Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 130 — ‘Penultimate’

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Linda Gray, Miss Ellie Ewing, Penultimate, Sue Ellen Ewing

Mama’s here

“Penultimate” is an hour of misery and pain, but it contains love too. The story begins where “Dallas’s” previous episode ends, when Sue Ellen drives drunk and crashes J.R.’s car. The accident leaves her with a broken arm and some scrapes and bruises, while passenger Mickey Trotter fares much worse: He slips into a coma after his spinal cord is injured. This leads to tense scenes, like the one where Lucy calls Sue Ellen a “lousy drunk” and blames her for the crash. Mostly, though, “Penultimate” depicts the Ewings and Krebbses as people who are willing to set aside old hurts and day-to-day grievances to help each other get through a crisis. It’s the kind of thing we routinely witness on this show, yet it never fails to move me.

Howard Lakin’s smart script ensures Sue Ellen remains a sympathetic figure, even though it seems like she did indeed cause the accident. Lakin gives us a scene where a guilt-ridden Sue Ellen apologizes to Lucy and pleads for forgiveness, and even though Lucy refuses to listen, other characters don’t hesitate to show Sue Ellen compassion. The crucial moment comes in the first act, when a sore, stiff Sue Ellen comes home from the hospital and goes to her bedroom with Miss Ellie, who offers to help her change into a nightgown. When Sue Ellen begins to cry, Ellie takes her into her arms and holds her close. It’s a touching scene, and also a clever one. If Ellie is willing to forgive Sue Ellen, why shouldn’t we?

Of course, Linda Gray keeps the audience on Sue Ellen’s side too. Throughout “Penultimate,” Gray carries herself like a woman full of regret; we never doubt that Sue Ellen feels terrible about what she’s done. It doesn’t hurt that she looks awful. Sue Ellen’s face is purple and swollen, her arm is in a cast and in the first few scenes, her sweater is torn and stained with blood. How can you not feel bad for this woman? In the same spirit, how can you not admire Gray? Remember, “Penultimate” was made in an era when television audiences demanded gloss and glamour from their favorite actresses, so Gray’s willingness to be seen in such an unflattering light feels like an act of courage. (Other stars soon followed Gray’s lead. The year after “Penultimate” aired, Farrah Fawcett wore a black eye when she played a battered wife in the TV movie “The Burning Bed.”)

Gray’s most impressive performance in “Penultimate” comes in the final scene, when J.R. enters his bedroom late at night and finds Sue Ellen waiting up for him. She calmly asks why he remarried her if he had no intention of being faithful, and when he begins to speak, she cuts him off. “Stop it! Stop it! I don’t want to hear any more from you!” she shouts. But J.R. continues, telling Sue Ellen that he never meant to hurt her. “Believe me when I say that I love you. I truly love you,” he says. Larry Hagman’s delivery is sincere, but Gray is the one we can’t take our eyes off of. When J.R. professes his love, Gray turns away from Hagman and faces the camera. She’s silent, yet her expression tells us how tormented Sue Ellen feels at that moment. Despite the pain J.R. has caused her, is there any doubt she loves him too?

Cry, Cry Again

Charlene Tilton, Dallas, Lucy Ewing, Penultimate

Tracking her tears

Charlene Tilton supplies “Penultimate” with its other emotional highpoints. After Lucy lashes out at Sue Ellen and calls her a drunk, she bursts into tears and collapses into Ray’s arms. Later, Lucy is with Ray, Donna and Aunt Lil when the doctor informs them Mickey will probably be paralyzed. Once again, Lucy weeps. Both scenes remind us how Tilton always rises to the occasion when she’s given good material, which happens too infrequently on “Dallas.” I also admire how Steve Kanaly makes us feel every ounce of Ray’s anger and frustration over the tragedy that has befallen Mickey, as well as the guilt consuming Ray over bringing his cousin to Texas in the first place. The other performer to watch in these scenes is Kate Reid, who doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but who doesn’t need any. Her sad, solemn expression says it all.

Not all of the scenes in “Penultimate” are quite so agonizing. When J.R. goes to Holly’s house to confront her over her attempt to ruin his marriage, we expect J.R. to be full of rage. Instead, he plays it cool, politely offering to give up his share of Harwood Oil — if Holly pays him $20 million, that is. Holly balks, and so J.R. leaves her with a not-so-subtle threat. “Holly, you won a hand in a game of poker,” he says. “You’re seeing me in a mood that you’ll never see again. I strongly advise you to take advantage of it, because considering what it’ll cost if you don’t” — here, Hagman pauses — “twenty million dollars will be chickenfeed.”

Later, Bobby urges Holly not to give J.R. the money until after the contest for Ewing Oil ends. Frankly, of all the surprising moves Bobby makes during the sixth season, this one shocks me most. It’s one thing for Bobby to blackmail George Hicks, the crooked energy regulator, or to stage a sting against Walt Driscoll, J.R.’s accomplice in the illegal Cuban oil deal. But after all the suffering the battle for Ewing Oil has caused, Bobby is still willing to wheel and deal to win the contest? Maybe Pam is right. Maybe her husband really has changed.

Hear the Trumpets

Dallas, Donna Krebbs, Ray Krebbs, Steve Kanaly, Susan Howard

Eye to eye

Like all great “Dallas” episodes, “Penultimate” is a creative achievement on multiple levels. Along with the strong performances and writing, Richard Lewis Warren’s underscore is essential to the episode’s success. In several scenes, a few piano keys give way to the mournful blaring of trumpets. It fits the somber mood perfectly, not that any of us should be surprised. Warren’s music never gets in the way of the storytelling but helps it along, which is why he’s one of my favorite “Dallas” composers.

“Penultimate” also offers some of the sixth season’s niftiest camerawork. The episode opens at the site of the car accident, as an ambulance pulls away and a tow truck backs up to J.R.’s overturned Mercedes. Southfork looms in the distance, lit up in the black sky, until the camera slowly zooms in for a close-up. I also like how director Nick Havinga opens one scene with a tight shot of the Ewings’ liquor cart. In the background, Sue Ellen enters the room and gradually comes into focus as she approaches the booze and reaches for a bottle. Havinga also plays with our depth perception in a shot in the hospital where Kanaly stands in the foreground and exchanges dialogue with Susan Howard, whose position in the background makes Donna look like she’s a few feet shorter than Ray.

Lakin and Havinga also do a nice job keeping the audience in the dark about the extent of Sue Ellen and Mickey’s injuries when “Penultimate” begins. The first scene in the emergency room shows a medical team tending to an unseen patient. Amid the beeps and whirs of the machinery, one of the doctors drops references to irregular breathing patterns and a possible spinal injury. “Looks like there’s a bad fracture in the right leg,” a nurse announces. Says the doctor: “Yeah, we’ll worry about that later. Right now, let’s just try to keep this patient alive.” Moments later, we see J.R. escort a shaken Sue Ellen into a hospital corridor, and only then do we realize Mickey is the patient in critical condition.

This turns out to be the episode’s most suspenseful moment. The only other mystery presented here is the identity of the driver of the car that struck Sue Ellen and Mickey’s vehicle, which won’t be revealed until the next episode. Indeed, “Penultimate” serves mostly as a prelude to that installment — not that I’m complaining. The season’s plot lines may not advance much during this hour, but the characters do. Isn’t that more interesting anyway?

