A Shlocky Dallas Returns


A version of this story ran in the June 2012 issue.

Whenever Hollywood producers decide to remake a television show from the 1970s or ’80s—Starsky & Hutch or 21 Jump Street, to name two of dozens—they tend to shoot it as a movie rather than a new TV series. It’s hard to say why; Hollywood has a logic all its own. Maybe it’s because they feel like TV shows from that period are too intellectually barren to keep today’s more sophisticated audiences entertained for two hours. Or maybe the cost-benefit ratio is better with a movie you can churn out in a few months, make a few bucks off of, and get onto DVD before viewers really have a chance to ask what they’re watching. Or maybe it’s just because television is too full of brand-new campy shows to find room for shlock from the past.

Unless, of course, that shlock is the biggest and best shlock of all—the king of shlock, the giant of shlock, the Texas of shlock.

Dallas, the evening soap opera about the devious and absurdly wealthy Ewing clan of Southfork Ranch, was arguably the most successful shlocky show in the history of television. By dramatizing only the most lowdown parts of the human soul, the show managed to stick around for 14 seasons of backstabbing brothers, cheating husbands, drunken wives, murderous lovers, campy cliffhangers and ratings-baiting gimmicks, imprinting its special brand of decadent absurdity on a vulnerable culture. What red-blooded American over the age of 35 didn’t wonder who shot JR or reel in confusion after realizing an entire season of the show had been dreamt by one of the main characters? Dallas succeeded precisely because it felt no shame about playing to its audience’s basest instincts. Perhaps no TV show before or since has been so shamelessly cynical. No wonder it did so well in the 80s.

This month, TNT is dusting off the Dallas franchise and updating it for a new generation. Whether the 21st century is as kind to the Ewing family as the 20th remains to be seen, but it’s clear from the show’s marketing campaign that the new version’s producers are going to tap into the same themes the original’s found so lucrative. Why mess with a winning formula?

Dallas Take 2 follows the intrafamily squabbling of the next generation of Ewings—master conniver JR’s son John Ross and good-hearted Bobby’s son Christopher, both spoiled and cranky thirtysomethings with great hair and gym-sculpted bodies who have inherited all their parents’ lust for oil and filial destruction.

Dallas may have been nonsense, but in its way, it’s also the closest American television ever got to court intrigue. With its focus on three hateful sons of an aging king (oil baron “Jock” Ewing), each one devouring the others in the quest for money and power, Dallas was like The Lion in Winter … if The Lion in Winter weren’t one of the best movies ever made but a throwaway piece of pop melodrama from the money-hungry Reagan era. Dallas II, in other words, has some big, expensive shoes to fill.

Then again, looking around at 2012, maybe Dallas wasn’t cynical nonsense at all. Maybe it was a prescient blueprint for how people would act on television once producers and showrunners started tossing scripts and “reality” took over. Who doesn’t recognize JR on Survivor or The Bachelor, plotting the demise of his enemies and his friends in equal measure? The scripted cannibalism of Dallas, which seemed so deliciously outsized, even absurd, back in 1978, seems tame when compared to what “real” people are doing to their friends, family members and other unfortunate victims on The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Celebrity Apprentice, or Teen Mom.

The implications are almost too awful to contemplate: Take away the millions of dollars and the enormous cattle ranches and the expansive oil fields, and maybe the Ewings are us, the deep-down us we don’t like to talk, or even think, about—lying, conniving, conspiring, cruel, suspicious, loathsome, devious and driven by whatever lusts arise at any particular moment.

If that’s true, and reality TV has finally outpaced scripted TV in the race to the bottom, then does the remake of a show like Dallas have a chance? Yes, but only if it remembers the lessons of its predecessor. The original show’s creators understood that nothing as campy and ridiculous as Dallas would ever survive sobriety or depth, and the minds behind Dallas the redux would be wise to do the same. When all bets are off and morality has been tossed out the window, the only sin you can commit is taking yourself seriously.