Warner Bros. // 1978 // 1397 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // September 29th, 2004
"Don't forgive and never forget. Do unto others before they do unto you.
And third, and most importantly, keep your eyes on your friends, because your
enemies will take care of themselves."
-- JR Ewing
Dallas makes it way onto DVD with all the Texas glitz, fake southern drawls, sex, and backstabbing of the first two seasons. Dallas had an amazing thirteen year run (356 episodes), and became a national obsession in 1980 as everyone clamored to find out "Who shot J.R.?" This set covers the show's origins, from Pam and Bobby's shocking nuptials to a drunken, pregnant Sue Ellen's escape from a sanitarium. It has all the subtly of a diamond encrusted boot stomping on a Texas rattlesnake, but 350 million fans in 150 countries can't be wrong. Television would never be the same, and neither would its namesake Texas city. The show was initially shot and set on a working cattle ranch in Plano, Texas (forty miles north of downtown Dallas) called Southfork. The ranch is now the second-most-visited Texas landmark behind the Alamo. A real family lived there for generations, but were forced to move out when the show became popular. The residence part of the ranch is now a museum dedicated to Dallas's history. To this day, the city of Dallas must fight the stereotypes the show generated. It's considered the materialistic and morally corrupt part of Texas, despite the Enron scandals in Houston and the political daggers consistently thrown in Austin. They have to continually stop tourists from humming the theme (by Jerrold Immel, complete with horns and a groovy disco beat) when they arrive in the airport and see the skyline. The Ewings' legacy lives on.
This DVD collection comes in a cardboard foldout slipper case that holds five double-sided discs, with six episodes on each disc. Three episode commentaries from Larry Hagman (J.R.), Charlene Tilton (Lucy), and David Jacobs (the creator of the show) are included as extras. Also included is a SoapTalk Dallas Reunion special with Patrick Duffy (Bobby), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen), Hagman, and Tilton. The twenty-nine episodes cover Dallas's initial five episode miniseries "first season" and the twenty-four episodes of the second season. All the seeds of the continuing storylines are planted: Bobby and J.R.'s rivalry, Pamela's discomfort being a Barnes in the Ewing clan, Sue Ellen's alcohol problem, and J.R.'s plots to take down everyone and be the last cowboy standing. The first shows concentrate on the core eight characters that live at Southfork, but by the end of the second season more than forty supporting roles were introduced with numerous subplots emerging.
Dallas didn't seem a good bet from the get-go. David Jacobs had an idea for a show called Knots Landing, but the network didn't think it would fly. Instead, they tasked him with creating five episodes revolving around an Texas-based oil family, called the Ewings, who were mentioned in his submitted script. Jacobs and producer Larry Katzman (a veteran of Gunsmoke) set out to film these five episodes on location in Texas. The network wanted them to use Linda Evans (Krystle from Dynasty), and she did meet with them to discuss the role of a young bride named Pamela Barnes Ewing. She felt the role and the show would be too blue collar for her, offered some suggestions, and ultimately passed on the part. Casting problems were compounded when Robert Foxworth (Falcon Crest) decided to back out of playing the crucial J.R. Ewing character. But somehow the team cobbled together an amazing cast of both veteran and new actors, and completed the miniseries, which aired in the Spring of 1978.
Dallas revolved around a simple Romeo and Juliet story involving Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy, The Man From Atlantis) and his new bride Pamela Barnes (Victoria Principal, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean). The Ewings and Barnes have a history of feuding over oil claims. Pamela's wildcatter father felt his claims had been stolen from him by Ewing patriarch Jock (Jim Davis, The Big Sky). The feud was further fired when Jock married Miss Ellie Southworth (Barbara Bel Geddes, Vertigo), a sweetheart of Pamela's father (the oil and the girl!). Her ranch, coupled with Jock's booming oil business, built an empire ready and waiting for their three sons to inherit. Embedded in the story are a few Biblical motifs, too. You have the "good son" Bobby fighting with the "bad son" John Ross Jr., known by his nickname "J.R." (Hagman, I Dream of Jeannie) for control of the Ewing family business. It's your basic Cain and Abel homage. Throw in prodigal middle son Gary, and you've got all the fixings for a Texas soap opera.
The show debuted with strong ratings, but the critics were none too kind, branding the show deplorable, dumb, boring, and predictable. The network trembled, and tenuously ordered a smaller number of episodes as the second season went on. But Dallas proved to be an unstoppable ratings juggernaut. The first nine or ten stories were shot on location, and longtime fans will marvel at how gothic and small Southfork looks before they began shooting on studio sets in Culver City, CA. The miniseries was shot in the dead of winter, so there's a gray, snowy feel most fans will not recognize. This first collection captures the early years, and will either be a treat for longtime fans to rediscover, or a shock for people who first tuned in well into the run. The majority of the early episodes are self-contained stories that wrap up inside of an hour, and there is only minimal overlap between episodes. It really wasn't until the third season that Dallas began to stretch its stories across successive seasons, and the immediate gratification of these early episodes will be nice for people watching for the first time. But the really amazing thing is how the characters change so little from when they were first introduced in 1978 until the show's end. There didn't seem to be too much tweaking, and the characters are solid and fully realized from day one.
