Wall to Wall
by: Alan McKee / Queensland University of Technology
We never did get ‘wall to wall Dallas‘, in the end. That was the phrase that was commonly heard during the early 1980s, as America’s premier prime-time soap moved from country to country, gaining hundreds of millions of viewers around the world. The vision of ‘Wall to wall Dallas‘ represented the fear of educated intellectuals about the future of television – indeed, the future of culture more generally. They worried that this trashy, sensational vulgar entertainment showed us what would happen if America’s cultural imperialism were not stopped, if we did not fight the good fight for ‘quality’ television.
And yet, despite reaching over ninety countries at its peak, we never did get it wall to wall.
Yes, there was Knot’s Landing, that became its own, extremely valuable, piece of television real estate. And Dynasty, the show that pushed the genre just … one … more … NOTCH! from hysterical to self-combusting. And Beverly Hills 90210, which took Dallas to the kids, and Melrose Place that took it to the young adults. But all of these are gone now, leaving only fossils and The OC. And in the end, even Dallas ended – after only thirteen seasons (or twelve, if you don’t count season eight, where Bobby was dead, the whole season later revealed to be Pam’s nightmare …).
Dallas has been on my mind recently. There are the ongoing casting controversies of the movie version to keep it in the headlines. But more than that, I’m teaching a course on ‘television’s greatest hits’, and Dallas is, of course, right up there. And so, for the first time in my life, I’ve watched a full episode of the mommy of the prime time soap operas.
I approached the DVDs with an odd sense of apprehension. Like I Spit on Your Grave, this was a text whose reputation preceded it. Whereas Grave promises to be too disturbing for the average person, the reputation of Dallas was to be the herald of the end of civilisation. What could it look like? How bad would it have to be in order to draw the amount of vitriol that it has been subjected to over the years? When it started I was eight years old. Its reputation kept me away from it until the end of its run – it was a program that my mother watched; with all of the cultural sneering that implies for a young man. This was the program that terrified a generation of Euro-intellectuals, the program that confused and threatened them with a success they simply couldn’t comprehend. Downmarket, melodramatic glossy trash. Why would hundreds of millions of people around the world watch this? What strange hypnotism could it exude? It must, of course, be an expression of the unfettered power of America to impose its own culture on that of other countries. What other reason could there be for its success?
Watching the original 1978 series now, a quarter of a century later, a strange possibility emerges. Perhaps the reason this show was so successful the world over was because it was good. Really, very good.
For those who don’t know, the initial set up for Dallas was this: young, slightly white-trashy girl Pamela Barnes marries into the rich Ewing oil family. The twist? The Ewings destroyed her family years earlier when daddy Ewing stole an oil field from daddy Barnes (in a ‘re-envisioning’ of Romeo and Juliet). The stage is set for plots and double crosses and hysteria and love affairs and helicopters and expensive cars and everything that is great about melodrama.
The production values are wonderful. This in itself is not a precondition for success, or for making good television, but it is an important accomplishment – which critics often forget. Dallas looks beautiful. The lighting, the sets, the costumes are all of the most professional standard (even if they have a decidedly seventies hue – watch out for those collars!). This is also true of the acting. I wonder sometimes if television critics are aware how difficult it is to produce a television series which has a consistent tone in the performance of even a single actor – never mind an entire cast. This becomes clear if you try watching any British sitcom, for example (except for Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, or The Office), where you will commonly find some of the cast playing vaudeville, some doing naturalism, and others simply not bothering to act at all. The acting in Dallas is indeed melodramatic – that’s part of its charm. But it’s consistently melodramatic. It never sounds as though a cast member is simply standing there, reciting a line. There’s little in the way of subtext or psychological subtlety – but again, that’s generic. The program features great, consistent, hysterical melodramatic acting.
The narrative structure of the stories is fascinating – a series/serial hybrid where each episode has a self-contained story that contributes to the ongoing narrative (who would have thought that Dallas had anything to teach Buffy?). The melodramatic expression of emotion is passionate and moving. The cast are often beautiful to look at (particularly Steve Kanaly and Victoria Principal). For a mainstream success, the program also has a surprisingly ambivalent relationship to conventional morality – as in The Sopranos, our heroes are people who routinely flout the law and conventional ethical systems – although they may have their own ethical systems, based around family ties, in place. There are no truly good characters here – even Pam, who initially seems to be the virtuous outsider, is happily blackmailing Ray Krebbs by the end of the first episode in order to protect her marriage.
Now anybody who actually watched Dallas at the time will probably be disgusted by my tone of surprise here – because the viewers knew how good it was. I suppose that’s the point of this column. Looking back now, we can make a more mature judgement about the success of Dallas. Critics thought there was no rational, logical, justifiable reason for liking the program. They were wrong. The viewers were right in their viewing choices. This was good, melodramatic, television.
Perhaps in making aesthetic judgements about television, in short, we need just a little bit more populism? Let’s listen to the experts – the viewers who regularly watch the programs – and see what we can learn from them about good and bad television.
2. The cast of Dallas
Please feel free to comment.
Two more: Constrained Choice.
Before we go nuts over how great Dallas was, it might be interesting to learn about the bargain basement price at which the US sold it to the rest of the world…
I watched it at the time, but damn is this the best we can do in TV studies? Write fan mail for TV shows we like to watch?
I suppose if universities will pay us to do it, it’s fun work…but is this really what the social and intellectual content of academic life has come down to?
