Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 143 — ‘Barbecue Four’

Barbara Bel Geddes, Barbecue Four, Dallas, Miss Ellie Ewing

The return

Mama’s back! In “Barbecue Four,” Barbara Bel Geddes returns to “Dallas” after being absent from the previous 11 episodes. In real life, the actress was recovering from heart surgery, so the producers temporarily wrote her out of the show by having Clayton whisk Miss Ellie away so she could distance herself from J.R. and Bobby’s bitter battle for Ewing Oil. I’m glad “Dallas” gave Bel Geddes time off, but I wish the writers had come up with a better excuse for her character’s absence. Ellie is so emotionally fragile, she had to run away? That’s not the mama I know.

Regardless, it’s good to have Bel Geddes back. She is the original “Dallas’s” best actress, bringing warmth and grace to a show that could always use a little more of both. Bel Geddes makes Ellie feel like the kind of person you might know in real life, which can’t be said about a lot of other “Dallas” characters, no matter how much we love them. I didn’t realize how much I missed her until she pops up again in “Barbecue Four.” (On the other hand, Bel Geddes’ time away did offer a bright spot: It allowed Sue Ellen to finally fulfill her dream of becoming the lady of the manor. It’s fun to see her take charge of planning the annual Ewing Barbecue in this episode and the previous one, and I like how the writers use Sue Ellen to fill the void left by Southfork’s original nurturer-in-chief. In “The Quality of Mercy,” for example, we see Sue Ellen give Lucy advice on coping with Mickey’s paralysis. If Bel Geddes had been around, I suspect Ellie would have been the one dispensing wisdom to Lucy.)

I also appreciate how “Barbecue Four” scriptwriter Arthur Bernard Lewis and director Leonard Katzman give Bel Geddes a dramatic entrance. It begins with the Ewings gathered in the Southfork dining room, where J.R. is lobbing one sly insult after another at his relatives. (My favorite: “That’s right, Ray. You sit where Gary used to. You two have so much in common.”) When J.R. raises his glass in tribute to “Ewing traditions,” we hear a woman’s familiar voice off-screen: “May we join you in that toast?” The camera cuts to Bel Geddes and Howard Keel standing in the doorway as Katzman zooms in on Ellie; soon all the Ewings are on their feet, hugging and kissing their beaming mama. It’s another reminder of why Bel Geddes is so essential to “Dallas.” When she’s around, these characters feel like a family.

Of course, the cozy atmosphere doesn’t last long. After the Ewings have welcomed Ellie home, she sits at the table and invites Clayton to join the family for dinner. He silently takes a place across from her, sliding into the seat Jock once occupied. Ellie smiles nonchalantly, but Bobby and Ray appear unnerved and J.R. looks positively stricken. What I like best about this moment is how it plays on the audience’s familiarity with “Dallas’s” customs. No mention of Jock is made, but none is needed. Katzman and Lewis trust the viewer to recognize what a momentous occasion it is to see another man sitting in Jock’s seat. I feel sorry for Clayton — the poor chap doesn’t know what he’s getting into, does he? — but no matter how you feel about Keel’s character, the fact that “Dallas” is able to create a dramatic moment out of someone sitting down is impressive.

“Barbecue Four” also includes a lot of other fun scenes, including the sequence where J.R. drops by Pam’s house to invite her, Cliff and their significant others to the Ewings’ annual barbecue. The only thing that amuses me more than seeing J.R. pretend to be nice to the Barneses is seeing how Cliff and Pam seem to buy his Mr. Nice Guy act. Then again, Larry Hagman almost convinces me that J.R. is being sincere. The barbecue scenes are also a kick. These events always yield a dramatic moment or two, and this one is no exception: Bobby has a tense confrontation with Mark, Sue Ellen sneaks off to the barn to see Peter and Pam runs into Charlie Wade, who doesn’t seem to hold a grudge against Pam for swiping her doll during the second season.

