Go Big Or Go Home

There's a lovely moment at the end of last night's two-hour premiere of the new Dallas, when J.R. Ewing travels to San Felipe, Mexico to meet with a powerful business ally; we see the still-spry, 80-year old Larry Hagman from behind, walking commandingly up the steps of an ornate palace that is flanked on either side by colorfully decorated guards, the roundabout framing the long shot and giving it a proper scale, and hence a proper tone. It's not important what happens inside the building once J.R. enters (well, it is, actually, but it's the final scene, and I wouldn't dream of spoiling you)-- rather, what I love about this shot is simply that it exists, and that the tagline across the bottom of the screen goes the the trouble of telling you the characters have traveled to Mexico to do Something Big.

"Something Big" has been missing from a lot of soap operas in the last twenty years-- by the time the original Dallas went off the air in the spring of 1991, there was almost a cultural embarrassment about the form that had dominated prime-time drama in the previous fifteen years. Dallas was one of the last to exit-- Dynasty had been cancelled two years earlier (its dreadful spin-off, The Colbys, had barely lasted two years, and had been cancelled in 1987); Falcon Crest left in 1990; and the Dallas spin-off Knots Landing would trudge for one more season before being cancelled in 1992. In the wake of shows like Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and thirtysomething, which borrowed the soap opera's serialized, densely novelistic structure, but merged it with a more self-conscious mise-en-scene and more dramatically "realistic" storylines, the over-the-top theatrics of Southfork had begun to look antiquated to many viewers; after seven straight seasons where it had never fallen out of the top ten (and three of those spent as TV's number-one show), Dallas had collapsed in the ratings, the victim of too many cast departures, absurd twists, and general viewer fatigue, finishing its run a pathetic #61 in the year-end ratings.

Creatively, too, there was something dead about that final episode, in which a once-proudly tongue-in-cheek thrill-ride decided to borrow the structure of It's A Wonderful Life (!), allowing Joel Grey (!!) to show a suicidal J.R. Ewing (!!!) what life would've been like had he not been born. It felt like an apology for thirteen years of excess, a sloppily-executed exercise in post-hoc moralism that ended, poetically enough, with the lead character shooting himself (the final shot was Bobby's horrified stare at an unseen J.R.'s body, an apt stand-in for audience response to this tawdry end).

Not until Seinfeld committed creative hari-kari seven years later would a once-great show end so ignominiously. And if J.R., the greatest of all soap rapscallions, couldn't survive into the 90s, what hope did any other anti-hero of the form have?

As it turned out, not much. There would certainly be soap operas in the decades that followed, from the everyday tedium of a suburban gangster life on The Sopranos, to the jus' folks tut-tutting of Providence, to the rich historical pastiche and slow burn of Mad Men, to the ongoing genre pleasures of Buffy and Angel, to the heavy-handed symbolism that Alan Ball brought to the form on Six Feet Under. But once Aaron Spelling blew up Melrose Place in the mid-90s, in one last, wonderfully over-the-top homage to soap opera amour fou, most of these programs would either follow the Bochco model of self-conscious deconstruction and narrative seriousness, or would flatten their sudsiness with emo earnestness and need for "goodness" that the form simply couldn't sustain (Imagine Dallas if it were afraid to let J.R. and Cliff pursue their torrid love/hate relationship to its fullest, nastiest extent, and you begin to see what's missing from anything starring Melina Kanakaredes). Even when properly sudsy soaps made their way back to television in the 00s, courtesy of ABC programs like Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives (and the host of tween rip-offs on sister channel ABCFamily), they felt denuded and not quite-all-there, hiding behind slam-book nicknames like McDreamy or the campy affectations of Wisteria Lane, their emotional investments and winks at the audience not properly calibrated-- they took us out of the show in a way that self-congratulated the audience for keeping its distance, where the self-referentiality of Dallas had always been designed to make us chuckle, and then suck us even further into its melodrama.

