Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 157 — ‘Blow Up’

Alexis Smith, Blow Up, Dallas

Cut a bitch

“Dallas” delivers its share of camp over the years, but “Blow Up” manages to pack more silliness into a single episode than virtually any other. Donna runs around the Southfork patio, snapping Polaroids of the Ewings; Lucy gets stewed to the gills and airs the family’s dirty laundry at a poolside soiree; and Lady Jessica takes a break from helping Miss Ellie chop vegetables to contemplate slicing and dicing Mama herself. These scenes aren’t without their charms, but I can’t help but wish this episode took the characters and their storylines a little more seriously.

The scenes with Donna and her camera are fun because it’s nice to think the Ewings spend their Sunday afternoons enjoying each other’s company, just like so many families do in real life. I also like the picture Donna snaps of Ray and his half-brothers sitting together and holding their beers, although the shot is so casual, it takes me out of the moment. This looks like a picture of Larry, Patrick and Steve, not J.R., Bobby and Ray. I also wish this scene could have been filmed on the real Southfork patio instead of the show’s Hollywood soundstage, which seems faker than usual. Maybe it’s the studio acoustics; notice how you hear every footstep the actors take, something that rarely happens when you see patio scenes that were shot outdoors in Texas.

The patio is also the setting for the party the Ewings throw for Jessica, although these scenes are a little more convincing because they take place at night, when the darkness helps conceal the soundstage’s shortcomings. The gathering recalls the shindig in “Triangle” (right down to Ray’s plaid suit, which he wears to both parties), although I get the biggest kick out of seeing J.R. whisper into Lucy’s ear, feeding her suspicions as they watch Sue Ellen and Peter dance. Uncle and niece are like two characters in a play standing in the shadows, commenting on the action unfolding downstage. Too bad it falls apart when Lucy gets drunk and accuses Sue Ellen and Peter of having an affair. Charlene Tilton gives this performance her all, but Lucy’s preoccupation with Peter is no more believable than Sue Ellen’s interest in him. Also, is it me or is Lucy angrier than she was last season, when she blamed Sue Ellen’s drunken driving for paralyzing Mickey Trotter?

Of course, nothing in “Blow Up” approaches the campiness of Jessica’s big scene. How can you not roll your eyes when you see her standing at the Southfork kitchen counter, a huge knife in one hand and a tomato in the other as she glares at Ellie? How about when composer Lance Rubin’s eerie piano score swells just as Donna enters the room and snaps Jessica out of her trance-like state? Perhaps this scene was genuinely creepy when it debuted in 1984, but now it plays like a parody of a slasher film from that era. “Blow Up’s” climactic moment, when Jessica enters her bedroom and cuts Ellie’s face out of one of Donna’s snapshots, holds up better. I especially like how Patrick Duffy, who directed this episode, uses a handheld camera to follow Alexis Smith as she circles the picture on the nightstand. It adds to the sense that Jessica is spinning out of control.

A lot of “Dallas” fans love the over-the-top depiction of Jessica’s villainy and Smith’s ferocious approach to the role, but I prefer the show to play it straight. Just think: At this point during the previous season, Sue Ellen was walking in on J.R. and Holly Harwood in bed. Yes, it was a scene of pure soap opera, but it set the stage for some of the darkest, most absorbing hours in “Dallas” history. The more I watch the seventh season, the more I find myself wondering what happened to the show that gave us J.R. and Bobby’s contest for Ewing Oil, the collapse of J.R. and Sue Ellen’s marriage and the sweet romance between Lucy and Mickey.

On the other hand: Not everything about “Blow Up” falls short of the show’s usual standards. There’s surprising poignancy to the scene where J.R. tells Sue Ellen it’s time they begin living again like man and wife; Linda Gray does a beautiful job conveying Sue Ellen’s inner conflict, and Hagman gives us the impression J.R. is willing to forgive his wife and abandon his secret plot against her, if only she’d give him another chance. When she turns him down, you feel sympathy for both of them.

I also like Victoria Principal’s performance, although Mark and Pam’s storyline — he doesn’t know he’s dying but she does and is desperately trying to keep the secret — is beginning to feel like demented version of a “Three’s Company” plot. Kudos also go to Morgan Brittany, who makes Katherine’s concern for Mark seem sincere. Sure, Mark’s diagnosis may represent a stroke of dumb luck for Katherine because it’s helping push Pam deeper into his arms, thus making it easier for Katherine to snatch Bobby for herself, but I also get the feeling Katherine genuinely likes Mark and feels sorry for him.