Grade: A+

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Dallas, Mickey Trotter, Timothy Patrick Murphy

Critical condition

‘PENULTIMATE’

Season 6, Episode 27

Airdate: April 29, 1983

Audience: 19 million homes, ranking 3rd in the weekly ratings

Writer: Howard Lakin

Director: Nick Havinga

Synopsis: While Mickey lies in a coma, doctors determine he’ll likely be paralyzed. Sheriff Washburn tells J.R. that Sue Ellen will be charged with manslaughter if Mickey dies. Ray urges Washburn to find the driver of the car that struck Sue Ellen and Mickey’s vehicle. After J.R. invites Holly to buy him out of her company, Bobby urges her to delay her payment to him until the contest for Ewing Oil is over. Cliff pressures Pam not to give Bobby the drill bit.

Cast: John Beck (Mark Graison), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Lois Chiles (Holly Harwood), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Barry Corbin (Sheriff Fenton Washburn), Michael Cornelison (Dr. Snow), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Alice Hirson (Mavis Anderson), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Joe Maross (Dr. Blakely), Timothy Patrick Murphy (Micheky Trotter), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Kate Reid (Lil Trotter), Danone Simpson (Kendall), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson), John Zaremba (Dr. Harlan Danvers)

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

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 110 — ‘Hit and Run’

Dallas, Hit and Run, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman

Shady

To fully appreciate how much composer Richard Lewis Warren contributes to “Hit and Run,” I challenge you to an experiment. First, turn off the volume and watch the sequence where reckless driver Carol Driscoll strikes the pedestrian. Without music, it plays like a series of disjointed shots: Here’s Carol leaving the beauty parlor, there she is getting behind the wheel of her Cadillac Seville, now she’s screaming as a body smashes her windshield. Next, watch the scene again with the volume up. Warren’s dramatic strings unite the images into a narrative, lending the scene urgency, tension and suspense. The music, more than anything else, makes this the episode’s most memorable moment.

Of course, the scheme behind Carol’s mishap is pretty compelling too. J.R. wants to blackmail her husband Walt, an ethical state government official, into doing him a favor. To gain leverage, J.R. taps dirty cop Harry McSween to orchestrate Carol’s collision, which ends with the pedestrian’s “friend” assuring Carol that the man she struck is perfectly fine and that Carol should go home — which she does, foolishly. Little does she know the two men are part of a scheme to ensnare her husband. In the episode’s closing moments, J.R. happens to be visiting the Driscolls when McSween arrives and announces Carol is in big trouble for fleeing an accident scene. J.R. offers to intervene — and Walt eagerly accepts. “J.R., if you could get my wife out of this, I’d owe you. I really would,” he says.

Ben Piazza and Martha Smith are terrific as the naïve, desperate Driscolls, but this moment, like so many others in “Hit and Run,” belongs to Larry Hagman. In the final shot, Walt and Carol stand together as J.R. faces them, grips their shoulders and gazes into their eyes. It’s the kind of sincere, everything’s-going-to-be-OK gesture that Bill Clinton used when comforting disaster victims during his presidency. “Carol, Walt, what are friends for?” J.R. says. As Hagman delivers the line, Warren brings back the dramatic strings from the accident scene and lets it play through the freeze frame of J.R.’s self-satisfied half-smile. This is a great ending.

The other subplot in “Hit and Run” has Bobby weighing whether to join the McLeish brothers in their Canadian drilling venture. Bobby’s dilemma: The deal is all-but-guaranteed to produce a big windfall, but the money might not start rolling in until after the contest for Ewing Oil ends. “I refuse to make a perfect deal just so J.R. can inherit it,” Bobby tells Pam. Scriptwriter Howard Lakin does a nice job making sure we understand the risk Bobby faces. At the end of the episode, when Bobby announces he’s going to take a chance and join the McLeish deal, it feels like a moment of high drama.

In the meantime, “Hit and Run” gives Victoria Principal some of the best scenes she’s had at this point during “Dallas’s” sixth season. I like Pam’s cute exchange with Bobby in the Southfork living room, as well as the scene where she entertains the McLeish brothers, which foreshadows the business savvy she’ll demonstrate in later seasons. Principal’s best moment, though, is Pam’s confrontation with Rebecca, who is consumed with getting Cliff to resume his fight with the Ewings. “Mother, you’ve always had strength. You proved that when you left your children to go out and start a new life. It’s a cold, calculating kind of strength. Is that what you want for Cliff?” Pam asks. Principal delivers the line sharply, and it’s nice to see the “Dallas” producers haven’t forgotten Rebecca’s sins.

Other highlights of “Hit and Run” include the first appearance of Annie, Lucy’s photographer. Fay Hauser plays the role in three guest spots, becoming one of the few African American actors to appear with anything approaching regularity on “Dallas.” The episode also gives us John Larroquette’s debut as Lucy’s lawyer, Philip Colton. It’s a small role, but Larroquette manages to give us a glimpse of the charm that would later make him one of television’s most popular actors.

But make no mistake: The only scenes stolen in “Hit and Run” have Hagman’s fingerprints on them. In addition to the sequence where J.R. comes to the rescue of the hapless Driscolls, this episode gives us J.R.’s classic first encounter with Ray’s cousin and Southfork’s newest ranch hand, Mickey Trotter. When J.R. says it’s good to know there’s “a whole wagonload of Krebbses running the ranch now,” Mickey points out that he doesn’t share Ray’s last name. “Oh, well,” J.R. responds. “I’m bound to sleep more soundly tonight knowing that.”

Grade: A

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Ben Piazza, Carol Driscoll, Dallas, Hit and Run, Martha Smith, Walt Driscoll

Suckers

‘HIT AND RUN’

Season 6, Episode 7

Airdate: November 12, 1982

Audience: 20.6 million homes, ranking 4th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Howard Lakin

Director: Michael Preece

Synopsis: J.R. secretly orchestrates a hit-and-run accident involving Driscoll’s wife, then offers to get her out of trouble with the police. Bobby joins the McLeish deal. Cliff begins his job as president of Barnes-Wentworth Oil. Pam objects to Rebecca’s vow to get revenge against the Ewings. Lucy prepares for her divorce.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), James Brown (Detective Harry McSween), Paul Carr (Ted Prince), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Tom Fuccello (Senator Dave Culver), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Nicholas Hammond (Bill Johnson), Fay Hauser (Annie), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Kenneth Kimmins (Thornton McLeish), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), John Larroquette (Phillip Colton), J. Patrick McNamara (Jarrett McLeish), Timothy Patrick Murphy (Mickey Trotter), George O. Petrie (Harv Smithfield), Ben Piazza (Walt Driscoll), Priscilla Pointer (Rebecca Wentworth), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Dale Robertson (Frank Crutcher), Martha Smith (Carol Driscoll), Paul Sorensen (Andy Bradley), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Cooper), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis), Ray Wise (Blair Sullivan), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson)

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

The Dallas Decoder Interview: Lisa Seidman

Lisa Seidman

Lisa Seidman

Lisa Seidman was a writer on the original “Dallas” during its final two seasons and penned many of the show’s best episodes from that era. She later wrote for “Knots Landing” and now serves as associate head writer for “The Young and the Restless.” I was thrilled when she agreed to answer some of my questions about writing for three of my favorite TV series.

“Dallas” was one of the first shows you ever wrote for. How did you get the job?  Howard Lakin and I worked together on “Falcon Crest.” He moved on to “Dallas” and when CBS told Len Katzman, the executive producer, they wanted a female writer on the show, Howard recommended me. Len read and liked a spec script I had written, a murder mystery that Patrick Duffy eventually optioned, which he planned to direct and star in, but alas, he moved on to “Step by Step” so it fell through. I met with Len, he liked me, and the rest as they say….

