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Dallas – The Complete First and Second Seasons (A PopEntertainment.com TV on DVD Review)

Dallas - The Complete First and Second Seasons

Dallas – The Complete First and Second Seasons

Dallas

The Complete First and Second Seasons (1978-1980) (Warner Home Video-2004)

When Dallas premiered in early 1978, it was just what America’s doctor ordered. The previous decade had turned us wussy, and there seemed to be no cure for our malaise (even our president said so).  The United States had been reeling from the same old miserable mantra (Vietnam, Watergate, the oil embargo, inflation, Laverne and Shirley…). The country needed something – anything – to get it back in touch with its kick-ass greatness and to motivate its mojo.

Dallas was it – this big, steaming, strong cup of Texas tea went down easy and easily satisfied, but it was only served caffeinated. It gave us the kick in the solar plexus we needed. It also became the export that made American TV the talk of the planet once more.

At first a smart soap opera (later it would sink into the ridiculous and be forced to compete with its many uninspired knockoffs), Dallas gave us back the American Way – glamour, greed and gams. Even Jock Ewing, patriarch of this oil-rich dynasty, called it the three B’s: booze, broads and booty.

It was something America hadn’t seen on television in a long time, if ever: a family so rich and powerful that they even had their own doctor. It was a clan of multi-millionaires who still lived at home and shared a bathroom and one telephone line. The women were not only stunningly gorgeous but they drove Camaros and woke up in the morning in full makeup. And the men, unlike Archie Bunker and the other working-class TV Joes of the 1970s, dazzled us with their lusty quest for power and their bulging wallets.

It was so ludicrous, so over the top that it actually made sense and proved perfectly logical. The 80s and Ronald Reagan would naturally follow, and that glitzy decade and that stoic president had Dallas to thank.

The series began with a bad idea, and the big audiences were not immediate (in fact, a competing TV movie starring old geezers Fred Astaire and Helen Hayes whipped their asses in the ratings). Dallas was initially a confusion of Cain and Abel, Romeo and Juliet, and Hatfield and McCoy: Bobby (Patrick Duffy), the youngest of the Ewing clan and the family mensch, marries a hot piece of ass named Pamela Barnes (Victoria Principal). She is of the dreaded working-class Barnes family, who eons ago used to be partners with the Ewings until daddy drank away the profits and left the family penniless.

Pam is us, we are lead to believe. We get a glimpse into money, power and glamour though her huge eyes. However, she is nobody’s fool, and she is going to move right into that ranch (the soon-to-be famous Southfork) and take her rightful place as both a Barnes and a Ewing. Maybe – just maybe – there is hope for all of us yet, and Pam will deliver us from evil (more about JR later).

In those early episodes, she’s good as black gold, honestly dedicated to her husband and truly caring for her in-laws and new family. They warm up to her too. She’s also easy on the peepers: while at a disco that just happens to be playing the rousing Dallas theme song, Bobby tries to cut in on her while she’s busy disco dancing with her breasts.

This, of course makes for easy uneasiness, and it seems as if the series was originally intended to center around the Pam character. However, it became apparent that the real hot sauce comes from Larry Hagman as older brother/demon seed JR Ewing. Hagman traded in one role of a lifetime (Major Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie) for another. We watch as he takes his sweet old time nurturing his evilness, eyebrows and drawl and all.

Before the end of the second season, JR has the most interesting “Things To Do Today” list of all: he has his former secretary killed, forces women who know too much onto buses headed out of town, beds babes with feathered hair and designer jeans from here to Houston, commits his pregnant wife to a sanitarium and secretly rewrites his own father’s will. But he still calls his mother “mama,” and we hate to love him.

By 1980, the “Who Shot JR?” cliffhanger episode will become the last great obsession of the pre-cable-TV world (although the real question is, “Does Larry Hagman really think that he’s JR Ewing in real life and is his ego measurable in cubic feet?”).

While Bobby gives his main squeeze a big wet one, poor Sue Ellen (JR’s wife, played with awesome brilliance by Linda Grey) only gets a dry peck on the cheek. Sue Ellen is like a Stepford Wife gone haywire: a former Miss Texas with impeccable manners who had been well trained for gold digging by her social-climbing mother. Forget JR: Sue Ellen is clearly the most interesting character in the series, but not even the writers know it. Although all of the Ewings drink like fishes, it’s Sue Ellen who is labeled an alcoholic because she can’t seem to hold her liquor.

She loves JR, and (seemingly) the feeling is not mutual. JR’s freak is that he loves women who hate him (he admits this in bed), so the more Sue Ellen despises him, the more in love he falls with her. This awesome dynamic makes for some of the most wicked chemistry between two TV characters ever. And the fact that she’s carrying someone else’s baby only makes JR be meaner to her, which makes her hate him more, which makes him fall harder for her. Got it?

