not exactly been a sympathetic figure). We see a selfish Lucy give up Pam as an alternate rape victim, before we see Pam eventually offer herself to stave off Lucy’s rape (Pam good…Lucy bad). And most importantly, we see Sue Ellen finally emerge from the backdrop, courtesy of the old Claire Trevor treatment in Key Largo, where she’s forced to sing a song before being raped by Brian Dennehy (as nauseating as that prospect is, Sue Ellen does herself no favors picking People as her musical selection). The Desperate Hours framework of the episode is highly derivative…but it does lay out a frequent Dallas trope: poor people want to get those high-falutin’ sumbitch Ewings.
Barbecue (April 30, 1978)
“Red meat…and a red-blooded feud. Hostility is the main course at the Ewing Barbecue as Jock and Digger jab at old wounds. But maybe Pam’s pregnancy can create a bond between the two prospective grandpas.”
The classic Dallas barbecue episode, looked forward to by loyal fans each year. It’s a great way to ping-pong back and forth between characters, letting them score off each other while the viewer laughs at the funny juxtapositions.
We get more backstory on the Barnes-Ewing feud, courtesy of David Wayne’s fun—if miscast—take on Digger (Wayne’s a bit too polished underneath, a bit too urbane and Ivy League, to be a bummy wildcatter). Pam’s pregnant, and she’s not wearing the kind of bra that prevents, uh…weather-related “incidents” (thank god). Linda Gray goes into full Dorothy Malone mode as she wallows fully into her own: Self-Pitying Drunk Who Needs It Bad (curiously, she looks a lot happier later, riding that horse…). Jim Davis has a terrific scene, first getting laughs by barely shaking Wayne’s hand, and then uncomfortable chills as he strips down Digger raw (“I generally try to accommodate my guests,” he snarls—Davis was never better). And finally, Hagman has a field day making J.R. alternately obnoxious and pitiful, getting a howler when he drunkenly exclaims, “I just love these family scenes!” before calling Pam “just plain trash” (first Bobby punch-out of the series, too). Later, when he (accidentally?) backs Pam off the hayloft, after which she miscarries, it’s impossible to tell if Hagman wants us to believe J.R. did it on purpose, or not. A brilliant actor rapidly syncing up with a memorable character is really something to see here.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.