Dallas: “Family Business”
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Dallas: “Family Business”

 After a couple of weeks experimenting to see what Dallas is like when Larry Hagman’s J. R. is literally phoning in his brief token appearances, the show brought the old son of a bitch back and served him up in quantity, if not quality. It’s pretty remarkable what a difference even that makes. This is a touchy-feely episode, based on the idea that when the hollering dies down, Miss Ellie’s wisdom must prevail and it really is family that unites, and matters to, all the Ewings. A case could be made that the episode gets gooey just so that it can tear the prospect of happiness away from the characters at the last minute: Bobby suffers “some kind of brain seizure,” sits in his bed at home looking healthy as a horse, guilt-trips everyone into giving him his way, and then has another damn seizure and seems closer to death than ever before when the credits roll. And though Christopher and Rebecca are first seen walking down the street cooing over pictures of their unborn twins (“It looks like they’re squished!”) and rhapsodizing over cute furry toys in a store window, at the end the little monkey dolls by Rebecca’s bed are blood-spattered. But that’s the plot mechanics. Dallas is still showing that its heart, and J. R.’s, can grow three sizes when everybody needs to pull together, just like the Grinch’s.

The fact that most of this is still very watchable comes down to Larry Hagman. Hagman is regarded as a TV star who’s identified with an iconic role, and the buzz that Dallas has generated this summer comes from seeing him resume that role with dignity. What Hagman doesn’t get a lot of credit for is being a great actor, but he is: Look at the 1974 movie Harry and Tonto, in which he plays Art Carney’s son and has maybe five minutes of screen time, and see how much he makes them count, or at the two movies he’s been in since the original Dallas shut down production, Nixon and Primary Colors, and marvel at how, cast in roles designed to touch on audience’s memories of J. R. Ewing—a sinister Texas tycoon and a Southern politician with a secret life—he turned them into fresh characters with identities and feelings all their own.

Tonight, the script calls for J. R., faced with his brother’s terminal diagnosis, to suffer pangs of conscience and sign Southfork over to him. His first reaction to learning of Bobby’s condition is to say, “I don’t see how this is my fault.” “Of course you don’t,” says Bobby’s wife, Ann. “You’re a sociopath.” She threatens to shoot him if he doesn’t amscray from the premises, and as he hustles out the door, J. R. mutters, “Damn woman’s lost her mind.” (He later sums up the situation to Sue Ellen: “Wife number three is at the door, and she’s packing heat.”) But after a stiff drink and a quiet moment contemplating a photo of himself and Bobby and a large fish—exactly the same kind of photo that was used as a punch line on the lastest episode of Political Animals—he sees the light and does what’s right. Hagman somehow pulls all this off without violating the essence of the character or just turning to mush. In fact, even when he shows his streak of goodness, he’s funnier and has more snap and verve than anyone else in the cast, with the possible exception of Mitch Pileggi. It’s a feat that calls for heavy acting chops as well as the soul of a true entertainer.

Pileggi’s Harris Ryland, who comes as close to slithering as any creature with two working legs has ever managed, seems to exist to demonstrate what J. R. might be if he weren’t sometimes susceptible to calls for family loyalty. Explaining why he’s eager to support Sue Ellen’s candidacy for governor instead of one of her rivals, he tells her, “What sets you apart is your malleability to my needs.” Not so John Ross, who finally realizes that trying to be his father is a doomed and misguided venture. He doesn’t have it in him; deep down, he’s a nice guy who really wants to kiss and make up with his cousin Christopher and the uncle who was there for him when J. R. wasn’t. I’m not convinced that this is the direction the writers first envisioned for his character, but it takes a lot of pressure off Josh Henderson, whose lightweight boyishness, which is so embarrassing when he’s trying to strike terror in the hearts of the forces of light, is rather winning when he’s just being sweet to his girlfriend and getting along with everyone. Though I hope that, between now and next week’s season finale, the makeup department rethinks the scar they’ve etched in his forehead as a reminder of the beating he took in prison. Just because he’s too much of a kid to be trying to emulate J. R. Ewing doesn’t mean he has any business reminding anyone of Harry Potter, either.

Stray observations:

  • Bobby tells J. R. that he’s like the scorpion who stings the frog as he’s crossing the river on his back, because it’s his nature. I am royally sick of hearing about this goddamn scorpion, whose story I think I last heard related on an episode of Magic City. But I’ll give Bobby credit for just alluding to it, on the theory that we all know it by heart and don’t need to hear it again. Most nitwit screenwriters who include it in a script give it the whole “Stop everything and listen to this—it’s pure gold!” treatment, as if they thought it was fresh material. It’s like having a comedian come out onstage and say excitedly, “I just heard a great joke! Why did the chicken cross the road?”
  • I got a bit of a thrill as soon as the opening notes of Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” appeared on the soundtrack, and in a lot of ways, it’s a smart choice to end the episode, but I’m not sure that it really works, and there’s an awful moment when the camera fixes on the face of Rebecca’s crooked ex-partner as Cash is intoning, “Let him that is filthy, let him be filthy still.” Besides, Quentin Tarantino says that you should never use a song in a movie or TV show when it’s already been put to definitive use in another movie or TV show—a rule that doesn’t apply to QT himself, of course—and the remake of Dawn Of The Dead still owns this song.

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