Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 155 — ‘The Unexpected’

Barbara Bel Geddes, Bobby Ewing, Charlene Tilton, Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Linda Gray, Lucy Ewing, Miss Ellie Ewing, Patrick Duffy, Steve Kanaly, Sue Ellen Ewing, Susan Howard, Unexpected

Keeping it real

Lady Jessica Montford makes her memorable debut at the end of “The Unexpected,” sweeping into the Southfork living room on the arm of brother Clayton Farlow and introducing herself to her future in-laws as only she can. Jessica is brazen, asking which Ewing husbands “play around” on their wives, and a little baffling, gifting J.R. with an antique sword. The scene is like something out of a stage play, which should come as no surprise since actress Alexis Smith was a major Broadway star. At one point, with Clayton standing behind her, Jessica asks him a question without turning to face him. It’s as if Smith can’t bring herself to break the theater’s golden rule: Never turn your back on the audience.

I wish the same thing could be said about the series itself. “Dallas” always distinguished itself through the believability of its performances, but “The Unexpected” is another example of how the show cranked up the camp to compete with rival soap “Dynasty,” which was skyrocketing in the ratings at the time with over-the-top storylines and acting. Until this episode, the “Dallas” audience only had to contend with Morgan Brittany’s gentle nibbling of scenery; now we have Smith inhaling it with abandon. Consider “The Unexpected’s” final scene, when Miss Ellie walks Jessica to her guest room, tells her how happy she is to welcome her to the family and closes the door. Jessica’s smile turns to a scowl. “Family?” she says, standing in the middle of the room, alone. “Oh, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t count on you marrying brother Clayton, Miss Ellie. I wouldn’t count on it all.” I’ll admit this moment amuses me, but it also makes me cringe a little.

Let me be clear: It’s not that I dislike Smith or don’t admire the gusto she brings to her role. My point is that her broad performance feels out of place on “Dallas.” On the other hand, Jessica’s swing-for-the-fences debut in “The Unexpected” gives me new appreciation for the regular cast members — particularly the always wonderful Barbara Bel Geddes, who manages to exude warmth, sincerity and the slightest hint of skepticism in Ellie’s scenes with Jessica. Perhaps my opinion will change as I watch “Dallas’s” remaining seventh-season episodes, but in this segment at least, Smith makes Jessica feel like a character, while Bel Geddes makes Ellie feel like a person.

Other storylines in “The Unexpected” yield mixed reactions too, especially where “Dallas’s” leading ladies are concerned. It’s good to see Sue Ellen wise up — she realizes J.R. is only being nice to Peter because he’s hatching some sort of plot against him — but I wish she had the gumption to do something about it. Meanwhile, Lucy finally figures out Peter isn’t interested in her, but only after she sacrifices her self-respect by throwing herself at him. Then there’s Pam, who’s wrong to ask Mark’s doctor to not tell him he’s dying, even if I admire her selflessness in accepting his marriage proposal. (This is another step in Pam’s lamentable journey toward sainthood, but so far it hasn’t gotten too annoying.) The only heroine who doesn’t disappoint me is Afton, who gets so fed up with having to cook breakfast for distracted Cliff and demanding Vaughn, she simply walks out of the kitchen and leaves them to fend for themselves. Good for her.

The other highlights of “The Unexpected” include J.R.’s crashing of Cliff and Vaughn’s lunchtime negotiation at the Oil Baron’s Club, where J.R. slyly manipulates Cliff into signing the paperwork for Vaughn’s loophole-riddled loan. I also like the scene of J.R. and Serena in bed, where he reveals to her — and the audience — that Sue Ellen, not Peter, is the real target of his scheme. “I’ll tell you, she’s like a runaway mare with a bit between her teeth,” J.R. says. “I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried affection, patience, understanding. But she won’t pay attention to anything.” This is a great moment because I love hearing Larry Hagman’s drawl when he delivers that “runaway mare” line, but also because you get the feeling J.R. has convinced himself what he’s saying is true.

