The '80s super-soap Dallas is one of the key references for 21st century telly. Today’s Revenge is made in direct homage to Dallas, drama Brothers and Sisters was ‘Post 9/11 Dallas’ and Shameless is Dallas on a Manchester estate. Alan Sugar is Dallas patriarch JR Ewing by way of Paddington Bear. Nurse Jackie inherited fragile Dallas matriarch Sue-Ellen’s addiction issues. The Kardashians is reality Dallas – because it was the first mega-hit show to pinpoint the new discrepancies tearing families apart and keeping them together. It was utterly amazing. And it’s been remade.
Already a hit in America, the new Dallas is coming to the UK this very week. The 80s Ewings were a family of sparring oil barons in the US Deep South. In 2012 they are warring cousins John Ross Junior, son of JR, and Christopher, son of Bobby. One is interested in sustainable resources, the other exploiting crude oil in the back yard. They have more than ethics to scrap over; there’s a foxy Latino girlfriend in common, too.
The old Dallas invented a glamorous new shape for soap opera. As a pre-teenager I loved it. Though no-one at my school had ever been to America – we hadn’t even been on an aeroplane – lots had divorced parents and felt marginalised for it. Dallas said ‘that’s OK, divorce is ten a penny.’
New Dallas’s job is not to be modern any more, but to fuel nostalgia. Thus the returning characters: JR as catatonic depressive, on meds; Bobby with colon cancer; Sue Ellen looking like the missing gene between Liza Minnelli and Joan Rivers. In a casting masterstroke, Desperate Housewives hot gardener Jesse Metcalfe plays Christopher, the good cousin. It’s all highly, compulsively, tragically, melodramatically watchable.
No-one is expecting New Dallas to define the times as it once did. That’s not even TV’s job anymore. It is Google’s or Apple’s. But for those of us who grew up learning about life through Dallas, you can’t help but put rose-tinted specs on for its ridiculous return. It made me cry for my youth. I suspect this was the point.
The cheat’s guide to the most famous Dallas moments
1: ‘Who shot JR?’
Though the attempted murder of JR hovered over the show from March-November 1981, in many ways this was the phrase that defined a decade. Merchandising opportunities went into hyperdrive. It was his mistress Kristen whodidit, not that anyone remembers. Her legacy lives on in all soap whodunits.
2. Sue-Ellen: the original Desperate Housewife
Linda Gray, who played JR’s long-suffering wife Sue-Ellen, described her character as ‘one of the most interesting women on TV in the 80s.’ The impeccably groomed red-head’s most enduring relationship was not with her husband, it was with the bottle. Every time she shakily reached for a scotch, she became a quiet metaphor how horrible marriages can turn into incarcerations.
3. The Resurrection of Bobby Ewing
Bobby provided Dallas its moral centre. Killing him off in 1986 lost the show considerable ratings, so it brought him back two seasons later, in the shower, for a series of dream sequences. Even now, TV drama producers quizzically rub their brows, asking did Dallas really bring a character back from the dead?
Dallas: The Complete DVD Collection is released 3rd September. Dallas launches on Channel 5 tonight at 9pm.
by Paul Flynn