Oh, ‘Pioneers’! Soaps Tribute is a Sprint Down Memory Lane

Knots Landing, Michele Lee, PBS

Along came Polly

“There’s not a show on right now, at this moment, that isn’t soap,” Joan Van Ark declares during PBS’s “Pioneers of Television” tribute to the nighttime soap operas of the 1980s. She’s referring to the emergence of serialization as the dominant form of storytelling in prime time, and so she has a point. Carrie and Brody, Walt and Jesse, Don and Peggy. On television, no one’s story ends anymore.

This would seem to be the most enduring legacy of the ’80s soaps, but Van Ark’s trenchant observation is the closest “Pioneers” comes to addressing it. The 52-minute retrospective, which most PBS stations will air tomorrow night, recalls three shows – “Dallas,” “Dynasty” and “Knots Landing” (sorry “Falcon Crest” fans) – through the usual mix of talking heads and old clips. But with lots of ground to cover and so little time to do it, the interviews become sound bites and the clips become snips. This is a sprint down memory lane.

“Dallas” fans will appreciate the prominence given to Larry Hagman, who recorded his interview before his death last fall. We also get to hear from Patrick Duffy, Linda Gray and Charlene Tilton, although some of their stories and the scenes that accompany them will be all-too-familiar to “Dallas” diehards. Prepare to see Kristin pump J.R. full of lead for the umpteenth time, and to hear again how that bogus Irish Spring commercial provided the cover to film the dead Bobby’s reanimation in Pam’s shower. Isn’t it time to let the “Dallas” cast reminisce about something other than the show’s cliffhangers?

There are a few surprises. I had forgotten how Hagman’s role as a slick Texas businessman in the 1974 flick “Stardust” helped him slide into J.R.’s boots four years later. It’s also fun to see photos of the young, dreamy Hagman, and to hear him recall how he and Joan Collins dated as teenagers. Wisely, the “Pioneers” producers also give Hagman the last word, and his too-humble assessment of his performance as J.R. allows the program to end on a graceful, poignant note.

The most interesting moment overall comes when narrator Ryan Seacrest (yes, him) points out the ’80s soap were “among the whitest shows on television.” “Dynasty” is justly praised for casting Diahann Carroll in a starring role, and we’re reminded that “Knots Landing” once moved an African American family, the Williamses, onto the cul-de-sac, only to shift the characters to the backburner. Lynne Moody, who played Pat Williams, recalls how she grew frustrated with her lack of screen time and asked the “Knots Landing” producers to let her out of her contract. They agreed. Her tone suggests she regrets that decision a little now.

Unfortunately, “Pioneers” ignores the influence the soaps had on television’s depiction of women, which is probably the genre’s other significant legacy. Victoria Principal’s Pam Ewing was one of the medium’s first sexually liberated heroines, and “Dynasty” and “Knots Landing” deserve credit for showing women could be every bit as savvy as men in the world of big business. But “Pioneers” breezes past all that and instead gives us the usual blather about shoulder pads and catfights. At least we get to hear Michele Lee’s “Pollyanna speech” from “Knots Landing,” which feels more resonant today than it did two decades ago.

It might also have been nice if the producers had invited some of the stars of today’s prestige serials to comment on the ’80s soaps, the way Tina Fey paid tribute to Mary Tyler Moore and Lucille Ball during last week’s “Pioneers” tribute to comedic women. If nothing else, PBS should have let us hear from some of the stars of its own hit soap, “Downton Abbey.” After all, if it wasn’t for Bobby and Pam, would there be a Matthew and Mary?

Most PBS stations will broadcast “Pioneers of Television: Primetime Soaps” on Tuesday, January 22, at 8 p.m. Eastern. Watch the show, share your comments below and read more opinions from Dallas Decoder.