Bobby and J.R. in “Cry Me a River of Oil,” Seidman’s first “Dallas” episode

Bobby and J.R. in “Cry Me a River of Oil,” Seidman’s first “Dallas” episode

History, indeed! What was it like to work on “Dallas” as it was nearing the end of its run? Was it a struggle to come up with new things for the characters to do?

At the time, we didn’t know the show was nearing the end of its run. We were hoping the show would be picked up for another year but knowing there was a possibility it would not be, the mood was wistful, bittersweet. While I remember days when we struggled to come up with story, I don’t think it was any more difficult than any other show I’d been on before or after — except for the final, two-hour show. Now that was a struggle. Len really wanted to go out with a bang and I remember long, frustrating story meetings where we were really trying to find that great hook.

Oh, wow. Do you remember the other ideas for the series finale that you considered but discarded? And what did you think of the final product?

Unfortunately, I don’t remember the other ideas, although I remember exactly where I was sitting in Len’s office as we plotted out the “It’s a Wonderful Life”-themed finale: on his sofa, which is a strange thing to remember as I usually sat in the chair next to him while Howard sat on the sofa and [producer] Ken Horton was in the armchair across from Len and me. As far as the final product: At the time, I thought it was a terrific idea, but in retrospect I see the flaws. J.R. learns that people led happier lives without him so he was going to kill himself in despair and Bobby had to save his life. It was an anti-J.R. story.

Cliff in “The Decline and Fall of the Ewing Empire,” Seidman’s final “Dallas”

Cliff in “The Decline and Fall of the Ewing Empire,” Seidman’s final “Dallas”

Did you have a favorite character to write for? 

Cliff Barnes. What a kick! The character would do or say anything. He had no filters. I loved it. I loved him. I also loved writing the female characters: Cally, April, Michelle, Lucy. Sadly, Linda Gray left the season before I came on so I never got to write Sue Ellen. I was always sorry about that.

Are there any scenes or episodes that you are particularly proud of? 

The scene between J.R. and Lee Ann De La Vega in “Designing Women.” First, I got to write for Larry Hagman and Barbara Eden, who had both been in “I Dream of Jeannie,” a show I loved as a kid. What a thrill! Second, Lee Ann is confronting J.R. about their shared past, and I remember how much I loved her getting back at J.R. for how he screwed up her life. I watched them shoot the scene and it was exciting to see how they both got into it.

Lee Ann and J.R. in “Designing Women”

Lee Ann and J.R. in “Designing Women”

That scene contains one of my favorite J.R. quotes. I love when he tells Lee Ann and Michelle, “You two belong together, hatching your silly little plots in your silly little heads.” I’ve been quoting that line for 22 years!

Funny you should bring that up. I have all drafts of the script in front of me. In the writer’s draft, J.R. said, “Hatching your puny little plots in that empty brain of yours.” In the first draft it became, “Hatching your puny little plots in that empty head of yours” — suggested to me by Len — where it remains in the final draft, so Larry Hagman obviously changed it on set to the line you love.

After “Dallas,” you wrote for “Knots Landing.” How were those experiences similar? How were they different? 

Writing for “Knots” and “Dallas” were similar in that both shows had strong writer-producers — Ann Marcus and Len Katzman, respectively — who respected their writers and never micro-managed us. What you saw on air was the writer’s work, not a rewrite by either Ann or Len. They were different in that Len preferred to be in charge of the production of each script while Ann let each writer attend casting, tone meetings, production meetings. If the actors had concerns about their story on “Dallas” they went to Len. If the “Knots” actors had concerns they went straight to the particular writer of the script. On both shows, stories were created and laid out with all the writers in the room. While Len and Ann had the final say, they listened to all their writers’ contributions. Both were fantastic bosses!

Gary and Val in “Knots Landing: Back to the Cul-de-sac”

Gary and Val in “Knots Landing: Back to the Cul-de-Sac”

What are your memories of co-writing the “Knots Landing” reunion miniseries?

Where do I begin? Ann Marcus taught me so much about structure, high stakes, letting character drive story. We wrote the miniseries in her home office and I remember spending a lot of the time staring at her Emmy for “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” feeling incredibly lucky that I was getting to write with Ann, who is still a dear friend. Ann would come in with a lot of ideas and then we would discuss each one at length, discarding what didn’t work and developing in more detail what did.

Do you watch the new “Dallas”? What’s your opinion?

Fantastic. Fun. It’s great to see how the series successfully uses J.R., Bobby, Sue Ellen and Cliff with the young ’uns. It’s a kick.

You’ve written a lot for daytime television too. How is that different from writing for prime-time television? 

Daytime TV is much harder to write than anybody thinks. You’re writing a detailed outline or a script every week while in prime time you’re writing one script a month or even less, depending on how many writers are on staff. You have two days to write an 11-page outline on daytime, whereas in primetime you have a week or a week and a half to write your script. In daytime you have many more characters to deal with — at least 10 to 15 — and you have to know all their voices, their stories. You have to know their histories from before you went on the show — and those histories are much more complicated than prime time back story because these characters have been on the air anywhere from 10 to 40 years!

In daytime, is it hard to balance giving fans what they want and trying to pursue your own artistic vision? 

Yes, absolutely, because the reality is you can’t really give the fans what they want, which is happy couples. Once a couple is happy, they’re boring. So the writers have to keep creating complications for characters that keep couples apart while at the same time keeping fans wanting to watch every day, rooting for them to get together.

You’re currently writing for “The Young and the Restless.” If J.R. Ewing had ever faced off against Victor Newman in business, who do you think would win?

Ha! Good question. Neither of them would ever have a total win. J.R. might defeat Victor in some aspect of business but then Victor would pick himself up, dust himself off and go after J.R. with a vengeance. Neither would be down for long. The battle would go on forever!

Share your comments below and read more interviews from Dallas Decoder.

The Best & Worst of Dallas: Season 5

“Dallas’s” fifth season was dandy, save for a few disappointments.

Performances

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Miss Ellie Ewing

Walk to remember

Barbara Bel Geddes delivers one tour-de-force performance after another as the grieving Miss Ellie. Everyone remembers the scene where Mama smashes the dishes in the Southfork kitchen, but Bel Geddes also shines in quiet moments like the one where Ellie takes that mournful stroll across the ranch. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Bel Geddes can say more with one look than most actors can with a whole script.

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman

Ewing blues

Runners up: Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy both break my heart as the brothers Ewing struggle – in very different ways – to deal with Jock’s death (J.R. falls apart, Bobby falls in line). Meanwhile, Linda Gray does a beautiful job conveying Sue Ellen’s conflicting emotions as a recent divorcee. I understand her confusion: It’s nice to see Sue Ellen on her own, but I also want her to reunite with the soul mate she’s left behind at Southfork.

Storylines

I love to watch J.R. scheme his way back into Sue Ellen’s heart. This is another fascinating performance from Hagman, who keeps us guessing about J.R.’s motivation: Does he really love his ex-wife, or is he merely trying to get his hands on John Ross’s Ewing Oil voting shares? My guess is it’s a little from Column A and a little from Column B. One thing is certain: Seeing J.R. pick off Sue Ellen’s suitors (Dusty, Clayton, Cliff), one by one, is a hoot.

