Friday, May 10, 2013

Cultural Productions VI: A Photo Essay on 'Dallas' (2012-) and the Texas Race War

1. Introduction

I love Dallas (1978-1991), which, in my opinion, is one of the greatest American TV shows of the 1980s, if not all time. I've watched six seasons of it, and my interest was piqued by the news that a continuation of the series would be shown in 2012. I bought season one and two of the original series, just to see if I liked it, and liked it I did. I zipped through all the episodes which have been released on DVD in Australia very quickly (the show is easy to watch - always the mark of a good series) and became a Dallas fanatic. This article will be about the new series and the old one.

2. The original series

Before I go any further, I should explain - given that Dallas ended a long time ago - what the original show was about.

It concerns a family-owned oil company, Ewing Oil, which is run by two brothers - one impossibly good, the other one evil - Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) and J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) respectively. Bobby is handsome, virtuous, incorruptible, brave, but often hot-tempered and physically violent; he's also blustering and sanctimonious. His brother, J.R., is obsessed by making Ewing Oil 'the biggest of the Texas independents' (i.e., the biggest of the non-conglomerates) and uses that, like a mantra, to justify all of his bad behavior. He thinks that business can be carried out by pimping, thuggery, blackmail, bribery and fraud. He is, of course, widely disliked, and, unlike Bobby, physically cowardly.

In a way, he is an ascetic: it becomes clear that money, women, reputation, mean very little to him in comparison to his grand goal of making Ewing Oil big. This is his obsession, and he lets nothing stand in his way. He frequently comes up with grand schemes, often based on swindles, which always come unstuck in the end.

One of his endearing habits is his loose tongue. He tends to be very blunt and say outright what people don't have the courage to say (mainly because they're too polite, or afraid to hurt another person's feelings). 'So your wife has left you, Bobby? Can't say I'm unhappy - she was a loon' (which merits a punch in the jaw from Bobby).

There is a third brother, Gary (Ted Shackelford), weak-willed, unstable, itinerant, a family outcast who drifts (appropriately enough) in and out of Texas, to make guest appearances on the show: because he dislikes his own family, he never stays for long. He has fathered a child, Lucy (Charlene Tilton) by a waitress, and has left her to be raised by the Ewings. Lucy is a vertically-challenged, intellectually-challenged, over-sexed teenager:

 The Ewing family lives on a ranch, Southfork (which is guarded by thuggish ranch hands wielding rifles) and is really a patriarchal family. The head of the family, Jock Ewing, is a villainous old man, who follows the same methods as J.R. ('I taught that boy everything I know about oil'), is the owner of Ewing Oil and is a bully; he is married to the steely Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes), who is somewhat naïve about Jock's character. Jock is, on the flip side, generous to those who are loyal to him, and an entrepreneurial man with great vigour. One of the distinctive traits of the series is that the characters often are two-sided: they have good and bad sides.

Every soap opera family needs enemies: in Dallas, the enemy of the Ewing family is the Barnes family, who have been at war with the Ewings for decades. However, just like the Montagues and Capulets in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, there is a romance between the two feuding families. Bobby, in the first episode, marries the beautifully voluptuous Pamela Barnes (Victoria Principal):

Her father and her brother, both losers, are out to destroy the Ewings, and won't take Pamela's marriage to Bobby lying down! Pamela's brother, Cliff Barnes (played brilliantly by Ken Kercheval), is a mentally unstable, snide, self-pitying and arrogant lawyer, and becomes J.R.'s principal nemesis in the show. He is easily the most dislikeable character.

Mental pathology is, in actual fact, a recurring theme in Dallas. J.R. is a sociopath who occasionally is prone to morbid, incapacitating depression; both Pamela and her brother are bipolar manic depressives and attempt suicide on more than one occasion; J.R.'s unfortunate, long-suffering wife, Sue-Ellen, is an alcoholic with (what I diagnose as) borderline personality disorder.

Both Sue Ellen and Pamela receive psychiatric treatment a few times in the series.

