Linda Evans / COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION
Linda Gray / COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION
Until the late 1970s, most TV shows wrapped up each week like a neatly packaged present— no cliffhangers, no question about who pulled the trigger or who was the father. Then along came dramas like Dallas (1978) and Dynasty (1981), and TV was turned on its head.
Pioneers of Television (PBS, Jan. 22, 8 p.m. ET/PT) revisits nighttime soaps’ over-the-top plots with stars such as Dynasty’s Linda Evans and Joan Collins, Knots Landing’s Michele Lee, and Dallas’ Linda Gray, Patrick Duffy and Larry Hagman (who died in November at age 81).
“Dallas was groundbreaking,” says Gray, who played hard-drinking Sue Ellen. “Viewers could relate in some way or another. ... A lot of women saw themselves in Sue Ellen.”
An average episode offered more affairs, plotting and mental breakdowns than Shakespeare. Shows tackled such taboo issues as alcoholism, homosexuality and cancer. Not to mention fashion. It can be argued that primetime soaps were the birthplace of the 1980s giant-shoulder-pad craze. Alas, the linebacker look may have come and gone, but the legacy of these shows and their influence on the social mores of that era remains.
And then there was the controversial kiss on Dynasty between Evans and Rock Hudson, who at the time had AIDS. On Pioneers, Evans goes into detail about the backlash she received later from those who feared she had the disease.
There are lighter moments to reflect on, too. “In those days, the catfights made people think, ‘Oh, my God, look what they’ve done!’” Evans says. “Now, reality TV takes that an extra mile. You’re going, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe someone actually did that when they knew the camera was on.’”
Reality television has arguably dethroned the prime-time soap as the audience favorite. Still, a new incarnation of Dallas starts Season 2 Jan. 28, with original cast members Gray, Duffy and the late Hagman reprising their roles.
“Frankly, I’m amazed that there are so many people still wanting to talk about our characters,” Evans says. “But it’s so interesting to go back to all of the shows we loved so much. There’s a lot of nostalgia about the past and the TV we grew up loving.”