Weakest storyline: Pam’s mental breakdown. Victoria Principal does a nice job depicting her character’s despair, but this isn’t the heroic Pam I fell in love with during “Dallas’s” early years. Thankfully, she gets her groove back toward the end of the season, when she lays down the law to creepy Roger and helps Bobby solve the mystery of Christopher’s paternity. And while we’re on the subject: They may not be Nick and Nora, but isn’t it fun watching Bobby and Pam figure out that J.R. didn’t father Christopher? (The season’s best plot twist, by the way.)

Episodes

Adoption, Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Linda Gray, Patrick Duffy, Sue Ellen Ewing

Adopt or cry

“Adoption” is one classic scene after another. Donna socks it to Bonnie. Bobby asks Sue Ellen to sign the affidavit. Sue Ellen tosses the necklace at J.R. and proclaims their relationship is “sick, sick, sick!” This is another great script from Howard Lakin, but don’t overlook Hagman, who sat in the director’s chair for this episode and once again proved he’s as gifted behind the camera as he is in front of it.

My least favorite episode: “The Maelstrom,” in which Lucy discovers Roger’s shrine to her and responds by making love to him. Come on, “Dallas.” Charlene Tilton deserves better. So do we.

Scenes

This is always the toughest category to choose a winner, and Season 5 is no exception. Among the contenders: J.R. and Dusty’s Cotton Bowl showdown, Ellie’s confrontation with the cartel and J.R.’s soliloquy in front of Jock’s painting. In the end, I’m going with “The Search” scene where the Ewing sons break the news to Mama that Daddy isn’t coming home. I don’t know who moves me more here: Bel Geddes, Hagman, Duffy or Steve Kanaly. Beautiful performances all around.

Supporting Players

Afton Cooper, Audrey Landers, Dallas

Hot stuff

No one impresses me as much as Audrey Landers. This is the season Afton breaks J.R.’s grip and comes into her own as one of the show’s heroines. There’s no doubt she deserves a better mate than Cliff, but I love how Afton humanizes him – and you can’t deny Landers’ chemistry with Ken Kercheval. As an added bonus, Landers delivers several hot musical numbers this year, including that sultry rendition of “All of Me” in “The Phoenix.”

Runners up: Morgan Brittany, who debuts in Season 5 as scheming Katherine Wentworth and begins laying the groundwork for the havoc she’ll wreak in later years; Fern Fitzgerald, whose Marilee Stone becomes J.R.’s equal in every way; Barry Nelson as Sue Ellen’s sympathetic lawyer Arthur Elrod; Claude Earl Jones as Wally Hampton, J.R.’s co-conspirator in the plot to sabotage Cliff’s career; and Lindsay Bloom as Bonnie, the sad-sack barfly who beds Ray.

Costumes

Clayton Farlow, Dallas, Howard Keel

Hello, handsome

Virtually every “Dallas” diva sports a fur coat during Season 5, but the full-length number Susan Howard dons during Donna’s barroom brawl is the most meaningful. Among the dudes, no one wears suits better than dapper Howard Keel. I especially love when Clayton shows up at Sue Ellen’s townhouse in pinstripes and an open collar shirt, the same look Josh Henderson often sports on TNT’s “Dallas.”

At the other end of the spectrum: What’s with Sue Ellen’s culottes during Season 5? You get the feeling the character spent every episode standing in front of her closet, trying to decide between skirts and pants and choosing to compromise by wearing both. No wonder she became a politician.

Quips

“You getting good mileage on Donna’s car?” – J.R.’s cheery query to Ray in “Five Dollars a Barrel” cracked me up. Only Larry Hagman could turn a throwaway line into a hilarious putdown.

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

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 96 – ‘Adoption’

Our heroine

Our heroine

“Adoption” is one classic scene after another, but my favorite moment is Donna’s showdown with Bonnie, the barfly who’s been sleeping with Ray. The dialogue from scriptwriter Howard Lakin is wonderfully bitchy, and Susan Howard delivers it with steely aplomb. I also have to hand it to guest star Lindsay Bloom, who manages to make Bonnie seem less like a vixen than a sad woman who makes bad choices.

The confrontation begins when Donna, clad in a full-length fur coat, enters the Longview bar and approaches Bonnie, whom Donna caught in bed with Ray at the end of the previous episode. After exchanging unpleasantries (“I wanted to see what the competition looked like – with clothes on”), Donna offers Bonnie $5,000 to leave town. “You’re crazy,” Bonnie says. Donna keeps upping the price; by the time she reaches $15,000, Bonnie is ready to pack her bags. That’s when Donna reduces her offer by a third. “Now that we know what you are, let’s haggle over your fee,” she says. Before all is said and done, Bonnie has tossed a drink in Donna’s face and Donna has struck Bonnie, sending her to the sawdust-covered floor.

It might be tempting to think of this as another soap opera catfight, but that wouldn’t do the scene justice. To begin with, Donna isn’t your typical “Dallas” heroine. She’s the show’s most consistently admirable character – always strong, always smart, always sincere. When we see Donna throw that punch, we know it’s not out of desperation. She’s fighting for Ray because she wants him, not because she needs him.

Howard deserves much credit for making her character so believable. Like Barbara Bel Geddes, Howard possesses an effortless grace; both actresses seem to have good instincts and are smart enough to trust them. And while I generally try to avoid commenting on the physical appearance of “Dallas” actors, this must be said: Howard is one of the most naturally beautiful women to ever appear on the show, and that’s another reason Donna seems like the kind of person you might know in real life. It also doesn’t hurt that Howard is an honest-to-goodness Texan, so she sounds as authentic as she looks. In the scene with Bonnie, notice how Donna’s line, “You mean go to you?” becomes “Yew mean go to yew?” The lilting drawl is almost hypnotic.

Fur Love or Money

Armor on

Armor on

Of course, as good as Howard is, don’t overlook her character’s fur coat, an essential “Dallas” prop if ever there was one. Larry Hagman, who directed this episode, does a smart thing earlier in “Adoption” when he shows Donna coming home and changing into the fur before heading to the Longview to confront Bonnie. This deliberate wardrobe change lets the audience know two things: Donna isn’t ashamed to be seen as a successful woman, and like her in-laws, she’s willing to use her wealth to intimidate an adversary.

(You might also say Donna’s clash with Bonnie is the moment she becomes a Ewing. After Donna strikes her rival, she retrieves a wad of cash from her coat pocket, peels off a bill and tosses it onto the bar. “Drinks are on Bonnie,” she says. It brings to mind the great scene from the second-season episode “Reunion, Part 2,” when Jock “buys” Pam from drunken Digger.)

As for Bloom: With her frosted bouffant and western shirts, the actress looks a bit like the country singer Barbara Mandrell, which is fitting since Donna and Bonnie’s showdown has the makings of a great country song. It would’ve been easy for Bonnie to come off as a one-note hussy, but Bloom’s performance is so nicely measured, that never happens. Lakin deserves credit here too. At the beginning of the fight scene, before Donna enters the bar, we overhear Bonnie chatting excitedly with one of her girlfriends about a new nightclub in town that has “two dance floors, one raised above the other.” The line makes us realize what a small life Bonnie leads. How can you not pity her?

Into Darkness

Shouldn't he be on the other side?

Shouldn’t he be on the other side?