There are also two nice segues in “The Unexpected.” In the first, J.R. tells Katherine he’ll give her the tape of them having sex “when Pamela Ewing becomes Mrs. Mark Graison.” Cut to Mark and Pam at a restaurant, where he pours her a glass of champagne and says, “Mrs. Mark Graison — that has a nice ring to it.” Later, the scene that introduces Jessica ends with her raising a glass of bourbon and toasting, “To the Ewings … and to the Farlows.” Cut to another restaurant, where a jubilant Cliff toasts the newly engaged Pam and Mark. “To the Barneses and the Graisons,” Cliff says. He continues by praising “the union of these important families into the biggest, most powerful dynasty in Texas.”

Watch it, Barnes. No need for any “dynasty” talk here. Your show does fine on its own, thank you very much.

Grade: B

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Alexis Smith, Clayton Farlow, Dallas, Howard Keel, Lady Jessica Montford, Unexpected

Our Alexis

‘THE UNEXPECTED’

Season 7, Episode 24

Airdate: March 16, 1984

Audience: 20.6 million homes, ranking 2nd in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Nick Havinga

Synopsis: After Pam asks Dr. Kenderson to not tell Mark he’s dying, she accepts Mark’s marriage proposal, hurting Bobby. J.R. manipulates Cliff into accepting Vaughn’s loan, even though the terms put Barnes-Wentworth at risk. Sue Ellen grows suspicious of J.R.’s friendliness toward Peter. Clayton’s sister Jessica Montford arrives and privately vows to prevent his marriage to Miss Ellie.

Cast: Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Stephanie Blackmore (Serena Wald), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Pat Colbért (Dora Mae), Robert Donavan (Metcalf), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Wendy Fulton (Jan Higgins), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Sherril Lynn Katzman (Jackie Dugan), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Bill Morey (Leo Wakefield), Dennis Patrick (Vaughn Leland), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Alexis Smith (Lady Jessica Montford), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing)

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

Comments

  1. Alexis Smith & Joan Collins in a catfight! Now that would be interesting C.B.! Merry Xmas boy!

  2. I agree about Lucy sacrificing her self respect by throwing herself at Peter – that was really cringeworthy. She’s making a total fool of herself.
    What makes it worse: Did the authors forget that Lucy told Peter just a short while ago (a couple of weeks maybe?) that she was still grieving for Mickey and not ready to get romantically involved with another man just yet, so she just wanted to be friends with him? And now, suddenly, she’s “throwing herself” at Peter, as she calls it? I wonder – can’t that woman stand on her own two feet for just a little while? *shake head*

    As for JR and his plot agains Peter: It’s awful to see JR so cold-bloodedly sacrificing his own son, without even giving a blink of the eye.

    Lady Jessica – delightful to watch! 🙂

  3. I remember LOVING the scene with Jessica’s monologue behind closed doors, when it aired in the 80s! Somehow its theatrical quality gives it an almost Shakespearean touch. Even in hindsight I don’t consider it over-campy, but rather a very early indication that Lady Montford has to be counted among the criminally insane – as will soon be confirmed.

  4. I agree with you Chris – this is the first episode when Dynasty-style silliness crept in to our beloved Dallas – don’t get me wrong, we’re still a long way from “jumping the shark” yet but it is the beginning of a slippery slope.

    Apart from anything else why introduce an extra level of unreality by having Jessica supposedly the widow of an English Lord?

    Again, was it another example of trying to compete with the dreaded Dynasty (which seemed obsessed with introducing Upper-Class English characters and long lost relatives)?

  5. So I was thinking about Chris’ comments of Alexis Smith refusing to turn her back to the camera and as a result other actors are forced to speak to her back at a time when it really isn’t warranted. I suppose that could be in large part to a stage acting background. But isn’t that where the director should step in? Is there a resource out there anywhere which lists people who directed Dallas episodes by quantity? How many episodes did Havinga direct? If multiple episodes is this typical of his work?
    Going by recollection it did look a bit silly having people taking to Smith’s back and her talking to no one in particular. I would have thought the director should have stepped in here.

  6. I recently saw a clip of scene where Mark comes to Pam’s office telling her all this crap about having divers go down just to get the pearl he gave her and it sounds even more lame and sappy than the first time I saw it, just like what he said to her in their scene in bed in “Love Stories”. Poor pathetic Mark after all the years of going around the world, having so many friends and then shamelessly going after a married woman (the only woman he loved) and to end up with a terminal disease, having the woman he loved only agree to marry him because he is dying and died alone without her or even one of his so call friends by his side makes him even more lame. He and Katherine are truly some of Dallas’s sad losers. .

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