Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 186 — ‘Sentences’

Dallas, Jenna Wade, Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, Sentences

It’s a crime

Do you hate to see the judge send Jenna Wade to prison in “Sentences”? I do. Not because I think it’s unfair to punish Priscilla Beaulieu Presley’s character for a crime she didn’t commit. No, I’m sorry to see Jenna go to jail because I know she’ll be free by the end of the season. Think about it: If “Dallas” took place in real time, Jenna’s seven-year sentence means she’d be released in the spring of 1992, about a year after the series had gone off the air. How nice would it have been to never have to look at her again after this episode?

I know that sounds harsh, so let me make something clear: I have nothing against Presley, who is a capable and appealing actress. My gripe is with her hollow character. Jenna’s personality changes depending on whatever the story calls for. When the show needed someone to threaten Bobby and Pam’s marriage, Jenna (played by Morgan Fairchild and later, Francine Tacker) was a conniving vixen. Once Bobby and Pam were divorced and Patrick Duffy needed a new leading lady, Jenna was recast with Presley and turned into someone the audience could root for: a down-on-her-luck single mom who was willing to wait tables to make ends meet. Now that “Dallas” is laying the groundwork for Bobby and Pam’s reconciliation, Jenna has been reduced to a plot device. She exists solely to illustrate Bobby’s nobility: He’s such a good guy, he’ll fight to keep her out of jail, even though his heart belongs to another woman.

More than anything, this is why Jenna’s eighth-season storyline is one of “Dallas’s” worst narrative miscues. The show is asking the audience to invest in a character who is maddeningly inconsistent. To get an idea of what I mean, imagine if Sue Ellen was tried for murder instead of Jenna. Sure, we’d probably complain the court scenes were draggy, but the writers also would have had a deeper, richer character to build a storyline around. Sue Ellen might have collapsed under the pressure of a trial or she might have risen to the occasion and fought to prove her innocence, but you can bet the character would have been recognizable in either instance. Jenna, on the other hand, becomes a different person every time her circumstances change.

As much as Presley’s character weighs down “Sentences,” the episode isn’t a total loss. The show continues to slowly restore Larry Hagman’s character, giving J.R. a good scene in which he shows Nathan Billings the tape he made of him sleeping with Rhonda Cummings. When Billings sees himself on the TV, director Michael Preece appears to zoom in on actor Nicolas Pryor while pulling back the camera, a neat trick that recalls a similar shot of Roy Scheider in “Jaws.” (Spielberg himself borrowed the technique from Hitchcock.) In another clever touch, Preece uses the mirrors in J.R. and Sue Ellen’s bedroom to show us both characters’ expressions when she confronts him about his affair with Mandy. I also like how J.R. initially denies the affair, but as he stands at the dresser and slowly empties his pockets, he eventually unburdens himself and acknowledges the truth: Not only is he sleeping with Mandy, he’s fallen for her.

“Sentences” also offers an encounter between J.R. and Pam, although it isn’t quite as entertaining as their confrontation a few episodes ago in “Legacy of Hate.” J.R. visits his ex-sister-in-law and says that now that Jenna has gone to jail, he hopes Bobby and Pam will reconcile. Her response (“Did you suddenly find religion, or did your doctor tell you that you only have a week to live?”) isn’t as amusing today as it was in 1985, but more importantly, I wish we knew what J.R. is up to. Are we supposed to assume he wants Pam back on Southfork so she’ll stop supporting Cliff’s lawsuit to seize two-thirds of Ewing Oil? Ambiguities aside, I love how this scene begins: Pam is giving Christopher an afternoon snack when J.R. arrives and bends down to receive a kiss from the boy, only to end up with a cheek full of graham cracker crumbs. Eric Farlow’s reaction upon spotting Hagman (“Uncle J.R.!”) is also charming.

Other small but memorable moments in “Sentences” include Jackie interrupting Cliff and Pam to relay a radio news bulletin that Jenna has been found guilty. Sherril Lynn Katzman is quite good here; her expression lets us know that Jackie realizes her announcement will annoy Cliff, but she’s going to deliver the news anyway because Pam deserves to know. I also get a kick out of a later scene in which Cliff bursts into Pam’s office to tell her that Bobby has confessed to being Charlie’s father to gain custody of her. Who doesn’t get a kick out of Cliff’s description of the girl: “What’s that kid’s name? Charlie?” (At least Cliff is better informed than Ray, who mistakenly refers to Mickey as his nephew in this episode.)

“Sentences” also includes a memorable scene at the Oil Baron’s Club, where Marilee runs into Sue Ellen and eagerly tells her that J.R. was recently spotted around town with Mandy. This is delicious and fun, and not just because Linda Gray and Fern Fitzgerald are dressed to the nines. It’s also interesting to see the actresses share a scene and be reminded that their characters were once ladies who lunched and volunteered together on the charity circuit. The death of Marilee’s husband and her rise to power in his company moved her out of Sue Ellen’s orbit and into J.R.’s, but when you go back and watch Fitzgerald’s early appearances, you can see hints of the snide, cutting character she’d eventually become. Marilee’s steady, consistent development over the years makes her another contrast with whichever-the-way-the-wind blows Jenna.

You can also see Marilee as a template for Sue Ellen, who’ll eventually join her frenemy in the business world. At this point during “Dallas’s” run, though, Sue Ellen and Marilee are leading very different lives, although it’s not like they have nothing in common. I mean, do these bitches know how to rock a hat or what?

