I love Dallas. It goes right for the throat. There's no screwing around, no hesitation, no pandering to unseen forces of political correctness. It's about family, power, money, and sex. It wants to tell us an epic story, and it wants to keep us entertained while doing so. I don't know where Dallas is on the pop culture map now (I suspect most people under thirty don't know much about it), but when I was in middle and high school, it was the TV show to watch, and everybody knew the players: J. R., Bobby, Sue Ellen, Pamela, Jock, Miss Ellie, Cliff Barnes, Lucy, Ray, and on and on. While cable was just beginning to make an impact, the Big Three networks were still the primary places for water-cooler shows that captured the American viewing public's imagination. And Dallas stirred up a real ruckus with viewers. I remember quite a few religious groups protesting the show, as well as educators who felt the moral tone of the show was detrimental to the county. Of course, Dallas wasn't saying anything about America that America didn't know about itself already (and frankly, compared to today's TV fare, Dallas is positively quaint in its depiction of sex). Dallas is as American as cowboys and apple pie. We're a nation of business and sports and theatrics, and we've always loved winners and hated losers; we love that constant battle to strive for something else, to succeed at all costs. And we love stories that illustrate that personal struggle to rise above, as well as the larger panoramic of the combat of classes -- particularly if that fantasy gives us a cleaned up, prettier, more expensive view of "reality," all in a neat one-hour package.
Much has been said and written about the "money-obsessed" 1980s -- most of it biased by whatever political persuasion the writer happens to possess. Contrary to popular belief, we all weren't either standing in a bread line, or driving a Rolls Royce. But shows like Dallas and Dynasty were attacked for supposedly giving the world precisely that false impression. I suspect that accusation has more to do with a media that not only looked down its nose at a mere trashy "soap opera" capturing the number one spot on television, but also a media at odds politically with what they thought the show represented (I don't believe the world is naive enough to think we all live like J. R. Ewing, anymore than I think England is populated only with the likes of John Steed, Miss Emma Peel, and Miss Jane Marple, with Herman's Hermits tripping down the lane behind them). The superficial reading of the show, then and now, was that of a pumped up parody of the Reagan era, complete with "redneck" thievin' oil barons in Stetson hats and pneumatic hussies a-heavin' and a-pantin' after their men and their money, in that order. However, if the critics had looked closely, they would have seen a show that, thematically, was as old as the hills; an epic American saga worthy of Dickens (that's right, as you recover your shocked breath -- that Dickens) adapted to the established forms of the night-time TV soap opera.
Okay, Dallas is not in the same literary league as Dickens (I just wanted your attention). But it's not that kooky of a notion. After all, many critics of his day dismissed Dickens as a mere purveyor of pulp. But aside from the time capsule he provided of his time, he told long, gripping stories that absolutely captured the imagination of his readers -- average, uneducated citizens, who eagerly awaited his serialized work in penny newspapers and cheap magazines. And Dallas did the same thing. It's astonishing to see the variety of big themes that are attempted just in this fifth season alone: drug abuse, adoption rights, greed, corruption, murder, the rich versus the poor, the gentry versus the plebes, marriage versus career. And perhaps most importantly, the aerobics phenomenon. And these themes were attacked with breathtaking speed and aplomb, crammed into an amazing 49 minutes every week. The storylines move. Multiple story arcs are expertly juggled within episodes, never letting up the pace for a minute, and after watching the whole season, it's amazing how full you feel -- like you've just eaten an eight-course dinner.
And that's how you have to watch Dallas: Season Five. All at once, like a hog jumping belly first in a mud hole. I split it right down the middle: 13 hours one day; 13 hours the next, for the full 26 episodes. I was a little worried I'd be lost because I hadn't seen the show since it first aired (it probably doesn't help that hour long dramatic shows aren't as widely syndicated, the feeling being that the occasional viewer won't come in on an established storyline), and I hadn't seen the first four seasons on DVD. I shouldn't have worried; all the characters came vividly back to me, and I was surprised at how much backstory from the first four seasons I remembered. Don't let it throw you if you're new to Dallas, or if you don't have the first four seasons on DVD; as an experiment, I enlisted some help from various friends who had no knowledge of the show, to watch it along with me. To my surprise, they were quickly hooked, and had no difficulty getting into the dramatics (Victoria Principal in a shiny black one piece bathing suit didn't hurt getting their attention, either).
What really makes the stories work is the apparent care and craftsmanship that went into producing the series. Far more realistic than Dynasty ever was, Dallas is first and foremost a family drama. Yes, it's melodramatic and faintly ridiculous, but so what? When did melodramatic become a dirty word (D. W. Griffith was melodramatic; I don't hear anybody knocking him for that)? And yes, it's a soap, where coincidences abound. But there are benefits to telling a story in such a long form. Characters, if written carefully and acted competently, take on a depth that you can't achieve in a two hour movie. Larry Hagman's creation of J. R. Ewing is a masterstroke of audience identification (you know you want to be as bad as he is, don't you?). Not since Simon Legree has a fictional character so captivated the American audience (by evidence, the previous season's resolution of 1980's "Who Shot J. R.?" episode, captured an 80 percent share of that night's television audience). We've always loved villains, and there's never been a more unscrupulous one, a meaner one, than that vermin J. R. Ewing. But of course, if he had been written or performed that one-dimensionally, he would never have struck a chord with the viewing public. And that's, ultimately, the brilliance of Dallas. Sure, there's vicarious thrills galore, aimed at our baser instincts; as J. R.'s mistress/co-conspirator Marilee Stone neatly, and hilariously, sums it up: "Crooked deals turn me on like crazy." But there has to be a heart in Dallas, as well. And that's the saga of a family, struggling together to find some kind of cohesion in a shallow society that continually tempts them, pulls at their loyalty, and demands them to part. The Ewings -- despite their human frailties -- eventually come back, again and again, to same conclusion, to what is important: family. Like Miss Ellie (touchingly played by Barbara Bel Geddes) says: "We may be wrong; we may be right. But we're Ewings. We stick together. And that's what makes us unbeatable!" At a time when Americans continually worried about the vanishing American family (even back in 1981), is it surprising that this epic family saga appealed to so many people?
