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

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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.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 141 — ‘The Buck Stops Here’

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Pam Ewing, Patrick Duffy, Victoria Principal

Round and round

“The Buck Stops Here” memorably ends with Pam Ewing and Jenna Wade competing against each other in a mechanical bull-riding competition. It’s an appropriate metaphor for these characters, whose lives go up and down but rarely move forward. For example, during the course of this episode, we learn Pam is still hung up on ex-husband Bobby, even though she’s also in a relationship with Mark Graison. Meanwhile, Jenna has returned to town after a long absence and rekindled her romance with Bobby, but he upsets her when he asks if he’s the father of her daughter Charlie. If it feels like you’ve seen both of these stories before, it’s because you have.

Let’s start with Pam. She spends most of “Dallas’s” previous season trying to choose between Bobby and Mark, a storyline that makes her seem more than a little wishy-washy. Once Pam divorces Bobby, the writers begin to rehabilitate her character, even giving her a promising new career in the oil industry. It’s the return of the smart, confident Pam that Victoria Principal played exceedingly well during “Dallas’s” early years. Too bad it doesn’t last. In “The Buck Stops Here,” Principal’s character is back where she was a year earlier, torn between Bobby and Mark.

At least Arthur Bernard Lewis’s script makes Pam aware that she’s emotionally stuck. In the first act, Pam confides her conflicted feelings to Katherine, a scene that is probably meant to make Pam seem introspective but instead makes her seem whiny and not in control of her own emotions. At one point, Katherine tells her, “You know, sometimes I don’t understand you at all.” Pam’s response: “Sometimes I don’t understand myself at all.” The exchange brings to mind “Dallas’s” fifth season, when Pam was unable to explain the erratic behavior she exhibited before her mental breakdown — a storyline I’d just as soon not be reminded of.

The weak plotting leaves me feeling bad for Principal, an enormously appealing actress who deserves better material. Don’t get me wrong: I want Bobby and Pam back together as much as anyone, but if the show was going to insist on breaking them up, at least give Pam something better to do than to pine after her ex-husband. On the other hand: I’ll confess I get a kick out of seeing Pam and Jenna shoot daggers at each other throughout the charity rodeo and the mechanical bull-riding competition. There’s also the terrific scene where Jenna compliments Pam on her performance, telling she’s going to be “a tough act” to follow. “I am a tough act to follow,” Pam responds. On this show, have truer words been spoken?

“Dallas” struggles to come up with a fresh angle for Jenna too. The show introduces the character in the second-season episode “Old Acquaintance,” when Jenna — played by Morgan Fairchild — is depicted as a scheming heiress who tries to break up Bobby and Pam by insinuating Charlie is Bobby’s daughter. Eventually, Pam confronts Jenna and forces her to admit that Jenna’s ex-husband is the little girl’s father. In Season 3, Jenna — now played by Francine Tacker — returns briefly and once again tempts Bobby, except this time Charlie’s paternity isn’t part of the equation. So why is Bobby suddenly pestering Jenna about the issue in “The Buck Stops Here”? My guess is the producers figured audiences wouldn’t remember this subplot was resolved years earlier, although I have no idea why they think “who is Charlie’s father?” is such a compelling storyline in the first place.

At least Jenna comes off as a little more clear-eyed than Pam. The character has felt more down-to-earth and interesting since Priscilla Presley took over the role three episodes ago. Some of this comes from the writing — Jenna has lost her fortune and is now working as a waitress to pay the bills — but some of it also comes from Presley, who instills her character with much more backbone than I remembered. In one of “The Buck Stops Here’s” best scenes, Katherine tries to bribe Jenna into moving to Houston and leaving Bobby alone. Katherine pretends she’s acting in Pam’s interest, but Jenna is savvy enough to realize Katherine wants Bobby for herself. I also like the scene where Bobby takes Jenna to dinner at the Oil Baron’s Club (which makes its debut in this episode) and asks her if she misses being rich. “Damn right I do,” she says. Isn’t it kind of refreshing to see the working class depicted as something other than noble?

Besides recycling old storylines, “The Buck Stops Here” demonstrates the sexism that pervades this era of “Dallas.” At the beginning of the episode, when Pam and Katherine have their heart-to-heart talk, Katherine is aghast to learn Pam and Mark have never had sex. “You can’t expect a man to wait forever. This isn’t the 19th century,” she says. It also seems like every man on this show has at least two women interested in him: Mark is romancing Pam while being chased by snooty socialite Tracy Anders, while Pam, Jenna and Katherine are all in love with Bobby.

(Frankly, everyone’s interest in Patrick Duffy’s character mystifies me a little, at least in “The Buck Stops Here.” Notice how Bobby cheerfully tells Katherine all about his wonderful afternoon with Jenna, even though Katherine confessed her own unrequited romantic feelings for Bobby during the previous episode. Likewise, isn’t it kind of crass of Bobby to plant such a passionate kiss on Jenna at the end of this episode, knowing that his ex-wife is watching them? Where’s the sweet, sensitive Bobby that we all know and love?)

