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Catch-12: Dallas

Shantella Y. Sherman | , WI Staff Writer | 6/14/2012, 3:05 p.m.


"Blood may be thicker than water, but oil is thicker than both," J.R. Ewing

Few people in the free world, from 1978 to 1991 were unfamiliar with the American television series Dallas, the Ewing family it depicted, or its resident bad boy, the diabolical and power-wielding J.R. Ewing. The show's popularity certainly waned, but has remained a cult staple, generating several made-for-television films and specials. That same popularity recently led the TNT network to revive the series with a handful of its original cast members, and a bevy of new, young actors portraying their offspring. Now that the die is cast, one wonders, 'Is there another zenith for Dallas?'

Originally airing in the midst of the 1979 oil crisis, which curtailed or suspended exports of oil from Iran to America, the television show Dallas was both a reassertion of American masculinity, and the return of a kind of high-drama prime-time serial, abandoned with ABC's Peyton Place (1964-1969).

The backstory to Dallas is simple enough: Impulsive boy from wealthy family [The Ewings] runs off and marries poor, but gorgeous daughter of his father's arch-enemy [The Barnes]. Wealthy boy then moves his new wife into the family domicile shared with his parents, a conniving older brother and his neglected wife, and a misguided niece abandoned by another brother. Sibling rivalry, jealousy between the wives, and the heightened feud between the families kept American viewers glued to their televisions on Friday nights for more than a decade.

What made the family and the series work for 14 years was exceptional writing and an amazing amount of sexual arrogance, coupled with overarching themes of family, earned money, and good old-fashioned [or perhaps refashioned] Americanism. The patriarch, for instance, was a former "wildcatter" who physically dug holes in dirt to find the oil that was running beneath it. With the aid of his former friend-turned enemy Willard "Digger" Barnes, John Ewing was able to strike oil enough times to become an oil baron. John Ewing is gruff, full of brawn and referred to most often by his nickname "Jock." This is more than a masculine overture; it symbolizes American manhood as both ruler and rebel.

The men fought for the honor of the women around them, smoked, drank, and came to fisticuffs often. And over the course of the show, the women of Dallas grew from stereotypically neglected wives and Jezebels, to business owners, college students, and major power brokers as well. The characters were believable because the actors and the writing never failed them. Storylines ran the full gamut from drug addiction and alcoholism to breast cancer and mental illness.

Writers made no attempt to usher in a long-lost, ne'er to be claimed black [or Mexican] relative for the Ewings, the way The Carrington's of Dynasty incorporated actress Diahann Carroll into the cast as Blake's half-sister. Instead, the class and caste of the Barnes family in many regards is as symbolic of race as race itself.

Fans of the original show will look for remnants of the Ewing barbecues, rodeos, and Oil Barons' Balls. They will no doubt also compare whatever TNT presents to the famous season when the world tried to figure out Who Shot J.R.? They will also look to see if the rugged masculinity of Patrick Duffy, Larry Hagman, Steve Kanaly, and even Jim Davis can be redefined by Jesse Metcalfe [who plays Bobby and Pam Ewing's son, Christopher] and Josh Henderson [J.R. and Sue Ellen Ewing's son John Ross III]. They look a bit puny and "made up" at present, but looks can be deceiving.

TNT will launch the Dallas two-hour series premiere, Wednesday, June 13 at 9/8 CDT. In the meantime, for those unfamiliar with the original series, take advantage of video streaming and On Demand to become familiar with the major players.