Like Donna and Bonnie’s barroom brawl, almost all of the great scenes in “Adoption” arouse conflicting emotions. In the first act, J.R. has Ray tossed in the Braddock County jail, where he pressures him to sign over his Ewing Oil voting shares. Harsh? Yes, but is J.R. mistaken when he tells Ray how ashamed Jock would feel by Ray’s recent behavior?

Similarly, how do you feel at the end of the episode, when Sue Ellen tosses the necklace at J.R. and tells him their relationship is “sick, sick, sick!” Are you relieved that Sue Ellen has been reminded of her ex-husband’s sinful nature? Or are you disappointed that their reconciliation has been derailed? I feel both.

“Adoption” also offers the memorable moment when Roger, Lucy’s stalker, becomes enraged and smashes a glass of red wine against the wall of his photography studio, which he has plastered with her pictures. We’ve all seen variations of this scene in dozens of other movies and TV shows about stalkers, but I bet it didn’t seem like a cliché when this episode debuted 30 years ago. Regardless, the shot – and the chilling background music from composer Richard Lewis Warren that accompanies it – still creeps me out.

For every dark moment in “Adoption,” there’s a scene to remind us of the loving connections the Ewings share. At the top of the hour, Miss Ellie finds Donna picking up the dishes she smashed in anger after discovering Ray’s infidelity. “Over the years, I’ve thrown a few plates myself,” Ellie says. Later, Sue Ellen and Pam have a heart-to-heart of their own at Pam’s aerobics studio, where she cautions Sue Ellen about getting back together with J.R.

There’s also the sweet scene where Bobby tells Pam they’ve been granted temporary custody of Christopher, as well as the nice moment when J.R. brings surprise dinner guests Sue Ellen and John Ross into the Southfork kitchen to sample Miss Ellie’s stuffing. (“Adoption” was originally broadcast in February 1982 and isn’t a Thanksgiving episode, but the presence of that giant turkey in Ellie’s kitchen makes it the closest we ever get to seeing the Ewings celebrate the holiday.)

More and more, I’m convinced warm moments like these are one of the secrets of “Dallas’s” success. They help counter the misperception that this is merely the story of rich people behaving badly. The truth is, “Dallas” is a show with a lot heart. If it wasn’t, we never would have allowed it to occupy such a big place in ours.

Grade: A+

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Father's day

Father’s day

‘ADOPTION’

Season 5, Episode 19

Airdate: February 19, 1982

Audience: 29.9 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: Howard Lakin

Director: Larry Hagman

Synopsis: After J.R. has him jailed, Ray signs over his voting shares in Ewing Oil. Donna punches Bonnie and orders her to stay away from Ray. Bobby tells Sue Ellen that Christopher is Kristin’s son, reminding Sue Ellen of J.R.’s past infidelities. Bobby and Pam are awarded preliminary custody of Christopher. Cliff figures out J.R.’s scheme to lure him out of Dallas.

Cast: Tyler Banks (John Ross Ewing), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Lindsay Bloom (Bonnie), Vivian Bonnell (clerk), Robert Alan Browne (Breslin), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Art Hindle (Jeff Farraday), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Priscilla Pointer (Rebecca Wentworth), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Dennis Redfield (Roger Larson), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Cooper), Ron Tomme (Charles Eccles), Herb Vigran (Judge Thornby), Ray Wise (Blair Sullivan)

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

Dallas Decoder Asks: How Should J.R. die?

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

Exit the hero

J.R. Ewing’s funeral will be seen in the “Dallas” episode that airs Monday, March 11, TNT confirmed yesterday. But how should the legendary character die? And what’s the best way to honor Larry Hagman, the actor who portrayed J.R. for more than three decades? Dallas Decoder asked four members of the original show’s creative team to share their ideas.

 

GOOD NIGHT, LOVER BOY

Despres

Despres

There’s only one way J.R. should die: He’s got to be shot by a jealous husband. He’s J.R. Ewing – how else could he die? The husband could be a character from the original series or it could be someone new. The show could build a new “Who Shot J.R.?” mystery around the shooting. If he isn’t shot, he should die in the bed of one of his mistresses. No matter how the show kills him off, J.R. shouldn’t die a hero. He should be the villain you love to hate, right until the very end.

Loraine Despres, writer, 1979 to 1980; credits include “Who Done It?”, the episode where Kristin is revealed as J.R.’s shooter

 

ONE LAST SHOT

Lakin

Lakin

J.R. survived being shot 40 years ago. Maybe this time the bullet hits the mark. Yeah, shameless. But why not? Even if cynics hate the idea, it’ll create buzz and it might just be the best chance of bringing in new viewers to the show. J.R. was TV’s greatest villain and deserves some villainous payback. The funeral? Could be a three-episode event with every former important cast member they can find. Cliff pouring bourbon on J.R.’s grave? Priceless. This is the biggest franchise event imaginable. I also wouldn’t hesitate using flashbacks if at all possible. It may not please the producers who surely would prefer original material but I think viewers would love it.

Howard Lakin, writer, 1980 to 1982; producer/writer, 1988 to 1991; credits include “The Fourth Son,” the episode where Jock discovers he’s Ray’s father 

 

QUICKLY AND QUIETLY

Preece

Preece

You could always have J.R. called out of town and then have his plane go down, but I would have it play out that he’s been hiding the fact that he has cancer – although you don’t have to say “cancer” necessarily. Remember, when the new show opened, J.R. was in a nursing facility, so it’s possible he’s been ill and no one knew it. There could be scenes of the family reacting to the news that he died suddenly and finding out he hid his illness from them. Whatever scenario the show goes with, they shouldn’t drag it out too long. I don’t think they should do what the original series did with Jim Davis, when they sent Jock to South America for an extended period. With J.R., I think you have to allow him to pass away quickly and quietly.

Michael Preece, director, 1981 to 1991; credits include “Acceptance,” the episode where Miss Ellie comes to terms with Jock’s death

 

NO TIME TO KILL

Seidman

Seidman

I could never kill off J.R.! I’d have forces bearing down on him that we think have caused his death (in an explosion, perhaps?). No body or a body that of course can’t be identified. And then, every once in a while, a story comes up in which a shady businessman in Hong Kong lost everything to a mysterious figure, or a big deal was made in London that ripped off illegal investors but made some mysterious figure, Mr. X, a ton of money. Is it J.R.? Is he traveling the world, destroying his enemies to the benefit of himself and his family as they receive benefits out of the blue that suddenly save themselves and their company? We’ll never know. We can only hope. These stories would occur for generations, giving him immortality. That’s how I’d write off J.R. Ewing – by never writing him off.

Lisa Seidman, writer, 1989 to 1991; credits include “The Decline and Fall of the Ewing Empire,” the episode where J.R. loses Ewing Oil to Cliff

 

Now it’s your turn: How would you kill off J.R.? Share your comments below and read more news from Dallas Decoder.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 92 – ‘Head of the Family’

Down and out

Down and out

In “Head of the Family,” J.R. is depressed over Jock’s death and getting drunk in his bedroom when Bobby barges in and tells him to snap out of it. J.R. all but ignores his brother, so Bobby yanks him off the bed, drags him across the room and makes him look at himself in the mirror. “Daddy didn’t build this company just for you and me,” Bobby says. “He expected it to be around for his grandkids. Maybe their kids too.”

This is the most pivotal scene in one of “Dallas’s” most pivotal episodes. Until now, this has been a show rooted in its own past: Almost everything that happens to the Ewings and the Barneses can be traced to Jock and Digger’s falling out decades earlier. With “Head of the Family,” “Dallas” begins to move beyond its backstory and look toward the future.

