Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dallas as City, Soap, and Survivor

Do you pay much attention to what's on television these days?

I don't.  But living here in the Dallas area, even I can't avoid the hoopla over the return of one of television's most iconic shows.  After twenty years, the soap opera named after north Texas' largest city is bustin' out in prime time, replete with Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing and his ol' southern homestead, Southfork Ranch.

And no, I'm not going to watch it.

For one thing, it's on cable, and I don't have cable.  And the fact that cable produces shows like Dallas' remake are one of the reasons why I don't have cable.

Big D, Big Hair, Big Egos, Big Deals

Not that I'm knocking Dallas for being wildly popular, at least back in the day.  I suspect one of the reasons it was so popular for so many years - basically all of the 80's - involved its remarkable ability to capture the aspirations of that yuppified, designer logo, blow-dried decade not only here in north Texas, but across the United States.  Some TV shows become legendary despite not relating well to their time and era, but it was hard to tell how much Dallas reflected the 80's, and how much the 80's were reflecting Dallas.  Say what you will about the quality of the show, but to be so synonymous with a culture isn't something that happens much on TV these days.

Whether this new show will be able to capture our new era remains to be seen, of course.  The '80's were still a period of growth and enthusiasm in the United States generally, and Texas in particular.  Whereas, these days, our society has ossified into three dreary camps:  hard-core liberals, hard-core conservatives, and those of us in the middle who seem to be at the mercy of those two extremes.  Whereas President Ronald Reagan had us feasting on American hubris during Dallas' original run, Barak Obama has us starving for hope.  How do you model a popular TV show on today's socioeconomic angst?

Of course, even back during the original Dallas, I hardly ever watched the show.  For one thing, my parents didn't consider it proper viewing material for young, impressionable boys.  Fortunately for my brother and me, the Dukes of Hazzard was also on Friday nights, although the sight of Daisy Duke in her namesake denim shorts, coupled with the show's constant mockery of the police and other authority figures, likely didn't make it any more wholesome than what was being shown on Dallas

In high school, I started working nights at a mens' clothing store here near Dallas, so my Dukes of Hazzard days ended.  We had a TV in the employee break room, but Dallas ruled Friday nights outside of my house, and for some of the more anticipated episodes, even management would join us clerks for brief escapes from the selling floor to catch up on the action.  After all, customers would ask us if we had any updates from the show, right?  Remember, this was way before cell phones, Hulu, and ubiquitous flat screen TVs kept everybody wired to entertainment.

One of my co-workers was married to a woman who worked at a fancy department store across the hall, and I recall her saying that their management considered closing early on Friday nights when Dallas aired because business would evaporate and their stores would be deserted.

Several years later, when I was in college, I took a friend visiting from New York City to see Southfork Ranch, which proved to be a huge disappointment to both her and me.  It was much smaller in real life than it was on television, and far less representative of where Dallas' real millionaires lived.  If the show's Hollywood producers had wanted accuracy, they'd have placed the family in a genteel Highland Park mansion or sprawling Preston Hollow estate, and had them spend weekends on their ranch a couple hours outside of town.  Well, at least they got that last part partly right.  Southfork isn't even in Dallas County; it's miles from Dallas.  It's the most non-Dallas part of Dallas.

For Both Dallas and Dallas, the Image was the Message

So, OK:  we knew Dallas wasn't real, but it was real enough.  The show featured all of the usual soap opera dramatics:  nefarious business deals, backstabbing relatives, adultery, alcoholism; all the bad stuff.  Yet the show still revolved around family and some semblance of family honor.  And it celebrated a city that didn't know the meaning of the word "no."  Back in the 80's, Dallas grew so fast and so wealthy it was dizzying.  It seemed like a new luxury mall opened every year, and a dazzling new skyscraper every month.  Corporations were relocating here from other parts of the country like flocks of birds, and to hear our business leaders tell it, cities like New York and Chicago were going to be empty before long, since everybody was moving here.

Those were the best of times for Dallas, just like the popularity its namesake TV show was enjoying.  Soon after the 80's were over, and Dallas was off the air, corporations began moving again - out of their glassy towers in and around downtown, and into even newer office parks in the suburbs.  Developers kept churning out new subdivisions like farmers plowing dirt, and before long, the lure of new construction drew hundreds of thousands of middle-class Dallasites out of the big city into sprawling suburbs with ever more modern homes with even better luxuries - luxuries that definitely made Southfork look dowdy.

All of a sudden, the streets which Dallas laid out so hurriedly during the 80's had aged, with potholes and empty storefronts and blocks and blocks of rental homes whose owners had moved on to the more prosperous suburbs.  For a while, wide swaths of Dallas languished, until America's unprecedented interest in re-discovering central cities began to take hold, and more and more families committed to moving back into marginalized neighborhoods.  Trees that earlier residents had planted over twenty years ago were now full and lush, far bigger than those in the suburbs.  Homes that up-and-coming families once considered small and dated now appealed to new owners who appreciated their solid construction and retro aesthetics.  Then there came the McMansion phenomenon, where perfectly good homes are torn down on central city lots and replaced with towering new luxury homes.  The allure of Dallas' centralized neighborhoods makes sense when you consider how living closer-in to the city's core means that more jobs are more accessible.  By now, of course, nobody counted on working for the same employer in the same place for their entire career, and being stuck out in some exurb when the only job you can find is clear across the city can make your remote house surprisingly less attractive.

And the traffic!  Dallas' population may have leveled off, but the population all around it has continued to explode.  And those wide freeways they built around Dallas have now became obsolete.  Yes, Dallas has a fledgling mass transit system, but it's not even as reliable as sitting in gridlock, nor is it as safe.  Back in the 80's, Dallas leaders were planning massive construction projects to widen two of the city's most popular freeways - the LBJ and Central Expressway - and provide the driving public with years of easier driving.  Yet today, one small fender-bender can soon snarl any local freeway, and the state has begun another multi-year expansion project for the LBJ.  Now, however, nobody really expects such grand plans to solve much of anything.

Not that Dallas has become some awful place to live.  Like anywhere else, it is what you make of it, with its good neighborhoods and bad.  Some of the glossy pockets of stunning wealth that remain scattered across the city make the Ewing fortune look downright humble.  And hipsters flock to redeveloped neighborhoods carved out of urban blight around downtown.  We call them the thirty-thousand-dollar millionaires, because they work mostly in entry-level jobs but act like they're made of money, driving around in sleek foreign luxury cars and renting high-dollar apartments - all paid either with credit or indulgent parents.  Still, despite the sheen, it's hardly the metropolis of swashbuckling enthusiasm and 1980's glamor of both its own history and its portrayal by the original TV show.

Dallas has matured, and developed big-city problems common among much older municipalities; municipalities that have had their heyday at one time, and are now learning to get by in our brave new world of marginal public schools, a stagnant tax base, outdated infrastructure, incessant competition from suburbs which are also aging, and even competition from cities half a world away.

Hopes were running high when AT&T moved its international headquarters downtown from San Antonio, but the euphoria didn't last long when the corporation announced it was a temporary home while they built a new corporate campus in - where else? - one of the city's suburbs.  These days, the only new construction downtown has been a high-rise hotel for the struggling convention center and some luxury apartment towers which sit half-rented.

Yet streets and freeways in and around downtown are still almost always choked with traffic. 

TV critics may be anxious to see if the new Dallas will be even a fraction of a hit its predecessor was.

I care more about today's Dallas reinventing itself to be even better than it was back during the old Dallas.

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