It was a critical commonplace in the middle of the 20th century that American literature was fundamentally antisocial, romantic, and gothic (Richard Chase, Leslie Fiedler); that even our classiest novelist-of-manners, Henry James, could be persuasively identified as a man of melodrama (Susan Sontag in “Notes on Camp,” Peter Brooks) might have seemed to clinch the case. Watching Dallas, a Friday-night CBS soap opera that ran from 1978 to 1991, doesn’t incline one to disagree with the overall diagnosis. Ours is evidently a culture given to Manichean extremes, to fleeing the mild pleasures of bourgeois society, to alienation, isolation and excess. If we haven’t got a George Eliot or a Gustave Flaubert, this argument allows one to shrug, we’ve got the best creepy schlock available.

But—the question intrudes if one is watching Dallas at the same time the Republican National Convention is being aired—is a culture of creepy schlock healthful for a democracy? Melodrama gets slammed for having “resolutely refused to understand social change in other than private contexts and emotional terms” (Thomas Elsaesser), for contributing to a “national sentimentality” that “makes citizenship into a category of feeling irrelevant to practices of hegemony or sociality in everyday life…. it is a politics that abjures politics, made on behalf of a private life protected from the harsh realities of power” (Lauren Berlant). Against the charge that schlock (or melodrama, or the sentimental, or the gothic) is irresponsible escapism, I find myself wanting to claim some socially redemptive cred for it.

No doubt the desire to redeem a discredited but lovable thing is itself schlocky. I should call it jouissance and let it go. But it’s true that among the pleasures that Dallas provides today is that of uncanny recognition: this show appeared during one oil crisis, at the height of a great American malaise; here we are in the midst of another oil crisis and with an economy in full recess. The head boss on the show was J.R., a barbecue-flavored conniver and the heir to an oil fortune; the head boss on our show could be his born-again cousin. When Sontag writes about camp, she’s not arguing for its socio-political traction; she says that “time liberates the work of art from moral relevance, delivering it over to the Camp sensibility…. What was banal can, with the passage of time, become fantastic.” With Dallas time has made what was ostensibly a fantasy into banal reality. But it’s still camp, surely. What follows is a short catalog of some of the pleasures—redemptive or non-redemptive, campy or not—of watching Dallas now.

Melodrama in the style of Baz Luhrman or Pedro Almodovar is high on color; things are saturated, vivid, they punch you in the eye. In the five-episode miniseries that opened the series thirty years ago, Dallas eschews the cheap thrills of purple, chartreuse, and fuschia and limits itself to a monochromatic palette. This is no noir-ish gray and black; it’s noontide, washed-out tan. Watching the opening credits roll (as you can here), you notice how beige and how puny everything appears on screen. The skyline of the downtown, approached by a heli-cam swooping across three minimally trafficked feeder freeways, pokes up just a handful of medium-high buildings against a flat sky. (A hayseed like Rudy Giuliani might observe that it’s not “flashy enough” for the likes of Obama.) You see tawny cattle jogging through taupe earth, stirring up clouds of dust, then an industrial-size tractor plowing up more of the same, then an aerial shot of the landscape, all squares representing variations on the color of drought. Southfork, the ranch where the Ewings live, is a fine white-columned mansion, but it looks squat and insignificant in a dun sea of dead grass. Yet the beige becomes hypnotic in its subtlest gradations.
This is partly so because it apparels such beauty. The show’s leading women outfit themselves in shimmery, synthetic earth tones, generally nothing that falls outside the milk-to-sand range. Their lips are swathed in frosty coppers or shiny nude gloss, their necks glint with slim gold chains. Lucy, the family embarrassment, once climbs memorably from a hayloft in a red getup—a jaunty scarlet vest with matching pants so high-waisted and tight-crotched it makes you hold your breath—but she’s made to change her clothes before she goes to school (where she’ll stage a molestation by a well-meaning, drably-attired male teacher).

