Can it be? Dallas, our Dallas, is ten years old this month. That makes it the longest-running prime-time entertainment series currently on television. For a while we were so engrossed we didn’t dare imagine that it could end. In the 1980-81 and 1981-82 seasons Dallas was the top-rated series in the country. It finished second the following season, then regained the number one position in 1983-84 and was second in 1984-85. The “Who Shot J.R.?” episode, broadcast on November 21, 1980, became the highest-rated TV episode of all time. In the history of series television, only the final episode of M*A*S*H, in 1983, has drawn more viewers.
Three hundred million people in ninety coutries couldn’t get enough of Dallas, and eventually no fewer than half a dozen new programs imitated it. A syndicated comic strip was based on it. Mad magazine parodied it. Dallas’ most popular character, the forever-scheming J.R. Ewing, inspired a beer, called J.R.’s Private Stock, and a brand of blue jeans, which featured gold-bullion thread. Inevitably, there were J.R. buttons, T-shirts, and presidential bumper stickers, not to mention a record by an English rock group that featured “I Love J.R.” on one side and “I Hate J.R.” on the other. Dallas, the series if not the city, became the center of a whole new universe.
But Dallas has begun to show signs of TV age. Though it remains the most popular of the nighttime serials, it no longer finishes among the top ten shows in the overall weekly ratings derby. Many weeks this season, in fact, Dallas has finished behind the top twenty. Reports of Texas’ high office-vacancy rate, its troubled banks, and its tycoons going down the tubes have taken the place of Dallas-as-Dallas stories in the national press. Who remembers who shot J.R. or Cliff Barnes’s political campaigns or those Dallas versus Dynasty and J.R. versus Alexis stories? Cosby and kids, not the Ewings, are the reigning family of prime time, and Moonlighting’s monkeyshines have surpassed the shenanigans at Southfork Ranch.
Dallas will in all likelihood be back for another round next fall, but in a dramatically different form. For the eleventh season, the show’s producers are considering the television equivalent of Chapter 11—they are reorganizing the show. Gone will be the serial format. Gone too will be a number of the show’s actors. Victoria Principal, who portrayed Pam Ewing, left last year; Priscilla Presley, who portrays Jenna Wade, won’t be back next season. “After ten years and two hundred eighty shows, we have done most of what we can do in this vein,” Leonard Katzman, Dallas’ executive producer, says from his office in Southern California. Restructuring the show, he explains, “gives us the opportunity to work with a smaller cast, as we had in the beginning, and to create shows for guest stars, which we think we would like to do now.” By concentrating on fewer characters, Dallas will be downsizing, going back to basics, trying to live within its means. Does that sound familiar, a case of Dallas art imitating Dallas life? Well, it happens.
Think of Charlie’s Angels, which ran for five years, Hill Street Blues for six, Laugh-In for five and a half. Tastes and interests change. Although a show about money—how to get it, how to wallow in it—seemed so right for the go-for-it early eighties, the national mood has changed. These are the Now What? years, and J.R. just doesn’t seem the sort (we wouldn’t want him to be the sort) to contemplate the meaning of it all.
But before envisioning a television landscape with Dallas as we’ve come to know it, we should use this tenth anniversary as a time to consider what the show has meant to television and, not to put too grandiose a spin on it, to us. Because after a decade of J.R.’s dastardly behavior and brother Bobby’s bottomless decency and competitor Cliff’s chronic conniptions, it is sometimes difficult to remember that Dallas has been in many ways a television trendsetter, a prime-time pioneer.
HORSEMAN, PASS BY
For one thing, Dallas was the first series about postwar Texas. The original television Texas was all tumbleweeds and trail drives, Rawhide style. The opening sequence of Dallas zooms past all that. Pump jacks and cattle give way to the crowded expressways and gleaming office towers of modern, urbanized Texas. Dallas had become a city of the future, the capital of the Sunbelt—clean, bright, moneyed, crazy for commerce and competition. This was the Dallas of lavish charity balls and entrepreneurs with national ambitions. This also was the Dallas of the Super Bowl champion Cowboys, known then as “America’s team,” the football franchise that Pete Gent’s popular novel North Dallas Forty told us was run with the efficiency of a computer. It was also the home of the well-coiffed, well-calibrated, and well-choreographed Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. These cheerleaders were the subject of a popular ABC television movie in 1979 called, in television’s great creative tradition, The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. They also inspired (if that’s the word) a popular X-rated film of the era, the still somewhat infamous Debbie Does Dallas.
“Texas has always had kind of a mythic quality about it,” said producer Katzman. “Dallas was the place that everybody knew. It just seemed like that was a grabber by itself initially, just the name.”
David Jacobs, who created Dallas without ever having set foot in the state (he now works on Knots Landing), says that Texas is “just one of those trigger words that, to me, suggests big scale, big spaces.”
“I mean it really is accidental,” says Jacobs. “I wanted it to be a big city, I wanted it to be cattle-related, old money. I thought of Dallas as being a real Western town. I thought of Houston as being like Atlanta. Although I knew Dallas was a modern city, I liked the idea it still connoted—it had those connotations of the Old West. Would