Lewis’s script seems to contain a couple of inside jokes too. In one scene, Peter and Lucy exit a movie theater after seeing a sci-fi flick. He bemoans the plot and declares, “It’ll drive me right back to TV.” Is this a nod to Christopher Atkins’ own film career? (A few weeks before “Barbecue Four” debuted, the actor’s latest film, “A Night in Heaven,” was released. He played an exotic dancer who fell for an older woman.) Later, Afton watches Cliff stuffing himself with food at the barbecue and compares him to a squirrel getting ready for winter. His response: “Baby, this is going to be the best winter ever. It’s going to be Christmas every day.” Is it a coincidence that Cliff refers to the holiday in this episode, which debuted nine days before Christmas 1983?

Finally, some casting trivia. “Barbecue Four” introduces Pat Colbért as Dora Mae, the hostess at the Oil Baron’s Club, while Peyton E. Park once again plays Larry, the Ewings’ caterer, who also appeared in the two previous barbecue-themed episodes. Most notably, Mitch Pileggi makes his “Dallas” debut in “Barbecue Four.” The actor, who now stars on TNT’s “Dallas” as Harris Ryland, had a few small roles on the original series, beginning with a part in this episode as a rowdy cowboy who harasses Jenna while she’s waiting tables. In the scene, Bobby tries to rescue Jenna, but she sends him away and says she can take care of herself as Pileggi flashes his wicked grin at Patrick Duffy. Who knew these two were just getting warmed up?

Grade: B

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Barbecue Four, Clayton Farlow, Dallas, Howard Keel

Changing of the guard

‘BARBECUE FOUR’

Season 7, Episode 12

Airdate: December 16, 1983

Audience: 22 million homes, ranking 3rd in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Leonard Katzman

Synopsis: Miss Ellie returns home and announces her engagement to Clayton. With J.R.’s blessing, Sly feeds Cliff information about a lucrative deal, which Cliff steals. Ray and Donna entertain her friend Edgar Randolph, a federal government official who is overseeing the auction of offshore oil leases. Peter accepts Lucy’s invitation to the Ewing Barbecue, where he sneaks off with Sue Ellen and professes his love for her. Katherine travels to Italy and obtains a copy of Charlie’s birth certificate, which lists Bobby as the father.

Cast: Christopher Albee (Travis Boyd), Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Martin E. Brooks (Edgar Randolph), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Pat Colbért (Dora Mae), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Anne Lucas (Cassie), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), Alberto Morin (Armando Sidoni), Peyton E. Park (Larry), Mitch Pileggi (bar patron), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Peter Renaday (Rigsby), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis)

“Barbecue Four” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Comments

  1. Great observation in recognizing the future Harris Ryland in this episode. I always look forward to these critiques to point out items I missed. Thank you!

  2. cstephandoerr says:

    “[…] the fact that “Dallas” is able to create a dramatic moment out of someone sitting down is impressive.” That is absolutely brilliant! I love it when you point out things that make me appreciate the extraordinary quality of our favourite show even more. What I also like about this scene is how Howard Keel manages to make Clayton look cautious and challenging at the same time. I actually think that he is almost as aware of the special significance of THE chair as we are…

  3. I love the moment where Clayton sits down. Nothing is said of it, but if you’re a regular viewer, you noticed the subtle shift in the room and its significance. This is a nice example of Dallas rewarding viewer loyalty. That’s common today (imagine jumping in cold to a random Mad Men episode–you’d be totally lost), but I imagine not so common 30 years ago.

  4. C. B., everyday is Christmas Day in the Ewing Household when Mama is around! Babs was great!

Trackbacks

  1. […] “Barbecue Four,” a seventh-season “Dallas” episode, J.R. (Larry Hagman), Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), Bobby (Patrick […]

  2. […] Barbecue IV (1983). This barbecue is mostly fun: Bobby and Mark Graison give each other the stink eye at the bar, Jenna Wade is […]

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