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The Big House on the Prairie

Monday, Nov. 12, 1979 By GERALD CLARKE

The seven deadly sins make Dallas No. 6 in the ratings

Not long ago, Big Jock Ewing looked down his long dining room table and said to his wife, "This family's falling apart. I tell you, it's falling apart." What Jock was complaining about was that there were some empty seats at the table.

But actually, as millions of viewers knew, things were perfectly normal at the Southfork Ranch: J.R., the eldest son, was in Washington with his newest mistress, and J.R.'s wife, Sue Ellen, was bedding down with her sister-in-law's brother. In short, just an ordinary night in Big D.

Most nights, in fact, it would take a motelkeeper to know who was in what bed in the Ewing family, and why. Dallas is proof that on television, as everywhere else, sex sells, and more sex sells better.

Shortly after the program began last year, it was No. 58 on the charts. It has climbed steadily since then, and last week achieved its highest ranking yet. It came in No. 6, helping push CBS to the top of the Nielsens for the first time this season.

Sex is the motive power behind this prime-time soap opera, but there is no slighting of the six other deadly sins either —particularly avarice. The ranch house could pass for the Southfork Hilton, and it must take a tanker and a half to fuel all those Mercedes in the driveway. The lovely Ewing ladies flop around the house in designer dresses, and when the good ole boys go hunting, they don't pile into a pickup. They whir away in a helicopter.

The only really decent person in the whole household is Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes), and there must be something wrong with her too. Why else would she be wife to such a man as Jock and mother to such an unwholesome brood? By his own admission, Jock (Jim Davis) made his fortune in oil by dirty dealings, and J.R. (Larry Hagman) is carrying on the tradition by cheating everyone within howdyin' distance. After much conniving, he finally ran Brother Gary (David Ackroyd) off the spread, but then Gary is a no-account drunk and gambler who probably got what he deserved anyway. Young Bobby (Patrick Duffy) is the good brother, comparatively speaking, but even he has a few black marks against him.

What makes this trash so flashy and, in its own nasty way, so irresistible, is its unashamed appeal to the lower emotions and the exuberant ingenuity of its rococo plot. Like one of those electric lint brushes, Dallas' industrious writers have picked up a little fuzz from most of their betters, all of their equals, and one or two of their inferiors. Whir, buzz. Here's a thread from Shakespeare's voluminous mantle: that old blood feud betwen the Montagues and the Capulets, or, in this case, the Ewings and the Barneses. Hum, grind. There's half of Tennessee Williams' back pocket. Can't you hear that cat scratching on the hot tin roof over Big Daddy's bedroom?

The idea for the show, says Producer Leonard Katzman, was to imagine that Romeo and Juliet were playing just-pretend in that tomb and suddenly found themselves in Dallas. Bobby is Romeo, and his Juliet is Pamela Barnes (Victoria Principal), the daughter of a man Jock doublecrossed during his wildcatting days. Bobby brings her home to Southfork, and J.R. tries everything but cyanide to get rid of her. He is afraid that she will give Big Daddy — sorry, Jock — his first grandson and thus persuade the old man to make Bobby his heir. His tactics fail, but when Pam does become pregnant, the resourceful J.R. manages to get her into a scuffle, causing her to suffer a miscarriage.

From that beginning have sprung enough plots, subplots and sub-subplots to propel a dozen shows. There is so much going on, in fact, that CBS will spin off a new series, called Knot's Landing, next January, with the feckless Gary re-emerging in Southern California. In the past year in Dallas, meantime, there have been three kidnapings and one violent death. J.R. has forcibly committed his alcoholic wife Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) to a drying-out clinic. Vowing revenge, she has taken up with Pam's brother, Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval). "I'm just so tired of J.R. gettin' everything he wants," pouts Sue Ellen. "Always winnin'." But that's all right; J.R. is sleeping with her sister, Kristin (Mary Crosby).

The production is so slick that it scarcely matters that some of the acting is not. When they think about it, the two daughters-in-law practice their accents, droppin' g's like sure-'nuff Texans. When they do something besides thinking, like parading around the swimming pool, they sound as if the only Texans they know are those who shop on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Bel Geddes does not even attempt an accent, but she is so good at everything else that no one notices. Lucky Larry Hagman, who grew up in Texas, sounds just right.

For that matter, Hagman does everything just right, and the chief joy of Dallas is watching him play an overstuffed lago in a stetson hat. Mean? There ain't nobody meaner than this dude. But Hagman plays him with such obvious zest and charm that he is impossible to dislike. Why was lago so evil? Hagman knows: it's fun being bad. And that is the secret the creators of Dallas have discovered too. Audiences applaud the good guys, but they watch the bad ones, hour after hour after hour. —Gerald Clarke

©Time magazine 1979


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