Setting The Stage For Dallas: What Are The Previews Saying About The Show . . . And Our City?

Dallas is not Dallas’ anymore. It hasn’t been for a long time. Not since the world spent a summer awash in wonder about the lone gunman responsible for firing in the direction of a bloated caricature of this city’s worst and best self. Not since the show dropped from primetime, and then from local rerun rotation, while it persisted in popularity in the far flung corners of the world. Dallas, for fans (and the all you need to do is spend 45 seconds on the tarmac in Dublin, Ireland to realize the old soap still has rabid fans), is its own mythic world, campy and enduringly appealing, but decidedly of another time and another place.

That said, as John Bloom writes in this month’s D Magazine, JR still serves as something of an “icon” for Dallas. And there are still “J.R.s” in this city, Bloom says:

Most of them are charming, some of them are ruthless, all of them are tough. Many of them name their funds after a ranch or a Western theme, and all of them like to talk. They’re the guys who are fracking in Duval County now and wildcatting in Williston, North Dakota, and clearing slums in Camden, New Jersey, so they can rebuild for profit. . . . They’re the guys who look at a British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf as an opportunity to double down on technology and sell overpriced shut-off valves to nervous CEOs. From the time Dallas shifted from cotton to oil in the Depression, it’s been the same guys.

But the other side of that coin is that they’re broad-shouldered and independent, and they don’t whine and they don’t ask the government to do anything except get out of the way.

And so, if Bloom is correct, and J.R. still represents something about this city, then what happens tonight, the debut of the renewed primetime soap at 8 p.m. on TNT, is of a moment of real cultural import for this city. The original Dallas is, outside of the death of a president and the success of a football team, the primary way in which the planet thinks and refers to our city. Whether we cringe or cry at how television filters its story lines through the imagined myth of our locale, the new Dallas will likely influence again how we are seen, and perhaps, how we see ourselves.

So what are we in for? Let’s survey the early hype.

People Magazine calls it a wormhole to the 1980s, but it is also “both old and new, a comfy piece of nostalgia that doubles as a fresh guilty pleasure.”

In the Los Angeles Times, Robert Lloyd says that as the show that set the stage for “Important Television,” we should take the new Dallas seriously.  It is edgier than the original, Lloyd writes, if sloppy. But it is still Larry Hagman’s show: “His eyes light up, and the party starts.”

USA Today is decidedly less enthusiastic:

“They should have called it Thebes. You can find mummies who look fresher than this mold-encrusted relic. … There will no doubt be some out there who so loved the original Dallas, they’ll still find this little “D” enchanting. There will be others who come for the camp value alone, from the wooden performances to the often risible dialogue.”

Pleasingly cheesy, USA Today says the show will likely skew an older demographic, and with good reason: the spark between Duffy and Hagman is still the best thing about it:

“Nobody could compete with the prime ham that Hagman is serving up, but let’s hope the writers keep trying to liven up and add at least a little texture to the Next Generation characters.”

And useful to those of us with little or no knowledge of the original series, Entertainment Weekly offers a video primer.

But let’s face it, for those of us in live in Dallas, as much as the oil family intrigue may rope us into the show, we’ll be watching for the civic identity subplot, a way of tracking how our city is portrayed and how the television manifestation of our fair burg reveals cultural shifts that have taken place over the last few decades. Some articles touch on these changes.

The Star-Telegram offers a rundown of then and now’s: Then: Oil in the fields; Now: Natural gas in the neighborhoods. Then:Dallas Cowboys; Now: Texas Rangers.

The Chicago Tribune sets the scene by reviewing some of the headlines from the year ofDallas’ original debute, 1978:

– Cult leader Jim Jones forced more than 900 members of his church inGuyana to commit suicide in the Jonestown massacre.
– Israeland Egyptsigned the Camp David peace treaty.
– The first “test-tube baby” was born in England.
– “Annie Hall” beat out “Star Wars” for best picture at the Academy Awards.

And finally, CNN looks for Ewings in the Dallas of today:

[Dallas] lost a lot of oil derricks and gained a few modern marvels, including a signature bridge and a stadium that rivals the construction of the Death Star. Women’s hairstyles aren’t as high and neither are the peaks of 10-gallon Stetsons. The Dallas Cowboys are now a source of great embarrassment and the Texas Rangers are the pride of the metroplex.

But that’s not to say there isn’t still plenty of the unapologetic glam and high-society Western culture celebrated in the show’s original 14 seasons.

What follows is a rather dull rundown of the usual Dallas spots, which isn’t surprisingly. After all, whether the new show maligns or exults us in the eyes of the world, at the end of the day it is useful to remember that Dallas’ primary role in Dallas is as a simple backdrop.