England's 'Dallas' cheerleaders

Just about now a member of the BBC audience will be learning that he or she -- oh happy day! -- is the winner of a weekend in Dallas, expenses paid by Braniff International. This prize is to be awarded to the author of the wittiest explanation for the shooting of the infamous J. R., who was gunned down by an unidentified assailant in the season's final episode of "Dallas."

Now if somebody will only sponsor a weekend in London for the wittiest explanation of why anybodym should care who shot J. R., we'll reach for our robin's-egg blue stationery like that!

For those marooned on a desert island who have managed not to hear of J. R., "Dallas" may be described as television soap opera, rated R. Any resemblance to American life is impurely coincidental. This near-parody of a Texas oil-rich family specializes in 10-gallon quantities of greed, lust, and plain old boot-stomping ruthlessness. As self-destructive as they are destructive, the Ewings are steered toward the nearest bottle when the script can think of nothing loathesome for them to do. Americans -- or Texans at least -- ought to sue "Dallas" for defamation of character. On its trivial level it makes "Death of a Princess" look like a tribute to civilization.

Why Americans dote on "Dallas" is one of those mysteries native pundits like to explain by muttering nonsense about their countrymen's suppressed-puritan appetite for sex and violence. But what is the British excuse?

As many as 20 million viewers of BBC-TV are said to watch "Dallas" -- a figure exceeding the number of telly sets in England. According to The New York Times, an Oxford Street department store recently dedicated its main window to a display of T-shirts absolfing J. R.'s wife of his six-gunning with the message: "Sue Ellen is innocent." Silly bumper stickers on London streets urged: "J. R. for President." The Royal Automobile Club analyzed the light traffic at the end of the bank holiday thus: "It could well be that everybody got home early just to make sure they didn't miss 'Dallas.'"

Meanwhile, as times get hard, an English bookmaker has accepted about $235, 000 in bets on the identity of J. R.'s attacker -- a name that won't be disclosed until the series resumes in the fall. (The oddsmaker closed his books in a hurry when money betting on the Widow Stone began to pour in from Ireland where Larry Hagman, who plays J. R., happened to be on vacation.)

After the final episode was shown to the entranced English millions, a BBC news program reran a clip of the shooting of J. R., prompting the critic of the Evening Standard to ask if "10 or even three years ago a duty editor in a BBC newsroom would have allowed as a story in his 9 p.m. news bulletin the mythical shooting of a mythical hero of a mythical schlock of an American soap opera."

It can be argued that a little over a century ago the English public was waiting breathlessly for the next Dickens serial to answer questions like: What will become of Little Neil? People, it is insisted, get quite enough of the hardship and boredom of day-to-day existence, and escape is a legitimate function of novels and drama.

But Dickens is Dickens, and "Dallas" is "Dallas."

Even if one does not take "Dallas" seriously -- even if one carefully makes a joke of it -- nobody can afford too many of such jokes. Matters of taste eventually become matters of character. For those who believe the '80s will be a test of character, it cannot be a favorable sign that "Dallas" holds the world's attention more succesfully than Afghanistan or Tehran or Cuba. And while J. R. was skulking about, selling Asian oil leases, whatever became of the boat people? Did anybody hurry from holiday to find out about them?

But there's another reason for forgetting J. R. -- and a lot of other television too. Look! Something's gooing on outside far more interesting and various than this fitful flicker of shadows on the screen. It's called summer, and alas, unlike "Dallas," the program runs for only three months a year.

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