“Battle Lines/Venomous Creatures” S2 / E1
- B Community Grade
The second season of TNT’s Dallas revival pulls out of the station with a full head of steam. After a brief scene of campaign supporters yelling “You are Texas!” at Sue Ellen, establishing that the former Iron Lady of Southfork is coasting to a win in the gubernatorial election, we cut to her wayward son, John Ross, crashing what appears to be a barbecue bachelorette party with a Girls Gone Wild theme. The perky guest of honor wears an apron emblazoned with a bucket list of things she needs to do before making her way down the aisle. John Ross fixes her with the old Ewing eyeball lock, and suggests that she amend her list to include, “French kiss a stranger until his toes curl.” For John Ross, making it all the way to the end of a sentence like that constitutes getting the preliminaries out of the way.
Toward the end of the previous season, John Ross seemed to be flirting with the idea of abandoning his plans to model himself after his Mephistophelian father, renewing his friendly bond with the other members of his family, and turning into a fairly decent guy, albeit one with enough blood on his hands to paint the Astrodome, two coats. But then, revelations and misunderstandings reared their ugly heads, and John Ross was once again on the outs with his good-hearted but soup-headed cousin Christopher and their mutual on-again, off-again girlfriend, Elena. At first, one might think that John Ross is man-slutting around because it’s his way of numbing the pain that goes with his eternal prodigal-rat-bastard status, but it turns out that he’s actually takin’ care of business: The morning after his night with the aproned miss, he saunters downstairs and confronts her father, explaining that if he doesn’t stop dicking him around on this trucking deal John Ross needs to make with him, some compromising photos of his little darling are liable to hit the social media and blow her wedding day sky-high. Blackmail, John Ross says, is “a dirty trick that I hate, but that I’ve found to be compelling.”
It’s no surprise that John Ross learned this dirty trick from his daddy, who suggested that he use it in this instance, and probably bought him condoms and breath mints before dropping him off across the street from the target’s house. John Ross’ lingering ambitions to be taken seriously—as both a player and a gentleman—resurface when he tells his luckless prey, “I hate to be vulgar.” That’s not a line that Larry Hagman’s J.R. could deliver without doubling over giggling. The strengths of J.R. as a character, of Hagman’s performance in the role, and of Dallas itself, have always come from a shameless, even gleeful, willingness to do whatever it takes, and what feels good right this minute—taste, consequences, and table manners be damned.
It wasn’t the tasteful, “dignified” thing for the ailing, 80-year-old Hagman to attempt a comeback in the role that defined the vulgar pleasures of high-end trash TV in the 1980s, but as soon as Hagman and the show reappeared last summer, it was clear that the actor was doing it because he was an entertainer who felt lucky to have one last chance to practice his vocation, and that there was nothing sentimental or cloying about seeing him back in action: His body might be failing, but there wasn’t a speck of rust on his chops. The actor’s death last November, and our knowledge that we’re seeing him perform the last moves he had in him, hasn’t changed that; the softest thing about J.R. is his quickness to shift sides and start fighting those challenging the brother he’s been back-stabbing and plotting against their whole lives, to reassure himself that he’s a member in good standing of “the family.”
The revelation that Rebecca, the con artist who assumed a fake identity to marry Christopher is, in fact, “Pamela Rebecca Barnes,” daughter of his arch-enemy Cliff Barnes and niece and namesake of brother Bobby’s ex-wife, automatically elevates her to the top of J.R.’s shit list. “I’m just here to look my enemy in the eye,” he tells her as he barges into her office, “and since your daddy’s about two feel shorter than I am, I guess you’ll have to do.” The complicated family backstory that has everyone else flummoxed and gasping for air only cheers J.R. up; he lives for this shit. “You’re not the first Pam to fox your way into the henhouse,” he leers, and his double-edged pronunciation of “fox” puts to shame John Ross’ attempt at a debauched-asshole catch phrase for himself: “Love is for pussies.” (Realizing that John Ross hasn't gotten over Elena, J.R. chuckles and offers him some fatherly comfort: “She really did a number on you, didn't she? Cut your heart out with a spoon and licked it clean? Good. Whatever lights a fire under you.”)
When J.R. is onscreen and John Ross is joined to him at the hip, Dallas suggests what it might have been like if Sonny and Michael Corleone had both died as children and the Don had been forced to seriously take Fredo under his wing. But when they’re offscreen, the show has to pad out its running time with scenes of charisma-deprived young men and woman trying to act powerful and domineering, sequences that seem intended as tour de force showcases for people who can’t act. There’s nothing that makes an actor seem dinkier than keeping him in the dark by depriving him of information that the audience is well aware of, and poor Jesse Metcalfe, as Christopher, is loaded down with scenes in which he plays what he thinks is his trump card in his dealings with Rebecca and the woman she was pretending to be, telling them that if they don’t cooperate he’ll come down like a ton of bricks on the missing, and in fact, dead, Tom. There’s no reason for him to know that the guy has been so hard to find because Rebecca murdered him—though it shouldn’t tax his puzzler that badly for him to guess that it might be a possibility—but he’s still behind the curve so far as the audience is concerned, and the harder he strains to seem fiery, the slower he seems on the uptake.
Then there’s Bobby’s wife, Ann, played by Brenda Strong, who was put on this Earth for the express purpose of walking down the street (in a Seinfeldepisode) wearing a bra as if it were a halter top. She receives news from her sadistic sleazeball of an ex-husband (Mitch Pileggi) that he has located the 22-year-old daughter who she hasn’t seen since she was abducted as a baby. Ann processes this by sitting behind the wheel of a parked car and running through the full gamut of possible emotions, from teary hysteria to teary regret, with some teary laugher—Oh man, I thought that “YOLO” thing on Saturday Night Live was going to make Bobby pee his pants. Now what was I thinking about? Oh yeah, my baby, my baby! Just when you’re wondering why the writers don’t help her out with some dialogue, Bobby asks what the hell’s bugging her today, and she says that her ex knows the whereabouts of her missing daughter, and if she wants the information, “I have to give him a tape I made of him laundering money.” It says a lot about what Bobby’s had to put up with all these years that this doesn’t even rate a “Huh?” from him. The two of them go to meet the girl, but she doesn’t want anything to do with Ann; it seems that she was actually squired away, and raised to hate her mother, by her maternal grandmother. Granny is played by Judith Light, who’s all of three years older than Mitch Pileggi. They start early in Texas.
I can’t say that I was eating my heart out wondering when Judith Light would be returning to series TV, but she has a regal, frosty veneer here that promises some impressive dragon lady bitchery. The show could use it; it’s going to lose its greatest bad guy before the season is out, there are no morally uncertain good-bad characters with the possible exception of Sue Ellen, and its good-good characters are a dead loss. We won’t be covering the full season—we’re not nuts, you know—but you can expect a drop-in report on the announced episode later in the season depicting the funeral of J. R. Ewing, a man who had died, or as good as died, a time or two before, only this time for real. You used to hear loose talk about a prequel series that might explore the early lives of the original central Dallas characters, but Larry Hagman’s return to the role he made his own ought to be enough to scare off anyone who might otherwise have been fool enough to consider stepping into those boots. It’s the end of an era that some of us were pleasantly surprised to learn hadn’t fully ended 20 years old.