The best thing about starting Dallas Decoder has been meeting fellow “Dallas” fans like David W., the genius behind Dallas Divas Derby, a new online brackets game that pits the show’s women characters against each other. David has really interesting ideas about “Dallas” and graciously agreed to share some here. Read what he has to say – and be sure to visit his site to vote for your favorite diva.
Dallas Divas Derby is great! How did you come up with the idea for the site?
Oh, thank you. I’m a lifelong “Dallas” fan and an interactive designer in my previous professional life, and I’d been thinking for years that it would be fun to make an online interactive family tree for the Ewing and Barnes families. Other projects and life prevented me from realizing that, but when TNT’s new show was announced, it struck me that it might be interesting to create some kind of online activity for fans to refresh their memories about “Dallas” history.
I’d always felt pretty strongly that “Dallas’s” best years were seasons 1 through 9, when it focused on a well-rounded ensemble cast and featured strong writing for the men and women alike. If you watch the show in its entirety, you see that the writing for the women begins strong, if a little sexist in some instances, and grows steadily better, peaking during the dream season.
In the years since “Dallas” ended, much of the lore of the show had been framed around the Ewing brothers’ saga. We all know the story. It’s a good one, but it has been told over and over again from the same male perspective. As I watched the show in reruns and on DVD as an adult, I gained a whole new appreciation for the female characters and actresses. I learned about Barbara Bel Geddes, Alexis Smith, Priscilla Pointer and Martha Scott’s stage and film careers, and I appreciated their rich nuanced performances even more. And my admiration for Linda Gray, Victoria Principal and Susan Howard grew deeper watching them evolve over the years. And then you had amazing villains like Kristin and Katherine, which I loved as a boy and appreciated even more as an adult.
For me personally, those actresses made a huge impression when I watched the show as a kid, and I became really interested in looking back at “Dallas” from the perspective of the female characters somehow. When you do, you realize how vital they were to the show’s success. You see huge arcs like Sue Ellen going from repressed alcoholic beauty queen, to strong female executive and mother, and Pam from strong-willed poor country girl from the wrong side of the tracks, to successful, confident independent businesswoman. I think for me personally, I identified closely with those arcs.
Though not a huge sports fan, I’d worked previously on interactive ad campaigns for the March Madness NCAA college basketball games, and I learned about that whole brackets game phenomenon that’s so popular among fans and office pools.
While re-watching “Dallas” this spring, it dawned on me that when you watch over the years, you see some recurring character archetypes common among the women. So I started scribbling down character names and playing around with them on paper, and grouping them based on similarities, and bingo, my earlier ideas about an interactive family tree merged into the brackets game idea!
I quickly surveyed the entire 14 seasons to see if there’d be enough interesting characters that would work, and there were! Then I researched about how teams are “seeded” in brackets games based on their wins and losses, and it dawned on me, the characters could be similarly “seeded” based on the number of episodes they’d been in. In essence, each episode they were in counted as a “win” for them.
When I did the math, the results were really interesting to me. Similar archetypes often ended up paired against each other, like the case of “Sinister Sisters” Katherine Wentworth and Jessica Montford. When I saw that, I knew I had to make the game, even if only other die-hard “Dallas” geeks would appreciate it. It interested me, so that’s what drove me. And I was unemployed, so that helped too.
Once I did all that math, things happened very quickly to build the site. I knew we’d need a database, so I met with a dear friend who is a Ruby on Rails developer, and he volunteered to help. He made it possible for me to make the site a reality.
You know the characters really well. It sounds like you’ve been a fan of the show for a long time.
I started watching “Dallas” almost at its beginning, even though I was only 8 at the time. My parents, usually very conservative in what they allowed us to watch as kids, were quickly fans of the show, and somehow let us watch along with them.
I remember in the late ’70s being fascinated by the idea of Southfork. I was growing up in suburban Detroit, so the idea of a ranch, with all that land and a big family living together really fascinated me.
I remember often watching the show on Friday nights, and then getting up early the next day to play with my Legos in front of Saturday morning cartoons. I’d sit there for hours building elaborate Lego Southforks and Southern Crosses, and then I’d use Matchbox cars that matched all of the main character’s cars, and I’d re-play “Dallas” all morning. I even built a replica of Sue Ellen’s condo because I thought it was so glamorous and I was so happy to see her on her own, away from evil J.R. Mind you, I was like 10 or something.
I became the go-to guy in the family for episode re-caps. If my grandmother missed an episode, she’d have me re-tell it all to her the next time I saw her. Later in junior high and high school, I’d have “Dallas” finale parties for my entire family, and make cakes with oil derricks on them and things like that. It was ridiculous.
I do think the show’s portrayal of women really mirrors the idea of women in our pop culture from the late ’70s through the mid-80s. Not all of that is good, but I think it was pretty spot on.
For example, for my mom and my friends’ moms who were middle-class suburban housewives negotiating the idea of entering the working world, the evolutions of Sue Ellen, Donna, Pam and others was something that resonated. It was the point in time when the option and expectation of being a stay-at-home mom started to evaporate for many American women due to economic needs.
On “Dallas,” much of the early writing for these women focuses on tension between them and their husbands about their roles in the family. Sue Ellen’s meant to be a society wife and crank out Ewing heirs. Her life is booze, ladies’ luncheons and affairs. Pam wants to keep working and hates the society life, but struggles with Bobby’s sexist expectations for her to stay at home, and Ray struggles hugely with the idea that Donna is making more money than him, and what that means for his masculinity. And of course, Ellie is the traditional heart of the show, a true grandmother archetype.
