Dallas Isn’t ‘Brokeback Southfork,’ But It’s Pretty Gay

Dallas, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing

You go, girl

By today’s standards, “Dallas” isn’t a “gay” show. Southfork never hosts a “Brokeback Mountain”-esque love story. There are no same-sex office romances at Ewing Oil. Dusty Farlow wears ascots to keep dust out of his face, not because he’s fabulous.

Yet “Dallas” is very much a show with gay sensibilities. It regularly explores themes – empowerment, identity, gender roles – that resonate with gay audiences, and often in ways that are surprisingly smart.

I didn’t catch a lot of this while watching the show in the 1980s, when I was a pretty confused gay kid. But when I think about those years now, I wonder if “Dallas’s” gay subtext helps explain its appeal to me. Maybe my middle-school gaydar was stronger than I realized.

Kit, But Not Much Kaboodle

“Dallas” makes subtle references to homosexuality in early episodes like “Election,” when J.R. questions Cliff’s close relationship with his male campaign manager, and “Call Girl,” when J.R. creates a scandal by making it look like Pam is involved in a three-way relationship with a man and another woman.

The show stops dancing around the issue in “Royal Marriage,” the 1979 episode where Kit Mainwaring, an oil-and-cattle heir who is secretly gay, breaks his engagement to Lucy and comes out of the closet. This episode, which reflects the ’70s trend toward “socially conscious” television (see also: “All in the Family,” “Lou Grant,” et. al.), is handled with surprising sophistication, making Kit one of prime-time television’s breakthrough gay characters.

Kit is also a footnote: “Dallas” ran 14 seasons and produced 357 episodes, yet he is the only character whose homosexuality is ever acknowledged on the show.

There are only fleeting gay allusions in later episodes. During the sixth season, Lucy wonders if John Ross’s camp counselor Peter Richards is gay because he doesn’t want to date her (she doesn’t realize Peter is in love with Sue Ellen), but the show never again identifies a character as being gay.

This isn’t altogether surprising. Prime-time television mostly retreated to the closet during the AIDS hysteria in the 1980s. Also, once “Dallas” became television’s most-watched show, it embraced its escapist bent and pretty much stopped doing “issues” stories. Both factors probably explain why the producers notoriously dropped plans to make villainess Angelica Nero a lesbian during the 1985-86 season.

Sue Ellen: Icon – and Avatar

The absence of gay characters on “Dallas” doesn’t mean the show lacks characters and storylines gay audiences could identify with. Consider Sue Ellen, whose boozing, philandering and sharp tongue make her an icon among gay fans who love camp.

But Sue Ellen shouldn’t be treated only as a joke. If you consider her arc during the course of the series, she makes an ideal avatar for gay audiences.

When “Dallas” begins, Sue Ellen is the show’s most sexually repressed character. In the first-season episode “Spy in the House,” she tries to spark J.R.’s interest with a sexy negligee, only to have him cast it aside and accuse her of being unladylike. J.R.’s rejection sends Sue Ellen into the shadows, where she finds sexual fulfillment with other men and develops her drinking problem. This double life must have felt familiar to gay men and women who spent the ’70s and ’80s trapped in the closet.

By the end of the Reagan era, when AIDS was galvanizing gay people and giving the gay rights movement new momentum, Sue Ellen finally begins pulling herself together. She quits drinking, embarks on a successful business career and leaves J.R. for good.

During Linda Gray’s final appearance on the show in 1989, Sue Ellen turns the tables on J.R. and tells him off, one last time (“You will be the laughingstock of Texas.”). All “Dallas” fans cheered this moment, but for gay viewers, I suspect it had special meaning. Sue Ellen was standing up to her oppressor at a time when many gay Americans were beginning to do the same – in the voting booth, in the workplace, in the streets.

There’s Something About Gary

“Dallas’s” gay viewers might see themselves in other characters, too.

The series often explores the theme of confused identities. Two notable examples: Pam and Ray each learn they were raised by people who aren’t their biological fathers, and for both characters, this discovery triggers a lot of angst.

“Dallas’s” recurring theme of estranged fathers and sons is probably familiar to a lot of gay men. At various points, Jock has tense relations with each of the Ewing boys, especially Gary.

In fact, the dialogue during Gary’s homecoming in the second-season “Reunion” episodes makes me wonder if the producers were considering making the character gay. Pam points out Gary is “different.” Bobby calls him “gentle.” Lucy says she hopes Val will “straighten” him out. Was this coded language, dropped into the scripts to lay the groundwork for Gary’s eventual coming out?

Maybe, maybe not. But a gay Ewing is an interesting idea to contemplate.

Are you listening, TNT?

