- 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.
The shooting of JR was good business for the bookies. The outside odds of 20-1 were on JR shooting himself. Equal favourites at 2-1 were Dusty Farlow – the long-lost lover of JR’s lip-quivering wife, Sue Ellen – and the very same Sue Ellen. Both on screen and off, Sue Ellen’s name is not one to be taken lightly. In comparing her with a Mrs Hazel Pinder White, Jonathan Aitken brought on himself a legal action requiring him to kneel on the sand of Viking Bay, Broadstairs, and apologise publicly. JR’s wife, complained the plaintiff, ‘was nothing but a high-class prostitute who drank heavily and was a total alcoholic’. Mrs Hazel Pinder White was not alone in her disquiet. ‘For reasons of content’ Kraft Food products refused to advertise on Dallas where 30-second slots can cost up to $500,000. Jack Lang, the French minister for the arts, attacked the series as ‘a symbol of American cultural imperialism’. In December 1982, the West German Government took the unprecedented step of issuing a communiqué to the effect that Dallas did not pose a fundamental threat to the German family. Opposition MPs were not satisfied. With its complete egoism, commercialism and debasement of human relationships, the series had brought about ‘a crisis of meaning and perception’ in German youth.
Whatever the effect on German youth, it is clear that such soaps have the power to scrub away distinctions between fact and fantasy. Until recently it was possible to visit South-fork ranch and for $4 a square inch – or $25 a square foot – purchase a title deed complete with oil rights. Other spin-offs include the scent Forever Krystle at £53 an ounce, and a collection of Alexis’s clothes. When the Dynasty range was opened at Blooming-dale’s, 26,000 women stormed the New York store. The actor John Forsythe, who plays the Creon-like Blake Carrington, was beaten over the head at Atlanta airport by a woman who abused him for daring to treat his lovely wife so badly. More disturbing still is the way real life has been vacuumed into the fantasy. In Dynasty Alexis’s daughter is played by Catherine Oxenberg, the daughter of Princess Elisabeth of Yugoslavia. In the last episode this bona fide royal married the Prince of Moldavia – though the Baltic state had been cleansed of its Communist occupants to look like Monaco, or Portofino. Former President Gerald Ford – whose son acts in the soap The Young and the Restless – has once appeared as himself. So, too, has Henry Kissinger. At a charity ball in Denver, Joan Collins wafts up to Kissinger with the greeting: ‘Henry, I haven’t seen you since Portofino.’ In the most far-reaching words of his distinguished career. Kissinger replies: ‘That’s right.’
Now, in the footsteps of the royals and the politicians, come the academics. In Watching ‘Dallas’, Ien Ang, a lecturer in the department of political science at Amsterdam University, attempts to discover why Dallas is so popular and enjoyable. Her study, subtitled ‘Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination’ (and littered with chapter headings like ‘Manipulation or Fascination’ and ‘Consumption, Use, Value and Pleasure’), also aims ‘to contribute to further problematisation and understanding of the social, cultural and political role of serials like Dallas’. Citing everyone from Freud and Barthes to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, she launches her work with a quotation from the anthropologist George Devereux to the effect that ‘any research is a sort of autobiography.’ What Ien Ang hopes to discover along the way is why, ‘with my identity as an intellectual and a feminist’, she just cannot get enough of soap operas.
It is a Herculean task that makes for Herculean reading. It begins with Ms Ang’s placing of an advertisement in a Dutch woman’s magazine (it is idle to speculate how different her thesis might have been had she put the ad in, say, Holland’s equivalent of the Spectator). The ad, asking why people liked or disliked Dallas, and admitting to her own ‘odd reactions’, elicited 42 replies, including three from men. Some might raise an eyebrow at what can be proved from letters written in reply to a personal ad in a Dutch woman’s magazine. But Ang treats her 42 replies with the Calvinist seriousness which runs through her study. They should be read symptomatically, she insists. But one might equally wonder why they should be read at all.
