This week I did something I don’t typically do. I watched a soap opera.
TNT recently resurrected the 80’s prime time serial Dallas and the new show aired its two hour premiere Wednesday night. I watched partly for the nostalgia of it. I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, and the original Dallas was appointment viewing in my house. J.R. Ewing was shot when I was 7 years old and I remember it as vividly as I remember the Reagan assassination attempt that happened a year later. Dallas jumped the shark in later seasons and became a bit of a cheese-fest, but in the first few years of its run, it was one of the most-watched television shows in the world. We viewed it as a family and Friday was the only day of the week that I was allowed to stay awake past 9:00.
I was a little skeptical about whether the new Dallas could recapture the magic of the old one. Twenty-first century reboots and continuations of classic shows have by and large been disastrous. (One exception is the updated Battlestar Galactica of 2004, which surpassed the original in almost every way.)
My first impression was that Dallas 2012 really worked. Most of the professional critics seem to agree. After a little analysis, I’ve figured out a few reasons why. Church growth gurus and Christian trend watchers should take note because what’s really interesting is how easily these qualities translate to the church world.
The new show uses and builds upon the original show’s mythology. The producers and writers decided to do a continuation rather than a total reboot, which was smart. (Really, can you picture anyone other than Larry Hagman playing J.R. Ewing?) By adhering to the canon established by the first Dallas series, the new one is much more likely to gain the trust and support of viewers of the original series. This provides a built in fan base for the new show. If done correctly, this is easier than building an audience from scratch. Churches should be the same way. While much has been made in recent decades of congregations that run from tradition, I believe some of the more effective churches find creative ways to establish obvious links to the historic Christian faith.
Of the eight main actors on the updated show, three are from the old Dallas, four are over 40 years old and four are under 40. That’s almost a perfect balance between young and old and between new and established. This pretty much guarantees richer storylines than you’d see on a show with a relatively homogeneous group of players. It also means that almost anyone should be able to find someone to relate to. Churches should consider this carefully. When people are “channel surfing” for a church home and they stop on your congregation, will they find a character they can relate to or will they get the message that your group isn’t for people like them?
Faster Pace, More Plot Twists, and Seamless Transitions
Generations X and Y are the ADD generations. If you don’t believe it, compare a television show or music video from the 1980’s with one from 2012 and count the number of times the camera shot changes. Apparently we are much more easily bored these days than we were 25 or 30 years ago. Cinematographers for the new Dallas understand this well. Gone are the long dramatic pauses, slow pans, and drawn out establishing shots of the 80’s version. Like most shows on now, if you blink, you’ll probably miss something important. And it seems to me that there’s a lot more going on at any one moment in this show than in the old one. Watching it is almost like drinking from a fire hose. But the multiple plots and fast pace are accompanied by smooth transitions. This makes for a solid viewing experience. So much so that the commercials seem downright intrusive. What if our church services were so engaging that we didn’t check our watches or cell phone clocks until the very end wondering where the time had gone? Television has adapted to those with short attention spans and to the easily bored. Has church? Do we make every second count?
The original Dallas was mostly filmed in California, not Texas, especially in the program’s later years. The new one, on the other hand, is filmed entirely in and around Dallas. (What a concept!) This adds a greater depth of realism to the show, both for the actors and the viewers. (For example, in the original series, many of the exterior scenes were done as close-ups to avoid getting palm trees in the camera shot.) Realism is a good thing. With the proliferation of HD televisions and the huge amount of entertainment choices, it’s getting more challenging for viewers to suspend their disbelief so they can really enjoy a story. With church, we’re dealing with a skeptical world that’s not as impressed by window-dressing it used to be. People are looking for a healthy amount of optimism and idealism, but they also want authenticity.
When Dallas premiered in 1978, there were no DVRs and very few VCRs. If you wanted to watch Dallas, you could do it whenever you wanted as long as it was Friday night at 9:00 Eastern! It’s not like that now. You can catch the show several times a week on TNT. (Cable channels like showing stuff over and over again.) You can also watch the show on demand on cable, satellite, and the internet. Appointment viewing is largely a relic of the past because entertainment choices (even the really good ones) have been forced to work around our schedules. This has been a huge paradigm shift, but the church world hasn’t fully caught on. The 10:00 Sunday School 11:00 church service in one location model is vanishing quickly. This generation expects multisite choices, multiple services, online options, and other innovations. Hollywood gets it—but does the church?
I’m not suggesting that the church take all of its cues from the entertainment industry, but we’d be fools not to take note when Hollywood reaches people and impacts culture successfully. Because TV and film are a business, they are forced to do things more efficiently and offer products that bring positive responses from their audiences. This isn’t always a good thing, but for good or for ill, it does set trends and expectations for the culture at large. At the very least, we should use their findings as market research and decide what needs and wants they’re meeting that the church could address in a healthier way.
And if we improve our methods and become more effective in the process, that's definitely a positive thing.