Why Was the Original Dallas TV Series an International Success?
With the recent premiere of the new Dallas television series on the TNT network, producers are hoping to generate hype and buzz for their re-boot of an old series. They may be going for a different audience than originally intended back in 1978, but they’ve made a bold gamble. And they’ve been highly successful with their viewer ratings. The new Dallas has been renewed for another season.
I sat in a presentation very recently which was given by the Dallas Convention and Visitors' Bureau. Participants found out where some of the location shots were done for the new series. The Dallas CVB continues to be very excited about the next season of Dallas, and they tell everyone, "you just can't buy this kind of publicity and attention for our city." By the way, all scenes in the new series are filmed in or around Dallas, even the interior shots of Southfork, which are converted from existing warehouse space in downtown Dallas.
How it Was
The original Dallas TV nighttime soap ran for fourteen seasons, between 1978 and 1991. For eight seasons, it was rated high in the Nielsen ratings, and ranked number 1 for three television seasons. Combining sharp writing, glamour, occasional humor, rich characterizations, and sometimes tacky plots, the Dallas TV program apparently had everything to make it a hit – an around the world hit, in fact.
This TV series was eventually translated into 67 languages, and distributed to 90 countries, one of the first series in the U.S. to receive that treatment. Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, videotapes of Dallas were even smuggled into the Soviet Union.
Close to 360 million people globally tuned in to view the “Who Shot J.R?” episode in 1980.
Something was going on here. What makes TV producers go to this trouble to satisfy a global audience? Why would this product of 1980’s television soar so high?
Back of the Mansion at Southfork
To make it appealing, the Dallas script writers had to cultivate that suspension of disbelief that is so necessary when filming a bigger-than-life soap opera about Texas oilmen.
Ironically, some of this extremely unrealistic treatment of 1980’s Texas worked very well to garner big audiences around the world.
The Most Famous Pool in TV History
Front Gate at Southfork
One of the Biggest Things
On Dallas, the Ewing family has for generations, owned the Southfork Ranch near Dallas. There is a rich history with their tribe over many years. Even without the Barnes-Ewing feud, the Ewing family is sufficiently interesting itself to make for some involving story lines.
But have you noticed that the Ewings always stick together, through thick and thin? And that J.R. Ewing is eventually forgiven and brought back into the fold of his loving family, no matter how evil and callous his acts of double-crossing may be? In the rosy land of television writing, there is no permanent estrangement in the Ewings of Texas. After all, there was a TV movie called Dallas: J.R. Returns, not to mention the current series, where Bobby Ewing lovingly kisses a practically comatose J.R. and tells him he has always loved him.
The fact is, families with a vast oil and gas empire frequently have permanent estrangement. Some couples in this kind of situation have grandchildren that they have never seen. The bigger the portfolio, the less willing people are to believe that there will always be enough pieces of the pie for everyone. But don’t tell a creative writer that.
A Company Called Ewing Oil
Ewing Oil was built by Jock Ewing, and it prospered for many years under his direction. But what kind of company is Ewing Oil? It’s a family-owned corporation. You cannot find many episodes where the Ewings would consider letting an outsider in. New Ewing family members such as Jamie and Jack Ewing seem to show up out of the blue from time to time, and they always get involved with the company. To let Cliff Barnes take over the company, as happened late in the Dallas run (Season 12) seemed unthinkable for a long time.
In short, Ewing Oil is run like many countries in ascribed cultures around the world. It’s not your technical skills, marketing abilities, nor people skills that get you into their company. It’s that blood connection that gives you position, power, and carte blanche.
Many companies in the world are run this way, particularly in Latin America. I have no doubt that in an ascribed culture, the family members of the company consider the founder or patriarch an indispensable part of the company. Nobody can run the company like the founder. You’ll find many such references in Dallas about Jock Ewing, especially after his death. The company doesn’t seem the same without him, and therefore, the characters sometimes wonder why they are fighting so hard to keep their grasp on Ewing Oil.
