09 June 2012

"Dallas"


I was born nine months after Dallas premiered on 2 April 1978. Whether that's a mathematical coincidence, I can't say but it would certainly befit the legacy of the show to have been responsible for a rash of babies. I grew up a child of the Reagan Eighties and Dallas, and if there was any TV show that better captured the zeitgeist of that decade, I'm unaware of what it may be. My fascination with Dallas runs much deeper than curiosity about society, though. I've said for ages now that there were two things that helped me understand my childhood. One was Randy Travis's Storms of Life album and the other was Dallas.
J.R. & Bobby toast under the watchful eye of their father, Jock.
My parents divorced when I was still quite young. At one point, my dad absconded with my brother and me and kept us holed up at his brother's farm. I will never forget the day when I was outside in the driveway, my cousins off working on a tractor when a car I didn't recognize pulled up. A woman who didn't seem quite familiar ran up and grabbed me and got me into the car. It was my grandmother, who had dyed her hair a new color since last I had seen her! My mom was in the back seat and I was able to piece together what was happening. Her friend was driving.

So too did my cousins, who came running toward the car. I can still vividly picture one of my cousins actually managing to pound on the car door as my mom's friend reversed out of the driveway. I have never asked, but I can't imagine they were much clearer on what was happening than I had been. It all happened so suddenly that there couldn't have been much chance for them to even know who had just grabbed me and thrown me in the car. Despite the fact that I much preferred to be with my mother, I have always appreciated the efforts of my cousins on that occasion. I can't imagine much else they could have done had it been a sinister abduction, rather than the benign sort that it was.

Dallas was the one show both my parents watched. It was on Friday nights on CBS. No matter which parent had us for the weekend, I could expect to keep up with the show. During one story arc a little while after all the dust had finally settled from our own divorce drama, Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) left J.R (Larry Hagman). At the end of each episode ran a promo clip from the next week's episode, to ensure that you remained stoked for the next six nights. There I was, at my dad's, when the preview clip ran and Sue Ellen stormed into the room and demanded to know, "Where's my son, you bastard?!"

I'm unaware of my mom holding my dad at gunpoint.
Both Randy Travis and Dallas explained extramarital affairs and the effects of them to me, so I felt I had a grip on what had taken place that neither of my parents ever really discussed with me forthright. But Randy Travis hadn't really said much about custody battles. All of a sudden, Dallas wasn't just explaining my parents to me. Now it was about me.

I grew to accept and even like Clayton. But not Steve!
Around the same time my parents divorced, the widowed Miss Ellie (J.R.'s mama, played by Barbara Bel Geddes and Donna Reed) met Clayton Farlow (Howard Keel). J.R. resisted their union, leading to a tussle that sent Clayton tumbling down the stairs. That, too, resonated with me strongly. My mom dated a guy named Steve for a short time after the divorce. He sucked up to me, lavishing me with new Masters of the Universe figures and friendliness. It didn't matter. I was dead set against accepting the guy. I never threw him down the stairs, mind you, but I identified with J.R. In my case, it wasn't that I was protective of my dad's role in our family belonging to him alone or anything like that. I just did not want to accept anyone else into our family at all at that point. I needed time to fully establish a post-divorce status quo, and I didn't have that time. Even though I understood our motives were different, I was comforted knowing that even J.R. Ewing went through that kind of resistance to newcomers. I figured if J.R. did everything for the sake of the family and he was against Clayton, then I could go to bed at night knowing I had not been selfish for rejecting Steve.

The secret to why J.R. Ewing was so captivating wasn't just that he was as shrewd as he was ruthless. Anyone could be that. What made J.R. the greatest character on TV was that everything he did, was for the family. Maybe he was misguided about what was right for the family, maybe he was inconsiderate of the family's actual wants and needs, and maybe he was as destructive for the family as he was helpful, but every activity he ever undertook was directly connected to advancing the security and prosperity of the Ewings. There's a nobility to that, I think. This is the same reason that we later identified with Tony Soprano. He may have been a brutal sociopath, but he broke those kneecaps for his family. We get that. Simply put, Tony Soprano existed and worked because of J.R. Ewing.
In addition to John Ross, Tony Soprano is J.R. Ewing's rightful heir.
In Summer 1996, a cable station called The Nashville Network (TNN, which evolved into Spike TV) began airing reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas on weekday afternoons. I had grown up with both and I absolutely gorged on those reruns. When they finished the entire run, they started back at the beginning. I'm certain I followed Dallas from start to finish at least twice. That was an important summer for me, because it was my last one before entering my senior year of high school. It was peculiar to prepare for that milestone in my life by revisiting the show that had played such a key role in my formative years. But then, I've always been prone to introspection and nostalgia, so it was in my nature anyway. I still think of microwaving Webber's pulled pork BBQ in little white plastic cups and sitting down to watch those reruns. Good times.

In 2004, my then-girlfriend flew down to Daytona to visit her family for a weekend. The first night she was gone, CBS aired Dallas Reunion: The Return to Southfork (by morbid coincidence, the same day on which actor Howard Keel, who played Clayton Farlow, passed away). I had gotten way behind on laundry, so I washed it all night long. I started during the Dallas Reunion special and then proceeded to make my way through the entire Back to the Future: The Complete Trilogy DVD box set, borrowed from a friend. The sun was up by the time I finished the last of the laundry and the DVD. That was a fun night for me.

It's funny, really, but where other kids my age identified with Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones, I identified with John Ross Ewing. I saw how distraught Sue Ellen became when J.R. kept him hidden from her, and through that I was able to surmise what it had been like for my mom when my brother and I were hidden from her. It should have made me resent J.R. Ewing all the more, but instead it somehow endeared the show to me even more because they were actually talking about my own life. I found it helpful, in the way that children respect that one grownup who will give them straight answers to their questions.
The answer to any question that begins with, "Why did J.R....?"
This Wednesday, after 21 years (give or take a few TV movies), Dallas returns to TV. After years of hearing proposed ideas of what to do with the franchise - including a movie with John Travolta and Jennifer Lopez that never came to fruition, thereby irrefutably establishing the existence of God - I am stoked at this new run. From what I understand, the show's producers and writers are very much steeped in what has come before and they intend to root their incarnation in the classic series. Just like J.R. himself, their plans may not prove a success but they're doing this out of respect for Dallas and a desire to perpetuate its glory. I can get behind that.

Speaking of what I can get behind, Charlene Tilton is returning, too! There's plenty more to be said about Dallas, of course, so go ahead and expect that show to become a frequent topic of discussion here on this blog.

All photos of Dallas are from the official Dallas Facebook page, Facebook.com/DallasTNT.
The Sopranos photo is from the official Sopranos Facebook page, Facebook.com/TheSopranos.

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