Its setting was the boardrooms and bedrooms of the Texas oil patch. Its central character was a diabolical tycoon who could be ruthless even with his own family. And its premise was unabashedly simple: greed, malice and the pursuit of riches and power are the stuff of the American dream. A caricature of high living in the decadent 1980s, Dallas was more than just a distorted reflection of its time. Over the years, the campy nighttime soap opera became an integral part of the era that it so successfully parodied. But as the lustre of that decade began to fade, so did the allure of Dallas. Since the opening episode of the 1986-1987 season—when the show’s writers announced that the entire previous season had been one character’s dream—viewers in the United States and elsewhere have been tuning out in ever greater numbers. In its current season, the series has attracted 20 million American viewers per week, placing 55th in the A. C. Nielsen ratings—and prompting CBS to announce that, with its 356th episode, to air on May 3, Dallas will ride off into the sunset forever.
It is an exit that will be watched around the world.
During its 13-year run—only Gunsmoke, at 20 years, and Bonanza, at 14, ran longer in prime time—the show built a core of loyal fans in 57 countries, including, it is rumored, members of the British Royal Family. In Canada, the series has proven especially durable, drawing an average of 1.5 million viewers to the CBC
every Friday evening at 9, for a healthy ranking of 16th place in the March Nielsen ratings. Dallas outranks every Canadian-made dramatic series and places well ahead of several U.S. shows—including Murphy Brown and The Golden Girls—that outrank it south of the border. And many of its Canadian fans say that they will mourn its passing. Said devoted Dallas watcher Kathleen Underhill, 34, a statistics officer living in Corbeil, Ont., near North Bay:
“I’m going to miss all that nastiness.”
Dallads main attraction throughout the years was the unctuous charm of oil baron J. R. Ewing, played with a cocksure swagger and an inflated Texas drawl by Larry Hagman. In early episodes, J. R. was a supporting character to the sweet Pamela Barnes Ewing (Victoria Principal), the sister of J. R.’s archenemy, Cliff
Barnes (Ken Kercheval). Her marriage to J. R.’s good-hearted younger brother, Bobby (Patrick Duffy), was to have provided the show with a relatively simple, Romeo-and-Juliet motif. But Hagman’s J. R. proved too strong—and too appealing—a character to relegate to the sidelines and, from early on, Dallas succeeded in direct proportion to J. R.’s excesses.
By the end of the second season, when a mysterious intruder on the Southfork Ranch
fired a bullet into the oil baron’s chest, almost every one of a dozen supporting characters had a good motive for firing it. The following September, a record 300 million people around the world tuned in to find out “Who shot J. R.?”—and watched as his sister-in-law, Kristin Shepard (Mary Crosby), held a smoking revolver and mumbled that she was pregnant with J. R.’s baby. It was the first of many times that J. R. survived an enemy attack. Indeed, according to several observers, it was J. R.’s countless feuds with his adversaries—especially the angelic Bobby—that gave the show its staying power. Said Robert Pike, who teaches mass communications at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.: “Like Shakespeare’s tragedies, Dallas showed the unalloyed fight of good against evil at the very top of society. The masses have always relished that stuff.”
Other observers suggest a more straightforward reason for the show’s popularity: it offered an escape to a fantasy world far from the pressures of daily life. In a series of surveys conducted by CBC TV between 1987 and 1990, only 40 per cent of regular viewers said that they found the show’s plot lines to be believable—compared with an average of 80 per cent for all TV dramas. Still, nine out of 10 of those polled described Dallas as entertaining, and up to 80 per cent said that it relaxed them to watch it. Typically, Toronto physician Anne Ferguson, 33, a regular Dallas watcher, told Maclean’s: “The more stress I’m under, the more I make sure I catch Dallas.”
But even in Canada, Dallads popularity has been in steady decline in recent years, losing almost two million viewers since 1986, when it captured 43 per cent of the TV audience and was Canada’s No. 1 show. The CBC, which pays the show’s distributor $70,000 per episode, says that even before the CBS announcement, it had been considering cancelling Dallas as part of its recent promise to the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Commission to cut two of its current 4V2 hours of U.S. prime-time shows by this fall.
In the meantime, Dallas fans can console themselves with reports that the series’s final episode will reunite several of its most colorful former stars, including Linda Gray, who until 1989 played the villain’s long-suffering wife, Sue Ellen, and Joan Van Ark, who briefly portrayed J. R.’s sister-in-
law Valene, until fleeing the frying pan
of Dallas for the fiery spin-off, Knots Landing—which is set to enter its 13th season on CBS and CTV next fall. In the two-hour finale, actor Joel Grey will play an angel posing the question, “How would Dallas have looked if J. R. had never been bom?” For the millions of fans who loved to hate the dastardly oilman, that is an invitation to think the unthinkable.
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