Do you consider “Dallas” a gay-friendly show? Share your comments below and read more opinions from Dallas Decoder.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 7 – ‘Reunion, Part 2’

Charlene Tilton, Dallas, David Ackroyd, Gary Ewing, Joan Van Ark, Lucy Ewing, Valene Ewing

Enter at your own risk

I’m not a big fan of “Reunion, Part 1,” but I love “Reunion, Part 2.” The writing and acting are beautiful.

In this installment’s most memorable sequence, a drunken Digger barrels onto Southfork in his nephew Jimmy’s beat-up sports car and asks Jock to “pay” him for Pam. The Ewings watch as Jock pulls a wad of cash from his pocket and tosses a $100 bill at the feet of his onetime business partner, who scoops it up and proclaims his daughter “sold.”

The attention shifts to Pam, who is humiliated, but I find myself wondering what Gary makes of this embarrassing scene. To him, Digger must seem like a ghost from the future – a vision of the person he’ll become if he doesn’t get away from the Ewings.

Think about it: Gary is already following in Digger’s footsteps. Like Digger, Gary is an alcoholic. Like Digger, he has failed to live up to Jock’s expectations. And like Digger, he has “lost” a daughter to the Ewings.

I believe Gary leaves Southfork at the end of “Reunion, Part 2” not just because he feels pressured by J.R., but also because he doesn’t want to become as embittered as Digger. He says as much when he bids farewell to Valene and tells her, “I’m alright. It took me a long time to realize that. I just don’t belong with them – and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

David Ackroyd is really good in this scene, but Joan Van Ark is magnificent. When Val tells Gary she’s never loved another man like she loved him, you feel her pain.

I also love Van Ark’s performance in the next sequence, when the actress spins on a dime and channels Val’s tears into anger at J.R., who’s been watching her from Southfork’s front porch.

“So what’s my future?” she asks him.

“None around here,” J.R. responds.

“Any choices?”

“Well, $5,000 and an escort out of the state?”

“Any others?”

“An escort out of the state.”

Dialogue this sharp – and acting this good – make me wish scriptwriter David Jacobs and Van Ark had spent more time at Southfork before heading west to “Knots Landing” during “Dallas’s” third season.

The farewell scene is also elevated by Robert Jessup’s cinematography, which makes Southfork’s blue skies and gold-green pastures look stunning. Jessup’s work here reminds us of one of “Dallas’s” great dichotomies: No matter how ugly the characters on this show behave, the scenery around them is always gorgeous.

Grade: A

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Dallas, David Ackroyd, Gary Ewing, Joan Van Ark, Valene Ewing

Goodbye, for now

‘REUNION, PART 2’

Season 2, Episode 2

Airdate: September 30, 1978

Audience: 9.5 million homes, ranking 59th in the weekly ratings

Writer: David Jacobs

Director: Irving J. Moore

Synopsis: Pam is humiliated when her father, Digger Barnes, asks Jock to “pay” him for her. J.R. gives Gary a Ewing Oil subsidiary to run, but when Gary feels pressured, he leaves Southfork without saying goodbye. Val also departs, and J.R. lies and tells the family she asked him for money to leave.

Cast: David Ackroyd (Gary Ewing), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Sarah Cunningham (Maggie Monahan), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Joan Van Ark (Valene Ewing), David Wayne (Digger Barnes)

“Reunion, Part 2” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Dallas Styles: J.R.’s Safari Shirts

The shark wore epaulettes

When “Dallas’s” wardrobe designers were figuring out how to dress the Ewings, I suspect J.R. presented the toughest challenge.

I’m not referring to his office outfits. Those were easy. Put Larry Hagman in a conservative business suit and send him off to do his scenes. Done.

But J.R. wasn’t all business, all the time. How would he dress when he wasn’t at work?

“Dallas” answers this question during the second season, when J.R. begins wearing what becomes one of his signatures: the safari shirt.

The look was popularized more than a century ago by western hunters, who wore multi-pocketed jackets and vests during expeditions to Africa. The clothing was usually made of cotton or poplin and often came in muted colors – beige, brown, khaki – that allowed the adventurers to blend in with their surroundings.

This made safari shirts ideal for J.R., a character who was always on the hunt – for deals, for money, for women. The shirt’s military-style epaulettes also remind us J.R. is always at war with his enemies, while all those pockets are perfect for a man who has lots to hide.

J.R. is first seen in a safari shirt in “Reunion, Part 1,” the second-season opener, when he begins secretly plotting against his brother Gary. In later seasons, J.R. wears the shirts when he and his brothers venture into the South American jungle to search for the missing Jock and when he breaks out of an Arkansas jail. (Don’t ask.)

We also see J.R. wearing the shirts during lighter moments. In the eighth-season episode “Shadow of a Doubt,” the Ewings spend an afternoon at a waterpark, where Sue Ellen catches a safari-shirted J.R. checking out two shapely women in revealing bathing suits.

