In a classic Film Comment essay on Dallas—published in the summer of 1979, a year before the “Who Shot J. R.?” business created the season-finale cliffhanger as we now know it and affirmed the show’s status as a full-fledged pop culture phenomenon—Dave Kehr that the original series “benefits greatly from its low cunning and under-the-counter attitude, but its most distinguishing quality is its animal energy… Packed with rancor and upheaval, the program rides an emotional violence that suggests Sam Fuller on speed. From episode to episode, there may be small eddies in the action… but the great body of the plot keeps roaring along, ripping through business deals, love affairs, and murder schemes with floodtide force.”
The floodtides were really smashing against the levees in last week’s episode, “Truth And Consequences,” which went unreviewed in this space due to technical difficulties related to TNT’s apparent desire to keep it a secret that they were airing a new episode on the Fourth of July, presumably because the channel and those who run it do not love America. It begins with Christopher’s eternally tearful bride Rebecca confessing that she and her scumbag had sent the email that broke up Christopher and Elena. For a fan of the original Dallas, this is a thrilling moment, not so much for what’s happening, or for the fact that such a high-stakes revelation is occurring at the start of an episode, but because it’s happening at Southfork while a barbecue is going on.
All hell used to always break out at Ewing family barbecues, to the point that a viewer unappreciative of the pleasures of cornball melodrama might have wondered why they didn’t stop throwing them, just so everyone could get through a weekend in one piece. True to his heritage, Christopher doesn’t ask any of the questions that must be flying through his head, preferring to charge into the crowd looking for someone to throttle, before banishing his wife and brother-in-law from his sight. For special guest star Steve Kanaly, spotlighted in one silent close-up in which he makes a “WTF?” face while watching Bobby’s boy lose his shit, it must feel as if time is standing still.
Kehr identified the central tension in the original series as being symbolized by “the program’s two main arenas of action: the family home at Southfork Ranch (presided over by the ever-genteel Miss Ellie, who insists that the land remain as pristine as it was when her father owned it), and the downtown offices of Ewing Oil, the steel-and-glass lair of J. R. As the characters commute back and forth between the two settings, the drama develops a structural dependence between them: the business supports the ranch, the ranch justifies the business.” That’s still the central tension: J. R., who by the end of “Truth And Consequences” has managed to screw over both his brother and his son by obtaining the deed to Southfork in his name and his alone, spells it out when Bobby says that, out of respect for his mother’s name, he’ll never allow any drilling for oil on the ranch, and J. R. replies that, as the man his father made, he will.
When it was announced that there was a new Dallas series in the works, and that it would feature original cast members including Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy, and Linda Gray, a lot of people probably assumed that their participation would be along the lines of that baton-passing cameo by David Hasselhoff at the end of the pilot for the short-lived reboot of Knight Rider. (Well, I did, anyway.) It’s been hugely gratifying to see that, instead, the new show has worked so hard to honor the original show in a way that puts the old pros to work and makes them a central attraction. TNT has been careful to spell out that this isn’t a reboot of the original Dallas, but a long-delayed continuation of it, and in many ways, it really feels like the same show.
Unfortunately, one of those ways is that the original show often suffered a massive drop in energy whenever Hagman and Gray were offscreen. Bobby was always a bit of a stick; he still is, and Christopher is a chip off the old block. (So is Brenda Strong as the current Mrs. Bobby. It’s a shame that the tall, supernaturally beautiful Strong can’t seem to get cast as a bad girl; she had a furtive spark as Sue Ellen Mischke, Elaine’s bitchy, braless frenemy on Seinfeld, that she hasn’t had since.) Hagman, whose character Kehr compared to “the hired gunfighter” of Westerns like Shane—the man who protects the community with methods that keep him from being a respected, accepted member of the community—has dominated the first few episodes of the new series, and both last week’s and tonight’s installments suffer, despite all the juicy stuff going on, just because he finally steps back a bit. There’s a plot rationale for that: J. R. explains that he’s throwing John Ross “in the briar patch so he can learn to get out of it.” Hagman could be doing the same thing for Josh Henderson, the young actor who plays John Ross. But the “animal energy” that Henderson exhibits is the kind you see at the Puppy Bowl.