Most of all, these shows lacked size and scope-- they kept themselves in one neighborhood or place of work or city street, and their casts felt hermetically sealed. Some of this may have been budget-conscious, but most of it felt like a clear creative decision to scale down and not risk the sprawl of the earlier generation of soaps, a sprawl that admittedly led to ridiculous Moldavian plotlines, or worse, but which were also the engines of those earlier shows' greatest creative heights. In a recent New York magazine piece on the dearth of great new Broadway musicals, Scott Brown says something about that form which also seems relevant to television nighttime soaps:

Musicals today—mindful of long odds, high costs, and the general precariousness of the form—are, I think, resisting their inner madness, and that’s a little like hating one’s own flesh. What basis besides madness can there possibly be for a form that’s as shapeless, idiosyncratic, and painstakingly artisanal as the novel yet as vastly collaborative and consensus-dependent as a Hollywood film? How do we reconcile these things? We do not. We embrace the schizoid totality of it. A true musical is the fissile power of internal contradiction gone critical. It’s the disciplined, rigorous release of madness from the molten core of the human soul, apportioned in meter, disciplined (barely) in song. Perhaps in our culture-wide search for the perfection solution to the Musical Problem, we’re missing opportunities to go a little more nuts. Embrace a bad idea or two: a singing barber-cannibal here, a tuneful prison romance there. Sometimes a “good” idea simply doesn’t sing, but a bad one does. We must save the calculations for scansion, and instead let something impractical romp across the countryside, laying waste. Overstuff our birds with feeling, with meaning. And let’s not get between ourselves and our madness—at least, not in the first draft.

Change a few words here and there--substitute "costume design" for "song," maybe--and you have an apt description of the conundrum of the nighttime soap. With the form currently strangled by hipness, it's hard to imagine a space as large, as epic, as full of major and minor characters, as simultaneously Dickensian and Sirkian, as Dallas was at its late 70s/early 80s peak, when characters could jaunt across Texas, out to California, down to South America, across the Pacific to Vietnam. Dallas was on so often in my house growing up that it almost feels like a member of the family: I was only five when it debuted as a TV miniseries in the spring of 1978, and as it unfolded over the ensuing years, I remember my parents holding a "Who Shot J.R.?" party with friends, and chuckling at every twist and turn of the narrative (Dallas was arguably my first, unknowing introduction to authorial self-consciousness and textuality). The recurring freeze-frame of a grinning or grimacing Larry Hagman that ended so many episodes, framed by the "Executive Producer--Phillip Capice" credit, is a primal image for me, a visual keyword of TV. It seemed exotic and adult in all the ways that anything that happened after my bedtime did-- and like any good eight-year old, I wanted to know what it was, and how it worked. My family would watch other soaps in the 80s (my father once shocked a Sunday school class by admitting a love of Dynasty), but it was always Dallas that gripped my imagination, especially as I hit adolescence and watched it myself (this was around the time of Bobby's shooting, and then his death, and then his dreamy rebirth). Early last summer, my wife and I started re-watching it on DVD, from the beginning, and were sucked into its blend of rich characterization, glossy surfaces, witty knowingness and emotional investment.

It was big, it was ridiculous, and it was gorgeously fearless in its willingness to filter everything from politics to pop music to fashion through its ever-shifting melodramatic prisms. Shrinking network audiences have sucked much of this naked glee and risk-taking absurdity from the form, replacing it with a market-tested, easily-demographicked timidity; it seems apt that the best recent examples of the form have either appeared on cable channels like AMC and HBO, or smaller "netlets" like the CW, where ratings are almost neglible, anyway (I will continue to insist, despite its recent cancellation, that Ringer was an excellent modern soap, precisely because it went with its Crazy all the way to the bitter, cliff-hanging end). Among contemporary purveyors of the form, only Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage really seem to consistently get the kinds of epic scope and emotional fearlessness the form requires-- people who complain about the artificiality of The OC and Gossip Girl miss the point of how well those high-gloss spaces open up to something rich, strange and affecting.