Another important character is the ranch foreman, Ray Krebbs (Steve Kanaly), an uneducated country bumpkin who has the most insincere grin ever seen on television (something which immediately marks him out as untrustworthy) and has a strange resemblance to the young George W. Bush. Ray is simple, loyal, unpretentious, honest, hard-working, dependable - probably how most rural Texans see themselves.

Something I've noticed in Dallas is that all the characters drink heavily throughout the day: drinking seems to start at ten o'clock in the morning - anyone visiting the offices of Ewing Oil is immediately offered a whiskey. There are drinks for lunch (at the Cattleman's Club), and finally, the entire family gathers around the whiskey trolley in the living room for more drinking before bed. Alcoholism, though, is always lurking around the corner, and not only for Sue Ellen: Bobby, J.R., Ray and Cliff go through alcoholic episodes.

Why was Dallas such a success? The answer is: it was a good show. The casting was excellent - every actor is right for the part - and so was the production, the writing, and the rest. The scenes shot around the ranch and in the city of Dallas itself lent the show an air of verisimilitude. The back story of Dallas was quite extensive, and well-worked out (as can be seen from the first episode). One could believe that this a real, if larger than life, family.

I think that the show really did humanise the South, and Texans, as well. There wasn't any apologizing for what Texans were. In that regard, with its themes - of capitalist entrepreneurial spirit, of the self-made man, of patriarchy and loyalty - the show was right-wing and conservative, on an unconscious level. In fact, it was probably the most pro-business show in the history of television. The businessmen in this show are the go-getters, the drivers of the engine of American capitalism, and are good - despite the fact that a few of their number (such as J.R.) are bad.

3.  Multiple generations in 'Dallas' and 'Bold and the Beautiful'

I've just finished watching the new series, which started in 2012, which includes some of the old actors, but also the new, younger generation of characters, and I enjoyed it a lot. Some interesting themes: the abandonment of Generation Y children by their parents; conflict between white Americans and Hispanic immigrants; but most of all ageing.

The last - ageing - is really noticeable. It sticks out like a sore thumb, unfortunately, and throws things some off-kilter. Members of the original cast who appear on the show, who weren't spring chickens when their fictional children were born, look pretty old now, and in fact look like the grandparents, not parents, of characters in their thirties.
As an example of aged members of the original Dallas: here's Sue-Ellen (Linda Gray, born 1940):


And here's Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval, born 1935):

And here's J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman, 1931-2012), with his on-screen son with Sue-Ellen, John Ross Ewing (Josh Henderson, born 1981): J.R. here looks old enough to be John Ross' grandfather:

And Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy, born 1949) with his on-screen son Christopher Ewing (Jesse Metcalfe, born 1978). Bobby, here played by a 63-year-old, doesn't look too bad, but then, he was always one of the youngest people on the original show:

In actual fact, the dates all match up: John Ross Ewing first appeared, as a baby, on the original TV show in 1978, while Christopher in 1981. John Ross' parents J.R. and Sue Ellen were 47 and 38 at the time of his birth - so were old parents. Still, it just seems incongruous having such old people on the show (both J.R. and Cliff are roughly the same age as Warren Buffett, and have the same vitality - they are aged billionaires who zip around the world on jet planes, still making deals and still buying people with their money) without an intervening generation.

The American soap The Bold and the Beautiful (1987-), which is not of the same quality as Dallas, does multi-generations far better, far more realistically. Here are the 'old' members of the show, Eric and Stephanie Forrester (John McCook and Susan Flannery). They were born in 1944 and 1939 respectively, and so are roughly the same age as most of the original Dallas cast:

And here is the (now somewhat aged) 'middle' generation: Taylor Forrester, Ridge Forrester and Brooke Logan (Hunter Tylo, Ronn Moss, Kelly Hunter Lang):

And here is Ridge with his son, Thomas Forrester (Adam Gregory):