Dallas via Yaounde (Cameroon)
I grew up watching the “Dallas” phenomenon from an African standpoint. Moving to Texas in the early 90s, I now understand that more than US cultural imperialism and TV melodrama, “Dallas” has something to say about the making of modern mythology. A myth by definition derives its power from both its familiarity, which in “Dallas’s case can be resumed as the universal primordial attachment to family heightened by TV melodrama narrative conventions. This universal and intemporal storytelling convention derives its power from allowing polysemantic readings of the text. Myths, therefore, are storytelling rituals with built-in power to appeal to many audiences which respectively negotiate its own meanings with the show according to its own specific contexts. Consequently, an understanding of “Dallas” requires both an analysis of the text and its reception (encoding-decoding). Not doing both can lead to either abusing the text or abusing people watching it.
…there is value..
..in musing about the cultural impact of Dallas, even after all these years. It was indeed the focus for a great flurry of academic activity in its time–much of it setting it up as bete noire of anti cultural imperialists.
I did a study for the long defunct Broadcasting Research Unit in the UK in the 1980s. Its original title was “From Dallas to Dorking: American Television Programmes on British Screens’ (changed to something more ordinary), and Dallas was pretty much central to the discussion.
PS I enjoyed your contributions to the ATOM conference in Brisbane this past weekend, Alan! Sorry.
think you might enjoy Liebes and Katz, The Export of Meaning: Cross-Cultural Readings of ‘Dallas’ (Polity)
Writing fan mail
Thanks for the comments. I’m interested in methodological hypocrisy. If I work in art history, it’s perfectly OK to write fan mail about artworks. If I work in Literary Studies, it’s OK to write fan mail about literary novels. If I work in philosophy/cultural theory, it’s OK to write fan mail to favoured theorists. But to write it about a TV program … oh no!
Doesn’t that kind of suggest that we must never say that a TV program is good?
Interesting piece with an even more interesting effect: it makes me want to watch a program that I have never seen nor cared to watch previous to this column! Any frequent reader of Flow is familiar with the ongoing debate about academics-as-fans (see some of Jason Mittell’s work from previous issues). What’s wrong with an academic making his vested interest in a text known and then supporting it with adequate evidence and reasoning? Why can’t it simply contribute to a deeper understanding and appreciation of a text, existing alongside other readings? I think the tension might be symptomatic of much larger ideologies about popular culture and its place within the academy, or even older debates about administrative and critical research. Are we, as academics, obligated to talk only about power at the expense of our own pleasure?
Another thought – what would “unconstrained choice” look like? Surely, axiomatically, there is no such thing as absolute freedom of choice? If nothing else, we’re constrained by language and what is thinkable.
My own feeling is that there has never been as much choice of cultural consumption as is currently the case. Even in the pre-Internet days of Dallas, the majority of the British and Australian populations chose not to watch television at any given time. Even in prime time, rarely more than a quarter of the population watch TV. What are the rest doing? I’ve got no idea. Fishing? Playing frisbee? Having sex? Reading trashy magazines? listening to pop music? There’s certainly lots of choice!
re: McKee’s last comment. This is an interesting use of the term “methodology.” Perhaps not appropriate for this type of column. But since it was introduced, I wonder what METHOD did the author use — beyond watching the show and liking it — and noting that it was dumped on countries around the world because it was cheap programming, to make the case for its apparently overwhelming global popularity? Compaed with what? Test patterns? Locally produced programming? I suspect the real hypocrisy here is the pretense that some kind of method is involved.
Beyond that, one more question: is it taken for granted from a fannish cultural studies perspective, that Dallas=Dante’s Inferno=Vermeer’s interiors? Or is it important to make a case for that equation?
If not, is it also the case that Dallas=Debbie Does Dallas=bumfights=KKK recruiting videos?
Does the object or artifact matter (socially, politically, economically) in any way beyond serving as the focus of a critic’s attention of a fan’s delectation? If so, how and why?
I think the question about unconstrained choice is a straw man. The point is not that unconstrained choice is some sort of ideal. Rather it is to point out that all choices are subject to constraints and that this admission indicates we need to consider the nature of the constraints.
To suggest that a consideration of constraints is unnecessary because all choices are constrained is just sloppy thinking.
Thanks for the question Kevin.
There are a number of ways to measure the popularity of television programs. Sometimes production companies ask viewers to give a numerical rating for how much they enjoyed a show (‘Quality’ scores). And there are of course more qualitative, less replicable methods such as monitoring public debates, including Internet debates; or interviewing fans. And of course, ratings do show whether audiences enjoy a show. If they don’t, they will either watch something else; or do something else (have sex, read a magazine, shout at the kids).
I’ve never heard the suggestion before that Dallas wasn’t successful. All of the ratings data and interview data with audiences (Ang, Katz, etc) agrees that it was popular. The main point of contention seems to be – why was it popular?
As for the ‘pretence’ about methodology – it’s an interesting question. Do philosophers have method? Art historians? Are there whole disciplines of the university that are method free? Obviously they follow standard practices – exegesis, appreciation, etc – but are those acceptable ‘methods’?
And on the question of whether Dallas = high art … I wouldn’t claim that. Would you? I claimed that Dallas is good melodrama. I think that Vermeer did very bad melodrama. His interiors have never made me shriek with delight at their outrageousness. We need different criteria to understand Vermeer.
And Mike – thanks for your insult (sloppy thinking indeed!). Of course we must think of the nature of constraints. So … let’s do that. What alternatives do you think audiences would prefer, and what is your evidence for this?