When a new Dallas was announced last year, I took the news with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. After the series went off the air, there were a pair of TV reunion movies that aired to mediocre ratings in the late 90s; I skipped them both, but the clips I saw didn't fill me with a lot of confidence. J.R. was somehow back from the dead, but Larry Hagman, fresh off of illness and surgery, seemed tired; if Dallas were a member of the family, these movies felt like a forced, badly planned family reunion, where everyone's trying too hard to fit into the old roles that no longer fit. I couldn't imagine that the new show would be any better, especially when I heard that a large portion of it would be focusing on the younger generation of Ewings, rather than the characters we'd spent 14 seasons cheering and hissing.

All of those concerns were pointless. Remember Pauline Kael's line about the second Godfather film? "By a single image, Francis Ford Coppola has plunged us back into the sensuality and terror of the first film." That was the new Dallas for me-- it literally took one  minute, and just a few aerial shots of Southfork at dawn, before I was easily sucked back into this strange, sensual world. By the time (around the fifteen-minute mark) Bobby visits a catatonic, clinically-depressed J.R. at his nursing home, and they are framed in a gorgeous, orange-drenched two-shot (J.R. ram-rod straight, his back to the camera, Bobby leaning over in an awkward gesture of love and brotherly fealty), the associations it shot off were so deep that I was reminded of how powerful serialized narrative in general, and this one in particular, can be in the way it stays and grows in our memories.

But the good news is that the show not only plays on our memories of the old show, but builds on and rewards them, in a manner that honors the original's size and shamelessness while also adding new colors. Some of those colors are literal-- there's a greater use of orange and red and sepia, of chiarascuro and enclosed spaces, as if wanting to make the connections between the Corleones and the Ewings even more explicit. Some of them are generational, as J.R.'s son John Ross (Josh Henderson) faces off against Bobby's son Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe) for control of the family's future, and for the love of Elena (Jordanna Brewster), the daughter of the Ewing's longtime housekeeper. And some are thematic, updating and expanding on the older show's forays into alternative energy sources, politics, and shifting gender roles (as always, set against the strong hold of tradition). The new cast members (including a superb Brenda Strong as Bobby's new wife) don't feel as shoe-horned in as I feared they'd be-- they feel like natural next steps, outgrowths of what had come before, and so skillfully interwoven with the still-wonderful original cast members that it's like watching veteran jazz musicians jam on and bring new chords to a classic standard.

And man, did the two-hour premiere jam, in all senses: this was full of plot without seeming tiredly expositional, so jammed with lovely verbal and visual nods to the past that a real Dallas fanatic could spend hours trainspotting with it, and so full of grace notes-- from J.R.'s witty use of a walker to Bobby's earnest squint to Sue Ellen's majestic way of standing on a balcony--that, despite its longer running time, it did that rare thing for a TV event: it left you wanting more.

And boy, did it move-- cutting away sentimentality (while leaving true sentiment), abandoning Grey's-style mawkishness, and knowing itself so well that it didn't feel the need to dilly-dally with self-conscious explanation like those Wisteria Lane ladies, this sucker was a master class in how to set up, move, and cliff-hang an ensemble melodrama in four simple half-hours. Nothing was wasted, nothing was forced, and if the budget for a basic-cable show doesn't necessarily allow for the opulence of CBS at its 70s height (most apparent at the Cattlemen's Ball, whose scope is much smaller than such affairs were in the past), the new Dallas producers still know how to make everything seem big through framing, use of the larger-than-life cast, and willingness to twist the narrative left and right to create suspense and resonance. By the end of its 135-minute running time, there are at least six double-cross plots and two family secrets up-and-running, with more sure to come. It all feels organic, the narrative ease arising out of chemistry and experience, and a desire to joyfully do Something Big that you sense the cast-- old and new-- have been waiting to feel for a long time. It's all as natural as that strange mixture of scheming and earnestness, cattle and oil, idealism and corruption that make Southfork-- and the soap opera-- go.  Who knows? If the Dallas crew can keep this up all summer, they may yet remind TV of the joys of letting something impractical romp across the countryside, laying waste to earnestness and self-seriousness at every turn.


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