It's not a major spoiler (since it's printed in bold, right at the top of the back of the DVD case) that Jock Ewing, the patriarch of the Ewing family, is no longer on the show (Jim Davis had died prior to the start of this season's filming). His absence adds a poignancy to the writing, particularly in the second half of the season, where the various characters deal with their loss. But there's a whole lot more going on in Dallas in Season Five, with major plot developments in weasel, perennial loser Cliff Barnes' dealings with J. R., slightly dim Pam and stalwart Bobby's continued struggle to have a child, and victim with a capital "V" Sue Ellen's emerging independence away from J. R.
Here are the 26, one hour episodes of the five-disc box set, Dallas: Season Five, as described on their slimcases:
J. R. and Cliff recognize the corpse in the Ewing pool, then promptly accuse each other of murder.
Gone, But Not Forgotten
Watch out, Sue Ellen! She wants out of her marriage to J. R., but he wants their son -- at any cost.
Showdown at San Angelo
A good ol' boy's best friend is his mother. J. R. uses Miss Ellie as a pawn to steal John Ross away from Sue Ellen.
Little Boy Lost
The dirt on Dusty. The custody battle over John Ross leads to a startling courtroom disclosure about Dusty.
The Sweet Smell of Revenge
As J. R. schemes against Sue Ellen, Bobby desperately tries to save Pam from a suicide leap.
The Big Shut Down
J. R. isn't worried about taking on a Texas-sized loan. He can pay it back -- if the price of oil goes up.
Oil prices head south...fast. When Jock returns from Latin America, Ewing Oil may be pumping nothing but red ink.
Never underestimate the power of a woman. Jock's division of Ewing Oil shares put Miss Ellie in command.
Five Dollars a Barrel
J. R. is as wound up as a Texas twister when Cliff buys his $200-million loan -- and plans to foreclose.
Hello, goodbye. Bobby brings Kristen's infant son to Southfork, and Sue Ellen bids farewell to Dusty.
Waterloo at Southfork
Miss Ellie knows J. R. is lower than a snake's belly. So why is she backing him for president of Ewing Oil?
Everyone who's anyone in Dallas is at Jock's welcome home barbecue. Then stunning news arrives.
Three brothers, on goal. J. R., Bobby and Ray fly to South America to join the search for Jock.
Where does hope and delusion begin? Miss Ellie refuses to admit that Jock is gone forever.
Head of the Family
Without Jock, J. R. falls into a funk of booze and self-pity. And Bobby deceives Pam about Christopher's parentage.
J. R. is back to his old self, bad news for anyone who thinks business and honest belong in the same sentence.
My Father, My Son
Honey, let's forget the last several years happened. J. R. decides he wants Sue Ellen back in his life.
Cliff has a fabulous new job offer. Is it a great opportunity -- or another devious plot compliments of J. R.?
Pam and Bobby get baby Christopher, J. R. gets Ray's voting shares and Bonnie gets a punch in the nose.
Coming together: Ray and Donna reconcile. Falling apart: Mitch and Lucy teeter on the brink of divorce.
Blackmail, revenge, suicide, obsession, threats, old sins and new scams: just another day in Big D.
J. R. (who else?) figures a way to use Christopher's tragic background as his ticket to control Ewing Oil.
Crime time in Dallas: Roger holds Lucy captive. And someone pumps hot lead into Jeff Farraday.
Bobby Ewing, hero. He cracks the Farraday case and, with Pam's help, rescues Lucy.
Miss Ellie finally accepts Jock's death. Cliff is anything but accepting when he finds himself fired, broke and alone.
Goodbye, Cliff Barnes
A season-ending Cliff-hanger: Cliff Barnes lies in a hospital bed, hovering between life and death.
Sad to say, Warner Bros. doesn't seem to care too much about the cash cow that was Dallas; the picture quality, is at best, adequate. It appears that these transfers are from previous video transfers -- no attempt was made to go back to the original film elements. Dirt, specks, and even frame fluttering appear -- as does occasional fuzzy focus, and hot spots in the transfer. Granted, these shows were shot fast (once or twice I briefly spotted the tops of the sets, completed with rigged lighting), but Dallas had a reputation for being one of the best looking shows on the TV at that time. That is not apparent here, due to the poor transfers.
The English Dolby Mono delivers the soundtrack sharply -- much better than that single, tiny little TV speaker most of were listening to back in 1981!
The only extra is a new 10 minute documentary/commercial for the current owners of the real Southfork Ranch, in Plano, Texas. While it's cool to see how the place looks today (yes, the swimming pool is tiny, and development is encroaching), the documentary really just amounts to a plug for anyone looking to rent the place out for a convention or wedding. Not much pertinent information is gleaned from this short little piece.
It's great to go back to Dallas, for one of the best seasons, where multiple storylines pack a wallop hour after hour for 26 episodes. Yes, it's faintly ridiculous at times (Lucy, pursuing a modeling career (!), is held prisoner by her psycho photographer), and it's manipulative as all get out. But there's a solid dramatic core to Dallas, a realism that belies its soap origins, that tells a compelling story of an American family -- of course, with tons of sex and backstabbing for window dressing. If you're a fan already, buy it. If you're new to Dallas, rent it, and you'll want more.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.