Dallas, the 1980s prime-time soap opera, may have disappeared from American television 20 years ago, but like J.R. Ewing, the show never really died.
Julia Barton explores why the series left such an indelible mark on viewers in America and around the world.
Dallas, Pitiless Universe was produced as part of Studio 360's American Icon series.
Julia Barton is an independent writer, producer and editor based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her recent work has appeared on Studio 360, CBC Radio, 99% Invisible, and other programs. She's also a media trainer in the former Soviet Union. Currently she's getting ready to head for Ukraine and Russia as a correspondent for PRI's The World.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Julia Barton
Why did you choose this topic, and why now, specifically?
It was actually a commission from Studio 360. They've been running this great series called American Icons for years, re-exploring influential moments in American culture, from Moby Dick to I Love Lucy. At the end of this latest round, they asked listeners for their suggestions, and they liked the one about the show Dallas the best.
You interview so many different people for this story, including people in different countries. How involved was the production process and where did you start?
I grew up in Dallas, so I mostly knew whom to talk with there, starting with my best friend from childhood, who was an extra on the show once. And I knew I wanted to talk with the creator of the show, David Jacobs, who turned out to be a fantastic interview.
Then as luck would have it, I was headed to Moldova earlier this year to do some media training in a small town on the border with Romania. So I just googled "Dallas" and "Romania" and found out that the show had a huge influence there. And, better yet, a Romanian tycoon had built a sort of replica of Southfork ranch about three hours by car from where I was staying. So I hired a Moldovan guy with a Romanian passport to take me out there with an interpreter. It was fascinating and a little sad. This didn't make it into the story, but the tycoon also put a small-sized replica of the Eiffel Tower on his property. He died last year a broken man, having bankrupted himself in his effort to be the J.R.of Romania.
Is it difficult to shape a story that doesn't necessarily have a central character and narrative arc? How do you go about giving a story like that structure?
It is tricky. Musical moments helped a lot with this. I knew I wanted the Dallas theme to blast out somewhere, and also to include Jimmy Dale Gilmore's great song about Dallas. Then I found these other weird artifacts, like the Howard Keel song "J.R.! Who do you think you are?" from the album Dallas: the Musical Story. These are all great songs -- some serious, some sad, some cheesy. And they're all supposedly about the same place, but in name only. They helped me navigate through all the different versions of "Dallas" I wanted to explore.
At Southfork Ranch, this immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo sang me the Dallas theme song in French. Once I found the lyrics to that, I knew that was going to be the end of the piece.
But in between all the musical moments, my editor David Krasnow and I did a lot of anguished rewriting. I talked about some of this recently on Transom. It was really hard to get this story to flow in the right way, and we probably went through about 10 scripts.
This story is really funny, and it sort of subtly makes fun of Dallas while also giving it due credit. How did you think about using humor in this story or in your work in general?
Dallas is funny -- come on. We took mercy on it by not including the infamous "It was all a dream" scene which turned the whole seventh season into one big delusion of Pamela Ewing's so that Patrick Duffy could get back on the series after his character died. But a lot of people love Dallas and it's had a huge influence both abroad and in my home town. The different effects it had are very interesting to me.
At the end of the piece you say that although Dallas still plays in other countries all over the world, it's no longer on television in America because "we know the story too well, we all live in Dallas now." Will you explain a little bit more about what you mean by that? And if Dallas is no longer the kind of entertainment we're seeking, can you think of a show that would be the anti-Dallas?
I left Dallas in 1987 for college, but it's followed me everywhere by expanding to fill the national space. In 1992, the three major candidates for president - George Bush, Sr., H. Ross Perot, and Bill Clinton - all came from a triangle centered on Dallas. George W. Bush lives there now, and Rick Perry may well carry Dallas money all the way through the next presidential race. What I meant by that line is that with Dallas now so politically and culturally dominant, it's not an intriguing mystery for Hollywood to chew on anymore.
The anti-Dallas? Yes, I have that all mapped out. It would be 10-part miniseries about the followers of 19th-century French utopian Charles Marie Fourier. Fourier dreamed of a world where we would no longer follow the laws of man or religion, but realign our social structures according to the laws governing our inner passions, which Fourier had conveniently discovered and tabulated. Though dismissed in his day as something of a pervert and crank, his critique of modern life influenced Marx and intrigued many Russians thinkers, such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Fourier died in the 1830s, but many of his followers helped lead social revolutions in Europe in 1848. Then they were exiled or forced underground, and some decided to start a Fourierist colony in the United States.
It was a disaster. The differences between Fourier's theories and reality on the ground led to a lot of tragic -- and some very tragicomic -- scenes. After the whole thing disbanded, the wealthier colonists went back to Europe, but many others had to stay and build new lives in a small town nearby called --
I recommend Owen Wilson for the lead. Please contact my agent.
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