Ridge and Taylor's daughter, Steffi Forrester (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood), with her grandmother:

Hope Logan (Kim Matula) with her mother, Brooke:

And finally, Liam Spencer (Scott Clifton) with his father, Bill Spencer (Don Diamont):

Both the above characters are William Spencer III and II respectively. The evil magazine publishing tycoon, William Spencer I, was this guy (Jim Storm) and was on the show about ten years ago. He had an unrequited love for grandmother Stephanie:

I think that, from looking at all the above photographs, Bold- appears to be a fresher, 'younger' show, somehow, than Dallas. Bold-, unlike the new Dallas, is not a case of old codgers and very young folks; rather, the generations are skillfully blended in. Really, this couldn't be helped, because Dallas started in 1978 - when Bobby and his wife Pamela (Victoria Principal, born 1950) were considered the 'young' couple; Bold-, on the other hand, started in 1987.

As to how important this age is: in the case of Dallas, I say, very. Larry Hagman died suddenly in 2012, midway through shooting season two. Hagman had already been sick with cancer before the new series, and although he delivers a fine performance in the new series, he is quite peripheral, perhaps owing to his age and illness (we see that J.R. starts the show in a nursing home, suffering from depression).

Despite all that, the new Dallas is a marvelously up to date show: mobile phones, the Internet, lap tops, USBs, hidden miniature cameras, DVDs and online gambling are featured prominently. J.R. struggles to adapt to the new technology at first (after coming out of the nursing home), but ends up doing wonderfully. I think the producers made a conscious choice to emphasise 21st century technology as much as possible, given how antiquated the 1980s TV series was.

4.  Clean energy, Mexicans

The original cast members tend to take a back seat in the new series, which focuses on the younger generation of the Ewing family: Christopher (Bobby's adopted son) and J.R.'s son, John Ross. Both the cousins are gullible, if not downright stupid, easily manipulated, hot-headed and impulsive. The main difference is that Christopher, being Bobby's son, is pretty, while John Ross is weaselly-looking.

In the original series, development of natural resources versus conservation and 'the ecology' (it was called 'the ecology' back then, not 'the environment') was a recurring theme. Here it comes back: but it's more a case of alternative energy versus oil. Christopher Ewing is a champion of methane gas energy extraction, whereas his cousin John Ross wants to drill the substantial oil reserves on the family ranch, Southfork. I think that the question of 'alternative energy' makes the show a little dated. America, in particular the South and the Mid-West, has gone through a big commodity boom, with the exploitation of natural gas and oil, in the 2000s, which is almost comparable to the boom of the 1970s (both had the same cause: an abnormally weak US dollar, which drove up the price of gold, oil, land and other commodities). With the recent strengthening of the US dollar, the boom might tail off (just as it has in Australia), but for the time being, oil is relevant. Alternative energy, on the other hand, is not, because it has been shown, I think, that it isn't up to the task of replacing fossil fuels. Because alternative energy hasn't been able to pay its way, the government has had to subsidise it, and as a result, levy taxes to pay for those subsidies. That, along with the fact that the interest in combatting "global warming" has waned, has taken the sheen off "clean energy". (The show does reflect this somewhat: the shortcomings of Christopher's methane energy become evident early on).

The thing is, the show needs to make the two cousins - Christopher and John Ross (who are, really, more brothers than cousins) - enemies, and so this conflict (between capitalism and environmentalism) must come into play. The producers and writers, however, needed to include another source of conflict. Both of them are competitors for the same hand - Elena Ramos (the Panamanian actress Jordana Brewster). Which is totally irrational, given that the gaunt, skeletal Mestizo actress (who probably, in my opinion, suffers from an eating disorder), is rather plain:

It's a sign of politically-correct casting that the TV producers had to include a prominent Mexican character who is, in the series, the daughter of a Mexican housemaid at the Southfork ranch. (In the old series, there were two Mexican servants working at the ranch, but these were seen and not heard - they weren't given speaking parts).

