The very special episode that marks the long-postponed acknowledgment that we won’t ever be seeing a popular character again—because the actor who played the part has died in real life and been judged irreplaceable—has a long, if not honorable, place in series TV. Having put no research at all into the subject, I have just this minute decided that the all-time sleaziest example of the form was Chico And The Man. After the suicide of Freddie Prinze, that show vamped for the remainder of the season, focusing on the supporting players while dropping in periodic reminders to the audience that Chico was “on vacation in Mexico,” then came back for another season with the cast augmented by a 12-year-old boy who was meant to replace Chico in the hearts of The Man and the viewing public. It wasn’t until the season, and series, finale, that The Man finally admitted that Chico was “on vacation in Mexico” in the same sense that the puppy you used to have that disappeared one day while you were at school had “gone to live on a big farm with lots of room to run around.” Probably no one was expecting a sensitive treatment of the grieving process from producer James Komack, but this can be slippery turf even for talented people. It wasn’t that long ago that The Sopranos was forced to respond to the loss of Nancy Marchand by giving us what Scott Von Doviak used to call “the Livia-bot.”
Larry Hagman’s final onscreen appearance as J.R. Ewing, in last week’s episode of Dallas, had a distinct whiff of the Livia-bot about it. It looked as if the producers—who had good reason to think that they might lose Hagman before he’d shot all his planned scenes for the season but wanted to get every last drop out of him—had stockpiled footage of him saying random things with a telephone to his ear and then kept their fingers crossed. Hagman spent pretty much the whole final hour of his remarkable career on the horn. “Hey, I need to see J. R.” “Well, he’s right in the next room, why don’t you phone him?” If Hagman knew what was likely to happen once he was gone, it might have struck him as amusing, and not inappropriate: He had always worked like a possessed bastard to keep this show, his show, going, and 20 years ago, that had meant pulling a similar charade when Jim Davis died while his character, Jock, was apparently living on a plane that was tooling around the skies of South America for the better part of 1982. Sure, it’s tacky, but for the performers, it must have a sort of catch-in-the-throat, “The show must go on!” excitement that most actors would regard as preferable to dignity. Just so there’s no misunderstanding about the solemnity of the occasion, the opening credits of tonight’s “J. R.’s dead” episode play out against a slow, funereal version of the show’s rousing theme song.
J. R.’s last phone conversation, appropriately enough, was with his son, John Ross. “You’re my son, from tip to tail,” he told him—right in the nick of time, because as soon as the words left his lips, gunshots were heard. The passing of the torch moment, with J. R. telling his son that, all appearances to the contrary, he does love him and is proud of him, is a fine way for the character to spend his last seconds alive. Having him shot by a mysterious interloper, thus setting up a murder mystery that will drag on for the rest of the season, isn’t such a hot idea. In case you haven’t heard, J. R, has been shot before; he made the cover of Time for it. Dallas has even done a self-referential spin on the shooting before: The first time the series ceased production in 1991, it ended with J. R. appearing to have shot himself in the closing seconds of the finale—or had he!? (Spoiler alert: He hadn’t.) It’s true that having J.R. shot by a mysterious assailant must always seem like a handy way to get rid of him; there’s never any shortage of likely candidates for his murderer. But seriously, how many times can certain patterns repeat?
J. R., who was supposed to be in Abu Dhabi, was found shot to death in an unfashionable hotel in Mexico. Immediately, Bobby and John Ross and Sue Ellen are on the scene, pointing out all the ways in which in which this turn of events makes no fucking sense, as if they thought I’d died and they inherited my job. Sue Ellen is especially rich, wondering aloud how J.R. could possibly have been found in such a seamy hotel, a puzzler than reminded me of R. Lee Ermey’s line in Full Metal Jacket about what could probably inspire Private Pyle to get to the top of that obstacle. The official story is that J.R. was surprised by a sneak thief who panicked and shot him, an ironic end indeed for someone whose perforated corpse would be much in demand at some of the finest homes in our nation. Carlos, J.R.’s big business connection south of the border, appears, telling everyone that they’re to go right back home while he looks into this, and testifying to his and J.R.’s great friendship with every other breath. Clearly this was no simple burglary. Carlos himself looks so obviously guilty that I half expected Bobby to take out some piano wire, loop it around his neck, and start taking care of family business right then and there, but Bobby has a solid reputation for ineffectuality to uphold.
