Tractors and treachery: 'Dallas' was just like home

Last Updated: Saturday, September 1, 2012, 01:00

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.

Dallas was so successful that a raft of programmes about the super-rich – Dynasty, Falcon Crest and the Dallas spin-off Knots Landing – soon dominated US prime time. Some theorists saw this as the cultural wing of Reaganomics. Well before Gordon Gekko declared that greed is good, in Wall Street, JR was demonstrating the fact on Dallas. In an essay called The Season of the Reagan Rich, Michael Pollen wrote that shows such as Dallas and Dynasty implied “the American dream of self-made success is alive and might be made well by releasing the frontier instincts of the wealthy from the twin shackles of taxes and regulation”.

AND THE PROGRAMME had a weird resonance in Ireland. The plots were grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented, so there was plenty we could relate to. In JR Ewing we could see echoes of our own anti-hero, CJ Haughey. We could also relate to the farming background of the Ewings. The funky intro music played over footage of tractors and cattle. (Around the nation, farmers calculated potential headage payments.) The show featured adult children who still lived at home and then only moved out to build houses on family land next door.

It gave us ideas. The theme of farmers turning their cattle wealth into speculative business profits was clearly a compelling notion for some (just replace “oil” with “property”). As we watched ethics-challenged Texans living in huge neoclassical hutches, flying around their estates on helicopters and double-crossing one another, future business moguls were taking detailed notes (“Build horrendous McMansion . . . Buy helicopter I don’t need . . . Marry Sue Ellen . . . Invest heavily in Anglo-Irish Bank”).

By the time the programme reached its ratings high point, during the programme’s third season, in 1980, 1.8 million Irish people were ready to tune in to see who shot JR. His – spoiler alert – nonfatal shooting came at the end of an episode in which he could be seen systematically angering everybody until they all vowed revenge.

“Tell me, JR, which slut are you going to stay with tonight?” Sue Ellen asked him. “Who cares who it is?” said JR. “She’s got to be more interesting than the slut I’m looking at right now.” Cut to Sue Ellen pouting aggressively at a gun in her handbag. “I swear I’ll kill him,” whined Sue Ellen’s less-hugely-lipped sister, Kristin, whom JR was blackmailing. “Take a number: there are a few of us before you,” said Alan Beam, a boring lawyer whom JR was blackmailing. “There’s nothing I can do . . . except stop JR for good,” wooden Cliff Barnes, bankrupted by JR’s shenanigans, declared to his father’s grave. (It’s rare to see a man acted off the screen by stone.)

Anyway, there were plenty of suspects for the bookies to choose from. TR Dallas listed them all in his song. Hagman spent the time lucratively renegotiating his contract. Nine months later, 300 million people around the world tuned in to find out that the shooter had been Kristen. It was the second-most-watched television episode of all time in the US. (M*A*S*H’s finale was and remains the most watched.)

DALLAS NEVER SAW such ratings again, but it kept going for another decade. By this stage it was drowning in byzantine plot twists. The show’s lowest point, dramatically speaking, was Bobby Ewing’s resurrection, in 1986.

He had been killed off in a car crash the year before; this series ended with Pam finding him alive in the shower. Between seasons, TV Guide magazine collected a panel of bestselling writers, including Judith Krantz and Stephen King, to guess how the scriptwriters were going to get out of this one. The explanation? Season nine had been a dream. All of it. This annoyed viewers, confirmed the worst prejudices of critics and turned impressionable Generation Xers into reality-doubting existentialists.

Dallas stumbled on until it ended with the apparent suicide of JR, in 1991. But now it’s back. There had been a few previous attempts to jumpstart the franchise (forgettable TV movies), but it took the re-emergence of straight-shooting, prime-time melodramas such as Revenge to convince television makers that contemporary viewers had an appetite for the type of heightened silliness at which Dallas excelled. (Incidentally, the hotel in Revenge is called the South Fork Inn.)

The new Dallas is a sort of Dallas: The Next Generation. There’s a new duo of feuding relatives. Christopher, adopted son of Bobby, makes money in alternative energy. John Ross, son of JR, would prefer to frack-mine Southfork and punch baby seals in the face. In the first episode John Ross can be seen literally dripping with oil. (To be fair, he’s just struck oil.)

A few old favourites also return. JR, now in possession of two eyebrows the size of eagle wings, wakes from a depressive coma, Sue Ellen convinces her pout to come out of retirement for one more mission, and Bobby is secretly dying of cancer – although I’m not falling for that again. (They presumably still have showers at Southfork.)

The new series has gone down quite well in the US – seven million viewers tuned in for the first episode – but now it’s just one of many melodramatic potboilers. In Ireland, we’re more impressionable. The launch here on TV3 on Monday night may yet inspire a new generation of chancers to frack-mine the Hill of Tara. TR Dallas should write a song about it.

Dallas is on TV3 on Monday at 10pm