Critique: ‘Knots Landing’ Episode 30 – ‘Designs’

Stick it to him

Stick it to him

In “Designs,” J.R. once again visits “Knots Landing” and once again, the results are disappointing. These crossover episodes are almost never as good as they should be.

On paper, occasionally sending “Dallas” characters to Seaview Circle makes perfect sense. “Dallas” was television’s most-watched series in the early 1980s, when “Knots Landing” was still struggling to find an audience. CBS, the network that aired both shows, probably encouraged the “Knots Landing” producers to make room for “Dallas” characters a few times each season to goose the spinoff’s ratings.

Since Bobby and Lucy are on friendly terms with “Knots Landing’s” Gary and Valene, it was plausible to have them show up in the cul-de-sac from time to time. But J.R. despises his Southern California relatives, which meant the “Knots Landing” writers had to keep coming up with excuses to bring him to town.

In “Designs,” J.R. offers to patent the cleaner car engine Sid Fairgate has been developing in his spare time. Yes, J.R. does business with part-time garage inventors. This surprises you?

To be fair, Diana Gould and Robert W. Gilmer’s script has J.R. tell Sid’s wife Karen he’s interested in the engine because “money is money. I don’t care whether it comes from burning oil or saving it.” It seems more likely J.R. wants to seize Sid’s project so he can kill it, but this is never made clear. I don’t mind a little ambiguity now and then, but since car engines are so far outside J.R.’s realm, it would be nice to have a better idea of what he’s up to.

The script also requires J.R. to spend almost all his time with the Fairgates, whom he barely knows and who aren’t exactly his kind of people to begin with. “Designs” also offers several scenes between J.R. and Sid’s scheming sister Abby, and like J.R. and Abby’s scenes in “A Family Matter,” their “Designs” alliance isn’t as much fun as you might expect. Donna Mills and Larry Hagman make a fine couple, but I’d still rather see J.R. fight with Val than fawn over Abby. Unfortunately, Hagman and Joan Van Ark share no scenes in this episode. Talk about your missed opportunities.

Given how much I love Hagman’s “Knots Landing” debut in the first-season episode “Community Spirit,” I’m as surprised as anyone to find his subsequent visits so lacking. For J.R., maybe one trip out west was enough.

Grade: C

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Backseat affair

Backseat affair

‘DESIGNS’

“Knots Landing” Season 2, Episode 17

Airdate: March 26, 1981

Audience: 16.3 million homes, ranking 18th in the weekly ratings

Writers: Diana Gould and Robert W. Gilmer

Director: Nicholas Sgarro

Synopsis: Sid rejects J.R.’s offer to patent his design for a cleaner car engine. Abby sneaks a copy of the design to J.R., but she makes him sign a contract that protects her brother’s interest in the project. J.R. and Abby consummate their deal by having sex.

Cast: Tonya Crowe (Olivia Cunningham), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing) James Houghton (Kenny Ward), Bobby Jacoby (Brian Cunningham), Barry Jenner (Jeff Cunningham), Kim Lankford (Ginger Ward), Michele Lee (Karen Fairgate), Claudia Lonow (Diana Fairgate), Constance McCashin (Laura Avery), Donna Mills (Abby Cunningham), Don Murray (Sid Fairgate), John Pleshette (Richard Avery), Arthur Rosenberg (Dr. Harper), Ted Shackelford (Gary Ewing), Steve Shaw (Eric Fairgate), Joan Van Ark (Valene Ewing), John Volstad (bellhop)

Watch “Designs” on DVD and share your comments below.

The Best & Worst of TNT’s Dallas: Season 1

The first season of TNT’s “Dallas” brought the Ewings back to series television after a two-decade absence. I loved it – mostly.

Performances

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, TNT

The Great One

The new “Dallas” cast divides into two categories: Larry Hagman and everyone else. As the now-elderly J.R., Hagman was sometimes mischievous, sometimes moving and always magical. Trying to figure out how Hagman does what he does is futile, so I just sit back and enjoy the ride. Nominate him in a supporting category if you must, but if Larry the Great doesn’t take home an Emmy next year, we should all raise hell.

