Roller Coaster Ride
Dallas returns with a reminder of the mid-season’s cliffhanger, with Southfork in flames and Pamela (Julie Gonzalo) in the throes of a drug-induced seizure that started during her threesome with John Ross (Josh Henderson) and Emma (Emma Bell). These events propel the episode, as we wonder who set the fire or who sent the incriminating sex tape to Pamela. But, as always, Dallas is less interested in resolutions than in the deviations and repetitions that lead to the answers.
As before, the new season’s retro credits set up the motif of repetition. A new version of the original theme song plays over updated shots of the city in sliding panels, giving those viewers who remember the ‘80s series a nostalgic fix. We’ve also seen the episode’s early plot before: as he did in the original series, Bobby (Patrick Duffy) here rescues Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) from a fire at the ranch. However, the series does more than reward the loyalty of long-term viewers, for it weaves an aesthetic of repetition throughout its melodramatic narrative and visual appeal.
In this Dallas, individuals are again kidnapped, blackmailed, and murdered, but mostly, they fall in and out of love. When all the casualties and bystanders of arson and overdose arrive at the same hospital, it takes a while to sort out all the couples and connections, as the characters are involved in a never-ending game of partner rotation.
So: Pamela was married to Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe), when we still knew her as Rebecca in Season One, but is now taking revenge against new husband John Ross. Elena’s (Jordana Brewster) past includes liaisons with both the younger generation Ewing males. Now she’s paired with new boyfriend Nicolas (Juan Pablo Di Pace), but rushes to console Christopher when needed. For his part, Christopher keeps gazing meaningfully at ranch-hand Heather (AnnaLynne McCord), who looks a lot like Elena, seemingly forgetful that he was in love with Elena for most of his life and not long ago married to Pamela/Rebecca.
That Pamela and Rebecca are one person highlights how characters morph into new identities as the plot demands. Indeed, the show makes its characters seem oddly interchangeable, with new characters inheriting the names and narratives of earlier ones. This is something JR himself acknowledged before he died, when he touted his ability to vanquish “Pamelas,” as though “Pamela” was a generic model off the production line rather than an individual.
Viewers have to reach through “all the years of pain and damage,” as Ann (Brenda Strong) puts it, “to find the real Emma,” or any other character, for that matter. In this world of reincarnations and recycled plots, the question is whether there is a “real” character to find.
It’s not only characters who seem familiar. The new Dallas looks a lot like the old Dallas, too. Long duration camera shots (especially close-ups) and symmetrical image compositions give it an old-fashioned visual style. The camera balances Christopher and Bobby looking concerned. Soon after, Christopher and Heather repeat the pose. Emma and Pamela wear identical green lingerie.
Viewers will recall that they bought these matching outfits when they were shopping for Pamela’s honeymoon clothes, but why does the camera dwell on this detail? The emphasis on doubling helps us move beyond melodrama’s conventional schematic coding of good and bad characters. Emma and Pamela are romantic rivals and both would qualify as villains. But they also elicit our sympathy. And the fetishization of their chorus-girl gear hints at romantic entanglements other than heterosexual rivalry.
Other characters, though, stay true to their lineage. John Ross is doing is doing a sterling job at being his father’s son; like JR, he is unfaithful and unscrupulous, and also conscious that he is “damaged.” But Judith Ryland (Judith Light) seems this series’ new JR. She dominates her scenes and gets all the best lines. “The ability to feel pain is a gift,” she tells her granddaughter Emma, “Nurture that hurt until it’s powerful enough to take vengeance on those who wronged you.” Part of the seductive quality of the scene is that we feel we have already seen it (and indeed, last season featured a similar scene between these characters).
The mix and match plot lines, the reincarnation of characters from the past in the present, and the visual style, all conspire against any sense of realism. However, as Ien Ang noted long ago in her audience research on the original series, emotional realism does not depend on verisimilitude.
What we recognize is a structure of feeling. In its exaggerations of plot and presentation, Dallas takes our emotions and our memories on a roller coaster ride. While seeming removed from real life, it can deliver moving scenes, which are layered with memories of the serial’s recent and distant past. The best of these is when Sue Ellen confesses (erroneously) to having started the fire, but more significantly that she is an alcoholic and “always will be.” More than three decades of struggle are encapsulated in this admission. Like Anne, I wanted to hug her.
It’s easy to think of Dallas as the opposite of the immersive “complex TV” mode Jason Mittell describes, now dominating the TV drama landscape, and to dismiss its formulaic déjà vu modalities. The Dallas reboot still offers space for the type of ironic spectatorship Ang described regarding the original series.
There will be viewers who love to hate it. Patrick Duffy’s acting remains wooden and Jesse Metcalfe is doing a good imitation. There is perhaps too much significant gazing going on between all the actors. But the real pleasures of the new Dallas involve engaging with repetition in all its forms and taking melodrama seriously, for this is a series that pushes at the boundaries of its genre.