The rest of the family is more or less expendable: the patriarch and matriarch (played by Jim Davis and Barbara Bel Geddes) are essentially clueless with only momentary lapses of down-home inspirational heart to hearts. Jock Ewing is a Ronald Reagan prototype with a gruff voice and a weather-beaten, handsome face. A former good ol’ boy and the founder of the Ewing Oil empire, he now has heart problems and can’t eat spicy foods or be subjected to drama queens. His overly protective wife, Miss Ellie, just wants everyone to eat their breakfast and has a weird rhythm to the end of her sentences (“Jock, I’m worried about JRrrrrrrrrrrr.”). They’re simple folk who are richer than all get out; they believe in family values and loud wallpaper.

The middle brother, Gary Ewing (first played by the zombie-like David Ackroyd and then replaced by complete non-lookalike Ted Shackleford) makes a quick exit-stage-right out of Southfork. This is because he’s an artsy dreamer (read: loser) and because he’s given the greatest gift a Ewing could receive: a spinoff (Knot’s Landing). His daughter, Lucy, stays behind to become the sexy fire hydrant that is Charlene Tilton. Lucy, perceptive, spoiled and passive aggressive, has a field day playing innocent, but lives to instigate with lines like, “I saw JR in town last night with the prettiest lady.” Then she sits back and grins as she watches the sparks fly at the dinner table. She flip-flops between bad girl/good girl/lost girl and does a pretty good job at all three. For the most part, though, the writers run out of things for Lucy to do, and she spends a good part of the early series working on her tan and popping pills.

Pamela’s brother, Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval) plays the winningest loser in TV history. Not since Charlie Chaplin has anyone on film been in the wrong place at the wrong time more often, and JR is always sure to keep him down, be it framing him for murder or destroying his chances for a Senate seat. Any faint glimmer of hope Barnes has for revenge backfires, whether it be bedding JR’s secretary or impregnating JR’s wife: he takes it with a bland grain of Southern salt. And curiously, he’s the only Texas resident without an accent.

The Mexican domestic staff is silent and obedient; the assorted yahoos and rednecks are naturally scary, scraggly and unpredictable, whether they are kidnapping Lucy and free-wheeling it on a state-wide crime spree, holding the Ewing women hostage, chaining Bobby to a bed and threatening to rape him or simply getting into a friendly bar room brawl. Yet the stereotypes are kept to an amazing minimum (real redneck caricatures are reserved for the 80s and beyond). Even more importantly, we are gratefully spared from what you would fear might be a heapin’ helpin’ of country music.

However, do enjoy Greg Evigan (formerly of BJ and the Bear) as a hip dude with a van that sports wall-to-wall shag carpeting in the interior (“Don’t make me mad,” he threatens because he is both gonzo and schizo). We also get Manson-like wild thugs (at least the digestible TV version) who spray paint the words PUNK and RULE in the house in which they squat, forcing us to feel uneasy about them.

The surprises come with Joan Van Ark as Lucy’s mama Val (who will move on as the same character – minus accent – on Knot’s Landing). Val (real name: Valene) is a put-upon waitress in a greasy spoon, but is able to quietly get through to the impossible Lucy the way no powerful Ewing can. And Tina Louise finally ditches her albatross – Gilligan’s Island’s Ginger Grant – as JR’s smart secretary who knows where all the skeletons are hidden. She also gets to deliver a killer dying scene.

It’s the Kennedys Tex-Mex style, and Dallas will go on to become an American institution and then an international obsession: thirteen seasons and 365 episodes (try this today, and good luck). The Southfork Ranch will become a tourist attraction equal to that of Graceland; the theme song will become as beloved as an anthem, and JR Ewing will make everybody’s Top Ten Favorite TV Characters list.

Of course, the poor relatives will eventually come calling: Knot’s Landing, Falcon Crest, Dynasty, Flamingo Road and The Carringtons will force Dallas to get glitzier (bigger hair, bigger shoulder pads, bigger slapfests) and sillier (in fact, in one of the most notorious moves in television history, the 1985 season turns out to be only a dream Pam had).

Eventually, the cast will move on to the TV-movie circuit and the series will not be as successful in syndication as it was in its original run. In addition, this DVD is a huge commitment (29 hours, plus ho-hum commentary and an awkward, fluffy reunion special on the cable channel Soapnet). However, Dallas is essentially a show about outsiders (everyone wants to be a Ewing, even the Ewings), and for pure soap without the bubbles, these first two seasons show you how it’s done.

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: September 14, 2005.

 

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