Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 168 — ‘Homecoming’

Dallas, Donna Reed, Homecoming, Miss Ellie Ewing Farlow

New mom rising

Even after all these years, it’s still strange to see Donna Reed play Miss Ellie. Reed’s first episode is “Homecoming,” and as soon as she enters the frame in the famous scene where Ellie and Clayton arrive at their airport upon returning from their honeymoon, you can see how different the newcomer is from the actress she succeeds, Barbara Bel Geddes. Reed wears a stylish dress and jewelry, her hair is coiffed and when the camera moves in for her first close-up, she breaks into a bright, toothy smile. When Bel Geddes was Mama, did we ever see her teeth?

None of this is to say Reed is miscast as Miss Ellie. Consider the options facing the “Dallas” producers when the ailing Bel Geddes decided to retire in the spring of 1984. Since killing off Mama would have been heresy — and since no one would have bought her leaving Southfork to live happily ever after off-screen with new husband Clayton — the most viable alternative was to recast the role. There’s no disputing the regal Reed was an unusual choice to replace the downhome Bel Geddes, but if the producers had hired an actress who looked and acted more like the original, would it have made us miss Bel Geddes any less? At least Reed offered a new interpretation instead of an imitation.

Of course, this doesn’t make it any less jarring to see Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy calling Reed “Mama” in the airport scene, or to watch her and Howard Keel retire at the end of the episode to the set that served as Jim Davis and Bel Geddes’ on-screen bedroom for so many years. (As soon as I saw Reed and Keel there, I couldn’t help but flash back to Jock entering the room and finding Ellie in tears after her mastectomy.) To the producers’ credit, they seem to anticipate this will be the audience’s response and build this episode around Clayton moving into Southfork and realizing he’ll be sharing his new home with Jock’s ghost. I’m sure the show would have told this story if Bel Geddes were still playing Ellie, but I get the feeling the producers use it here to send a kind of subliminal message to the audience: Just as you want the Ewings to accept Clayton, we want you to give Reed a chance.

Even if that wasn’t the producers’ intent, that’s what I plan to do. Reed appeared in 23 additional episodes after “Homecoming,” and I want to approach each one with an open mind. No, Donna Reed isn’t Barbara Bel Geddes, but who is? What’s the point of bemoaning the fact that the two actresses have different styles? I give Reed a lot of credit for having the courage to replace one of the most beloved performers on one of the most popular television shows of the 1980s. It didn’t help matters that “Dallas” entered syndication a few weeks before Reed began her run as Ellie, which meant viewers could watch reruns from the show’s glory years with Bel Geddes every weekday afternoon and then tune in to new episodes on Friday nights to see her replacement.

In this instance, those viewers saw an episode that stands up pretty well to anything from the Bel Geddes era. The novelty of Reed’s debut aside, this is the eighth season’s strongest episode yet. I admire how the show devotes so much time to telling the story of Clayton’s introduction to life at Southfork. I especially appreciate how Arthur Bernard Lewis’s script gives us so many different points of view: In addition to the poignant final scene where Clayton addresses Jock’s portrait (“You still live here Jock. It’s still your house”), there’s a scene earlier in the episode where the Ewing brothers wrestle with the fact that a new man will be sleeping in the room Daddy once shared with Mama. It sounds like another example of adult Ewings being concerned with matters they’re too old to be worried about, except I know a lot of grownups in real life who struggle to accept stepparents.

Indeed, this episode is full of little reminders of how unique “Dallas” was among the era’s prime-time soap operas. Yes, this is a show where Sue Ellen Ewing considers buying a $1,095 dress at The Store, but it’s also a show where Ray Krebbs ruins his and Donna’s dinner by forgetting to turn on the microwave. There’s also charm in seeing the Ewings going to the airport to pick up Clayton and Ellie, as well as the scene where the family sits around and reminisces about the old days. These are small moments, but they help make the characters feel like real, knowable people.

Some final thoughts: “Homecoming” marks the beginning of Michael Alldredge’s four-episode run as Steve Jackson, the salvage man Pam hires to recover Mark’s plane wreckage. Alldredge previously appeared during the fourth season as Don Horton, one of the detectives who investigated J.R.’s shooting, and he returns yet again during the show’s final year as Carter McKay’s attorney, Ray King. Additionally, there are some memorable lines in this episode, beginning with J.R.’s crack about Pam’s inheritance from Mark (“I tell you, that woman has a knack for piling up unearned dollars”). Later, when J.R. says John Ross doesn’t know “half the nicknames” people call him, Sue Ellen responds, “That’s because he’s too young to know words like that.”

In an episode about life’s transitions, isn’t it nice to know some things at Southfork never change?

Grade: A

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Clayton Farlow, Dallas, Homecoming, Howard Keel

Daddy’s home

‘HOMECOMING’

Season 8, Episode 7

Airdate: November 9, 1984

Audience: 22.2 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Gwen Arner

Synopsis: Miss Ellie and Clayton return to Southfork, where he feels overshadowed by Jock’s memory. Pam hires a salvage company to search for Mark’s missing plane. Mandy tells Cliff she overheard Sue Ellen confide in Jamie that J.R. is worried about Cliff’s success. Eddie realizes there’s more to Lucy than meets the eye.