Dallas, Julie Gonzalo, Rebecca Barnes, Rebecca Sutter, TNT

Your next queen

Among the rest of the cast, give it up for Julie Gonzalo, who made Rebecca’s desperation palpable as the character’s world collapsed in the season’s final hours. Seeing Rebecca drag around Tommy’s dead body in “Revelations” reminded me of when Abby Ewing did something similar on “Knots Landing” – which is fitting since Gonzalo seems destined to claim Donna Mills’s crown as television’s next great queen bee.

Storylines

The war for Southfork was the ideal vehicle to re-introduce “Dallas,” not just because the storyline ensnared every character – even Gary got involved – but also because it helped keep alive the memory of Miss Ellie, whose ghost looms over the new show the way Jock’s did on the old one.

The most incomplete plot: Sue Ellen’s run for governor. The character’s foray into politics can be seen as a logical outgrowth of her civic activism on the original show (remember all those Daughters of the Alamo luncheons Sue Ellen hosted?), but I wish the new series had acknowledged some of the skeletons rattling around her closet. Given Sue Ellen’s scandalous past, shouldn’t voters have been more skeptical of her candidacy?

Episodes

Dallas, John Ross Ewing, Josh Henderson, TNT

Scarred, inside and out

“Family Business,” the episode where J.R. returns the Southfork deed to Bobby, is as good as any of the best entries from the classic series. This intimate hour offered poignant performances from Hagman and Patrick Duffy, but no one moved me like Josh Henderson, especially in the scene where John Ross pours out his heart to Elena about his failure to live up to J.R.’s legend (“I spent my entire life missing him, wanting to be with him, wanting to be him.”).

“The Last Hurrah,” the Ewing barbecue episode, was the season’s biggest letdown. It brought together more original cast members than any other TNT entry – in addition to J.R., Bobby and Sue Ellen, we also saw Cliff, Ray and Lucy – yet these old favorites shared little screen time. On the other hand, allow me to defend “The Last Hurrah’s” much-maligned calf-birthing sequence, a metaphor I appreciated, even if the snarkmeisters at Entertainment Weekly didn’t.

Scenes

As fantastic as J.R. and John Ross’s tense-then-tender “shaving scene” was in “The Price You Pay,” nothing wowed me like Ann’s sting against smarmy ex-husband Harris Ryland in “Revelations.” What a great scene! I liked Brenda Strong’s character from the beginning, but this was the moment that made me love her. Somewhere, Miss Ellie is smiling.

Twists

Ann Ewing, Brenda Strong, Dallas, TNT

Great twist!

The new “Dallas’s” twist-a-minute storytelling was often too much, but not always: The moment Ann exposed the mic she was using to record Ryland’s confession was terrific, and so was the big reveal at the end of “Changing of the Guard,” when the audience learned J.R. and Marta were in cahoots.

Meanwhile, what should have been the season’s biggest twist – the revelation that Rebecca is Cliff’s daughter – was no surprise at all, at least not to “Dallas” diehards. Gonzalo’s character’s first name was a huge tipoff, and once we discovered Cliff had become a high-stakes gambler, her “Changing of the Guard” reference to her poker-playing daddy became another big clue. Still, seeing Cliff emerge from his jet in the final moments of “Revelations” – and then hearing Frank Ashkani refer to Rebecca as “Miss Barnes” – was pretty damn cool.

Cameos

Charlene Tilton’s appearance in “Collateral Damage,” when Lucy and John Ross reminisced about his boyhood antics while brunching at the Omni, was fabulous. Let this serve as the model for integrating old favorites into new storylines.

Less enthralling: The “Truth and Consequences” scene featuring Jerry Jones. Nothing against the Dallas Cowboys owner, but why remind fans of the dreadful 1998 reunion reunion movie “War of the Ewings,” which also featured a Jones cameo?

