Dallas began in 1978, when I was six years-old. The earliest memory I have of the show dates back to when the world became consumed with the question: Who shot J.R.? The first episode that I can recall having watched is that which ends with Miss Ellie receiving the news that Jock’s plane had crashed in South America. It was during that summer, when CBS reran the previous season of Dallas, that I became hooked.
Fast forward some 30 years or so later and here I am still tuning in faithfully to “the new Dallas” each week on TNT. It says a lot that a television series that originated in a bygone era can still manage to command a strong, impassioned following. Yet what exactly does it say? The question concerning the shooting of J.R. Ewing has long since receded into the popular consciousness. It is now to this question regarding the enduring allure of the trials and tribulations of the Ewings that the fans, no less than the writers and cast, of the new Dallas should turn.
It should be stated from the outset that the time spent watching the new Dallas every Monday night is well rewarded. Thus far, the series has not only matched, but exceeded, my expectations. Moreover, inasmuch as the life of the original series could be said to be divided into two phases—pre-Dream Season and post-Dream Season—the new Dallas does justice to the former while distinguishing itself as a dramatic improvement over the latter.
Simply put, Dallas never recovered after the death of Bobby Ewing—until now.
However, while Cynthia Cidre deserves congratulations for her conscientious treatment of Dallas, not unsurprisingly—she is human, after all—there is room for criticism. However, it should be noted that the criticisms, offered as they are by a lifelong fan who wishes to see Dallas remain on the air, are offered in the most charitable spirit.
Far from being the fare for the shallow pated that many made it out to be, Dallas is a show that is as intellectually as it is aesthetically satisfying. Beautifully shot, it is also an intelligent show, for it provokes viewers to come to terms with the constellation of moral ambiguities that lurk within their own hearts. And it succeeds in doing all of this because it has masterfully drawn upon and woven together some archetypical themes.
The first theme against the backdrop of which every other plot plays out is that of nature versus artifice, the land versus industry, the old and the new. Each embodies a distinct vision of morality that sits uneasily with that embodied by the other. The morality of nature is resolutely non-utilitarian: nature, here, is viewed as something to be prized for its own sake. The morality of artifice, in contrast, most definitely is utilitarian, for artifice is valued only as a means to some end or other beyond itself: power, wealth, fame, etc.
Yet Dallas puts flesh on the bones of these abstract moral types by centering upon another timeless theme: family. The moralities of nature and artifice, though as contrary to one another as the human and the divine, together become incarnate in the Ewing clan. As a result, the universality and impartiality of each is qualified by the particularity and partiality that marks the life of every family: the land and big business are alike to be valued because they are our land and our business.
More so than anything else, it is the fact that Dallas revolves around the joys and sorrows of a family that accounts for its massive and unrelenting appeal. But it isn’t just any family that would’ve done the trick. The Ewing family is just similar enough to our own families to engage our sympathies. At the same time, it is dissimilar enough to elicit all of the interest that, as spectators, we reserve for sporting events and celebrities.
To be more specific, in spite of being a picturesque family on the outside, on the inside the Ewings are marked by joys and sorrows, fortunes and misfortunes, comparable to those experienced by virtually every family. Most importantly, for all of the intra-familial conflicts that have threatened to tear it asunder, the Ewing family has always succeeded in maintaining its integrity through the love—even if not the like—that its members have for one another.
In the process, the Ewings provide hope for our own families.
These are the themes that have always pervaded Dallas. And thanks to the laudable efforts of Cynthia Cidre, they continue to do so.
However, so as to not lose this focus—and, hopefully, to strengthen it—I offer the following comments.
First, while the first season did a commendable job of blending the clashing legacies of Miss Ellie and Jock, nature and artifice, the land and Ewing Oil, if at all possible, more time should be invested into doing the same throughout the duration of the show. Borrowing a page from the old series, maybe the new can provide us with a scene or two of Bobby and Christopher, say, and maybe even John Ross too, taking a break from the rigors of wheeling and dealing at Ewing Energies to attend a cattle auction, or to go on a cattle run or a hunting trip, as Bobby and J.R. did together and with their sons decades ago.
Second, it is not at all clear who is even living at Southfork these days. This should be established clearly, and then fans should be treated to just those homey scenes that originally endeared Dallas to them. Scenes of the Ewings chatting—and fighting—over the events of the day as they share cocktails and convene at the dinner table are small but priceless ingredients of the success of this series. Still, so far, we haven’t seen any of this.
Third, since continuity with the old Dallas is critical for the new, there are gaps that need filling. Although the notorious “dream season” became the butt of legions of jokes, Dallas fans were upset with it because they felt cheated. The series’ continuity was radically undermined when Pam awoke to discover the deceased Bobby alive and well in her shower. Fans invest thought and emotion into following the characters from one plot to the next. When this flow is disturbed, however, the program’s unity is compromised.
That being said, at least Dallas fans knew exactly where they stood when season nine was revealed to have been a dream. With the new Dallas, matters are otherwise.
We know that, as far as Cynthia Cidre is concerned, the two television Dallas films from the ‘90’s were never supposed to have taken place (doubtless, a good thing!). Yet it would appear that there are some aspects of the original series that we are supposed to forget about as well.
The last we saw of Sue Ellen, she left for Europe to be with another man. Then, not all that long afterwards, we hear that she married him. Since the new Dallas began, there hasn’t been so much as a hint as to what occurred there.
This, however, is pretty easily explainable: Sue Ellen got divorced and moved back to the States (but let’s explain it anyhow, ok?). The case of Cliff Barnes, though, is more difficult to discern.
When Dallas left the air 22 years ago, Cliff Barnes became the owner of Ewing Oil. But today, we encounter a Cliff Barnes that, while controlling his own company, is more determined than ever to take over Ewing Energies. In the most recent episode of Dallas, Bobby explains to Christopher and John Ross that Cliff’s company, “Barnes Global,” was bequeathed to him and Cliff’s two sisters, Katherine and Pam, by their mother. But in the original series, Cliff’s mother left him “Wentworth Tool and Dye.” After Pam and Katherine both disappeared, Cliff then sold it right before Bobby made him a partner in Ewing Oil.
These may be only apparent inconsistencies, but considering that the Barnes-Ewing feud has been (brilliantly) resurrected for a new generation, it is important that they be resolved.
Fourth, keeping with this theme of continuity, it’s good that the new Dallas has brought back characters from the old. It would be even better, though, if they were given some meatier scenes as opposed to one or two line cameos. For example, during “JR.’s Masterpiece,” an exchange between the three brothers—Bobby, Gary, and Ray—over how JR’s life and death impacts them could have fit very nicely.
Finally, John Ross and Christopher are now the new Cain and Abel of Dallas. Yet neither has thus far been able to evoke the affections from fans that their fathers easily commanded.
To put it bluntly, both come across as spoiled brats with immense chips on their shoulders. More frequently than not, both have scowls on their faces, even if Christopher’s is a function of self-righteousness while John Ross’s reflects his anger at the world. This isn’t to say these characters are without their share of redeeming qualities; nor is it to deny that, fortunately, there is already some indication that they might be coming into their own at some time in the near future.
But as of yet, they are devoid of all of the charm and likability of their fathers. There is much maturing left to be done for both.
To repeat, Cynthia Cidre deserves kudos for her respectful and imaginative handling of an iconic television program. The forgoing comments and criticisms are offered in the spirit of a friend, a lifelong fan, who wants nothing more than for her to be able doing what she is already doing so well.
*This is scheduled for publication at UltimateDallas.com, a site well known to the writers, cast, and crew of Dallas.