Cast: Michael Alldredge (Steve Jackson), Norman Bennett (Al), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Tony Garcia (Raoul), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Jenilee Harrison (Jamie Ewing), 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), Fredric Lehne (Eddie Cronin), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Donna Reed (Miss Ellie Farlow), Sherril Lynn Rettino (Jackie Dugan), Marina Rice (Angela), Deborah Shelton (Mandy Winger), Christopher Stone (Dave Stratton), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Kathleen York (Betty)

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

Comments

  1. You are really plowing through this season Chris! Thank you really appreciate your critiques. I do look forward to them. It makes me smile each time you have written a new one up. Thank you. It really must have been a little strange for the actors with Donna Reed’s character. All hail the return to centre stage Queen Victoria :O)

    • Thanks, Dan! When I began Dallas Decoder in 2012, I posted a critique every weekday. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that again, but for now, two a week seems manageable. I appreciate your reading them.

  2. The scene at the airport, watching J.R. and Bobby saying “Mama”, I was very confused. I didn’t know Donna Reed plays Miss Ellie. Especially up to this point, Miss Ellie is so convincing to me that I forget she is a character played by Barbara Bel Geddes. Hats off to Donna Reed and the cast of “Dallas” for making this work.

  3. Miss Green says:

    No, Donna Reed never could replace Barbara BelGeddes! Just like no show on TV
    can replace Dallas! Somebody bring this show back! Millions of fans are still waiting
    ad PRAYING!!!!

  4. I did not think Donna Reed was a good actress, so I was glad she was not in the role for long!!!! She did not bring the mama family feeling to the show and to me she did not flow well in the scenes with the cast!!!!

  5. I’m only a couple seasons ahead of you, Chris, so the re-cast is still fresh in my memory. For me it was mostly just plain strange to have Miss Ellie look different, but also a difference in mannerisms, etc. in how Bel Geddes vs. Reed portrayed her (example, as you mentioned how she smiled). I agree that Reed had big shoes to fill and I assume did what she could, which I reminded myself of a few times. Can’t imagine what it was like for the first-run viewers in the 80s, because as a DVD watcher I knew Bel Geddes would be back in Season 9!

    • Thanks Sarah. I’m trying to remember what it was like to watch Donna Reed in 1984. I was 10 when these episodes debuted, and as I recall, everyone in my family was willing to give Donna Reed a chance, but we found the change too hard to get used to. I do remember how happy we were when it was announced Barbara Bel Geddes would be returning to the role.

  6. I like Donna Reed as an actress, and I think she did very well as Miss Ellie. Her take on the character looks completely valid to me, and the only difficulty I had with her taking over in 1984 was – her hair! I do think that the transition from Barbara Bel Geddes would have been easier if the producers/ hair department had adopted a slightly less conspicuous hairdo for her. They seemed to have realised that rather soon, when they gave her a kind of side parting with less “volume” in her hair after a few episodes.
    In the end, the only “problem” with Donna Reed was that she wasn’t Barbara Bel Geddes, and she can hardly be blamed for that. So I really appreciate your evaluation of a great actress with a difficult task. Thank you very much.

  7. I tried to like Donna Reed, but her dreadfully stiff performance just didn’t do it for me. I also didn’t like the fact they made her more upper-class with the way she dressed.

    I liked Miss Ellie dressing casual, and having more of a tom-boy style. I never at anytime felt like Reed would pick up a shotgun and chase reporters of Southfork. Miss Ellie has to come off as a cattle rancher first, then an Oil Barron’s wife second. IMO Reed fails miserably as both…. Perhaps anyone would though?

    This particular season is my least favorite outside of the final 2. I actually thought Steve Forrest latter on in both stints, did a better job at capturing the spirit of Jock Ewing, even though he ended up being and imposter… I could have lived with him as Jock, had they went that way, Donna Reed just couldn’t make me think Miss Ellie.

    • Interesting point about Steve Forrest. I’m eager to get to Season 10 so I can revisit the Wes Parmalee storyline. Thanks for sharing your observations.

  8. Elizabete says:

    Great analysis, Chris.

  9. As always, I enjoyed reading your critique, Chris! I like your idea about the producers wanting us to accept the “new Miss Ellie” just like they expected the Ewing sons to accept Clayton as their mother’s new husband. Like many other fans, I admit I had trouble seeing Donna Reed as Miss Ellie, although I didn’t dislike her as an actress per se.
    Somebody in a Dallas forum brought up some ideas of who Donna Reed could have played instead of Miss Ellie. The suggestion I liked best was Donna Reed playing Clayton’s first wife, Amy, turning out to be very alive after all. That would offer a nice explanation for the different Miss Ellie during season 8: After kidnapping Miss Ellie and hiding her somewhere, Amy hypnotised everybody around her, making them all believe she was Miss Ellie – until finally the real Miss Ellie managed to free herself and returned to Southfork!
    But, alas, we never got to see the scene where they all finally woke up from the hypnosis, chased the imposter away, and welcomed the real Miss Ellie back home…

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