No character demonstrates this shift better than J.R. Since the scene in “Digger’s Daughter” where he gleefully tells Jock about his scheme to bribe Pam, we’ve watched J.R. struggle to make his demanding daddy proud. In “Head of the Family,” with Jock gone, J.R. is forced to find new motivation. Instead of trying to impress Jock, J.R. decides to become Jock. Just as the older man devoted his life to building a legacy for his sons, J.R. sets out to do the same thing for John Ross.

This change – which will drive J.R. for the remainder of the original series – is symbolized in “Head of the Family’s” final scene, when a beaming J.R. watches John Ross climb into Jock’s empty chair at the Southfork dinner table. The child replaces his grandfather as the source of J.R.’s ambition.

Since the first season of TNT’s “Dallas” revival focused so heavily on the relationship between J.R. and his son, “Head of the Family” now feels a little like a template for the new show. Other themes from the TNT series are also present. J.R. is immobilized by depression in “Head of the Family,” just like he is when the new “Dallas” begins. Bobby spends this episode taking charge of the Ewings, just like he does three decades later. And when the newly single Sue Ellen’s first dinner party ends in disaster and she turns to Cliff for comfort, does it not presage the two-steps-forward-one-step-back pattern she comes to exhibit on TNT?

Even without these comparisons, “Head of the Family” remains one of the strongest hours from the classic show’s fifth season. This is the second “Dallas” script from Howard Lakin (“The Fourth Son” was his “Dallas” debut), who once again demonstrates a firm grasp of the show’s mythology. Patrick Duffy also does a nice job in his second turn in the “Dallas” director’s chair; I especially like Duffy’s overhead shot of Sue Ellen’s living room during the dinner party sequence.

Duffy shines in front of the camera too. The actor delivers some of his finest performances on “Dallas” in the episodes that deal with Jock’s death, including this one. In “Head of the Family,” Duffy brings to mind the best of his TV parents: He’s as commanding as Jim Davis and as compassionate as Barbara Bel Geddes. Watching Bobby struggle to keep the Ewings together is moving.

Of course, no one touches me in this episode quite like Larry Hagman, who is downright heartbreaking when Bobby confronts the depressed J.R. At the end of the scene, J.R. slumps onto the edge of his bed and tells his younger brother, “It’ll never be the same, Bob.” Thirty years ago, the line was merely sad. Now it feels prophetic.

Grade: A

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Seat of power

Seat of power

‘HEAD OF THE FAMILY’

Season 5, Episode 15

Airdate: January 22, 1982

Audience: 25.3 million homes, ranking 4th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Howard Lakin

Director: Patrick Duffy

Synopsis: Bobby tells J.R. he must pull himself together to secure John Ross’s future. Ray alienates Bobby and Donna, whose publisher wants her to write another book. At her first dinner party, a friend’s husband makes a pass at Sue Ellen.

Cast: Tyler Banks (John Ross Ewing), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Stephanie Blackmore (Serena), Lindsay Bloom (Bonnie), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Diana McBain (Dee Dee Webster), Jim McKrel (Henry Webster), George O. Petrie (Harv Smithfield), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Dennis Redfield (Roger Larson), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Barbara Stock (Heather Wilson), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Cooper), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis), Ray Wise (Blair Sullivan), Lynn Wood (Ms. Bruce), H.M. Wynant (Ed Chapman), Gretchen Wyler (Dr. Dagmara Conrad)

“Head of the Family” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

The Dallas Decoder Interview: Howard Lakin

Howard Lakin

Howard Lakin penned several “Dallas” episodes as a freelancer in the early 1980s, then returned to the series as a writer and producer for its final three seasons. To my delight, he agreed to share his memories of working on the show, as well as his thoughts on the TNT revival.

You wrote some of my favorite “Dallas” episodes, beginning with “The Fourth Son,” the one where Ray discovers Jock is his father. What do you remember about making it?

Not too much, honestly. But my own dad was adopted so I’m sure I was able to find plenty of emotional traction in the Jock-Ray relationship. And I think that also might have been a factor later on when I got to plot the J.R.-Vanessa Beaumont-James Beaumont illegitimate son story.

That’s interesting. Did that happen a lot – your drawing on your own family experiences when writing for the Ewings?

In some of the subtle details, maybe. But not in any real core way.

How did it feel when you’d see “Written by Howard Lakin” appear on screen?

Funny to think back on it. But I was in my 20s during my first three-year stint as a freelance writer for “Dallas” and most of my close friends were not TV watchers. Even my wife wasn’t much of a TV watcher so it was kind of hard to muster up a feeling of self-importance when I saw my name onscreen! Although secretly … yeah, it was cool.

J.R. (Larry Hagman) in “Sunrise, Sunset”

Did you have favorite characters to write for?

Don’t know why this came to mind, but I remember this one scene I wrote for J.R. where he had to walk into a swimming pool fully clothed in order to cut a deal. [“Sunrise, Sunset” during Season 13 – Ed.] But when I saw the dailies, Larry Hagman had ad-libbed a kind of Texas strip tease before getting wet. Off came his hat slowly, off came his watch slowly, out came his wallet, almost seductively. Larry Hagman gave J.R. such character nuance that writing J.R. was fun; whatever I brought to the table, Larry made it better. That said, I also especially enjoyed writing Sue Ellen. Her long character trajectory was one of the most engaging to work on.

Any favorite “Dallas” episodes?

“Wedding Bell Blues” always pops into my head. It was the first “Dallas” episode I both wrote and produced and it marked a change for the show. “Dallas’s” ratings were being impacted by fresh new competition in the late 1980s. These new shows had a much faster pace and a lot more flash. [Producers] Len Katzman and Art Lewis both wanted to keep the show moving forward so it was agreed we’d try to change with the times. “Wedding Bell Blues” was the first step in the process. I guess the feeling at the time was that if we were going to grow old, it wasn’t going to be a rocking chair thing. We were going to take some chances and go down fighting.

J.R. and Cally (Hagman, Cathy Podewell) in “Wedding Bell Blues”

I love “Wedding Bell Blues”! That’s the episode where a storm strands everyone at Southfork on the night of J.R. and Cally’s wedding. It’s probably one of the most light-hearted “Dallas” episodes.

Larry Hagman directed the episode and really had fun with it.

Were there times you’d see one of your scenes after it was filmed and think, “Wow, that’s not how I envisioned it when I wrote it?”

Not really, not that I can remember. More credit to Len Katzman. He was that rare exec producer who came up the hard way, sweeping out sound stages as a teenager – I think I have that right – followed by decades of hands-on experience. He had a great grasp not just of his own job but he really understood the intricacies and elements of everyone else’s job. And in an industry that is known for “creative conflict,” he had a calming influence, it seemed, on everyone. This translated into a “no surprises” kind of show when it came time to look at the rough cut.

What was it like to work on “Dallas” toward the end of its run? It seems like a lot of fans are critical of the final years. What’s your response?

Instead of focusing on negatives, because in a weird way that just tarnishes the show’s overall reputation, I’d love to hear about some upbeat takeaways from the show’s later episodes now that 20-plus years have passed. What was fun, what made folks feel, what do they still remember with fondness, you know? After 20 years, it might be time to look back and re-visit the good stuff. Personally, having experienced both the glory years and the do-not-go-gentle-into-that-good-night years, I prefer the latter. CBS, Lorimar and Elvis had left the building. Len had won the right to bring the ship home all on his own and in terms of working conditions, it had the most relaxed vibe of any show I ever worked on.