To his credit, Henderson is more fun to watch that Jesse Metcalfe as the upright but tortured Christopher, though for reasons that may not be fully intentional. With his little mustache and his bright blue eyes forever glaring, he’s like a little kid trying to earn some respect in his daddy’s pants and suspenders; it’s not the ideal way for the heir to the J. R. Ewing Irresistible TV Villain throne to come across, but it’ll do. At one point tonight, when he’s feeling thwarted, he picks up a scale model of an oil well and throws it on the floor. Maybe, at some point early in the writing process, that scene was conceived as a scary, exciting moment, with a charismatic but unstable man losing it. Henderson just looks like a spoiled little boy trying to punish his parents by breaking his own toys, and there’s a welcome hint that the show knows this when Bobby and Christopher barge in on him and catch him sheepishly trying to glue the thing back together. John Ross sometimes speaks with exaggerated precision, as in the premiere episode, when he chastises his mother for preventing his father from “teaching me the oil business, as he told me he would,” or last week, when he got all pouty because he’d been “accused of awful things that I did not do.” If Henderson had to carry the show, his pitiful inability to fill his father’s shoes would be just, well, pitiful. Because of the way the show seems to using the talent gap between Hagman and Henderson as part of its subtext, his limitations have come to seem rather touching.
Still, Dallas soft-pedals Hagman’s presence at its peril, and tonight’s episode never recovers from the fact that it takes him 25 minutes to make his entrance—kicking back in a Las Vegas hotel room, surrounded by young women and being massaged like a white-trash pasha—and then never really gives him anything to do. J. R. is in Vegas to crash Cliff Barnes’ big-money poker game and test his theory that old Cliff is plotting to bring legalized gambling to Texas. It’s not a bad subplot, but it doesn’t go anywhere tonight. (Cliff himself never makes an appearance, which may fall under the heading of “mixed blessings.” Kercheval may have been the most egregiously bad actor who was ever on Dallas’ regular payroll in the old days, and to paraphrase one of J. R.’s lines, time has done nothing for his chops.)
J. R. just seems to be out of town because there’s no other way to account for the fact that Bobby and Christopher manage to get, if not a few steps ahead of him, at least more or less caught up: With help from the loyal cast-off Rebecca, they locate a document left behind by Jock Ewing that separates the land rights to Southfork, which J. R. has fought so hard to possess, from the mineral rights, which are now firmly in Bobby’s hot little hand. The plot does keep moving, but it would just be more fun to watch the ever-shifting balance of power if the moral lines weren’t as clear-cut as they were in 1979. Back then, Dave Kehr wrote that “If Dallas is to develop at all, Bobby, presumably, will have to be moved closer to J. R.’s seat of power—the only way the show can up the moral ante.” But 33 years later, Bobby and his current wife are still as morally (and boringly) clear-cut as he and his old wife used to be, and so is his kid. This suggests that, as much fun as this show can be, it suffers from a failure to come to terms with a changed TV landscape in which the typical American family is as likely to be led by Tony Soprano or Walter White as by Dick Van Patten or Tom Bosley.
- Steven sends his apologies, but expect to see him back here next week.
- It’s starting to look as if Steven’s desire to see Ken Kercheval and Linda Gray sloshing around in the same hot tub may never come to pass, but these episodes introduce a far more promising element of autumnal erotic fantasy by bringing in Mitch Pileggi, slaphead sex god of The X-Files, as some kind of oil-truck tycoon who’s Mrs. Bobby’s ex-husband, and who deeply unsettles Sue Ellen by offering her a campaign contribution. If anyone can convincingly seem to relish a beautiful woman’s saying that he makes her skin crawl, it’s Pileggi. That man can leer.
- J. R.’s phone answering message: “This is J. R. Ewing. At the beep, tell me what you know.”
- John Ross’ lover’s spat with the false Marta goes like this: He says, “I could have explained,” and she spits back, “With another lie!” Well, yeah!
- Not only is Rebecca still in love with Christopher, she appears to be pregnant. I say “appears to be,” because I don’t remember ever seeing another TV pregnancy that’s first diagnosed through a nosebleed.
- The key to the safety deposit box holding the sacred document that saves Southfork from the driller's rigs is found in a storage room filled to the rafters with Jock's old crap. Of all the preposterous contrivances that Dallas has ever fallen back on, I think the idea that the millionaire family has dutifully left a room full of the dead patriarch's broken-down old wooden furniture securely locked away for 30 years may top them all, but perhaos I am being sentimental. To his credit, five seconds before the scene of them rooting around in there ends, Patrick Duffy appears to form the thought that it ought to be dusty in there, and coughs.
- Fans of not just Dallas but Dallas will enjoy the scene in last week’s episode in which J. R. shares a drink with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who tells him that it’s great to see him “back in form.” J. R. is later seen on the Jumbotron inside the stadium, while the crowd goes wild. I live in Texas but have never been inside that stadium, but if there was ever anything that could have made me wish I’d been there, this is it.
- These episodes also introduce a MacGuffin that will probably come into play later in the season: a DVD showing John Ross and the false Marta having dirty, dirty sex. (“I see you like it rough.”) I don’t know where they’re going with this, but I have my fingers crossed that it will involve the Jumbotron.