Monday, 11 March 2013

Dallas: defining the nighttime soap

Dallas revolved around the exploits
of Texas oil magnate J.R. Ewing
(played by Larry Hagman).
The recent death of Larry Hagman, along with its re-boot last year, brought the 1980s soap opera Dallas back into the spotlight. Tonight they buried J.R. Ewing. What a long time some have waited to see that.

Who shot J.R.?:
The dawn of the nighttime cliffhanger
In its hey day it was a cultural phenomenon that left its imprint on popular culture. The show hit prominence in its third season, with the first season-ending cliffhanger of its time – who shot J.R.?

It spawned a country music song, and curiosity that made Dallas the highest-rated show. In our little corner of the world, there was a Lethbridge Broncos game scheduled the Friday night the shooter would be revealed on TV. The hockey team said they would announce at the game who shot J.R.

Never say die
Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) is run over
by a car and killed, as his ex-wife Pamela
(Victoria Principal) comforts him.
It turns out Bobby never died 
at all – it was all a dream. Come on!
Every primetime soap opera forever after – Dynasty, Knot’s Landing (itself a Dallas spinoff), Falcon Crest – emulated the season-ending cliffhanger. Dallas would even go down as having the most infamous of all cliffhangers. After an uneven year that saw the death of Bobby Ewing (played by Patrick Duffy), the season ended with Bobby appearing in the shower. The whole season had been a dream dreamt by Pamela Barnes Ewing. Lame, lame, lame.

Romeo and Juliet for the 1980s
Romeo and Juliet for the 1980s, but
they live, and die, and live again.
The show spanned the entire 1980s, one of just a handful of TV series to do that. It is quite impressive actually. Given it was originally intended to be a miniseries and nothing more. In fact, the original premise was of two feuding families, the Barnes and the Ewings. Like Romeo and Juliet, Bobby Ewing would marry Pamela Barnes. However, in the original miniseries, Bobby was to die and leave Pam in the den of wolves all by herself. Of course, that never happened.

Ratings juggernaut
Crockett and Tubbs never stood a
chance on Friday nights against Dallas.
The show provided CBS with a Friday-night anchor for its primetime schedule. Falcon Crest benefitted greatly from airing after Dallas. It also proved a graveyard for competing shows. Many times shows that were on the brink of cancellation were sent to their deaths by being slotted opposite Dallas. Conversely, the odd show did better than expected, and was given a chance elsewhere on the schedule. Hunter was a good example of that. Brutalised by Dallas on Friday night, it eventually found a home Saturdays and ran seven seasons.

The 1985-86 season saw what analysts had described as a Friday night showdown as NBC slotted its up-and-coming hit Miami Vice against Dallas. Crockett and Tubbs had no success against J.R., Bobby, and company either, and NBC moved Miami Vice again.

The original Ewing family before Dallas
became a serialized drama. You could
actually watch an episode without
having seen the previous four or five.
Original intent
What is interesting is the show did not start out as a soap opera per se. Back in the late 1990s, TNN re-broadcast the entire run of Dallas. The first season had every show rapped up, and quite efficient. Then it slowed to a glacial pace as it became more and more serialized.

How many times did J.R. Ewing knock down
Cliff Barnes, watch him get back up, and
knock him down? The show ran out of ideas.
Out of steam
Like all shows that run for a long time, it just ran out of ideas. How many times could Cliff Barnes get knocked down by J.R., get up, then get knocked down again. How much lower could J.R. sink. How many more cast members could leave either by attrition or death? Watching it beginning to end over a few months showed just how bad it actually became, totally bereft of ideas. You ask the average fan, and they could not tell you the names of Bobby and J.R.’s wives at the end of the show (it certainly was not Pam and Sue Ellen).

Some kind of pull
It had made such a mark during its run that when the series finale was set to air, it was during the Stanley Cup playoffs in Canada. The CBC had aired Dallas for its entire run, and announced it would pre-empt hockey – playoff hockey – to broadcast the series finale. Now that is some kind of power the show had.

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