From the Writing Desk

Influences: DALLAS

Are you ready to wax nostalgic?  As a kid growing up in the 80’s, you couldn’t help but not be influenced by some of the TV shows back then.  Ones that made a dent for me were The Incredible Hulk, the Dukes of Hazzard, Different Strokes, Family Ties, The Fall Guy and many others.  There were no DVR’s back then.  You had to be in your seat in front of the tube at 7 or 8 or 9 to see your shows.  Friday night was the best, because The Incredible Hulk was at 7, then The Dukes at 8.  Eventually, the Hulk got cancelled and so it was just the Dukes at 7.

Around that time, I started watching my parent’s favorite show, Dallas, which came on after the Dukes.  Initially, I thought the show was boring, but then J.R. Ewing got shot in the hallway of Ewing Oil in 1981 and about seven different people could have  done it.  From that point forward, I was hooked.

Of all the TV shows from my childhood, I suspect that Dallas probably had the biggest influence on my writing.  Not so much in terms of the storytelling or plots—though the first few seasons had some doozies (Who shot J.R.? being the biggest)—but more in terms of character and place.

For those who aren’t familiar with the show, the night time soap opera Dallas ran from 1978 to 1991 and told the story of the Ewing family.  The patriarch of the family, Jock Ewing, was a powerful oil man who ran one of the biggest independent oil companies in the country, Ewing Oil.  Jock’s wife and the matriarch of the family, Ellie Southworth Ewing, was the daughter of a ranching and cattle baron.  Her family’s homestead, Southfork, became her and Jock’s home when Jock married her and, in the process, saved her family from losing the land during the Great Depression.  “Ms. Ellie,” as everyone on the show called her, was a strong, feisty and elegant woman.  She and Jock had three sons, J.R., Gary and Bobby.  J.R. followed Jock’s footsteps and became the president of Ewing Oil (more on him below).  Gary was his momma’s favorite and loved the ranch, but had little use or aptitude for oil and was not close with his older brother, J.R., or his father.  Gary played a minor role in a couple of episodes and then he and his wife left town for the community of Knots Landing in California.  Gary’s story became a spinoff of Dallas.  Though my mom loved the show, “Knots Landing,”  I never was much interested in it.

However, I grew to really like Dallas.   Initially, my favorite character was the Ewing’s third son, Bobby, probably because my name is Bob but also because Bobby was married to the beautiful Pamela Barnes Ewing and, unlike his oldest brother, always tried to do the right thing.  He was the good guy so to speak of the show.  The central theme through much of the series was the feud between the Ewing family and the Barnes clan, which all stemmed from Digger Barnes’ claim that Jock Ewing had cheated Digger out of Ewing Oil back in the 1930’s.  The rivalry between Digger’s son, Cliff, and Jock’s son, J.R., played out over much of the eleven years the show ran with J.R. getting the best of Cliff most of the time.  An offshoot of this story line was the Romeo and Juliet romance between Bobby and Cliff’s sister, Pam.

Once I was in high school, I grew too busy  to watch the show anymore.  However, in law school, when CMT began showing the old re-runs, a lot of us would watch them during study breaks.  Even now, I’ll find myself looking up famous scenes on You-tube from time to time like the one above, where Jock breaks down the meaning of “real power” to naive Bobby while scheming J.R. stands by and enjoys the tongue lashing that he had manipulated into happening.  This scene shows the depth of character of Jock, who was tough as nails and ruthless on the one hand,but on the other hand, after the argument is over, you can tell that the confrontation bothered him.

In terms of character, one of the things a good story–especially a thriller–needs is a great villain, and there has never been a villain quite like J.R. Ewing.  J.R. was that rarest of bad guys, so delightfully evil that the audience literally loved to hate him.  Played with perfection by the late Larry Hagman, J.R. could push all the other characters’ buttons and was always putting the Ewings on the brink of disaster.  However, as bad as J.R. was, he worshiped his father, Jock, and, despite their many fights, J.R. also loved his little brother, Bobby.  Complexity of character, especially in the early seasons, really set Dallas apart.

Jock Ewing was also a fantastic character.  Jock was played by the late, Jim Davis, who had been a character actor in many westerns, including the John Wayne vehicle “Big Jake,” before landing the role of the Ewing patriarch.  Davis was so good as Jock that, after his death, a painting of him figured heavily into the show, as J.R. would talk to the painting in times of crises.

The show  had unforgettable female characters, including the aforementioned Ms. Ellie, played for all but one season by Barbara Bel Geddes, Pam, who was portrayed by Victoria Principal and J.R.’s long suffering wife, Sue Ellen, played by Linda Gray.

In terms of setting, almost all of the action took place in and around Dallas and the Southfork ranch.   From the opening theme song with its shots of downtown Dallas, Texas Stadium and the ranch with its livestock and horses to the cowboy hats J.R. and Jock wore to the southern accents of most of the characters,  the show oozed all things Texas.  Ten gallon hats, glitzy dresses, oil gushers, blue jeans and power ties added to a setting that transported the viewer into into the exciting, tragic and soapy lives of these characters.

When you are writing a story and especially one that becomes a series, it is important to nail the uniqueness of the characters and place.  “Dallas” did that about as well as it can be done and was a powerful influence for me growing up.

By robertbaileybooks

Author of the forthcoming legal thriller "The Professor" (Random House, January 28, 2014).

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