As the Regan era/corporate greed era takes hold in the ’80s, you see Pam, Donna and eventually Sue Ellen staking claim to a desire to be successful professionally in their own right. They each pursue it differently, but they all eventually challenge their partners for respect, and you get to see all these previously traditional men dealing with the idea that their women are becoming fiercely independent. I think again, that mirrored what was happening in society to a degree.
On the “villains” side, you see people like Marilee Stone, Holly Harwood, Kristin and others using their gender and sexuality to gain power, and as weapons. Some of that feels pretty sexist now, but if you look at mainstream films of the era, the meme was everywhere. The mainstream white male was intrigued by – and simultaneously threatened by – strong independent businesswomen.
Of course now, looking back, especially amongst many of the supporting females, you do see lots of stereotypically weak secretaries, hookers, tramps and thieves, and some of that feels dated and uninteresting.
Since voting began on Dallas Divas Derby, what’s been the biggest surprise? Has any diva done better than you expected?
Ha ha, yes! My developer partner and I have kept our hands out of the voting, but based on my personal preferences, I’m not a big Cally Harper fan, no offense to Cathy Podewell. I just thought, in reference to what we were just talking about, that Cally was written as this incredibly one-dimensional country girl caricature, and from a very older white urban male slant. I never really felt like she fit with the rest of the cast.
What we’ve heard from fans online and seen in the voting so far, though, is that she has more fans than haters. She won her Round 1 match against Kimberly Cryder and really never was behind in that vote based on what we saw. She was always the favorite, though the voting was close.
For the purposes of the game though, we’re actually quite happy that the two Mrs. J.R. Ewings will go head-to-head in Round 2 on May 16. It should be a good match for fans of both her and Sue Ellen.
You also had some “Dallas”-worthy drama with a hacker. What happened?
Yes, we did! Well, you know, I’m not a professional programmer, and I wanted to keep the game simple and easy for users. I underestimated the level of security we’d need at first though.
Our Bring Her Back vote was meant to be a straight-up horse race for fans to vote in real-time for any of the “living” characters they wanted to see back on the new series. Unlike the brackets game, where match results are revealed every Wednesday morning – to promote Wednesday as the new day for “Dallas” on TNT – the Bring Her Back vote is always live on the site, so users can see the actual vote numbers.
This bred some fierce rivalry between a few Katherine Wentworth and Lucy Ewing fans earlier this month. We saw first a huge, and rather humanly impossible, spike in BHB votes for Lucy overnight one night. And we started to get complaints from Katherine fans, so we investigated. We found that at least one person, if not a couple, had “hacked” the BHB voting overnight, and within hours we had numbers in the thousands jumping back and forth for Lucy and Katherine. It was headed to the stratosphere, but clear the votes weren’t “real.”
We’d like to think we’re that popular, and though we do allow users to vote more than once, it reached a humanly impossible rate of voting, based on our other stats. So we had to add some more protections to the voting code, to prevent over-the-top gaming of the system, while trying to keep it easy and fun for users.
Since we’d been watching the vote closely, we made the call to remove the hacked BHB votes from the system so our fans could continue to play the game and feel like they had a chance.
Luckily, none of that affected any numbers on the brackets game, so that voting to date hasn’t been compromised. This is just meant to be a fun thing for fans and we hope everyone who wants to participate can and express their preferences in the voting.
OK, I must ask: Do you have a personal favorite “Dallas” diva?
This is a hard one for me. We’re trying to remain agnostic in the vote, and there are so many different types of characters to choose from.
On the heroines’ side, Sue Ellen has been an icon for me since I was a kid. I related to her struggles and her growth towards independence. I still love her and am so happy she’s back.
On a more complicated level, it’s Pam for me. I loved her in the beginning of the show as the tough poor country girl arriving at Southfork, then lost a bit of interest during her obsession to have a baby and the weird writing around some of that, but loved her again in Seasons 7 through 9 as she returned to strength and came into her own. Victoria Principal’s performances leading up to and after Bobby’s death still haunt me today. Those were award worthy in my book. They made a huge impact on my psyche as a teen. In my opinion though, the writers ran Pam into a ditch in Season 10 though, moving her to the periphery and weakening her. The way Pam was written out made many fans dislike her, and I think that was a huge detriment to the show’s legacy. We’re supposed to believe the show’s original leading lady, who desperately fought to have a successful marriage to Bobby and have a child, suddenly decides to leave them to go die alone with a stranger? It was stupid writing and it hurt the character and the show.
On the villains’ side, Katherine was my number one favorite, followed closely by Jessica Montford and Kristin. All could’ve lasted on the show longer in my opinion. Heck, I even enjoyed Angelica Nero as a super-villain. It was fun to see a woman besting J.R. in scheming.
I think you’re wise to praise Angelica. If she doesn’t win her next round against Mandy Winger, she might start blowing stuff up again!
Ha ha, indeed! She was fantastic. I’m keeping my eye out for exploding briefcases. Luckily I don’t own a Ferrari. I will add this though, we’ve learned during the Derby to not underestimate Katherine Wentworth fans. Things could get interesting if Angelica and Katherine face-off later in the Derby. I’m secretly hoping they might.