“As in JR Ewing? Sorry, you must be sick of hearing that.” Not especially, to be honest – the sudden fame of my surname in the early 80s pleased me more than it hurt me. For one thing, there wasn’t an awful lot of playground material in Dallas. For another, the naming coincidence meant that the show was the one and only soap my family actually watched together. Well, Dad and I watched it – Mum would look up from a book to frown occasionally at developments, and Al was mostly too young, but Dad and I were hooked for a few years.

I remember the show as being garish and improbable – I think the ‘shower season’ was what finally stopped us – so renting the Season 1 DVD from Amazon was a gamble: I expected momentary entertainment at best. But these first episodes are terrific – slower-paced than a modern TV show but never boring, with well-drawn characters and generally good acting. Supposed identification figures Pammy and Bobby are, then as later, the dullest – moral centre Pam being particularly smarmy. The rest of the cast are still feeling their way into becoming the familiar collection of grotesques – J.R. at this stage is a pitiable incompetent (though he still eats up the screen), Ray Krebbs a gormless idiot, Cliff Barnes a deliciously awkward hypocrite. Three of the first five episodes in this pilot mini-season involve disaster befalling the Ewings directly because of J.R.’s uselessness – later (in memory at least) his scheming would at least be more competent.

Easily the best actor on the show at this point is Linda Gray as Sue Ellen, a bit-part character in the first couple of episodes who takes centre-stage at season’s end. Gray gets the season’s two most memorable scenes. The first is horribly uncomfortable, when a pair of home invaders make her wear her old Miss Texas ribbon and sing for them, moments after telling her that J.R.’s been unfaithful (they’re invading the home because he shagged one of their wives). The second is a tragicomic gem, with a drunk Sue Ellen giving a monologue on J.R.’s conjugal shortcomings at a Ewing barbeque, with cuts to the baffled and horrified faces of the elderly Dallas dowagers she’s picked as an audience.

One of the interesting things about this first season is that it isn’t a soap opera yet – it’s a more conventional, episode-by-episode drama, with subplot developments firmly in the background. This works against my expectations as a modern viewer, and my  – we never get to see the confrontation between Sue Ellen and J.R. after the home invaders have been driven away; we never see whether Bobby tells anyone else that Ray has been sleeping with Lucy (a subplot quickly forgotten when the producers retconned Ray into being her uncle!). The gaps can be frustrating, but they also work strongly in the show’s favour, establishing the Ewings as people for whom any crack can be papered over, any bitterness locked away and left to fester, as long as the family sustains.