The murder mystery can wait, for now. The big memorial bash at Southfork provides the opportunity for long-ago cast members and actual Dallas-based celebrities—including Jerry Jones, Mark Cuban, and some fellow claiming to be the mayor—can put in guest appearances and say sweet things about J.R. that we understand are at least half aimed at the gifted actor, swell fella, and force of nature who played him. Either J.R. or Hagman might have gotten a kick out of the scene where Deborah Shelton and Cathy Podewell, reprising their roles as, respectively, J.R.’s longest-running mistress and his second wife, commiserate with Sue Ellen, agreeing that J.R. had ruined all of them for mere men, and also for sobriety; clearly, once you’ve gone bastard, you sleep alone and stay plastered. “I always envied how you got over him,” Shelton tells Sue Ellen, who is sampling every alcoholic beverage in the room with her eyes. (John Ross, a chip off the old block, has his finest moment when he catches his aunt’s daughter, Ann, popping a happy pill and is all like, hey, don’t mind if I do.) The wild card is Cliff Barnes, who oozes in, grinning ear to ear, looking as if he’s going to demand the baby he earned by spinning all that straw into gold. He crows about how happy he is that the son of a bitch is dead, and oozes out. This inspires some extra to yell that “J.R. was a selfish prick who died the way he deserved, in the armpit of the world!” This leads to the memorial ending in a brawl, the way all of the good ones do.
The true measure of J.R.’s ability to fuck with the heads of the still-living comes when we see Sue Ellen, alone in her room the night before the funeral, falling spectacularly off the wagon. The next day, standing before the flag-draped casket, she tells everyone that she never did get over J.R., and that’s why she got stinking drunk last night, and is still a little tipsy this morning. She then pulls out a letter she received from J.R., which she has been afraid to read, but would like to share with the rest of the class. She then reads it aloud: J.R. writes that his “greatest hope in life is to earn a second chance” with her, and he asks her out in a date, which she graciously accepts. At this point, the show is right on the borderline between over-the-top and maudlin, and it falls over in the wrong direction, which is a shame; all that would have been needed to set everything right would be a shot of the letter itself, so we could see that it actually says, “Sue Ellen, I may not come back from Mexico alive, and if I don’t, please don’t turn my funeral into an A.A. meeting. Toodles, J.R. “ But that’s the danger when people’s feelings for the character in a story and the actor they’d been working with get tangled up; it must be hard to keep your bearings. (The idea of J.R. and Sue Ellen even wanting to get back together is actually sort of gruesome.) Larry Hagman helped Dallas to fly for a time, and now the baby bird will have to make its way in life without him, flying—or, more likely, plummeting—solo.
- Steve Kanaly is back as ranch foreman extraordinaire Ray Krebbs, who, a couple of seasons into the series, was revealed to be Jock’s bastard son. “When I found out J.R. was my half brother, I didn’t know whether to celebrate or shoot myself,” he tells the assembled guests, and longtime fans may wonder whether this is a veiled reference to the fact that, when Ray became a Ewing, this meant that his affair with Lucy was retroactively incestuous. Apparently, the writers had forgotten that they’d ever been together, but even in those innocent, pre-Internet days, fans were quick to remind them of this.
- Maybe I’m misreading, but at the wake, it almost looks as if Sue Ellen has the hots for her former brother-in-law Gary. Or maybe they’re just supposed to bonding over the fact that they’re both struggling recovering alcoholics in a room full of people boozing it up. Though I admit that a part of me hoped that she’d take a drink, then drag Gary into the bedroom and debase him by making him get on all fours and then crawling on top of him. If that had happened 24 hours after Sunday’s episode of Girls, it would have amounted to one hell of a trend.
- It seems that the non-J.R.-related thing we’re supposed to give a big whoop about these days is Ann’s relationship with the troubled daughter with whom she has recently been reunited, and how, in turn, this is affecting her relations with the men in her life. When her evil ex-husband shows up on the ranch, and Ann tells him to stay away, he snaps, “What are you gonna do, Ann? Shoot me again, in front of our daughter?” Later, when she and Bobby are having their nightly heart-to-heart, Bobby finally looses it after she makes the mistake of telling him to be more open with his feelings. “And this,” he says, “from a woman who didn’t trust her husband of seven years enough to tell him that she had a daughter who was kidnapped!” The point of all this seems to be that Ann should just keep her mouth shut, since she can’t say antyhing without giving somebody who has good reason to be pissed off at her the perfect opening.