Grade: B

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Dallas, Linda Gray, Sentences, Sue Ellen Ewing

Top hat

‘SENTENCES’

Season 8, Episode 25

Airdate: March 29, 1985

Audience: 19.5 million homes, ranking 6th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Michael Preece

Synopsis: J.R. blackmails Billings into shutting down Cliff’s offshore oil operation and urges Pam to reconcile with Bobby. When Jenna is sentenced to a seven-year prison term, Bobby is awarded custody of Charlie and resumes his investigation into Veronica’s death. Marilee tells Sue Ellen about J.R.’s affair with Mandy. Ray urges Lucy to contact Mitch.

Cast: Mary Armstrong (Louise), Pat Colbert (Dora Mae), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Marj Dusay (Bernice Billings), Stephen Elliott (Scotty Demarest), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Heidi Hagman (Jury Forewoman), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Jenilee Harrison (Jamie Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Virginia Kiser (Judge Roberta Fenerty), Frederic Lehne (Eddie Cronin), Laura Malone (Janice Hopper), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), Allan Miller (Assistant District Attorney Frederick Hoskins), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Nicholas Pryor (Nathan Billings), Donna Reed (Miss Ellie Farlow), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Sherril Lynn Rettino (Jackie Dugan), Dean Santoro (Raymond Furguson), Deborah Shelton (Mandy Winger), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis)

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

Comments

  1. Love the scene with JR and Pam. Had to restrain myself from cheering when Jenna went to jail! Well maybe a little ‘whoppie!!’ did sneak out

  2. I cheered when she was sentenced not because she was guilty (suspect that she would not be in jail for long) but because it gives a little clue from the writers to the audience that Pam and Bobby will continue to get closer and reconnect. It was the same feeling of happiness I felt when Mark’s plane crashed, one less person out of the way of these lovers getting back together. I also liked the scene between Pam and JR less entertaining than their other encounters but wonderful to see anyhow. Little Christopher made me laugh when he wiped off his mouth after kissing Uncle JR on the cheek. You are right CB these “bitches” do know how to rock a hat!!! Sue Ellen and Marilee looked wonderful.

    • Thanks, MaryAnn. I agree: Even if the J.R./Pam scene wasn’t the same caliber as usual, it’s still quite good. Eric Farlow steals the show as usual.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree about Jenna’s character changing depending on what the storyline demands! It’s something that has always annoyed me too.
    That said, I must point out that while Francine Tacker played Jenna, she wasn’t a conniving vixen, at least not in my impression. She was an independent working woman who didn’t play any games with Bobby (as the Morgan Fairchild version of her character did), but frankly and directly told Bobby – and Pam – that she wanted Bobby and was ready to be with him if Pam didn’t want him anymore. To me, Francine Tacker and Morgan Fairchild played two completely different women who didn’t have anything in common, except the name and a daughter named Charlie.
    BTW, Chris, I loved your comments about Sue Ellen and Marilee. 🙂

    • You are very correct, Balena. I should have worded my description of the characters’ changes a little more artfully. Thanks for your good feedback and kind words about my thoughts on Sue Ellen and Marilee.

  4. If I can recall the sequencing Christopher Barnes Ewing Oil Dallas Decoder its as follows;

    1. Stonehurst Oil was actually run by the Hurst family & was Marilee’s with Seth only taking over just before or just after marrying Marilee. From that we can figure Marilee is the real power behind it both b4 & after Seth’s suicide.

    2. As for Miss Texas discovering Husband In Name Only J.R. was having carnal relations that is none of her affair as she set the tone of the whole bedroom & lives format.

    3. Ex Bro-In-Law J.R. went to Pam’s house to suggest she remarry Bobby if you haven’t guessed it was to get Brother Bobby focused off of Jenna, & instead onto Pam. In this way, Bob would be calm & relaxed with his new & old wife once again with him & Christopher on the Southfork Ranch. Thus making it less likely she would carry out her threat to help Cliff & Jamie actually seize 2/3rd’s of Ewing Oil b/c she “be afraid of what it would do to Bobby!”

  5. I am surprised about the strong views on Jenna. She was admittedly very wishy-washy, but I had no idea people had that strong feelings about her. I suppose I always had a soft spot for her because I never had the hots for Pam like others. She was mostly nagging, either at Bobby or Cliff. And as the Mary Poppins of Dallas she was usually on a very high horse without ever being in a morally tricky situation herself. And Jenna – in shape of PBP – came on board as a self-reliant person which I appreciated. (Because of Pam’s sanctimonious attitude I also liked Mark Grayson. At least he talked back at her every now and then.)

    • I’m surprised to hear other fans dislike Jenna too, Q-Less. I thought I was the only one. For what it’s worth, I liked her when she was self-reliant. Once she hung up her waitress apron and allowed Bobby to buy the boutique, my opinion of her declined.

  6. Dan in WI says:

    I was shocked the scene of the day wasn’t JR asking Pam to go back to Bobby. Did JR have ulterior motives for that request? Of course. Did knowing that there were ulterior motives make my jar drop any less when I heard the words come out of his mouth? Not in the least.

    • Dan, I struggled to choose this scene of the day, right up until the last minute. I’ve never been a huge fan of this particular J.R./Pam scene — it doesn’t have the same spark as their other encounters — but you make a good point about the significance of seeing J.R. urging his least favorite sister-in-law to reconcile with Bobby. I ended up choosing the J.R./Sue Ellen scene because I liked the staging and the dialogue better, but the J.R./Pam scene may have been a better choice in the long run.

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