To detox from the news, I binge-watched ‘Dallas.’ It was more than just fun.
Every day I looked forward to watching the bad acting, the fancy twists and turns, and the dry demeanor. But it turned out that I wasn’t laughing, I was thrilled. I thought I would watch until January 6th, the day that Congress would certify Joe Biden’s presidency, and I could relax a bit, but how wrong I was! I’ve seen 250+ episodes now. That leaves 107 more, enough to get me well past the inauguration if necessary.
What fascinated me most about “Dallas” was the number of relevant topics presented in the episode – alcoholism, breast cancer, abortion, equality for women, beleaguered masculinity, the difficulties of closed-off gay men, the value of psychotherapy. When I saw this, I wondered if the show’s writers thought we would be discussing these topics decades later. Some aspects of “Dallas” reflected our current situation in such a way that I was surprised. In episode 21 of the series’ seventh season, oil man JR Ewing (Larry Hagman) explains his principles as follows: “If you give up integrity, the rest is a breeze,” an explanation that could easily fit into one of Trump’s tweets.
This unexpected seriousness didn’t dampen my appreciation for the surface pleasures that the show still offered. I hadn’t realized how much it took to watch Sue Ellen Ewing tear off her earring when she answered the phone. What delicacy, what multitasking, what certainty! I was very entertained by the women’s hairstyles and how often they changed, sometimes within the same episode. Long hair, perm hair (major flaw), frizzled hair (major flaw), and, strangely, an elaborate upswing that Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) and Pam Ewing (Victoria Principal) sometimes wore that resembled a spray-tanned croissant. Only Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes), matriarch and earth goddess of Southfork, the Ewing ranch, sported a simple bob that provided visual relief.
Because the cast of “Dallas” was so large over such a long period (1978-1991), there were many male and female bodies that caught my attention. I’m sure some original viewers tuned in just to see the abundance of bikinis, plunging necklines, and tight pants that appeared on almost every episode. Fortunately, the camera was largely gender neutral. Bobby (Patrick Duffy) was often bare-chested, and Ray Krebbs (Steve Kanaly) unbuttoned his plaid flannel shirt forever, in keeping with his sweaty position as foreman on the ranch. When Bobby scrambled out of the family pool after his morning laps, his beauty was only matched by Sue Ellen, who did the same, but in her neon-emerald one-piece.
I loved watching Sue Ellen even when she wore jackets as broad-shouldered as a full-back and using too much Joan Jett eyeliner. It hadn’t been easy for Gray to play JR’s lonely, tormented, and alcoholic wife, especially when the camera was focused on her beautiful face. It was uncomfortable to see her eyes expand, her mouth twisting and trembling in pain, but after watching her for weeks, sometimes three times a day, I couldn’t dismiss her as a materialistic airhead. I was impressed with Gray’s ability to stay in character no matter how often her situation brutalized her face. Although I sometimes wish Sue Ellen turned into Clytemnestra and shot JR (others on the show certainly), I’m glad she didn’t. Unlike today, angry female characters weren’t fully armed back then. Sue Ellens was a truthful portrayal of female frailty that evoked pity; Many viewers undoubtedly identified with their problems.
And the same goes for the loser Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval), the enemy of the Ewing family, a character I initially hated. His incessant desire to get revenge on the Ewings grew boring despite being the show’s plot. Now that I’ve seen the reruns, I believe Kercheval is the best male actor on the show. His cliff displays a wider range of emotions when compared to the Ewing brothers, and like actor Jack Lemmon, Kercheval can play both dumb and intense, a combination that makes him difficult to ignore.
I’ve been through a ridiculous number of kidnappings, plane crashes, and assassinations with various Ewings. The glare of the lip gloss almost caused a migraine. My eyes rolled when the woman JR stooped to kiss rolled hers. I now believe that the sound of making money in the oil business is the sound of bourbon sluicing over ice cubes. I got tired of the annual Ewing barbecues and fistfights in the swimming pool. I firmly believe that JR killed Kristin and that Teresa and Raoul, the Mexican servants of the Ewing, deserve a raise and a lot more dialogue.
I survived “Dallas” very happily. Watching it helped me survive the last few months, maybe the last few years, when real events often surpassed fiction. I’m ready for less drama and hope to get back to Middlemarch. But maybe not. Part of me can’t wait to play the next season of “Succession” – all that money, those nifty interiors, the hate-hate-hate dynamic of an American family. Another Eliot – TS – once wrote, “Human kind / Can’t take much reality.” I used to think he was right about that, but now – well, I’ll have to wait and see.
Sibbie O’Sullivan, a former teacher at the University of Maryland’s Honors College, is the author of “My Private Lennon: Explorations of a Fan Who Never Screamed.”