It’s a daffy soap opera on a Texas scale worthy of a daffy soap opera on a Texas scale. In 2006 HBO ordered a pilot of an hour-long comedy called 12 Miles of Bad Road, created by Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (Designing Women, Evening Shade), about the lives and loves of a family of filthy-rich Dallas real estate brokers. But in the fall of 2007, after six episodes had been shot, production abruptly ground to a halt. According to Bloodworth-Thomason, several HBO execs didn’t like what they’d seen and wanted to take the time afforded by the Writers Guild of America strike to rethink the concept. After the strike ended, the situation only turned uglier. In March, one of the show’s champions, HBO Entertainment president Carolyn Strauss, stepped down. Two days later, the network announced that it was scrapping the $25 million—plus series entirely.
But that wasn’t the end of the story: In a bid to drum up critical support, the producers sent copies of the episodes to a few dozen television reviewers, a strategy that ended up backfiring completely. “Egregiously overwrought, unnecessarily dumb, offensive in spots and obvious in others,” the San Francisco Chronicle said of the pilot. (Accentuating the positive, Variety noted, “There’s definitely worse stuff on TV.”) Bloodworth-Thomason is still confident that another cable outlet will buy the program. But the chances that the producers will be able to wash away the bad buzz, much less reunite the large ensemble cast and carry on, are looking increasingly remote.
Here’s the ironic twist: Critics be damned, 12 Miles of Bad Road is a blast, a hair-spray-spritzed, bourbon-soaked mash-up of Dallas, Desperate Housewives, and MTV’s Cribs. Yes, the comedy is broad and the dialogue is occasionally strident. And yes, embarrassing Dallas stereotypes abound, from the hypercompetitive housewives who give their maids bonuses in the form of free plastic surgery to the backslappy good ol’ boys determined to keep blacks and Jews out of the local country club. But 12 Miles has wit, imagination—and, above all, potential.
The pilot is admittedly a jumble, as it scrambles to introduce us to real estate doyenne Amelia Shakespeare (Lily Tomlin), her sister, C.Z. (Mary Kay Place), and their gay brother, Kenny (Leslie Jordan), along with Amelia’s three children—the adulterer Jerry (Gary Cole), the about-to-be-divorced Juliet (Katherine LaNasa), and the party girl Gaylor (Eliza Coupe)—and all of their children, including Caitlin (Cherilyn Wilson), who’s “engaged to Jesus” but spends afternoons in a lip-lock with her boyfriend, and the mentally disabled McKenna (Cameron Richardson), whom everyone unself-consciously refers to as retarded. With each successive episode, though, 12 Miles grows in confidence and canniness. On one level, it’s a spoof of prime-time soaps (the third episode features a “his-and-her” high colonic). On another, it aims to be just as taut, twisty, and sexy as Dallas, Dynasty, and Knots Landing were in the early eighties. Like Desperate Housewives—but much better—12 Miles is post-camp, a knowingly sincere (or sincerely knowing) attempt to resuscitate a genre that was long ago drowned out by our über-ironic culture.
That any of this works is a testament to the Thomasons’ cast, a group of actors who manage to hint at their characters’ humanity even while they’re busy making fools of themselves. As the easily flummoxed Jerry, the sublime Cole (Office Space, The West Wing) shuffles between a spendthrift wife (Kim Dickens) and a cancer-stricken mistress (Leigh Allyn Baker), all the while being investigated by the Secret Service for possible terrorist activities. It’s a tour de force of both smarm and charm. Even better are Jordan, who, as the half-proper, half-flaming Kenny, deftly incarnates the dilemma of an entire generation of older Southern gay men, and LaNasa, whose no-nonsense humility reminds us that billionairesses can have souls. These actors root 12 Miles in recognizable emotions and everyday conflicts, while Bloodworth-Thomason’s teleplays and Michael Engler’s direction make us feel as if all of this really is unfolding in Dallas. The show was mostly shot in Los Angeles, but there are thinly veiled references to the Mansion on Turtle Creek and the Preston Trail Golf Club; a detour to a seafood joint in Corpus Christi looks startlingly like many of the restaurants that populate the coast. Indeed, by the time The Dukes of Hazzard’s John Schneider shows up, playing a Joel Osteen—like preacher who helps repair Jerry’s fractured marriage, 12 Miles feels as if it’s on the verge of becoming the definitive statement on twenty-first-century upper-crust Texas life.
So why can’t HBO appreciate the work of cracked delirium it has on its hands? The network built its reputation on the tightly controlled narratives of writer-producers like David Chase (The Sopranos) and David Simon (The Wire); it’s also still smarting from the failure of last year’s high-profile creative experiment, the baffling mystical surfer drama John From Cincinnati. In other words, a careening screwball effort like this one never had much of a chance. (To be fair, HBO brass may have also gotten hung up on the show’s one shockingly glaring weakness: that it’s ostensible star, Tomlin, is given almost nothing to do.) But if the mark of a successful show is that it leaves you hankering for more, then 12 Miles—which serves up cliff-hangers both ridiculous (will McKenna outsmart her bitchy classmates and be named an “Idlewild debutante”?) and sublime (is Jerry the father of his mistress’s unborn child?)—is some kind of wacky triumph.
As for the real-world cliff-hanger—will the current version of 12 Miles ever be broadcast?—well, it wouldn’t be a soap opera if it didn’t have at least the possibility of a happy ending. For now, though, it qualifies as the most underrated show of the decade that almost no one has had the chance to see.
Soap Residue: The enduring power (grab) of Dallas.
With 12 Miles of Bad Road in limbo, you might want to instead consider revisiting that most iconic of all Texas television shows, Dallas, on DVD. The first season—five episodes that aired thirty years ago, in April 1978—is a surprisingly sturdy and entertaining power grab, with J. R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) and younger brother Bobby (Patrick Duffy) squaring off over Bobby’s new wife, Pam (Victoria Principal). (Charlene Tilton’s performance as young Lucy Ewing holds up too as perhaps the most bizarrely stilted acting ever to grace a prime-time show.) But in the context of the richly detailed 12 Miles, with its spot-on allusions to present-day Texas, Dallas now comes across as more than a little bit Hollywood. The writers’ grasp of geography is tenuous at best (in the pilot, J.R. mentions having spent a weekend “up in Waco”), and the weirdly designed Southfork Ranch, with the Ewings’ individual homes bunched together like college dorms, looks a lot less like a Texas megaranch than a Burbank backlot.