Amid all the complications and sexism that characterize Bobby and Pam’s love lives, Sue Ellen’s May/December romance with camp counselor Peter Richards feels like a breath of fresh air. At least this is a love triangle where one woman (Sue Ellen) is the object of affection for two men (J.R. and Peter). The previous episode ended with Sue Ellen and Peter sharing a brief kiss, but in “The Buck Stops Here,” she meets Peter for lunch — the restaurant’s name isn’t shown, but I’d recognize the inside of a 1980s Pizza Hut anywhere — and wisely tells him that their relationship can’t go any further. It’s nice to see Sue Ellen grow as a character, even as some of her “Dallas” sisters struggle to move forward.

Of course, even though I like seeing the Ewing and Barnes women take center stage for a change, I can’t help but feel bad for J.R., who doesn’t have much to do in “The Buck Stops Here” except to stand by helplessly as Cliff steals another deal from him. In fact, Larry Hagman is completely absent from the episode’s fourth act, an extreme rarity on this show. It’s no fun to watch our hero get beat, but but I’m heartened by the scene where J.R. summons Harry McSween to his office to help him set a trap for his enemy. “I want that little insect to bite — and bite hard,” J.R. says. The line leaves me rubbing my hands in glee. J.R. vowing to exterminate Cliff? Oh, this is going to be fun!

Grade: B

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Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Jenna Wade, Patrick Duffy, Priscilla Presley

Busy Bobby

‘THE BUCK STOPS HERE’

Season 7, Episode 10

Airdate: December 2, 1983

Audience: 22.3 million homes, ranking 3rd in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Leonard Katzman

Synopsis: Peter tells Sue Ellen he loves her, but she insists it’s merely an infatuation. Pam sleeps with Mark after she spots Bobby kiss Jenna passionately. After J.R. loses another deal to Cliff, he realizes Ewing Oil has a mole.

Cast: Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), Mary Armstrong (Louise), John Beck (Mark Graison), Tye Bell (Buzz), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), James L. Brown (Detective Harry McSween), Jack Collins (Russell Slater), Joe Dorsey (Ben Kesey), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Roy McAdams (rodeo announcer), Andrea McCall (Tracy Anders), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Danone Simpson (Kendall), Don Wood (Dan Fuller)

“The Buck Stops Here” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 47 – ‘Jenna’s Return’

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Francine Tacker, Jenna's Return, Jenna Wade, Patrick Duffy

Dude, that’s not your wife

Bobby’s first love resurfaces in “Jenna’s Return” – and so does his chauvinistic streak. In this episode, Pam’s boss is so impressed by her performance at The Store, he invites her on a business trip to Paris, but instead of being happy for his wife’s success, Bobby sulks.

Making matters worse: While Pam’s away, Bobby spends his free time with old flame Jenna Wade, who pops up for the first time since the second-season episode “Old Acquaintance.” Francine Tacker takes over the role from Morgan Fairchild and doesn’t make much of an impression. I really wish Fairchild played Jenna here, too. She made the character livelier and sexier, which might have made Bobby’s behavior in the cliffhanging final scene, when he appears poised to sleep with Jenna, more credible.

Bobby’s storyline grabs much of the screen time in “Jenna’s Return,” but Ray and Donna’s travails are much more interesting.

The characters began dating just a few episodes ago and already I’m completely charmed by their romance. They make an unlikely couple, but Steve Kanaly and Susan Howard’s chemistry is undeniable, and “Dallas” works hard to make their characters’ relationship feel real.

The first time we see Ray and Donna in this episode, they’re sitting on her living room floor, playing backgammon. Ray is ready to go to bed, prompting night-owl Donna to jokingly bemoan her fate of falling in love with an early riser.

Later, Donna feels out-of-place when Ray takes introduces her to his rough-around-the-edges cowboy friends, while Ray gets a case of the jitters when Donna throws a dinner party to introduce him to her stepson Dave, a state senator, and his wife Luanne.

These little flashes of domesticity are a welcome addition to the show. Many fans may turn to “Dallas” for escapism, but it’s nice to see everyday life reflected now and then, and it’s clear – even at this early stage in Ray and Donna’s relationship – this is the role these characters are destined to fulfill.

Grade: B

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Dallas, Donna Culver, Jenna's Return, Ray Krebbs, Steve Kanaly, Susan Howard

The real thing

‘JENNA’S RETURN’

Season 3, Episode 18

Airdate: January 18, 1980

Audience: 20.7 million homes, ranking 8th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Camille Marchetta

Director: Irving J. Moore

Synopsis: Pam goes on a business trip to Paris, upsetting Bobby, who renews his friendship with Jenna and is tempted to sleep with her. Sue Ellen continues to see Dusty, arousing J.R.’s jealousy. Ray breaks up with Donna because they don’t have enough in common besides their love for each other.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Byron Clark (Tom), Mary Crosby (Kristin Shepard), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Mel Ferrer (Harrison Page), Alba Francesca (Luanne Culver), Tom Fuccello (Senator Dave Culver), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Alex Harvey (Andy), Susan Howard (Donna Culver), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Brian Libby (Roy), Jared Martin (Dusty Farlow), Don Porter (Matt Devlin), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Francine Tacker (Jenna Wade), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing)

“Jenna’s Return” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.