“Dallas’s” seventh season winds down with half the cast once again gunning for J.R. In the final scene, an unseen assailant enters the darkened Ewing Oil offices and fires three shots into the back of J.R.’s chair, except he isn’t sitting there — good-guy brother Bobby tumbles to the floor. It’s one of “Dallas’s” greatest fake-outs, establishing the template that TNT’s sequel series would later use to keep viewers on their toes.
The problem is “Who Shot Bobby?” mimics “Who Shot J.R.?” too closely. What begins as a wink to “Dallas’s” most famous moment quickly becomes an imitation, and not a particularly good one. “Killer at Large,” the eighth-season opener, begins with Afton discovering Bobby moments after he’s shot. It’s not unlike the cleaning lady finding J.R. in 1980, although Afton’s reaction isn’t quite as campy. (No high-pitched shrieks and dropped feather dusters here.) We also see the Ewings assemble at Dallas Memorial Hospital to keep vigil for Bobby, just like they did with J.R., and both victims ultimately survive their shootings, but not without complications: J.R. is paralyzed while Bobby is blinded.
I’m sure fans appreciated the homage when “Killer at Large” debuted. It had been years since the “Who Shot J.R.?” episodes aired, so it was probably a kick to relive the mystery, this time with Bobby as the victim. Thirty years later, though, the remake comes off as uninspired. The producers don’t even bother to film Bobby being rushed out of the Ewing Oil lobby and into the waiting ambulance; they merely recycle the four-year-old footage of J.R. on the stretcher. Not helping matters: Most of the actors in “Killer at Large” look bored, and the mystery surrounding the shooter’s identity isn’t all that mysterious. Two characters — Peter and Edgar — are cleared by the end of the episode, leaving Sue Ellen, Cliff and Katherine as the remaining suspects. Was there any doubt in 1984 how that would turn out?
The episode isn’t a total wash. I like director Leonard Katzman’s shot of Ray and Donna spotting the TV news report about Bobby’s shooting while standing near a downtown department store window. Just think: Most of us probably watched this episode in 1984 on that kind of bulky TV set. It’s also fun to see Dennis Haysbert — the future President Palmer on “24” — cast in one of his first TV roles as Bobby’s doctor, although I’m more intrigued when Karen Radcliffe pops up as a nurse. Radcliffe will return to “Dallas” three years later as the nightingale who helps Pam run away after her car accident; should we assume she’s playing the same character in both appearances? I also like when Pam runs into Katherine in the hospital parking lot and refuses to allow her inside to see Bobby. It’s always nice to see Pam use her backbone to stand up for the people she cares about, not nag them.
“Killer at Large” also is notable as the first “Dallas” episode that doesn’t feature Barbara Bel Geddes in the opening credits. She departed the series at the end of the previous season, although Donna Reed won’t show up as her replacement for a few more episodes. Meanwhile, Howard Keel and Priscilla Beaulieu Presley get promoted to the title sequence in this episode, while Travilla begins his two-year run as the show’s costume designer. He makes his mark almost immediately: The actresses look a little more stylish than usual, especially Fern Fitzgerald, who sports slit sleeves when Marilee confronts J.R., and Audrey Landers, who wears a striking red hat and suit during Afton’s farewell to Cliff.
Afton’s poignant departure, by the way, is this episode’s other saving grace. It’s the rare example of a “Dallas” character receiving a decent sendoff, and even though Landers’ character isn’t as iconic as any of the Ewings or Barneses, her goodbye nonetheless signals the end of an era. “Killer at Large” is an eighth-season premiere, and it feels like it. “Dallas” is beginning to lose steam after almost a decade on the air, and so as Afton gives Cliff the kiss-off and heads for the door, I can’t help but think: This lady is getting out while the getting’s good.
‘KILLER AT LARGE’
Season 8, Episode 1
Airdate: September 28, 1984
Audience: 22.4 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings
Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis
Director: Leonard Katzman
Synopsis: The shooting blinds Bobby, who is hospitalized while the police search for the assailant. J.R., believing he was the target, names Edgar as a prime suspect and is surprised when police tell him Edgar has an alibi. Sue Ellen reluctantly returns to J.R.’s bedroom, where she hides a gun. Afton leaves Cliff, who can’t recall his whereabouts during the shooting. Pam and Jenna rush to Bobby’s side while Katherine makes plans to move to Houston.
Cast: Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Martin E. Brooks (Edgar Randolph), Cora Cordona (Pearl), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Jenny Gago (Nurse), Gerald Gordon (Dr. Carter), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Dennis Haysbert (Dr. Forbes), Rose Ann Holloway (Irene), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), J.T. O’Connor (Patterson), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Karen Radcliffe (Jane), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Jill Scroggin (Sally), Sherril Lynn Rettino (Jackie Dugan), Mitchell Ryan (Captain Merwin Fogerty), Randy Tallman (Dr. Halperson), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing)