Last November, growing increasingly infuriated with President Trump’s dangerous maneuvers and the rising coronavirus numbers, I put aside rereading George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.” I realized that what I really needed was to watch some mindless TV reruns. I wanted a show that would glide through my neural pathways, defusing the daily mind bombs CNN’s “Situation Room” often set off. I didn’t want to think or feel. Since I initially planned to read about the village of Middlemarch and the families who lived there during the 1830s, choosing an American show about an American family living in a specific locale seemed only fair. So, I chose “Dallas,” the iconic nighttime ’80s-era drama about the Ewings, a Texas family bloated with ambition, pride, sexual shenanigans, revenge and money.
Each day, I looked forward to watching the poor acting, the outlandish plot twists, the tawdry behavior. But it turns out that instead of laughing, I became enthralled. I figured I’d watch until Jan. 6, the day Congress would certify Joe Biden’s presidency and I could relax a bit, but, oh, how wrong I was about that! I have now watched more than 250 episodes. That leaves 107 more, enough to get me well past the inauguration, if need be.
What most fascinated me about “Dallas” was the number of pertinent issues the episodes featured — alcoholism, breast cancer, abortion, female equality, besieged masculinity, the difficulties of closeted gay men, the value of psychotherapy. As I watched, I wondered if the show’s writers had thought we’d still be debating these issues decades later. Some aspects of “Dallas” felt so reflective of our present situation I was taken aback. In Episode 21 of the show’s seventh season, oilman J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) states his principles thus: “Once you give up integrity, the rest is a piece of cake,” a declaration that could fit easily into one of Trump’s tweets.
This unexpected seriousness didn’t dampen my appreciation of the surface pleasures the show still offered. I hadn’t realized how much I needed to watch Sue Ellen Ewing yank off her earring as she answered the phone. What fineness, what multitasking, what certainty! I was greatly entertained by the women’s hairstyles and how often they changed, sometimes within the same episode. Long hair, permed hair (big mistake), crimped hair (bigger mistake) and, weirdest of all, an elaborate upsweep worn at times by Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) and Pam Ewing (Victoria Principal) that resembled a spray-tanned croissant. Only Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes), matriarch and earth goddess of Southfork, the Ewing ranch, wore a plain bob, providing some visual relief.
Because the cast of “Dallas” was so large over such a long time (it ran from 1978 to 1991), there were many bodies, male and female, to hold my attention. Some original viewers, I’m sure, tuned in just to see the show’s profusion of bikinis, plunging necklines and tight slacks that appeared in almost every episode. Happily, the camera was for the most part gender neutral. Bobby (Patrick Duffy) was frequently bare chested, and Ray Krebbs (Steve Kanaly) was forever unbuttoning his plaid flannel shirt, as befit his sweaty position as ranch foreman. When Bobby climbed out of the family pool after his morning laps, his beauty was rivaled only by Sue Ellen doing the same but in her neon emerald one-piece.
I loved watching Sue Ellen, even when she was wearing jackets as wide-shouldered as a fullback’s and using too much Joan Jett eyeliner. Playing J.R.’s lonely, tormented and alcoholic wife couldn't have been easy for Gray, especially when the camera focused on her beautiful face. Watching her eyes expand, her mouth churn and tremble with pain was discomforting, but after watching her two, sometimes three times a day for weeks, I couldn't dismiss her as a materialistic airhead. I grew impressed with Gray’s ability to stay in character regardless of how often her situation brutalized her face. Though I wished sometimes Sue Ellen had gone full-blown Clytemnestra and shot J.R. (others on the show surely did), I’m glad she didn’t. Unlike today, back then angry female characters were not yet fully weaponized. Sue Ellen’s was a truthful display of female frailty, one that invoked pity; many viewers no doubt identified with her troubles.
And the same goes for that loser Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval), the Ewing family’s nemesis, a character I initially hated. His incessant desire to wreak revenge on the Ewings became boring, despite being the through-plot of the series. Now that I’ve watched the reruns, I believe Kercheval is the best male actor on the show. His Cliff demonstrates a wider range of emotion compared with the Ewing brothers, and like actor Jack Lemmon, Kercheval can play both foolish and intense, a combination that makes him difficult to ignore.
I sat through a ludicrous number of kidnappings, plane crashes and assassination attempts involving various Ewings. The glare of lip gloss almost caused a migraine. My eyes rolled whenever the woman J.R. bent to kiss rolled hers. I now believe the sound of making money in the oil business is the sound of bourbon sluicing over ice cubes. I grew tired of the annual Ewing barbecues and the fistfights in the swimming pool. I thoroughly believe J.R. killed Kristin, and that Teresa and Raoul, the Ewing’s Mexican servants, deserve a raise and lots more dialogue.
I survived “Dallas” very happily. Watching it helped me survive these past few months, maybe these past few years, in which real events frequently surpassed fiction. I’m ready for less drama, and I hope to get back to “Middlemarch.” But maybe not. Part of me can’t wait for the next season of “Succession” — all that money, those slick interiors, the-hate-love-hate dynamic of one American family. Another Eliot — T.S.— once wrote, “human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.” I used to think he was right about this, but now — well, I’ll have to wait and see.
Sibbie O’Sullivan, a former teacher in the Honors College at the University of Maryland, is the author of “My Private Lennon: Explorations from a Fan Who Never Screamed.”