'Dallas'is dead

Steven Stark

May 02, 1991|By Steven Stark

AFTER 13 YEARS, an era in television ends Friday night: "Dallas" is closing its run. Still, the show will not be soon forgotten, for in its tenure, "Dallas" defined the culture and thus redefined us.

"Dallas" deserves a significant place in any history of television. It lasted longer than any other prime-time dramatic series except "Gunsmoke." The "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of 1980 is the second-highest-rated show in TV history.

The show also made good despite violating several shibboleths about what makes a successful television series. In a world of sitcoms, it remains one of the few dramatic series to win a season's ratings race. Though it is television gospel that all series must revolve around sympathetic characters with whom audiences can identify, "Dallas" made the villainous J.R. a focus.

"Dallas" also radically changed prime time by popularizing the serial format of soap opera daytime television. Where "Dallas" led, such shows as "Hill Street Blues," "thirtysomething" and "Twin Peaks" followed, with the result that prime-time television, freed from the one-hour plot, began to develop complex plotting and characterization for virtually the first time.

But "Dallas" also was adored because it reflected the nation that produced it. As Horace Newcomb once wrote, "Dallas" took the themes and setting of the traditional western and grafted them onto the fabric of contemporary America. The outsider vs. the community; the clash of modernity and tradition; the urge to plunder the land, yet leave it untouched for the next generation -- they are all present in "Dallas." In an era when traditional westerns have all but disappeared, this was TV's version of Suburban Cowboy.

It is faint praise to say "Dallas" mirrored its times. Anybody, after all, can write the news into a show.

What set "Dallas" apart was the way it not only reflected its times but also helped define them. Remember that "Dallas" premiered in 1978, when the values of the old era still seemed to be riding high. The series thus served as an embodiment of the Reagan era, before we even knew there would be a Reagan era. In its celebration of opulence, its glorification of the Sun Belt and its portrayal of a new American entrepreneurial class, "Dallas" helped shape a mood that changed America. No Democrat could lead a nation that saw itself in "Dallas."

After all, the popular shows of the previous era -- "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "All in the Family" or even "The Waltons" -- were shows that glorified locales closer to the Democratic Party mainstream. The mythic worlds of "Dallas," in contrast, were GOP territory -- the board room and suburban ranch -- and it is hardly happenstance that Jimmy Carter's successor would surround himself with the imagery and inhabitants of both places.

It is no coincidence either that the Republican convention that renominated Ronald Reagan for president in 1984 was held in Dallas, where delegates were treated to tours of Southfork. Nor is it a coincidence that George Bush reinvented himself in roughly the same profession and that part of the country from which the Ewings and the Barneses sprang.

Of course, the George Bush of today would no longer fit in on "Dallas." As the Jay Gatsby of American politics, our chief executive has remade himself again, this time as a Northeastern GOP moderate, the better to appear on a future episode of "Murder She Wrote" or "Wings." No doubt he has seen the numbers. With the show now in the bottom half of the ratings, the "Dallas" era, otherwise known as the Reagan era, can officially be pronounced dead.

So it goes. Like the western whose themes it incorporated, "Dallas" was ultimately an exercise in nostalgia. If a J.R.'s work is never done, it is because a cowboy never wins. Eventually civilization and all that it connotes does arrive. Tombstone becomes Tucson; someday Dallas will be another Detroit.

But just because it's a myth we're chasing doesn't mean it isn't worth pursuing, as we did for more than a dozen years through "Dallas." Americans have always been a people gripped more by the fervent dream when the night is young than what can follow on the morning after. We will miss this show more than we imagine. At least, we still have the reruns.

Steven Stark is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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