By contrast, there are many tremendously successful companies in the U.S. that are not run this way. Apple Computer, for instance, which was founded by two unrelated kids in a garage. Or Microsoft. Or Facebook. Just take your pick. These kinds of companies still can thrive when the founder dies. Nobody is foolish enough to think that the company lives or dies by one individual. This is probably the most often noted business model, if someone were to describe our capitalistic system in the U.S. These kinds of companies thrive on innovation, and reward creativity and hard work with advancement.
The typical U.S. capitalistic model sure isn’t Ewing Oil. But this model provided an easily recognizable form of business for Dallas watchers in other countries.
The Patio, Site of Many Ewing Family Breakfasts
Families Living Together Under One Roof!
Viewers have often questioned why adults were living together at the mansion at Southfork. It’s been a source of amusement for many, especially for Larry Hagman, who recently said about J.R. Ewing, “You know, he’s been in the same house all these years with his family. He was there with his wife, his brother, and his brother’s wife. I mean, that, to me, was always so bizarre.”
Yes, Larry Hagman, was this realistic? Of course not. In the U.S., when adult children marry, they always want to start families in their own homes. What could be worse than living under the same roof as your in-laws, you ask?
I believe this completely unrealistic living situation was an absolutely brilliant plot device, perhaps modeled on the original Giant movie, in which Bick Benedict takes his new bride, Leslie, home to the ranch in Texas, where his spinster sister Luz already lives in a huge mansion.
Perhaps, by having main characters living under the same roof, plot exposition was made easier for the writers. After all, it’s much easier to keep up with J.R.’s machinations when you’re living with him. The sparks between Jock and Bobby fly so much better when they see each other frequently. And would it be the same if the rebellious Lucy Ewing lived with her mom in another town?
Regardless of the intent of the script writers, having several generations of family living together gives the impression that the family is united and close, that they are there for one another any time of the day and night. Their children know their cousins so much better and, with the exception of the absent Gary Ewing, who moved to California, Miss Ellie and Jock’s kids are there to run the ranch and take care of everything when the old folks can’t do it themselves anymore.
American it is not. But having very close families depicted in this show was no doubt appreciated by many people in other countries where families are, indeed, everything
The Insularity of Dallas
Sorry to disappoint you, but by the 1980’s, Dallas was not as insular and provincial as you saw depicted on this show. People started moving to Texas massively from other states in the country, and I feel sure this gave a new vibrancy to the culture, politics, and economy of Dallas. Previously, the city of Dallas had the unfortunate distinction as the city where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
But did the writers have a clue about this changing of the local population? No. I can’t think of many characters who don’t have that Texas accent, unless it’s Clayton Farlow, the second husband of Ellie, and it’s made clear that Clayton’s a native Texan, although a considerably more urbane and sophisticated one than could be expected to compete for Miss Ellie’s hand. There is not one administrative assistant, ticket taker, janitor, or police officer with a Midwestern twang or a California drawl.
Especially early in the series, new characters show up, and they are always natives. Bobby re-unites with his old fiancée, Jenna Wade (played originally by Morgan Fairchild), who grew up next door, and Miss Ellie’s long-lost brother, Garrison Southworth, shows up so he can see the family before he dies.
The “oil cartel” contains the power brokers who made the oil and gas industry in Dallas. They’re all Texan to a fault. Even if they can’t wear a revolver in a holster, they do wear their Stetsons or Resistols when doing business in downtown Dallas. Sometimes, they all unite to stop J. R. in his wily schemes. Everything they do is based on the “good ole boy” club, with Marilee as one of the few females who is a big player.
The fact is, Houston was the center of the Texas oil and gas business during the time Dallas was filmed. Oh well. By giving the series the name of a city, the writers hoped to craft a persona for Dallas that was sure to go over big both in the U.S. and around the world. They succeeded admirably. “Big D” will forever be associated with glamour, cowboys, fancy balls, and the “oil bidness.” And J.R. Ewing will be a bigger, more lasting and recognizable character than all of the national politicians, writers, or actors who ever emerged from this fabulous state where I live.
-- Gracenotes is a sixth generation Texan and the daughter of a cattle rancher.