“Dallas’s” seventh season clocks in at 30 hours, making it the show’s longest season yet. Does quantity equal quality?
If Cliff Barnes were played by anyone other than Ken Kercheval, we’d probably hate him. Cliff is foolish, petty, self-centered — yet throughout the seventh season, Kercheval brings a startling amount of vulnerability to the role. Cliff doesn’t want to beat J.R. as much as he wants to be J.R. — and who can blame him for that? The more I watch Kercheval, the more I appreciate his ability to balance Cliff’s bombast with pathos and humanity. What a great actor.
Is there anything more satisfying than seeing J.R. climb back to the top? When the season begins, his marriage to Sue Ellen is on the rocks, Bobby and Pam’s pending divorce is no longer a sure thing and Cliff is stealing big deals out from under him. By the end of the year, J.R. has everyone right where he wants them: Sue Ellen is back in his bedroom, Bobby is poised to marry Jenna and Cliff’s life is ruined. Once again, we’re reminded of a fundamental truth: “Dallas” is at its best when J.R. is at his worst.
Best storyline runners-up: Ray’s trial for euthanizing Mickey, a plot twist that dared to inject some topicality into “Dallas’s” narrative mix, and Miss Ellie’s struggle to tell Clayton about her mastectomy, another sensitively handled subplot that’s still ahead of its time. The season’s most disappointing stories: No, not Sue Ellen and Peter’s affair, which at least had the whole fortysomething-woman-gets-in-touch-with-her-sexuality thing going for it. Instead, the last-and-least prize goes to Bobby and Jenna’s “love story,” as dreary a romance as “Dallas” has ever offered.
“The Road Back” delivers the most exciting episode opening in “Dallas” history. Southfork is ablaze when Bobby roars into the driveway in his convertible, leaps into the pool and races into the house to rescue the Ewings. This episode also gives us the classic scene where Pam admonishes Sue Ellen for sipping champagne and Sue Ellen purrs, “Pam, don’t be a nag.” What “Dallas” fan hasn’t dreamed of saying that to Victoria Principal’s character?
I’ve written before about how much I love the scene where J.R. visits Pam and warns her to not call off her divorce from Bobby. The score, the staging, the performances — this is a highlight of the series, not just the season. Best scene runners-up: Bobby’s shocking shooting, Bobby and Pam’s breakup in Thanksgiving Square, Pam slapping Katherine, J.R. accusing Sue Ellen of treating him like a “stud service,” J.R. confronting Sly about her spying and any time Larry Hagman shared a screen with Kercheval.
Worst scene: Lady Jessica picks up a knife in the Southfork kitchen and wonders whether she should chop Miss Ellie’s vegetables or Mama herself. Who thought turning “Dallas” into a horror movie was a good idea?
John Beck shines in “Love Stories,” the episode where Mark Graison learns he’s dying and quietly slips out of Pam’s life. This is the most interesting thing Mark ever did; too bad for the underappreciated Beck it came during the character’s farewell. At the other end of the spectrum: Alexis Smith. Yes, she brought admirable gusto to her role as Lady Jessica, but if I wanted to see someone named Alexis camp it up, “Dallas” isn’t the show I’d watch.
Behind the Scenes
And now let us pause to honor Bradford May, whose brilliant cinematography transformed the seventh season into “Dallas’s” most gorgeous year ever. Under his lighting, Southfork was exquisite, Ewing Oil finally looked like a real executive suite and the Oil Baron’s Club radiated class and sophistication. “The May way” elevated the storytelling this season, making it easier to overlook flaws in other aspects of the production. He departed “Dallas” before the season concluded — one of the great blunders on a show that had more than a few — but his contribution to this franchise will never be forgotten.
The year’s other backstage VIP: Jerrold Immel, whose seventh-season version of the “Dallas” theme music remains my favorite. Every time I watch the titles and hear Immel’s synthesized riff (it occurs right when the split-screen sequence starts), I can’t help but smile.
I usually don’t complain about good-looking dudes showing skin, but Peter’s Speedo is the worst costume in “Dallas” history. Every time he pranced around in that thing, we were reminded how Christopher Atkins — an otherwise fine actor — was too boyish to play Peter, who is supposed to be so studly, Sue Ellen can’t resist him. (Sue Ellen swooning over Mickey in his jean cutoffs? That I’d believe.) Best accessory: Katherine’s hats, of course.
Was this J.R.’s quippiest season yet? I can’t think of another year where he delivered so many classic gems. To Pam: “I don’t give a damn about you or your happiness, honey. But I do care about what’s good for me.” To Katherine: “Loving always makes me thirsty.” To Edgar: “Once you give up integrity, the rest is a piece of cake.” My favorite, though, is this one, which he delivered to Vaughn: “J.R. Ewing doesn’t get ulcers. He gives ’em.” That one should have hung on a sign above his office door, don’t you think?
What do you love and loathe about “Dallas’s” seventh season? Share your comments below and read more “Best & Worst” reviews.