“Dallas is like every American soap opera you’ve ever seen, all rolled into one and given an unlimited charge account at Neiman-Marcus.” – Clive James, The Observer, 1979
It seems so obvious, it’s amazing it hasn’t happened earlier. Dallas, that most beloved of 1980s guilty viewing pleasures, has been properly revived as an ongoing series, and it’s back on UK screens tonight. But can it match the mad excesses of its original incarnation – the sex, the backstabbing, the stetsons, the vast amounts of money?
Back in the day of the original Dallas, it was an absolute phenomenon. Nobody had seen anything like it, least of all in the UK, where our idea of a soap opera was the dour Northerners of Coronation Street or the wobbly sets and forgotten lines of Crossroads. Suddenly, the British viewer was thrust into an alien world of greedy, amoral oil tycoons and their ultra-glamorous wives, where sex was every bit as much a currency as money, and ‘family’ meant ‘feud’.
Said family being, of course, the immortal Ewings, who had such enemies as Cliff Barnes, but spent more time fighting among each other as to who owned what large amount of money/oil well/wife. Ewing monarchs Jock and Miss Ellie watched uncomprehendingly over their bickering offspring, most notable of whom was goody-goody Bobby (Patrick Duffy), and that most loved of pantomime villains, JR. Initially just one of an ensemble, Larry Hagman’s deliciously evil tycoon ended up being the star of the show. When he was shot, at the climax of the third season in 1980, it made the national news.
It seemed like pretty much everyone in the UK watched Dallas, from the highbrow to the lowbrow. Terry Wogan would recap events sarcastically on his morning Radio 2 show, coining such epithets as “the poison dwarf” (for the diminutive Lucy Ewing), while Clive James regularly chimed in from his cerebral Observer column to guiltily admit that he couldn’t live without his weekly fix of Ewing action.
But such popularity rarely lasts, and Dallas was finally wound up in 1991. Its final episode was a surfeit of surreal plot excess, as an ‘angel’ turned up to show JR how the Ewings might have lived if he’d never been born. In a devilish inversion of It’s a Wonderful Life, they were of course a lot happier. At which point the ‘angel’ revealed himself to be quite the opposite, and urged JR to reach for what Clive James always referred to as his “gern”. We heard the gern go off, and that was it for the Ewings.
Twenty years and a couple of TV movies later, they’re back, and just as bonkers as ever. The old, unstoppably catchy theme tune is there in all its timelessly cheesy glory as the camera once again pans over Southfork ranch with yellow credits superimposed over it. The only shock is the absence of those split screen triptych shots of the stars freeze-framing at a moment of action/glamour/sex.
It’s hard enough to remember the conclusion of the labyrinthine plots in the series, not to mention the TV movies, so here’s a brief guide to the plot.
Southfork is now owned by Bobby Ewing, as nice a guy as ever (so he’ll almost certainly finish last). No mention is made of his wife Pam, but I seem to recall she had a terminal illness when the show wound up, so she’s presumably dead. Unless that turned out to be a dream, of course. Bobby is now married to Ann, a previously unseen friend of Sue Ellen’s. Of all the original cast, Patrick Duffy seems to have aged most gracefully; he still retains those boyish features, even as the new Ewing patriarch. But as we learn even before the credits, Bobby has a Deadly Secret – he’s been diagnosed with cancer. Can he survive long enough to fight off his brother one more time?
Perhaps he won’t need to. JR is semi-catatonic with depression in a nursing home; having failed to commit suicide, perhaps even he couldn’t live with the knowledge of what a dastard he is. But is he faking it? Larry Hagman seems not so much to have aged as dried out; he’s way thinner than he used to be (in real life he has been diagnosed with cancer after a life of epic excess). But those devilish horned eyebrows are still there, even if they’re white now.
