The New “Dallas”: Sex, scandal and U.S. energy policy

The resurrected show reflects the nation's energy concerns

Topics: Energy, Television,

This originally appeared on ProPublica.

Did the fracking debate dredge up “Dallas” – the redux – or was this soap opera’s resurgence just another convenient mirror in which to reflect how central the nation’s debate over energy has now become in our culture?

Either way, the show’s creators seem to have found the decades-old plot so evocative of the evolving contemporary debate over oil and gas drilling and the environment that they couldn’t resist resurrecting it. Perhaps they should have.

When “Dallas” was first launched in 1978, it always covered oil, and, later, a little bit about the environment. But really it was about sex, betrayal, and the infighting that came with running Ewing Oil, the company that had made their family rich. In the end, two brothers – J.R. and Bobby Ewing – fought over whether to conserve their sprawling family ranch, Southfork.

The plotline was an effective analogy not just for the oil business, but for all business. It provided a voyeuristic – and playfully sensationalized – glimpse into the glitzy lives of those who succeeded by it and a fantastically Reaganesque view on what it took to climb to the top of an industry on the backs of your competitors, Texas-style.

But the world was different then. Oil was a near singular symbol of business wealth in the U.S. Texas was on top of its game. And environmentalism was still seen by big business as a fringe movement.

Today Big Oil remains as powerful as ever, but wealth, technology and industry have diversified and become more complex. Today’s corporations often seek – and in fact profit from – social responsibility and sustainability. The notion that resources are finite and that environmental protection necessary have become mainstream. They are certainly no longer laughable.

The next-generation “Dallas” – which still has its aging stars but picks up with a rivalry between Bobby and J.R.’s sons – appears to be all about trying to transcend its old paradigm, seizing on its oil roots as an opportunity to build on the current conversation.

The opening scene glides above a verdant pasture until the camera stumbles on an oil-drilling rig nestled among the trees. It’s more a thing of beauty than an interruption in the landscape. Soon the well is gushing oil – 1880s-style – and two of the show’s young protagonists, who estimate they just found “a couple of billion barrels” are drenched in syrupy crude and kissing beneath the shower of oil.

“This will make us richer than we ever imagined,” croons J.R.’s son, John Ross, played by Josh Henderson. “It will change everything.”

In the new plot, John Ross schemes to develop the oil on Southfork without the consent of Bobby (still played by Patrick Duffy). Meanwhile, Bobby’s son Christopher, played by Jesse Metcalfe, has founded Ewing Alternative Energy and espouses a seemingly anti-oil perspective. Like any good soap opera, everything is incestuous and intertwined. The two men battle over the affections of Elena, a buxom entrepreneurial wildcatter who is also the daughter of the Ewings’ in-house cook, even while Christopher marries another woman. J.R.  – the senior villain still played by Larry Hagman, watches on in bemusement.

The cheese is thick enough to spread on crackers.

“So, I hear you’ve come home with some kind of alternative energy scheme to save the world,” John Ross asks Christopher, in their first major argument around the dinner table.

“Oil is the past,” Christopher replies. “Alternatives are the future.”

“I couldn’t disagree more.”

“Well, this country is quickly running out of resources,” Christopher adds.

And just like that, 16 minutes into the first episode of the pilot, the fundamental dynamic of U.S. energy policy — err … I mean, of the Ewing family in Dallas – is laid bare. Christopher even speeds away under the high-pitched electric whine of his sleek black Tesla.

It would be a mistake to think that the show takes itself too seriously. In Dallas, that’s not the point. The plot’s dynamic is superficial, with as much attention paid to hot bodies and hot cars as oil. At times, its more like an Abercrombie commercial, as bare-chested John Ross prances in his boxer-briefs, or Christopher’s fiancée gets frisky in the country club locker room. “May I suggest you save something for the honeymoon?” chides Mrs. Stanfield, a blue-blood family friend who interrupts the act.

Still, the show occasionally tries to put on a straight face, like when Christopher pitches his new-energy business ideas to investors, breaking a frosty white block on the table. “Go on, touch it,” he says. “It’s Ice, flammable ice.”

It’s a thinly veiled reference to flammable water associated with methane leaks near fracked gas wells, except this ice is meant to burn. Christopher explains that it is methane hydrates, the stuff we briefly heard about when it clogged BP’s containment box meant to capture the spewing oil from its ruptured Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Never mind that natural gas – a hydrocarbon – is not exactly what most people mean by “alternative energy.” Christopher sees a revolution in harvesting this methane gas, and here the show gets downright techy. “Remember your thesis on petroleum and water flooding?” he asks Elena at one point, referring to the underground injection process that fracking is so often compared to. “I think I may be able to use it to extract methane from the hydrates, and prevent seabed slumping.”

“If you can do that,” says Elena, in a line that might sound familiar to anyone following the real-life political debate over natural gas, “it’s a game changer.”

And here “Dallas” does tiptoe into issues that really matter. At one point Christopher learns that his methane mining can cause faults to slip. “There might be a link between harvesting methane, and earthquakes,” a Chinese scientist tells him. “It’s not safe.”

When a moralistic Bobby shuts down a drilling rig on Southfork, his monologue echoes the choice now facing landowners in Pennsylvania and New York. “I know times are rough out there, boys, but this ranch has been in my momma’s family for 150 years,” Ewing says. “I promised her no drilling on it. I’m sorry about your jobs.”

“Dallas’” one-liners – and J.R. has some great ones – will be amusing to some and haunting to others whose real-life scrapes with the oil industry and fracking in their backyards might make them more likely to shiver than laugh.

When John Ross files a lawsuit to force Bobby into drilling on his property J.R. tells him: “Son, the courts are for amateurs and the faint of heart.” Later, a smirking J.R. boasts: “My friends are in the statehouse. My enemies are going to be harder to find.”

By the end of Wednesday’s two-hour premiere, the battle lines (and the bikini lines) were clearly, if not simplistically, drawn. An environmentalist and an oilman have to be diametrically opposed, the show’s writers tell us.

What happens next – and whether the show can find relevance while only flirting with the finer points of the energy debate – is anybody’s guess. Perhaps Bobby will discover that in addition to a billion-barrel reserve beneath his ranch he has something even more valuable in postmodern Texas – an aquifer.

That might make “Dallas” interesting.

Abrahm Lustgarten is a New York writer and photographer who reports on the environment, health and sports.

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