The charm of the show lies in that which critics lambasted and derided -- its outright simplicity. No moral ambiguity and no shades of gray can be found in Dallas. Either someone is good (Bobby, Pamela, Miss Ellie), or they are bad to the core (J.R.). From week to week you never had to question who was right or wrong; you knew exactly from whence all the evil would come. J.R. is the kind of guy who smiles ear to ear, shakes your hand, and plants infinite knives in your back while charming you. I never knew why anyone trusted him, since he was patently a liar and a cheat from the start. Larry Hagman was always the standout on the show, but he never garnered an Emmy for playing America's favorite bad guy. He anchored the show from day one, and remained with it throughout every season. Amazingly he was almost twenty years older than Patrick Duffy, and a contemporary of Barbara Bel Geddes -- who played his momma. The make-up team made him look younger with some incredible hairpieces (to hide his bald pate) and a whole lot of pancake to fill in those wrinkles. It is his performance that looms largest in one's mind when recalling Dallas, and even in the very first episode he is deliciously evil and smarmy. I could praise every last actor, but I particularly loved Linda Gray's Sue Ellen (she also went on to parts in Models, Inc and Melrose Place). She played J.R.'s long-suffering alcoholic wife in a portrayal reminiscent of the greatest Lady Macbeths. Sue Ellen is a drunken mass of guilt and anger that hides under a polished veneer of the elegant civilized lady who lunches with society and runs charities. She would fight her husband with the ferocity of a wild boar crossed with an angry shrew, then turn around and smile, and be cordial and downright sweet to anyone else who crossed her path. You want to know the real secret of Dallas? All the actors were having a blast! They laughed at the cartoon quality of the scripts, but loved each other, and the show, so much that they made it a top-notch affair. Melodramatic and over the top -- but it still produced some fine performances, and it was wildly addictive and entertaining. J.R., Bobby, Pamela, Miss Ellie, Jock, Lucy, Sue Ellen, and Ray were all intriguing characters audiences begged to see every Friday night.
The transfer to DVD is problematic, but is probably the best it could be, given the age of the source material. Stunning and clear in parts, it almost always turns grainy, dirty and scratch-riddled in several scenes of every episode. Colors and focus seemed washed out, due probably to the technical restraints of the era rather than any authoring issues. The sound is, alas, mono, and sometimes sounds muffled, but Dolby mastering eliminates hiss and incidental noise. The commentaries are a hoot and a half! Larry Hagman, Charlene Tilton, and series creator David Jacobs rib each other and poke fun at the show besides discussing what it was like to film. They address the entire history of the show, so it's absolutely spoiler-ridden and hardly ever episode-specific. All three were recorded in a group session, and it's an absolute gem of an extra feature. On the last disc you will also find a special reunion of key cast members which (in some cases)illustrates the ravages of age and time. My only gripe is the use of dual-layered flipper discs. Yes, you have to read the tiny type near the hole to figure out which side has the episodes you are looking for. They save space, but I hate them. They scratch easily, and you have to be careful to keep them firmly in the case.
Bring up Dallas and you get a wide range of reactions. Most people seem to have some derision for the show being the original nighttime soap opera, and they begrudge it for being materialistic and too simple. Not to be contrary, but I distrust those with a hatred for a good old fashioned melodrama. Peyton Place predated Dallas, and firmly established that watching rich people suffer is entertaining. This show merely revived the genre of beautiful, wealthy people screwing each other in every definition of the word. It also proved to the networks how compelling and profitable these types of shows could be, and helped define a decade of greed that followed its arrival. Dallas spawned countless imitators, including Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210, and The O.C. Its own spin-off series, Knots Landing, ran for fourteen years, leaving its creators with twenty-eight years of television as their legacy. You might not cotton to Dallas because of your aversion to its soap opera elements, but there were certainly legions of fans who did. Dallas is dated, though. It was a brave show that knocked down many censorship barriers and pioneered smut and sex, but it's tame next to today's shows. Modern audiences will find it restrained, and possibly quaint.
Dallas: The Complete First and Second Seasons is a whole mess of fun! Sprawling melodramatic Texas tall tales about the rich and powerful are a kick. Despite the technical limitations of the source material, the series does look better here than when it airs in syndication. The set should please hardcore fans as well as give new viewers a chance to see what all the fuss was about. It inspired me in strange ways. I wore a hat and boots to the office, but nobody said much -- because, thankfully, I live in Texas (where this still is proper corporate attire in many cases). The only thing they got miffed about was when I insisted they could not see my red files, and when I began plotting to blackmail and seduce all my co-workers.
Dallas is free to go. I don't know of any judge who could successfully incarcerate a Ewing anyway. Their corporate lawyers are vicious and well paid. Besides...a little blackmail, family feuds, and extramarital affairs seem like minor infractions when compared with the real robber barons of Texas oil -- the Enron management team. Those cowboys deserve a stiff penalty and a series of their own! The only thing I fear is a rumored Hollywood big screen adaptation of the series, which is mentioned (quite often) in the commentaries on this set. We may have to lock-up David Jacobs to stop that from happening. Nobody could replace Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing! We Texans don't take too kindly to messing with our myths!
Review content copyright © 2004 Brett Cullum; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 1397 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary on Three Episodes from Actors Larry Hagman and Charlene Tilton and Series Creator David Jacobs
* SoapTalk Dallas Reunion Special
* Ultimate Dallas