Don and Sue Ellen (Ian McShane, Linda Gray) in “The Serpent’s Tooth”

Do you have a favorite storyline from those final years of the show? Something you think worked really well?

Off the top of my head, I think …well, I don’t know if these were the story lines that worked best but I really enjoyed crafting the three romances which featured Bobby-April, J.R.-Vanessa, and especially Sue Ellen and Don Lockwood because I was determined that Sue Ellen should have a powerful, positive walk-off ending. I really enjoyed Ian McShane. He was fun to work with and a cool dude – aside from being an awesome actor. Gayle Hunnicutt was a class act and a nice person to boot. And Sheree Wilson did a good job with the long romantic build-up and payoff in Paris with Patrick Duffy.

If the show had been renewed for a 15th season, do you have any idea what storylines you might have pursued? Any idea how the cliffhanger with J.R.’s “suicide” attempt would have been resolved?

I don’t remember any discussion of “what if” so I can’t help you there. If we had known there was going to be a 15th season, I doubt very much that the suicide storyline would have been used at all.

You’ve talked in past interviews about how every “Dallas” character reflected some facet of Leonard Katzman’s personality. Can you talk a little more about that?

It’s just my opinion. But here’s an example: Art Lewis and I would sit with Len for endless hours in his dark office, windows shut, stuffy as hell, hashing out stories. I would have mock arguments with Art, each of us taking the story choices in different directions. Len would just listen. More argument, Len would just listen. Ideas, ideas, how a character should react, what would Bobby do, whatever, then at some point Len would literally swivel in his chair so we couldn’t see his face – this could last for five seconds or two minutes. Then he’d swivel back and give us a satisfied smile and let us know which of our many ideas were correct according to the grid through which he saw the whole arc of the show. It was like he could slip into the skin of each character.

Any thoughts on what Mr. Katzman might make of the new TNT series? And what do you think of the show?

I definitely like the new show. It’s really remarkable how it remains true to the spirit and mythology of the original and yet adds all this new good stuff. Can’t speak for Len Katzman but I know he’d be very pleased with its success.

John Ross (Tyler Banks) in “Head of the Family”

It’s funny: One of the first episodes you wrote, “Head of the Family,” ends with little John Ross sitting in Jock’s chair at the head of the Southfork dinner table. It kind of predicts the whole TNT series!

Damn, I totally forgot about that.

You’re now a rare book dealer. How did that come about?

Showbiz, especially episodic work, is so adrenaline-driven that I really needed ways to chill. Before I got my MFA degree at UCLA film school, I got a degree in lit from Antioch College. Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy – read everything they wrote. Decided to collect their first editions. Built such a good collection that eventually it morphed into Lakin & Marley Rare Books here in San Francisco.

You just published a novel. What can you tell us about it?

It’s brand new, called “California Noir.” You can buy it on Amazon or ask for it at your local bookshop. It’s an emotional thriller, equal parts suspense and romance. Don’t want to do any spoilers so, in classic TV shorthand, think of it as “Dallas” meets “Casablanca,” a film noir novel that’s just as much a love story as it is a mystery to be solved.

Getting back to “Dallas:” The series has now spanned several decades. What do you think is the secret of its enduring appeal?

Live long enough and you can end up literally watching hundreds and hundreds of television series, many absolutely brilliant, most the usual re-mix or formula. “Dallas” is much more saga than series. Its narrative is expansive, and larger than life and convoluted in a good way. From my point of view, what makes it endure is also what makes it iconic. I mean, despite its oversized Texas storytelling, anti-heroic bluster and Dickensian cast of characters, there is still so much to care about on a human level and a whole lot of universality in how it deals with complex family love, family business and family conflict. That’s my take on it anyway.

Share your comments below and read more interviews from Dallas Decoder.

The Best & Worst of Dallas: Season 4

“Dallas’s” fourth season was the show’s most-watched. Is it also the best?

Performances

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman

Lows and highs

In Season 4, J.R. recovers from an assassination attempt, learns to walk again and suffers a humiliating exile from Ewing Oil. Through it all, Larry Hagman never misses a beat. The actor takes us deeper into J.R.’s psyche, revealing vulnerabilities we never dreamed the character was capable of. If you love Hagman’s complex performance on TNT’s “Dallas,” re-watch the classic show’s fourth season. This is where those seeds are planted.

Storylines

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Leslie Stewart, Susan Flannery

Blonde ambition

“Who Shot J.R.?” turned “Dallas” into a global phenomenon, so you might expect the show to spend Season 4 playing it safe. Instead, it takes a creative risk by tackling sexism. This theme is best personified by pioneering PR whiz Leslie Stewart, but the gender wars are also seen when Miss Ellie calls out chauvinistic Jock, Lucy gets a career and Donna emerges as the top choice for a state senate seat. Who says “Dallas” isn’t progressive?

Season 4’s weakest subplot: Mr. Ewing goes to Austin. I love the idea of “Dallas” delving into politics, but Bobby’s conduct as a member of the state senate strains credibility. Shouldn’t Senator Ewing have recused himself from the legislature’s hearings into his parents’ fight over the Takapa Lake development – or its inquiry into J.R.’s foreign affairs? Where’s an ethics committee when you need one?

Episodes

Dallas, Jim Davis, Jock Ewing, Ray Krebbs, Steve Kanaly

Here comes the son

“The Fourth Son” is one of the finest hours of “Dallas” ever made. The episode, beautifully written by Howard Lakin (his first script for the show) and directed by Irving J. Moore, officially brings Ray into the Ewing fold and reminds us why Jock is such a revered figure in the “Dallas” mythos. Father-son relationships are integral to “Dallas” – especially on the TNT series – and no episode explores that theme better than this one.

To demonstrate how uneven episodic television can be, one week after “The Fourth Son” debuted, “Dallas” gave us “Trouble at Ewing 23,” which is easily my least-favorite Season 4 entry. I never know what’s worst: the cringe-inducing special effects when the oil field goes up in flames – or the fact Luther Gillis sheds not a single drop of blood after J.R.’s hired guns pump him full of lead.

Scenes

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing

Scene from a marriage

How do you know when a “Dallas” scene is classic? When you only need one or two lines of dialogue to describe it. By that standard, the show’s fourth year probably offers more great moments than any other season: “It was you, Kristin, who shot J.R.” “He’s not your daddy. I am.” “You are my mother.” “Real power is something you take.” “Don’t make me see myself in your eyes.” “Mama, you didn’t take any licorice.”

Any one of these scenes qualifies for “best of” honors, but my sentimental favorite remains the “New Beginnings” moment when J.R. and Sue Ellen reminisce about their courtship. Next to J.R. and Bobby’s sibling rivalry, J.R. and Sue Ellen’s love affair is “Dallas’s” most enduring relationship. If you want to understand why these two can’t stay away from each other, watch this scene.

Supporting Players

Dallas, Leslie Stewart, Susan Flannery

Pioneer woman

No surprise here: I love Leslie. The oh-so-cool Susan Flannery was the ideal choice to play the character, whose business savvy, scheming ways and unapologetic sexuality make her J.R.’s equal and the template for prime-time divas like Abby Cunningham and Alexis Carrington. “Dallas’s” writers seemed to lose interest in Leslie after awhile, but before her storyline peters out, no character in Season 4 is more fascinating.