The score is wonderful. The heli-sweep across Dallas’s practically untraveled highways to its insignificant downtown looks puny in part because it’s overwhelmed by the mingled stirring of horns and strings that accompanies it, a scintillating few measures of aural promise that by rights should attend a glorious sunrise over the New Jerusalem. That introductory fizz snaps right into a disco-tinged, Copland-style orchestral anthem with noble prairie horns and an irreverent wa-wa pedal. It makes you want to eat beef. The instrumental soundtrack that brought on John McCain’s acceptance speech last Thursday night (not “Raisin’ McCain,” which came after, along with “Barracuda”) unmistakably invoked Dallas’s central riff, a chin-up, back-in-the-saddle, trombone-y melody that the Marlboro Man probably whistled at daybreak.
In the midst of an episode, music cues you, should you be drifting, to feel. Bassoons moan a warning, strings rile your nerves. When Lucy demands that the ranch foreman she’s dallying with, Ray, call her by Pam’s name—Pam the working-class beauty Ray used to run with before she married up into the Ewing family and thereby set off the plot of the entire series—the creepiness of her request is sudden and gratuitous. But the violins do a horror-movie number that makes you feel appropriately vile, perfectly in sync with the show’s demands. When J.R. accuses Pam later of having leaked proof that Ewing Oil is bribing a senator, no one speaks for a full minute; oboes whine while the camera patiently picks up reaction shots around the dinner table. Why speak when you have a whole orchestra at your command? (Brooks explains: “The word melodrama means, originally, a drama accompanied by music. It appears to have first been used in this sense by Rousseau, to describe a play in which he sought a new emotional expressivity through the mixture of spoken soliloquy, pantomime, and orchestral accompaniment.” David Jacobs, the creator of Dallas, is faithful to this tradition, except that he substitutes people walking around wrapped in towels, hopping in and out of the shower, for the pantomime.) The scene cuts before anyone speaks; Pam leaves the table to the accompaniment of rising strings that add a little screechy outrage to the baleful woodwinds.

Straight Talk
Dallas’s characters deliver scorn scornfully, with narrowed eyes; they express fear fearfully, with hand over open mouth. When J.R.’s wife Sue Ellen, still prickly toward the interloper Pam, notes of Pam’s shopping acumen that “she should have good taste, after all those years working in department stores,” the line is delivered with a genteel, understated venom that freezes your blood agreeably. Linda Gray, who plays Sue Ellen, may have read Brooks’s assertion that in melodrama (James- or CBS-style) the aim is “an assertion that what is being played out on the plane of manners is charged from the realm of the moral occult, that gestures within the world constantly refer us to another, hyperbolic set of gestures where life and death are at stake.” Hyperbole becomes strategy. When the show wants to provide psychic motivation, it lays it out unceremoniously, like a platter of coldcuts: “This family is so full of guilt because they let your daddy run wild,” says Pam to Lucy, inaugurating a new tough-love approach with the delinquent. (Character development, notes Sontag, is foreign to the spirit of camp; instead “character is understood as a state of continual incandescence—a person being one, very intense thing.”) J.R., the show’s Miltonic Satan, is a lip-smacking connoisseur of dirty dealing. Within ten minutes of the first episode, he has asked Pam, in a low, perfectly assured man-to-man bargaining voice, what it would cost to scrap her “farce” of a marriage to his younger brother Bobby. He never wavers thenceforward.
The family patriarch is named Jock. There you have it. He is supremely manful, a fit complement to Miss Ellie’s tough-but-tender matron, as he smokes a cigarette in the dark after dinner, wearing a sheepskin coat and black leather gloves and (of course) a cowboy hat. When J.R. tells him he tried to buy off Pam, Jock spits out, “you jackass,” and then offers advice that one would be happy to send to the White House: “Your lack of subtlety turns competitors into enemies, and enemies into fanatics.” Here is a cool breeze of Michael-Moore-worthy social commentary from a cowboy who out-cowboys everyone else: us-versus-them is actually a handy fiction, since we and they are competing to buy and sell the same stuff.

David Jacobs swaps the traditional American alignment of good girls with blond hair (Becky Thatcher in Tom Sawyer, Alice in The Last of the Mohicans) and bad ones with dark (Hester Prynne, Rappacini’s daughter, Isabel in Pierre). Pam’s and Sue Ellen’s hair is auburn, anchor-woman shiny and smooth, and, like anchor women’s hair, it’s a sensible shoulder length. Pam is the unblemished source of good, a sexy, feisty proletariat (like Sarah Palin, minus the fertility, as we learn at the start of season one proper, and the Biblical righteousness), and Sue Ellen is the long-suffering, oft-betrayed wife. Lucy, a radiant blonde, is the bastard hellion, the Topsy whom no Little Eva could reform. The show, lacking any black characters, codes her as the dark primitive: she’s all demanding, voracious sexuality; the spirit of mischief; a liar and blackmailer, but also a source of truth about the family’s ugly secrets; an accomplished horsewoman (she has a natural way with beasts); the one whom no Ewing man can say no to (this admitted wistfully by the clan’s matriarch, Miss Ellie). Lucy’s hair is magnificent; it hangs in loose, banana-pudding-colored waves most of the way down her back. Julie, J.R.’s secretary and mistress, wears her hair (redder than Pam’s or Sue Ellen’s) in a gravitationally impudent flip, a never-ending rip curl that waves around her face. She’s played by Tina Louise, the actress who portrayed Ginger on Gilligan’s Island and who made her film debut in God’s Little Acre in 1958, so it’s no wonder that she knows, as he confesses in a heated moment, how to turn J.R. on.

