Martial Arts as War (MAW) and Martial Arts as Sport (MAS)—these are the two paradigms that, by and large, define the contemporary universe of the martial arts. Or so I have argued in previous essays. Now, it’s true, of course, that—as my own Master-Instructor observed to me in one of our countless conversations over this […]
Word broke last month that Dallas—TNT’s contemporary version of the spectacularly successful 80’s series—has been cancelled after three seasons. The “Save Dallas” campaign designed to relocate the show to another network bore no fruit.
To long-time fans like yours truly, this news is disappointing—even if not altogether unsurprising.
For starters, though it was off to an impressive start in 2012, it wasn’t before long that this continuation of the iconic show began to suffer a precipitous ratings decline. Furthermore, TNT must be judged to have done a less than adequate job at merchandising its product, and its split seasons and program scheduling left much to be desired.
But it isn’t just the network’s handling of Dallas (or, for that matter, the death of Larry Hagman) that accounts for its demise. At least some of the blame is due to substantive and stylistic considerations.
It isn’t that this incarnation of Dallas was without its redeeming qualities: it (almost) never failed to engage the interests of those who cared to watch it. Yet, at the same time, there is an ecology of elements—no less “finely tuned” than any natural ecological system—that a show like Dallas, invested as it is in preserving continuity between the old and the new, needed to achieve.
It failed to do so.
When Dallas TNT began in 2012, I wrote then that the show’s success depended in no small measure upon the same imaginative exploration of the contrasts—industry and agriculture, the “Big City” and “the land,” love and betrayal, the good and the bad, etc.—in which the original series engaged so masterfully. I also contended that it must slow down its pace long enough to remind readers that, at the end of the day, Dallas centers in the fortunes and misfortunes, the virtues and vices, the joys and the sufferings, of a family. Thus, scenes of the Ewings seated around the dinner table, or splashing around in the pool, or gathered for cocktails, were critical.
The so-called reboot largely neglected this counsel. Whether this was a function of budgetary considerations and the like, is anyone’s guess. Still, the fact remains that TNT’s continuation of Dallas would have at least felt more like, well, a continuation, had it contained its share of scenes harkening viewers back to its counterpart from nearly a quarter of a century ago, reminding us all of the familial cornerstone of this series.
Dallas TNT had a formidable challenge to meet: Though new, it also, in a real sense, had to remain old. That is to say, unlike most shows, it was not beginning from scratch. Just the contrary: Success depended upon the new Dallas assimilating itself to the old.
None of this happened.
While exterior shots of the homestead—“Southfork”—featured prominently enough, the interior was unrecognizable to fans of the original series. This matters, for in the imagination of fans, the identity of the Ewing family is indissolubly bound with the Ewing home. In unveiling an interior design to Southfork bearing few if any similarities to that of the original, it’s as if a new actor had been hired to portray not just any old and beloved character, but a star of the show: Southfork is arguably more essential to Dallas than is even JR Ewing.
Then there were what appeared to be some rather dramatic inconsistencies between the storylines of contemporary Dallas and its forerunner. It isn’t, necessarily, that these conflicts couldn’t be resolved. The problem is that, for the sake of the integrity of the series, to say nothing of respect for viewers, they needed to be resolved.
Take, for instance, Ken Kercheval’s Cliff Barnes, a staple of the original Dallas. In spite of having put to rest his quest to avenge his father against the Ewings several seasons before the original Dallas finished its 14 season-run, and in spite of his having acquired ownership of Ewing Oil in 1991 at the series finale, Cliff is now, decades later, consumed with a quite literally murderous vengeance vis-à-vis all of the Ewings—including his own nephew. Not only can viewers be forgiven for thinking that Cliff never had the epiphany that marked a decisive turning point for his character in CBS’s Dallas. The ease with which Cliff seeks the annihilation of the Ewings at all costs—including the cost of lives, even the lives of those, like his adopted son (who we never heard about during the 80’s), his daughter, his nephew, and his unborn grandchildren—leaves viewers thinking either that Cliff’s soul has been taken over by Darth Vader or that something very, very bad has happened between the end of the original series and the present day.
Near the end of the original series, JR and Cliff still despised one another, but this no longer had anything to do with an intergenerational family feud. As Cliff once told Miss Ellie, he and JR would have been enemies regardless of their surnames. And, considering both that Cliff had beaten JR in assuming control of his company, and, presumably, JR had spent who knows how long in a virtually catatonic state wasting away in a senior citizens’ facility of a sort, some explanation for this metamorphosis of an original character into the embodiment of evil was necessary.
But it was never forthcoming.
Another problem with the new Dallas was, for lack of a better word, the heavily “Hispanicized” texture that it was made to assume. The characters, in some way or other, were involved with Mexico and Mexicans with a frequency that left viewers wondering whether this third world country was a suburb of the city of Dallas. The cowboys and good ol’ boys of the original series had been traded in for Hispanic gangsters and the like.
Again, it isn’t that the introduction of some Hispanic characters should have been off-limits. However, to this viewer, at any rate, it seemed like a transparently contrived effort to insure that Dallas would be in keeping with the Politically Correct zeitgeist.
Its weaknesses aside, it should be noted that Dallas most certainly was an entertaining show. I, for one, enjoyed beholding an evil Cliff Barnes. Moreover, to Cynthia Cidre’s credit, she is virtually a minority of one among contemporary television writers who did not shy away from depicting non-white characters in a villainous light.
Dallas has proven itself to be a resilient series. Maybe, in another few years, someone else will succeed in resurrecting it. If so, whomever this person is, he or she should bear in mind that success demands that Dallas recall its roots.