Soap opera's demise reflects shift in values


May 03, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

There are books' worth of things that can and will be said about "Dallas" today and in the years to come.

Simple facts about the show, which ends its 13-year run tonight on WBAL-TV (Channel 11) at 9 p.m., are staggering. For example, more than 80 million people watched the episode Nov. 21, 1980, to find out who shot J. R. Ewing. That's almost as many as turned out to vote for either Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter that same month.

Then there are the scenes that were so memorable or outrageous that millions of us can close our eyes right now and see them clear as day -- like Bobby Ewing's turning around in the shower and saying "good morning" to his widow, Pam.

But 50 years from now, what the show will be remembered for is how perfectly it represented the feelings and values of so many Americans during the 1980s.

The values included the desire to acquire material goods with designer labels, the ascent of private gain over public service, the celebration of private gain over public service, the celebration of family values, a reverence for big business and small government, and an admiration for the swaggering man sitting tall in the saddle of his horse and in the driver's seat of his Mercedes.

For better or worse, "Dallas" was us in the '80s. We elected Reagan our president twice and made J. R. the most popular figure in prime time. Southfork became the second best-known white house in the country.

The impact of Southfork alone is mind-boggling. A not especially attractive house outside Dallas was dubbed Southfork by a Hollywood scriptwriter and populated with actors portraying a make-believe family called the Ewings. Soon real people from around the world were making pilgrimages there.

As a real-life tourist attraction, Southfork managed to push out of people's minds another set of images of Dallas, of the School Book Depository building and the grassy knoll where a president was assassinated in 1963. This goofy show, seen once a week on CBS, actually helped change the image of a city from the place where a national tragedy occurred to a kind of Sun Belt Camelot.

Remember all the talk in the early '80s of the Sun Belt as the new America rising out of the ashes of the Rust Belt? The opening images from "Dallas" -- those glass high-rises glittering majestically in the sun -- came to be our image of the Sun Belt.

Southfork rose up off the flat, harsh plains just like all those glass buildings, symbols of a frontier being civilized by men like J. R. Ewing. In this case, it was the frontier tamed into a posh suburban mall with a Neiman-Marcus department store and lots of restaurants where the ladies of "Dallas" could shop and lunch and talk about J. R.

Does that sound sexist? It is. And this must be said about "Dallas" even as we celebrate it as one of the most culturally appropriate -- and, therefore, great -- TV shows of its time: "Dallas" was loaded with bad messages. For a man, success could be measured in part by the beauty of his mistress. And a woman's worth came from her ability to please a man and consume material goods. Any sign of a social conscience -- as represented by Cliff Barnes in the early years -- was mocked. Treachery and adultery were celebrated; J. R. appeared in 106 love scenes over 13 years, most of them with women other than his wife.

We're still too close to it to understand how a TV show like "Dallas" came to so reflect and shape our lives. The series started out in 1978 as a campy, tongue-in-cheek version of the movie "Giant" -- a soap-opera poking fun at J. R and some of his fellow Texans.

But the public connected with it in a very different way. Within a couple of years, we were obsessing over who shot J. R. and celebrating a president who spent his vacations riding horses and mending fences on his California ranch.

Tonight we say good-bye to "Dallas." The producers, the network and the stars say it's simply time to end it. What that means is the ratings are lousy, nobody wants to watch any more. Maybe nobody wants to remember the way we were.

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