At the other end of the spectrum lie Alex Ward and Clint Ogden, the utterly forgettable characters who romance Pam and Sue Ellen during the second half of the season. Don’t blame Joel Fabiani and Monte Markham, who are both fine actors; blame the writers, who colored Alex and Clint in shades of plain vanilla.

Costumes

As much as I love the iconic dresses Sue Ellen wears in “Who Done It?,” nothing compares to Jock’s lion’s head medallion, the perfect accessory to symbolize Jim Davis’s role as father of the Ewing pride.

Some might consider Pam’s perm to be Season 4’s worst fashion choice – but those people are wrong because that ’do is awesome.

Quips

Best: “If you were on the side of the angels, you wouldn’t need Leslie Stewart.” – Leslie’s droll observation during the well-written scene where she persuades J.R. to hire her.

Worst: “My own son, letting some little no-account alley cat swing you by your big toe.” – The most memorable line during the tongue-lashing Jock gives J.R. after Leslie costs Ewing Oil a big deal. Watch it, Jock! That’s our Leslie you’re talking about.

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

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 61 – ‘The Fourth Son’

Dallas, Fourth Son, Ray Krebbs, Steve Kanaly

Rising son

In “The Fourth Son’s” third act, Jock tells Ray he’s his father, a fact the Ewing patriarch didn’t discover until earlier in the episode but a truth he’s probably always known, deep down. The scene is beautifully written and performed, and no matter how often I watch it, it always moves me. “Dallas” simply doesn’t get better than this.

The sequence opens with Jock’s Lincoln Town Car kicking up dust as it comes down the gravel road toward Ray’s newly constructed rambler. Director Irving J. Moore brings us into the car for a close-up of Jim Davis, who looks serious as always but more pensive than usual. The Ewing patriarch is in the driver’s seat, but it isn’t clear where this journey is going to take him. You can feel the uncertainty.

When Jock parks the car and gets out, Ray puts down the ax he’s using to chop wood, takes the older man by the arm and leads him to the patio table. “Come on out of the sun,” Ray says, and with that single, small gesture, we’re reminded both of Jock’s mortality and the ranch foreman’s abiding affection for his boss and mentor.

Scriptwriter Howard Lakin’s dialogue in the conversation that follows is so good because it tells us so much. Almost every line signals something more than what’s actually being said.

Ray recalls his mother’s memories of her nursing days (“Seems like the only time in her life she ever felt useful.”) and we realize what a sad, unfulfilled life this woman must have led. He suggests telling the truth about his paternity could cause problems for Jock’s “family” and we known precisely what family member he’s referring to. Jock reminds Ray he’s “got a lot at stake here” and the line – along with the slight smile from Davis that accompanies it – lets us know how impressed Jock is with Ray’s willingness to sacrifice his right to share in the Ewing riches.

Davis is wonderful in this scene – strong and solemn, yet full of love and pride – and so is Steve Kanaly, who wears the mantle of plainspoken humility so convincingly, I wonder how much “acting” is taking place here. I don’t know if Davis and Kanaly were friends in real life, but my goodness, in this exchange, they make me believe in the respect their characters feel for each other.

Matters of Honor

Amos Krebbs, Dallas, Fourth Son, William Windom

She never let him forget

The crux of Jock and Ray’s conversation – Jock wants to acknowledge Ray as his son, while Ray is “happy to leave things just the way they are” – reflects “The Fourth Son’s” broader theme, which is how doing the honorable thing sometimes means hurting others.

We see this at the end of the episode, when Jock summons Ray and the Ewings to the Southfork living room and tells them the ranch’s longtime foreman is the product of a wartime affair Jock confessed to Miss Ellie long ago. For Jock, acknowledging Ray is the right thing to do, but Ellie’s stony expression makes it clear her husband’s past indiscretion still hurts.

In the same spirit, Ray’s willingness to keep his paternity secret echoes the decision his mother, Margaret, made years earlier. For her, not telling Jock about Ray was a necessary sacrifice – but how did that affect Amos?

When we meet him in “The Fourth Son,” he’s a loathsome figure – character actor William Windom is perfectly unsavory in the role – but was Amos always this awful? Lakin’s dialogue suggests the character had a hard-knock life: He was a bastard son and a “4-F” who wasn’t physically qualified to serve his country, and then his fiancée came home from the war pregnant with another man’s child.

Yet Amos married Margaret anyway. Why? Was he willing to give Margaret his name and raise Ray as his own because he felt sorry for her? Or was it because he loved her? Either way, did he end up abandoning his family because the reality of the situation proved too difficult? At one point, Amos tells Jock, “I know she was in love with you. She never let me forget it.” The mystery of what really happened in Kansas lingers.

Questions of integrity and sacrifice also figure into Bobby’s storyline, where he must choose between keeping Jock’s commitment to Mort Wilkinson, a longtime Ewing Oil client, and honoring a deal Bobby himself made with Brady York. At one point, Bobby is ready to abandon Wilkinson – until he’s told Jock sealed the deal 20 years earlier with nothing more than a handshake. “That makes it sacred,” Bobby says.

The subplot where Mr. Eugene helps Bobby expose Sally’s dirty dealings also offers a play on “The Fourth Son’s” central theme. Eugene gives Bobby “carte blanche” to seek retribution from Sally, but the old man warns him: “You remember this: I plan to keep her.” A few moments later, while gazing at a framed picture of Sally, Eugene says, “What God and money hath joined together, let no man put asunder.”

Fathers and Sons and Fathers and Sons

Dallas, Fourth Son, Jim Davis, Jock Ewing

Grand father

Ultimately, “The Fourth Son” is an episode about fatherhood, which becomes one of the “Dallas” franchise’s most resilient themes, particularly in TNT’s new series.

Interestingly, the story told here wasn’t planned: According to Barbara Curran’s 2005 book “Dallas: The Complete Story of the World’s Favorite Prime-Time Soap,” Kanaly had grown frustrated with his role by the end of the third season, so the producers decided to make his character Jock’s illegitimate son to keep the actor from leaving the show. In retrospect, it seems like this is the direction “Dallas” was headed in all along. (Remember the classic second-season episode “Triangle,” when Jock gave Ray a plot of Southfork land?)

The irony is that while the “The Fourth Son” succeeds in rooting Ray more firmly in the “Dallas” mythos, it ends up doing just as much to burnish Jock’s reputation. After this episode, there are four Ewing sons but still only one father, and watching the way he acknowledges Ray makes us better understand why Jock is so revered.

Grade: A+

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Amos Krebbs, Dallas, Fourth Son, Jim Davis, Jock Ewing, William Windom

His two dads

‘THE FOURTH SON’

Season 4, Episode 7

Airdate: December 12, 1980

Audience: 27.9 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: Howard Lakin

Director: Irving J. Moore

Synopsis: The sinking of the Bullocks’ tanker almost forces Bobby to stiff one of Ewing Oil’s longtime clients. When Bobby discovers J.R. and Sally faked the loss of the oil aboard the tanker, he turns the tables on them. Ray’s father Amos arrives and announces Ray’s real father is Jock, who welcomes Ray into the family.

Cast: E.J. André (Eugene Bullock), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Joanna Cassidy (Sally Bullock), John Crawford (Mort Wilkinson), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Ted Gehring (Brady York), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Culver), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Leigh McCloskey (Mitch Cooper), Jeanna Michaels (Connie), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), William Windom (Amos Krebbs)

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