Homages

Dallas, Leonor Varela, Marta Del Sol, Veronica Martinez, TNT

Nut’s landing

The TNT series spent a lot of time honoring its predecessor. Among the best tributes: Ann’s penchant for shotguns and pearls (a la Miss Ellie), Marta’s deadly dive in “Collateral Damage” (shades of Julie Grey) and John Ross’s “Changing of the Guard” meeting with Marta at Cowboys Stadium, which evoked J.R.’s many stadium encounters in days of yore.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point out some of the historical liberties the new show took: Ellie’s commitment to a sanitarium after Jock’s death (when did this happen?), Grandpa Southworth giving the Ewing brothers the Southfork mineral rights (Ellie controlled them on the old show) and Cliff’s visit to Islamabad in the early 1980s (did he do it during the summer reruns?).

Villains

Carlos Bernard was effectively oily as Vicente Cano and Faran Tahir makes Frank a genuinely frightening dude, but my prize for best villain goes to Mitch Pileggi, whose Harris Ryland was creepy and charming all at once. Here’s hoping Pileggi will become the new “Dallas’s” answer to Jeremy Wendell, J.R.’s best adversary from the old show, played by the great William Smithers.

Supporting Players

Dallas, Margaret Bowman, Mrs. Henderson, TNT

Mrs. Henderson, Presented

Let’s hear it for the supporting actors – many of them honest-to-goodness Texans – who didn’t log a lot of screen time but made each moment count. My favorites: Richard Dillard, who was perfectly sleazy as Bobby’s double-dealing lawyer Mitch Lobell; Glenn Morshower as Lobell’s no-nonsense replacement, Lou; Brett Brock, who had real presence as John Ross’s private eye, Clyde Marshall; Kevin Page, who was oddly endearing as J.R.’s henchman Bum; and Margaret Bowman, who was a hoot as Southfork neighbor Miss Henderson.

Music

TNT’s heavy use of music on “Dallas” might be the new show’s best innovation of all. In “Hedging Your Bets,” J.R. and Sue Ellen reunited at the Cattle Baron’s Ball to the sounds of Justin Townes Earle’s gorgeous “Midnight at the Movies,” while Adele’s “Turning Tables” was the ideal soundtrack for Christopher and Rebecca’s “Changing of the Guard” wedding sequence.

The real highlight: the instant classic montage that concluded “Family Business,” when Bobby’s collapse and Rebecca and Tommy’s gun struggle played out as Johnny Cash’s “The Man Who Came Around” boomed in the background. And while Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” was a fine choice to end “Revelations,” I hope the show doesn’t return to that particular well for awhile.

Costumes

Dallas, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing, TNT

Cool zip

The zip-front dress Sue Ellen wore when she visited Ryland in “The Enemy of My Enemy” was the perfect garment for a woman who was exposing her vulnerabilities in a bid to help her son. I also liked how the dress showed Linda Gray, now in her 70s, could still be sexy and playful.

Sets

Loved the groovy spectrum artwork in Sue Ellen’s office. Hated the watercolor painting of Jock and Ellie that hangs in the Southfork living room.

Quips

As much as I enjoyed all the hilarious stuff that came out of J.R.’s mouth, Sue Ellen delivered the season’s best line in “No Good Deed” when she blackmailed the hapless medical examiner by reminding him, “You’ve been writing more prescriptions than Michael Jackson’s doctor – which is odd, since all of your patients are dead.”

Biggest head-scratcher: “We ain’t family, bro.” – John Ross’s putdown of Christopher in “Hedging Your Bets.”

Behind the Scenes

Much praise goes to the many talented folks on the other side of the camera, including Michael M. Robin, the most inventive director in the history of the “Dallas” franchise; cinematographer Rodney Charters, who makes the real-life Dallas look so good, the city should name a street after him; and the TNT Publicity Machine, which did a helluva job promoting the show in the months before its debut.

Of course, the biggest hat tip goes to Cynthia Cidre, the new “Dallas’s” creative force. After an uneven start, Cidre – with help from a team of talented writers – brought “Dallas” back to its roots as a character-driven family drama. Let’s hope they keep the momentum going in Season 2.

What do you love and loathe about the first season of TNT’s “Dallas”? Share your comments below and read more “Best & Worst” reviews.

The Art of Knots Landing: ‘A Family Matter’

Abby and J.R. (Donna Mills, Larry Hagman) are seen in this 1981 publicity shot from “A Family Matter,” a second-season “Knots Landing” episode.