It's a shame that the producers couldn't have found a prettier Mestizo actress to play Elena, like these two, who appear in the show (Leonor Varela, a Chilean, and Leanna Pareja, a Colombian):

Then the fierce rivalry between the two cousins would have made much more sense. (On that note, the actress who plays Rebecca Sutter, Christopher's other love interest, is really lovely. She is a tall, blue-eyed Argentinean, Julie Gonzalo, who, ironically, is Latin American like the three cast members above, but not a Mestizo. I was in love with her soft, gentle, vulnerable character after a few episodes):

In the original series, most of the action took place within the state of Texas. We only saw Latin Americans a few times - e.g., in the episode when J.R. concocts a bizarre scheme to sell oil to the Castro regime in Cuba - and overall, the casting for the show was 99% white. Just about every character, no matter how minor, was played by a white American. Here, though, politically-correct casting (as I mentioned before) has caught up with Dallas, and non-white actors (Afro-Americans, Mestizos, and other unidentifiable ethnic types, are inserted at every opportunity: there are black doctors, black sheriffs, even black ranch owners, which seems somewhat incongruous even by television standards). One has to ask if there's some affirmative-action law in place for US films and TV shows, which specifies that such-and-such a quota of unemployed Afro-American and Mestizo actors have to be given jobs.

Most interestingly, it's the Mestizo and Latin American characters in the new Dallas who are the bad guys. This reflects how much the politics, culture and racial demography has changed in Texas since the original. While the show isn't anywhere near the level of Breaking Bad (2008-), which is (almost to a pathological degree) anti-Mexican and anti-Mestizo, it's up there. John Ross gets beaten up by what Sue Ellen calls a 'Latino gang' (bite your tongue, Sue Ellen - you racist!). The chief bad guy, Vicente Cano, is a Venezuelan oil baron, who is played by the rather suave, Castilian-looking (i.e., white) Carlos Bernard:

Too bad they couldn't have gotten a really horrible, Mestizo actor to play him, like Raymond Cruz, who plays the despicable Tuco Salamanca in Breaking Bad:

But then, you can't have everything.

This is a big issue in Texas, as we know that the whites there are presently undergoing demographic replacement by Mestizos from across the border. Prominent Texan "conservatives" such as Rick Perry and the Bush siblings - George Jr. and Jeb - back this, as do the liberal media. Dire predictions are made by demographers to the effect that whites will be a minority in Texas within a few decades, but the media treats this as a cause for celebration, not concern.

Because of this demographic avalanche, and because it is part of the South, Texans are right-wing, anti-Obama and anti-amnesty. The idea of secession from the Union - promulgated by Southern nationalists such as Hunter Wallace - is popular in Texas.

In an interesting plot twist, Sue Ellen, in the new series, runs for office as governor - and is modeled, to my mind, on the formidable governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer. It would be interesting to see if Sue Ellen, as a politician, becomes anti-inmigración. Probably not: my guess is that the show will keep up an anti-Mestizo racialism on an entirely subliminal level.

5.   In conclusion

Will the new Dallas turn out to be as good as the new one? There are a number of differences between the old and new, the chief one being the pace. The old series was - being a 1970s-1980s era show - tightly written, edited, directed: not one shot, and not one line, was wasted. The stories were very much bang-bang-bang. The entire plot of season one of the new series would have taken up, tops, around three to four episodes of the old one. I think that this is because, decades ago, writers, directors and producers were used to working in theatre more than television: we see this in, for example, the use of sets in those times. Acting, directing, was very structured and compressed. In comparison, today's TV shows are rather loose.

I'm not sure that the Christopher versus John Ross conflict can be made the basis of an entire series. The original show wasn't just about Bobby versus J.R., but a whole range of sub-plots (which were interwoven with the arc of that week's particular episode). On the other hand, Dallas has such a rich backstory - thirteen seasons worth! - which should really give the writers of the new series some inspiration.

The antics of this white American, Texan family are fascinating to watch.

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