Wait, did I just suggest Katherine Wentworth is becoming a believable character? Isn’t it funny how different this show looks now that Lady Jessica around?

Grade: B

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Dallas, Blow Up

Who shot the Ewings?

‘BLOW UP’

Season 7, Episode 26

Airdate: April 6, 1984

Audience: 22 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: David Paulsen

Director: Patrick Duffy

Synopsis: Donna becomes suspicious of Jessica, who assures J.R. that Miss Ellie and Clayton’s wedding won’t take place. J.R. feeds Lucy’s suspicions about Sue Ellen and Peter. Mark refuses to rush his wedding to Pam, who orders Cliff to not ask her fiancé for a loan. Katherine offers to sell Ewing Oil some valuable land in exchange for Bobby teaching her about the industry.

Cast: Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Pat Colbért (Teresa), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Walker Edmiston (Ewing Oil employee), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Nanci Hammond (hostess), Alice Hirson (Mavis Anderson), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Barry Jenner (Dr. Jerry Kenderson), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), Denny Miller (Max Flowers), Dennis Patrick (Vaughn Leland), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Danone Simpson (Kendall), Alexis Smith (Lady Jessica Montford), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson)

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

Comments

  1. Spot on with your analysis of the growing cheesiness of Dallas – it’s what stops me calling this otherwise excellent season the greatest of all.

    And it has always jarred with me how some of the important patio scenes were filmed on the Hollywood soundstage – you can just about get away with a brief arriving/leaving the house scene but a full on party or celebration event should have been filmed on glorious location.

    But the silliness is just in its infancy at this stage – just wait till season 8 with mama being played by a different actress and everyone pretending not to notice and Katherine Wentworth turning into a live action version of Wily Coyote or Sideshow Bob in her never ending (but never entirely successful) attempts to kill Bobby!

  2. Good or bad, family units do spend time with 1 another. Whether fictional or real, the Ewings hanging out together on a weekend makes sense C.B. in that you must show the perspective of them & their family lives, both at home & in work settings to make the show seem more real & more inviting to the audience. This is why the show last 13 seasons (not 14 like the dvds & replays counts) & came back for 3 more after a 21 year absence. It showed both settings well & thus let characters develop to a greater degree.

    • I agree – the authentic family feel of Dallas was the key to its success; even when they were at war with each other you still believed they had an underlying love and respect for each other which made the drama and tension all the better.

      Also some of the humour and warmth that the actors obviously shared with each other behind the scenes (especially Larry, Patrick and Linda) somehow shone through in their performances. For example I always got the impression that when the family were having dinner they carried on eating (minus the back-biting and snide remarks) after the cameras stopped filming.

  3. Dan in WI says:

    It’s really amazing how the Patrick Duffy directed episode of TNT Dallas felt more like old Dallas than any other episode yet this Patrick Duffy episode was so campy it really didn’t feel like Dallas. He must have been feeling playful that week.

  4. FridaySoaps says:

    Anyone else remember watching Falcon Crest straight after Dallas in 1984? I recall Falcon Crest had a very similar story where Angela Channing’s daughter escaped from prison in order to kill her mother just before the mother remarried. I certainly thought at the time that Falcon Crest were writing and directing their story so much better than Dallas. Jessica – whilst enjoyable – was a cartoon loony tune drafted in at the last minute whereas over on Falcon Crest the relationship of the daughter hating the mother was more authentic, and had been built up over many years. Just far more credible and just better crafted all told.

    I always held Dallas up as a superior soap to Falcon Crest (still do) but I’m afraid Falcon could – and did – sometimes do things better.

    • Friday Soaps, it’s been a while since I’ve seen “Falcon Crest,” but I agree the show had some terrific moments back in the day. I recall being mesmerized by “Falcon Crest” during the 1986-87 season.

  5. Mickey'sGhost says:

    Although I preferred DALLAS playing it straight, too, this episode and all the outrageousness surrounding Lady Jessica’s first story arc seem a lot more “camp” now than it did in Spring of 1984 — because we all now know how far the series will eventually slide into the shlocky mire they once rightly derided DYNASTY for… But at the time, Jessica’s arrival didn’t feel so much campy as audacious, like an old Bette Davis murder movie with a shadowy backstory. And I think that’s how we’d remember it had DALLAS stayed on track throughout the last half of its run (which, obviously, didn’t happen). So, it’s a matter of degree and context. And the context would seem different, in retrospect, if this level of gothic extremity didn’t eventually become commonplace on DALLAS — as with Jessica’s re-apperance six years later, which was even more OTT and, like the show around it at that point, quite pathetic and silly.

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