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Monday, 25 of March of 2019

Dallas – “Changing of the Guard” & “Hedging Your Bets”

“Don’t believe me, do you?”
“Excuse me, brother, but no, I don’t.”

Dallas 2012 title cardI’ve never seen a single episode of the original Dallas. I was only six years old when it ended it’s 14 season run in 1991 (plus various TV movies and reunion specials), and the series was never really on my syndication radar (I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in syndication, though it has been syndicated in limited capacities). I’m familiar with it, then, only in reading TV histories, clips of the series in “TV’s best [whatever]…”, and pop culture parody and homage.

Which doesn’t exactly make me the best person to talk about the show since TNT’s Dallas is more of a continuation than a reimagining or reboot of the original series. But that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize its influences. Dallas popularized the use of the season-ending cliffhanger after the “Who shot J.R.?” season finale, and as we’re all aware now, the cliffhanger is pretty much way to end lots of shows, even sitcoms sometimes, these days (his likely explains, by the way, the show’s lack of syndicated presence following its conclusion).

As a result, I’m more likely to discuss ways in which this new Dallas feels a lot like other shows that are, in turn, likely indebted to the original Dallas. If anything, this version of Dallas perhaps represents the final segment of a snake eating itself.

Since it’s Dallas and since it’s a primetime soap, the focus of the show is on the lives of the Ewing clan, old and young, all doing battle (legal, personal, sexual, financial) for control of Southfork, the family’s expansive ranch located near Dallas. And these battles, whatever form that take, all involve blackmail, secrets, scheming, double- and triple – and (likely) quadruple-crossing. By the end of the massive premiere (9:00 to 11:15ish, with commercials), there are clearly enough schemes and secrets in place to keep the show chugging for the next 8 episodes, and I’m left to think everything was frontloaded for just that purpose.

And perhaps there were too many plopped down here in the first go. It feels a bit like what TV Tropes used to call a Thirty Xanatos Pileup: everyone’s got a scheme, they’re all in conflict, and you need a flowchart to help keep things straight (though the big difference in Dallas is that they all have the same ultimate goal: Owning Southfork). With John Ross trying to out-scheme J.R., J.R. playing everything close to the vest, Fake-Marta playing John Ross, J.R., Bobby, and Christopher (and has easy access to Cowboys Stadium?), Sue Ellen getting her hooks into Elena, Bobby having tumor he’s hiding from everyone but Annie, and, finally Rebecca and her brother Tommy running a very long con. Oh, and the mysterious email, of course (that I think Rebecca and Tommy fabricated). I’m sure I missed something.

There’s more to it, of course. There’s also the relationship drama between everyone. The rivalry between J.R. and Bobby; the rivalry between Christopher and John Ross; the bad blood between J.R. and Sue Ellen; and the love polygon between John Ross, Elena, Christopher, and Rebecca. (Should we include Fake-Marta in this configuration? Sure, why not?)

All of this means the show is rather stuffed full of intrigue and melodrama, all things I generally respond to. And I found the first episode to be exactly the sort of primetime soap-tacular I was expecting. But by the second hour, and this could’ve just been due to that they ran back to back, I was pretty exhausted by the pile-up of plotting and scheming. I understand the need to do so: There’s only 8 episodes left for the season, no word on a second season yet, so these two episodes have to do a lot of work setting up everything that will, hopefully, be unspooled.

It may’ve been exhausting for another reason, however. It’s so not like the other primetime soaps I watch: Revenge and The Vampire Diaries. Both of those shows rely heavily not only on the cliffhanger ending (on an episodic basis!)  but also on characters scheming against one another to achieve their ends.

The difference, I think, lies in how they’ve structured the scheming and narrative. Dallas has frontloaded all of these plots whereas both Revenge and TVD, series that are known for burning through plot episode-by-episode. They’re self-contained and further an on-going arc, and each series’ episodes manage to achieve a cliffhanger ending and an episodic catharsis, something that I felt was generally lacking in Dallas (apart from the Marta reveal, which I think fits snugly in along Revenge and TVD).

I wish I could compare Dallas‘s structure to its earlier incarnation, and I could if I got copies of the DVD, but for the sake of my purposes here, it’d be helpful if just already knew. It’s a blind spot in my understanding of TV’s history and its development as a narrative form, especially egregious considering how much I like this sort of TV drama. Perhaps someone in the comments, someone more knowledgeable, could enlighten me. I would appreciate it.

In writing this, I’ve somehow talked myself into covering the show for the remainder of its season. I hadn’t planned to when I sat out to write this, but in trying to explore the ins and outs, I’ve decided to give it another whirl. We’ll see how that goes.

FINAL THOUGHTS

  • There was also an interesting lack of technology in the show. Yes, the email is a major plot point, but otherwise it feels like even cell phones aren’t even cornerstones of how things work in Dallas. I find that really fascinating. It’s almost the exact opposite of The Good Wife (another primetime soap I love), in that way.
  • I didn’t talk about about the show on a more “I liked this, I didn’t like this” level, so: All the young people plotting feel rather generic, like they could happen on show. Only Bobby and J.R.’s relationships, really nicely conveyed by Duffy early in the first episode and then between Duffy and Hagman in the second, has any weight to it. Their scenes crackled.
  • Christopher’s heritage was really vague to me. Elena says that oil is in his blood, but Christopher is adopted, and for a while I thought that he and John Ross were brothers. The show did a poor job of making all that clear.
  • “Never pass up a good chance to shut up.”

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