Considered analysis of these replies reveals that people who do like Dallas don’t really know why. ‘Letter 4: ‘I don’t know why, but I like watching it.’ Letter 13: ‘I don’t know exactly what it is but Dallas really draws me. There is, I find, a sort of charm radiating from the actors and from the thing itself. I just really love watching it.’ Those who hate it are more confident – Letter 31: ‘WORTHLESS RUBBISH’, ‘eyewash’ – while those who worry about the serial’s cultural poverty take refuge in irony: ‘I find it’s amusing because it’s so ghastly.’ The author never satisfactorily answers her own question: ‘how can the fact that so many women like Dallas be made politically useful?’ Nor, in Della Couling’s translation, does she make it particularly easy for the reader to follow her attempts to do so. Take this remark about Sue Ellen: ‘Her alcoholic inclination was used as a visual externalising of her feeling of impotence in a life-situation in which she felt fettered.’
How then do soaps like Dallas and Dynasty exert their uncanny fascination? It clearly isn’t a matter of production values. Or of the acting. Bobby is played by a man so wooden it has been suggested he be used to re-fence Southfork. Catherine Oxenberg is quite simply the worst actress I have ever seen. And it certainly isn’t the lamentable script. What then? It is when Ms Ang touches on ‘the tragic structure of feeling’ that she comes closest to her goal. Eyeing this notion, slinking round it and then hopping off into the undergrowth of ‘Dallas and Feminism’, she nevertheless leaves behind her the possibility that the plot’s the thing and that the men who think it up are strumming, however hamfistedly, the same chords as the great tragedians.
Instead of Thebes, Corinth or the court of Nero we have Dallas and Southfork. Instead of the unpredictable Furies we have fluctuating oil prices and incurable diseases – Miss Ellie’s cancer took up two whole episodes, Pam and Cliff are smitten with the hereditary curse of ‘neurofibromatosis’ – and instead of Aeschylus and Sophocles we have the goat-songs of Edward Deblasio and Joel J. Feigenbaum. Sue Ellen’s drinking bouts are a hangover from the Bacchanals of Cithaeron. Blake Carrington’s ‘I’ll be in the library’ harks back to the oracle (who today, in the shape of a doctor, accountant or lawyer, can be reached by telephone). The ease with which we can guess the next line is a recognition that, in a democratic age, the role of seer has been handed on a TV-dinner tray to the viewer.
Murder, incest, marital crisis, rape, kidnapping, corruption: the plots of Dallas and Dynasty have plenty in common with those of Classical tragedy. But it is the author of Letter 3 to Ang who identifies the crux of the matter. ‘They reflect the daily life of the family,’ he observes of the television programmes. When Bobby dies, shot by a vengeful mistress, the family gather by his bed. Everyone is there except his horse – and Sue Ellen, who has things to do with Dusty. Bobby’s last gasp, ‘Keep the family together,’ is the gasp of a Greekish hero. What concerns both genres above all else is family unity – which comes before the state, or the company, yet exists in constant battle with them – and the conflict between men and women within the family.
Revenge, either human or divine, is the mainspring for the action. When Blake orders his business rival Ahmed to be shot (‘He plucked out my eye!’), Blake’s pregnant wife Krystle falls down the stairs threatening a miscarriage. When Pam Barnes, sworn enemy of the Ewings, marries Bobby, she is cursed with sterility. When Bobby dies, his brother and business rival JR thinks he has at last achieved his life’s ambition of totally controlling Ewing Oil – only to discover that Bobby’s will entrusts the family’s rival Pam with managing his share. Thus the chief executive’s desk, the marriage altar, are turned into sacrificial blocks – Amanda Carrington’s wedding massacre is probably the most famous example. Power brings no divinity. Sex brings not union but division. ‘Don’t die on me,’ Alexis yells when Colby has a heart attack while making love. ‘Don’t die on me,’ she shouts, slapping his face.
While Aeschylus, who might be called the father of soap, contented himself with runs of three, his successors have to thrash out hundreds. And here’s the rub. In tragedy the heroes die, their crimes expiated by their suffering. In soap their makers cannot afford to let them die (all but one survive the Dynasty wedding massacre). Delay, not dénouement, is the rule – what Ms Ang describes as ‘the position of permanent expectation’. This may turn the characters, and the audiences, into nervous wrecks (‘After a tenth of that stress I would be lying in a psychiatric hospital,’ said a ‘well-known Dutch doctor’): very rarely does it make them corpses. Here the heroes are only removed when they cease to entertain – or when the actors themselves have had enough. Patrick Duffy, fed up with playing Bobby, ‘the dumbest, most gullible guy in the world’, engineered the character’s death. He now makes adverts which for a six-figure sum require him to say, ‘That’ll be all,’ to a waiter.