Tractors and treachery: 'Dallas' was just like home
It featured adult children who moved out only to build houses next door to their parents, farmers who speculated with their cattle wealth, and a CJ Haughey-style anti-hero. No wonder we were hooked. As the melodrama returns, PATRICK FREYNEasks how many of us will be watching
SADLY, TR DALLAS’S 1980 hit Who Shot JR Ewing? never makes it on to the best-Irish-records-of-all-time lists produced by this and other newspapers. Arguably, however, this country’n’Irish classic said more about Ireland in the 1980s than anything by Rory Gallagher or The Blades. To a grooveless beat and a lead-guitar line mimicking the Dallas theme tune, TR begged to know the identity of a fictional gunman on behalf of almost two million Irish television fans driven to distraction by a cliffhanger. In the verses, he lists things for which we care not a jot – the presidential race, inflation, “what Russia might be doing” – before declaring that “what everybody wants to know is who shot JR Ewing?” It was true. In 1980 the world really did want to know who shot him.
There was little else on telly, and broadband was very slow. (It was so slow it hadn’t been invented.) Dallas was, at that stage, already a byword for American excess and regularly referenced in think-of-the-children moral panics, but it was also watched by nearly everybody.
Launched on American screens in 1978 as a miniseries, it was the story of two star-crossed lovers, Bobby, played by Patrick Duffy, and Pam, played by Victoria Principal, the children of two warring cattle barons turned oilmen, Jock Ewing and Digger Barnes. Quickly the writers realised their focus should be not the Romeo-and-Juliet tale of Bobby and Pam but the Cain-and-Abel-style relationship between goody-two-shoes Bobby (main acting trick: a look of sad, hunky alarm) and his Machiavellian older brother, JR, played by Larry Hagman (main dramatic trick: a look of oily cunning and a malevolent way of swirling a whiskey glass). Together, over time, they became a delicious thespian sandwich of ham and cheese. (That said, in the first episode JR hasn’t even got his soon-to-be trademark cowboy hat, and Bobby seems to be wearing a furry helmet that, on closer inspection, turns out to be his hair.)
Around this duo circulated a cast of hysterical dipsomaniacal wives (such as JR’s forever-pouting Sue Ellen), salt-of-the-earth matriarchs (Ms Ellie) and a “poison dwarf” (the name Terry Wogan gave the Ewing brothers’ troublemaking niece, Lucy). Each series ended with key characters in comas, on fire or floating face down in swimming pools.
Sometimes the twists and turns were more subversive than intended. When a ranch-hand, Ray Krebbs, was revealed to be an illegitimate Ewing brother all along, the writers didn’t seem to realise this meant he’d spent the whole first series having an incestuous affair with his niece.