Advertisements in The Economist show how cities and countries sell themselves for business investment. Their basic message is usually, “our citizens are well-educated and hard-working; we have great roads, hospitals and schools; and our taxes are low. Place your corporation’s new division here.” Singapore has done an outstanding job of marketing itself during the last 20 years, turning itself into the Switzerland of Asia in a remarkably short period.
When it comes to portraying a city as a character in a work of fiction–the New York of “Sex and the City” or “Friends,” for example–television producers seem to fall back on a convenient label already established by the city, rather than building on the actual ethos of the place. No city seems to bear this cross more heavily than Dallas. I studied and practiced journalism in the Dallas of the 1980s, during the heyday of the primetime soap opera “Dallas.” It is discouraging that the new ABC television series “GCB” returns Dallas to this same place, a city populated by materialistic, thoughtless, heartless people.
Many of my friends and family have lived and worked in Dallas for decades, and none of them knows anybody who actually wears a cowboy hat. Here’s what people in Dallas do: they compete with people in Houston to shape the economy and the culture of the Southwest. In this sense, the producers of the 1956 movie “Giant,” starring James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, did a much better job of characterizing what Texans actually do. The Texas as portrayed by “Giant,” at least, dealt with conflicts over oil, livestock, sociology and economic development. The Dallas of “GCB” is about, what? “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” but in Dallas? Cheap fiction based on a template of even cheaper reality television?
It’s possible that New York is sometimes portrayed with greater complexity because writers and producers actually live there, but that doesn’t excuse shallow portrayals of non-New York locations. Edna Ferber, for example, who wrote the book behind “Giant,” grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The short story collections “Dubliners” and “The Novel of Ferrara” are unforgettable in large part because of the respect and attention to detail paid to these cities by James Joyce and Giorgio Bassani. Want a fictional introduction to what people in Dallas or Texas are actually like? Read Marshall Terry’s “Dallas Stories.” Watch “Friday Night Lights,” either the movie or the television series. Nobody wins when great cities are treated like punchlines.