Class Warfare
Jock’s enemy, Digger Barnes, is the dissipated American loser, soused at midday in a bar downtown when Pam goes to tell him belatedly that she married Bobby Ewing. Years back Digger found the oil well that made Jock rich, but Jock took the rights, claiming that Digger would just have drunk himself to death on the profits. To personalize the gross economic injustice, Jock married Digger’s sweetheart, Miss Ellie; she explains to Digger later that if she hadn’t become Jock’s wife, she would have lost her family’s land to his aggressive speculations. But they’ve made a good life, she and Jock.
Cliff Barnes, Pam’s brother and Digger’s son, is a reformist lawyer we first see hammering away at one of Ewing Oil’s senatorial cronies. Later he’ll get to capitalize on Julie’s anger with J.R.: wounded by J.R.’s tossing her a hundred-dollar bill after they sleep together (“buy yourself something real nice”), Julie brings Cliff a document that indicts one of the Ewings’ strongest allies in the senate. When Julie and Cliff hear on the radio the next morning that the crooked senator has resigned, Cliff is mortified: “He was the key, the key to opening up the whole Ewing can of worms.” Julie realizes that Cliff is motivated by ancestral grievance, the only thing, besides money, that motivates anyone in the world of Dallas—“it’s personal with you, you don’t give a damn about ethical government”—and that he has used her just as expeditiously as J.R. ever did. (Julie, of course, wanted to get revenge on J.R., not clean up the state house.) Cliff tries to defend himself, looking and sounding for the moment just like The Wire’s Thomas Carcetti: “Hey, I was honest. I said I was using you. I’m the good guys, they’re the bad guys.” Julie retorts like a whip: “Not from this end. I’m leaving here the same—used.” Pam confronts her about the leak, telling Julie she should’ve done as Pam did: “If you’d stood your ground you might be Mrs. Ewing now. But you settled. And what’ve you got now? Not even your self-respect.” Luckily, Julie does have her hair, but she quits her job working for J.R. For the women this is a world of pulling yourself up by your lingerie straps, or not at all. For everyone, the personal is political, and the sexual is economic. This is a genre thing, according to Elsaesser: “the element of interiorization and personalization of primarily ideological conflicts, together with the metaphorical interpretation of class conflict as sexual exploitation and rape, is important in all… forms of melodrama, including that of the cinema.” And television.
So it’s appropriate that in the 1848 moment of the Dallas miniseries (episode four, titled “Winds of Vengeance”), Brian Dennehy shows up as Luther Frick, a crusading avenger of the working class. J.R. has slept with his wife; now he’s going to sleep with J.R.’s. That the revenge must cross class lines upward is a point underlined when Pam offers to take the hit for the family. Frick’s sidekick rejects her since she’s “one of us,” and they’re after “one of them.” Nothing will satisfy Frick’s rage until he’s got Sue Ellen in her Miss Texas bathing suit singing “People Who Need People,” the song that won her the competition, at gunpoint. Most of the family is held hostage on the sofa, watching. Like us. A mix of shame, fear, and confusion takes over one’s response to the show here. The raw pain of Sue Ellen’s performance slips the genre gears—it breaks camp and goes beyond melodrama; where it should be bathos, it turns into pathos; it’s an experiment in humiliation. Of course it avoids full-on tragedy when the right Ewing men, Bobby and Jock, arrive in time. But the denouement—Miss Ellie decrees that Frick must go free, lest J.R.’s infidelity come to light—is so morally unsatisfying that not even Miss Ellie’s hyper-matriarchal authority makes it right. The revolutionary moment winds up an Eighteenth Brumaire, to borrow Michael Rogin’s analogy for Melville’s similarly unsatisfying and wacky Pierre. Melodrama, perhaps, lies smack in between farce and tragedy. Does that make it a peculiarly American cultural form? It provides some terms, at least, for contemplating the maverick presidency of McCain and Palin.