- Watching ‘Dallas’: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination by Ien Ang, translated by Della Couling
Methuen, 148 pp, £10.50, November 1985, ISBN 0 416 41630 6
‘Bobby J. Ewing, I don’t believe you.’ The first episode of Dallas began, in 1978, with Pamela’s stilted expression of incredulity. Within two years the city famous for hosting President Kennedy’s assassination was celebrated instead for the attempt on the life of Bobby’s brother, JR. A hundred and twenty million Americans tuned in to see who had shot him – more than had voted in the previous Presidential election. In Britain the figure was 24 million – almost half the nation. It has been estimated that 250 million people all over the world watched – and continue to watch – the antics of the Ewing family. The symptoms of this obsession are familiar: the dramatic rise in water and electricity consumption, the empty streets. An image I can’t remove from my mind is of an old woman in Ushuaia: one of the last of the Patagonian Indians, she sat in her concrete hut as mesmerised by the episode she was watching as she was by the cocoa leaves she chewed. For a world lacking a binding mythology, Dallas, and its clone Dynasty, which has recently overtaken it in the ratings, have become a common touchstone.
Vol. 8 No. 5 · 20 March 1986
SIR: The makers of Dynasty can at least claim dramatic licence for imposing a king on Moldavia. What excuse has Nicholas Shakespeare (LRB, 20 February) for moving the country to the Baltic?
Boodle’s, London SW1
SIR: Nicholas Shakespeare notes as an indelible image of the ubiquity of Dallas an old Patagonian Indian who ‘sat in her concrete hut as mesmerised by the episode she was watching as she was by the cocoa leaves she chewed’. Surely this should read ‘coca’ leaves, and are these not known less for their mesmerising quality than for increasing the power of endurance?
Department of History of Art, University of Bristol
Vol. 8 No. 7 · 17 April 1986
SIR: Nicholas Shakespeare may well be right to have reservations about Ien Ang’s methodology in her book Watching ‘Dallas’: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination (LRB, 20 February). But he is surely precipitate in believing that the anonymous author of Letter 3 in Ang’s survey has come up with the correct explanation for the truly extraordinary popularity of Dallas and Dynasty when he or she argues that the ‘crux of the matter’ lies in their reflecting the daily life of the family, hugely melodramatised. All soaps do this. Afternoon, prime-time, erotic late-night soaps all have the bizarre doings of fractured families as their sine qua non. But it would be difficult to imagine (though not impossible) The Edge of Night or Another World or All My Children having the same kind of appeal for the old woman in Ushuaia in Patagonia as Dallas and Dynasty. D and D are no ordinary soaps. Ordinary soaps do not appear in prime time. Ordinary soaps do not spawn designer clothes, perfumes, ranch holidays and the like. Only these two, the queens of soap, assault our eyes so blindingly with the glamorous images that only big bucks can buy. (Literally, in the case of advertisers.) D and D owe their horrific appeal to the horrific appeal that wealth has for virtually everybody, especially to those who have very little of it like the old woman of Ushuaia.
University of New Brunswick, Fredericton
The most popular soap opera in Britain appears at present to be East Enders, where wealth is scarce.
Editor, ‘London Review’