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Those Dallas and Dynasty days - Michela Spiteri

I’m in television clover: I have Apple TV, an Android Box and a Netflix subscription. Which means that I have access to hundreds if not thousands of movies, shows, sitcoms and documentaries. And yet there is ‘nothing on television’ these days – nothing anyway that interests me as much as certain programmes in the 1980s. What kind of irony is that?

The 1980s were of course the ‘Stalinist’ era of tele-austerity in Malta. For years, television sets were the stuff of waiting lists or bribes. You were lucky indeed to get your hands on one. Which possibly explains the near-sacred nature of the ‘television experience’ back then. Less really was more.

But things changed. We lost our simplicity. It slowly dawned on us that the more choice you had, the less happy you were. That, I insist, is a serious point, not to be dismissed as self-indulgent nostalgia for one’s youth. The past may well be a foreign country where things are done differently; but we love it steadfastly, in a world-without-end sort of way.

Rose-tinted spectacles aside, there was something special about the way we all sat down together as a family. We turned off the lights, shushed each other and waited for the eight o’clock news to finish.

Then came the much-anticipated ‘live broadcast’ of the evening. And ‘live’ always heightened the experience, because you only ever got one shot at it. If you missed a show, there was no catch-up later, stored away in some digital cloud. At best you could record the broadcast – ‘tape it’ was the phrase – if you were lucky enough to own a VCR (but those really came later). 

So really there was nothing to beat the joy of watching the show in real time and then discussing it over the phone. And we’re talking telephones with curly, permanently entangled cords that plugged into a wall.  Phones you couldn’t take for a walk. Phones that rang through the entire house.     

We were soon hooked. Rarely did we miss our Sunday night episode of Love Boat, Monday’s Dallas or Tuesday’s Dynasty. And it was a TV excitement that I, for one, have never experienced since. I have by now watched a whole cinema of films, many of real quality, and I’ve loyally followed superior TV dramas; but none has stayed with me in quite the same way as those early American imports. (The only exception might be Grease, for very different reasons). 

But the simple fact is that anyone my age grew up with Dallas and Dynasty. Their heydays were ours. We had never seen shows like them. They were ‘guilty pleasures’, chances to escape into a world of make-believe which (we may or may not have hoped) might just come true. 

It was a TV excitement that I, for one, have never experienced since

Dynasty in particular was synonymous with luxury, glamour, scandal and glitz: a world of butlers, limousines and chauffeurs, private jets and fast cars. In many ways, for us it told the story of a future time. Of course, it was all pretty far-fetched – then. And not just the material trappings of the American Dream. There was also the candid revelation of a lifestyle still taboo on our small island – a culture of casual affairs, lack of commitment, infidelity itself, divorce, homosexuality, fractured relationships and family dysfunction. Interestingly, I don’t think drugs were yet on the scene.  Plenty of alcohol, though.

They may have been cultural wastelands as arid as the ‘Panhandle’ of Texas, but there was also something extravagant and old-style ritzy about the way the theme tune and opening credits came together: all those wonderfully corny profile shots of the characters, the fountains in perfect sync with the music’s crescendos and diminuendos.   

Both shows showcased beautiful women of all ages, but particularly mature women. And even if I didn’t always follow what was going on and missed much of the wheeling and dealing, I understood that the shows were not just about big hair and padded shoulders. Alexis Carrington (the female J.R.Ewing) was both power-dresser and powerhouse, a force to be reckoned with. She personified TV feminism.  

If Dynasty captured the contemporary excesses and greed of the Reagan/Thatcher era, it also reached Maltese audiences at a time when there were no excesses to speak of. We were not then spoiled for choice (interesting word that, ‘spoiled’ – the expression captures the malaise so perfectly). Our single brands of pasta and chocolate bar were as restricted as our television viewing, and only served to make the world beyond our islands more like a fairy-tale and inaccessible. No wonder, some 30 years later, when we children of the 80s huddle together, we talk about those days with a sense almost of longing. We still know the on- and off-screen names of every member of the casts, and can quote both ‘cat-fight’ and verse. 

In today’s ‘on-demand’ world of instant gratification, instant communication and instant lifestyle, nothing shocks or intrigues anymore. It’s all there (in theory) for the taking, like a restaurant with a menu a mile long you tire of reading almost at once.  

Is our modern world all about the wrong kinds of aspiration and expectation? Do we move, like fractious spoiled children in a toy-shop, between opening our presents and throwing them away? And how good are we at managing satiety and, worse still, disillusionment or not getting what we want? Isn’t there a beauty in certain kinds of simplicity and austerity?

And please don’t take me to task in the mistaken belief that I’m knocking Progress and recommending a return to abject poverty, indignity and inequality. I’m not. I’m just advocating a moment, appropriate enough for this ‘slower’ day of the week and time of the year, for personal reflection. You do the thinking.

michelaspiteri@gmail.com

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