In the sixties and seventies, Dallas’s prime tourist attraction was an assassination site. The town seriously needed a new image. It got one in a soap opera that revealed a city besieged by blonds, big hair and big homes. “Dallas,” which premiered in 1978, did for Big D what “Sex in the City” and “Seinfeld” did for New York: it painted a portrait of the city for the world.
The last “Dallas” episode aired in 1991, but TNT recently resurrected the hit show. This iteration features a new crop of Ewings beside originals Larry Hagman, Linda Gray, and Patrick Duffy. Dallas, of course, was never like “Dallas.” Since the series premiered, Dallas evolved. From its residents to its politics, Dallas today bears little resemblance to the city the show depicted. Which Dallas will J.R. come home to?
When the series debuted, Dallas was a conservative place. In 1980, Reagan took 59 percent in Dallas County, the anchor of the much larger Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, now home to more than 6 million people. As the county grew, it became more diverse, and consequently, more Democratic. No one would mistake it for San Francisco, politically and demographically, but it more resembles present-day Los Angeles than old Dallas.
In 2008, for example, Obama won 57 percent in Dallas County. Since “Dallas” first aired, Dallas elected two female Jewish mayors and an African-American, current U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk. Although voters rejected gay marriage in 2005, they sent openly gay city councilor Ed Oakley to a mayoral runoff two years later (Oakley lost). If a real J.R. today causes trouble, he’ll contend with Sheriff Lupe Valdez, who’s also gay.
Minority growth transformed Dallas County politics. In 1980, there were two white residents for each non-white resident. Now, it’s the other way around. After “Dallas,” whites fled to northern exurbs. African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities spread throughout the urban core and inner-ring suburbs. Dallas votes Democratic; the surrounding counties don’t. Southfork Ranch, the white mansion in the “Dallas” opening, sits in rock-Republican Collin County, a mostly white, upper-middle class area with more than five times the residents as were there in 1980. In many respects, this is where “Dallas” culture – as defined by the old series – still thrives.
Outposts of the exclusive “Dallas” lifestyle still exist in much of North Dallas. George W. Bush settled into his post-presidency in an 8,500 sq. ft. Preston Hollow estate. Old-moneyed enclaves Highland Park and University Park draw the ire and envy of the metroplex. In Good Christian Bitches, socialite Kim Gatlin dishes about Botoxed beauties and Bible belt back-stabbers. These clichés sell: ABC used her Park Cities-inspired tale for their upcoming series “Good Christian Belles.”
Besides the population, the economy has also diversified: oil is now an ensemble player, not the lead. Exxon Mobil has headquarters near Dallas, but Houston is the energy superstar, despite not getting its own show. The metroplex hosts twenty Fortune 500 companies, including Southwest Airlines, Texas Instruments, and GameStop. This mix, along with the fact the region mostly avoided the housing crisis, explains why the recession hurt Dallas less than other cities.
If you only saw “Dallas,” you’d suspect shoulder pads and cowboy boots pass for high-fashion. But Dallas was always more cosmopolitan than the series let on. Neiman Marcus started in Dallas. Dallasites who can afford to—and many who can’t—gather at upscale eateries, fashion premiers, and charity galas. J.R. Ewing-types may fill Cowboys Stadium suites, but they also fill box-seats at the $354 million AT&T Performing Arts Center. It’s not all BBQ, rodeos, and pageant queens in Big D.
That perception, nonetheless, persists as does the idea of J.R. as the archetypal Texan. On a trip to Spain, his name came up after I told my hosts I was from Texas. Who knew Sevillanos loved Aaron Spelling productions? As Dallas transforms, it can’t shake the cowboy/oilman stereotype. Like a Hollywood starlet, Dallas has been typecast.
But still I hope the next “Dallas” includes a broader cast of characters. An uptown Indian high-tech executive or feisty female mayor would be nice. Producers must show off the city’s grandiosity. Dallas strives for bigger and best, for bragging rights if no more; it never lets up. The same year it lost a quixotic Olympic bid, it opened the colossal American Airlines Center. Ridiculed in the nineties, the Dallas Mavericks stand as N.B.A. champs today. Always scouting for new business, Dallas lured AT&T from San Antonio in 2008.
“Dallas” left fans wondering, “Who shot J.R.?” The real mystery, three decades later, is why a multi-layered city retains a one-note reputation. Dallas, after all, has remade itself.
Writer Jason Thurlkill grew up near Dallas. He reported for “The Hotline” and a “New York Observer” publication. Previously, he worked for a Washington D.C. political consulting firm. He studied government at the University of Texas and earned his Master of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.
Photo by david.nahas.