Sue Ellen, meanwhile, has cleaned up from the demon drink, and is in the process of running for Governor of Texas. Probably sensibly, the script doesn’t tell us which party she’s running for, but the Ewings are ultra-rich elites with a giant corporation; let’s face it, she’s a Republican. Linda Gray manages to look every bit as glamorous as she ever did despite now being in her 70s, though some of the facial glamour is strangely immobile…
The plot proper has to do with the next generation of Ewings, cannily set at loggerheads in the manner of their parents. “I don’t want them to be like us,” Bobby earnestly says to the immobile JR. Hmm, good luck with that. JR’s son John Ross Ewing (the hunky Josh Henderson) has struck oil in the hallowed grounds of Southfork itself. If he sets up a rig, it’ll restore the Ewing fortunes in no time. Trouble is, the late Miss Ellie, a moral guardian even from beyond the grave, specified in her will that the grounds of Southfork were to remain inviolate, and the ever-respectful Bobby intends to honour that. Looks like there’s trouble a-brewing!
John Ross Ewing – so evil he’s wearing the Master’s old beard.
Also opposing John Ross is Bobby’s (adopted) son Christopher (the hunky Jesse Metcalfe). Christopher’s keen on green energy, and has some kind of new process by which he can power the world with frozen methane (or something). So he’s not keen on John Ross digging for oil anywhere, least of all the ol’ family homestead. But he has a Deadly Secret of his own – his frozen methane drilling unfortunately causes earthquakes (somehow). And John Ross suspects…
Christopher Ewing. He suspects nothing, the poor sap.
Complicating matters even further (this is Dallas, after all), is the fact that John Ross is going out with the beautiful and glamorous Elena, daughter of the Ewing housekeeper and also (shock) Christopher’s former fiancee who jilted him at the altar. Christopher, meanwhile, is now engaged to the beautiful and glamorous Rebecca – but Rebecca isn’t who she seems to be. There’s something a little fishy about her recently arrived brother, whose unshaven face immediately brands him as a man Not To Be Trusted.
In classic Dallas style, all this is revealed in a series of exchanges that take place at parties, round the dinner table, and in the process of sexual congress. Old hands Lucy and Ray Krebbs pop up for a brief cameo at Christopher’s wedding bash, but don’t really do much. With the welter of plots already fomenting, there probably wasn’t much room for them.
You’d think a wedding where the bridegroom’s former fiancee who jilted him turned up as his cousin’s girlfriend would be awkward. And you’d be right. Only halfway through the first episode, and there’s Ewing fisticuffs already, especially over rascally-bearded John Ross’ plan to drill for oil on Miss Ellie’s beloved Southfork.
Trouble is, if Bobby dies, John Ross might get to do just that. So Bobby comes up with a plan – he’ll sell Southfork to a conservation concern, the Del Sol conservancy. This mystifies everyone, as he hasn’t told them he’s ill (do try and keep up). The beautiful and glamorous (that’s the third one this week) Marta Del Sol arrives to check out the ranch, so Bobby can sign over the deeds as quickly as possible.Unknown to Bobby, his wife has discovered his cancer medication, and now knows his Deadly Secret.
But Marta isn’t who she seems (by this point, this hardly comes as a surprise). She’s secretly in league with JR, who (surprise!) isn’t as ill as he looked. Hagman is on triumphant form as the old Stetson goes back on, along with the old evil grin. Champagne glass in hand, he’s obviously relishing the evil plans to come.
JR’s not Marta’s only secret ally, though. Turns out she’s also secretly in league with John Ross (getting confused yet?). This secret is demonstrated when they choose to clandestinely meet in the very centre of Dallas’ most well-known large public space, the Dallas Cowboys stadium. Walking slowly toward each other, they eventually meet up for a snog in the centre of the field, and snigger evilly. Well, not quite, but they might as well have. At this point all John Ross needs is a small dog called Muttley.
So, one episode in and it’s already matching up to the convoluted excess, glamour and implausible complexity of the original. The new stars are great, although JR and Bobby were never as buff and pretty as John Ross and Christopher. But it really comes to life with the old guard, including an electric scene where the dying Bobby visits his ‘depressed’ brother/adversary JR at the rest home. What’s JR up to? Does he know about John Ross and Marta? Who is Rebecca really? Tune in next time to find out – perhaps. I know you will, because new, bonkers Dallas is every bit as addictive as old, bonkers Dallas.