It’s one more reminder that no matter where J.R. goes, the game is on.

The Art of Dallas: ‘Reunion, Part 1’

Sue Ellen and J.R. (Linda Gray, Larry Hagman) are seen in this 1978 publicity shot from “Reunion, Part 1,” “Dallas’s” second-season opener.

Dallas Scene of the Day: ‘You Ought to Know That, Miss Ellie’

Dallas, Jim Davis, Jock Ewing, Reunion Part 1

Mr. Ewing, tear down those walls

In “Reunion, Part 1,” “Dallas’s” second-season opener, Jock (Jim Davis) is on the Southfork driveway with J.R. and Sue Ellen (Larry Hagman, Linda Gray) when Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) comes rushing out of the house.

ELLIE: He’s coming home!

JOCK: Who’s coming home?

ELLIE: Gary.

JOCK: Gary?

ELLIE: He met Bobby and Pam in Las Vegas, and they talked – and Jock, he’s just fine – and they’re all flying home this morning. Did you hear, J.R.?

J.R.: [Smiling] Yes, Mama, I heard.

ELLIE: So you just forget about the office this morning. And Sue Ellen, you won’t wanna be going into town, either.

SUE ELLEN: Of course not, Miss Ellie.

ELLIE: Because I think we should all be here when he arrives. [Serious] I don’t want anything to go wrong. Nothing. Do you hear, Jock? Whatever is done is done. Leave it that way. He’s still our son. [To J.R.] And your brother. You give him what he needs to fit back in. [To Jock] Don’t go putting up walls – either of you.

Jock begins walking away.

ELLIE: Jock? Jock, did you hear me?

JOCK: [Stops and faces her] What kind of a man do you think I am? My son’s coming home. I hardly know him. I’m not thinking about putting up walls – I’m thinking about tearing them down. You ought to know that, Miss Ellie.

He continues walking. She follows him.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 6 – ‘Reunion, Part 1’

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, David Ackroyd, Gary Ewing, Jim Davis, Jock Ewing, Miss Ellie Ewing, Reunion Part 1

Meet the parents

“Reunion, Part 1” is almost all hat and no cattle. “Dallas’s” second-season opener has a good story to tell, but it spends too much time re-introducing the audience to the Ewings, who had been off the air for four-and-a-half months when the episode debuted.

Consider the lengthy opening sequence, which finds the family lazing around the Southfork swimming pool.

Miss Ellie reminisces about growing up on the ranch and there are small moments to remind us J.R. is greedy, Lucy is bratty and Pam’s relationship with her in-laws is frosty, but nothing happens to advance the plot. Audiences might have welcomed the refresher 34 years ago, but today it looks like filler.

Even Gary, who should be this episode’s central figure, becomes a device to reacquaint us with the regular characters.

When “Dallas” begins, Gary is described as a drunk who beat his wife Valene before abandoning her and Lucy, but in this episode, he’s depicted as a recovering alcoholic who dabbles in painting and horseback riding. By making Gary a gentler soul, “Dallas” is able to draw a sharper contrast between him and his family, reminding us just how cutthroat they are.

But Gary isn’t the only Ewing to undergo a personality change.

With this episode, Sue Ellen is transformed from Southfork’s resident mouse into its version of Lady Macbeth. The scene where she lashes out at J.R. and tells him his “little brother Bobby” is taking away his power offers the first great spat between J.R. and Sue Ellen, who raise marital squabbling to an art form as “Dallas” progresses.

Of course, Southfork itself gets the biggest makeover of all.

“Reunion, Part 1” marks the first appearance of the “real” Southfork – another ranch stood in as the Ewings’ home during the first season – making this the first episode where “Dallas” really begins to look like “Dallas.”

“Reunion, Part 1” is also the first of many “Dallas” installments filmed in Texas during the summertime, and it’s nice to finally see a little sunshine on this show, even though we know the Ewings face plenty of dark days ahead.

Grade: B

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Dallas, David Ackroyd, Gary Ewing, Reunion Part 1

There’s something about Gary

‘REUNION, PART 1’

Season 2, Episode 1

Airdate: September 23, 1978

Audience: 9.3 million homes, ranking 56th in the weekly ratings

Writer: David Jacobs

Director: Irving J. Moore

Synopsis: In Las Vegas, Bobby and Pam run into his long-lost brother Gary and bring him home to Southfork, where Gary’s daughter Lucy is overjoyed to see him. She arranges a reunion between Gary and her mother Valene, whom Lucy has been secretly visiting. J.R., with prodding from his wife Sue Ellen, begins plotting to get rid of Gary.

Cast: David Ackroyd (Gary Ewing), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Hugh Gorrian (Tom), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Philip Levien (Jimmy Monahan), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Joan Van Ark (Valene Ewing)

“Reunion, Part 1” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.