Critique: TNT’s ‘Dallas’ Episode 23 – ‘Love and Family’

Bobby Ewing, Cliff Barnes, Dallas, Ken Kercheval, Love and Family, Patrick Duffy, TNT

Walking tall

The final moments in “Love and Family” give me chills. Bobby tells Sue Ellen they need to act like J.R. and let Cliff believe he’s won, and then as a rousing rock tune rises in the background, Bobby raises a glass of bourbon to a framed photograph of his beaming big brother. Cut to John Ross and Pamela standing before a justice of the peace (John Ross: “You doing this because you love me, or because you hate your father?” Pamela: “I do.”), then to Cliff as he sweeps into Ewing Energies and takes the keys from Bobby. “I can only imagine the look on J.R.’s face right about now,” Cliff smirks. “Me too,” Bobby responds. As our hero walks away in slow motion, a sly smile breaks across his face, the drumbeat builds, the screen fades to black, and all I can think is: Damn, this show is cool.

Patrick Duffy’s smile recalls all the classic “Dallas” episodes that end with J.R.’s grin, but we feel the character’s presence throughout this episode. Christopher’s obsession with beating Cliff recalls J.R.’s own efforts to outmaneuver him during the original series. Likewise, John Ross’s ploy to snag a piece of Barnes Global by marrying Pamela bears the hallmarks of an old-school, whatever-it-takes J.R. scheme. Even the way Bobby subtly pressures John Ross into the marriage is a little J.R.-esque. Perhaps the lesson here is that J.R.’s values weren’t his alone; they belong to the whole Ewing family. This is why we shouldn’t question “Dallas’s” ability to keep going after Larry Hagman’s death. His loss leaves a hole that will never be filled, but the “Dallas” themes have always been bigger than any one character. So far the new show has done a hell of a good job reminding us of this.

In addition to keeping J.R.’s spirit alive, “Love and Honor” director Randy Zisk also showcases Brenda Strong and Emma Bell, who deliver standout performances during Ann’s confrontation with her daughter at the scene of Emma’s car wreck. My heart breaks for Emma when she lashes out at Ann for allowing the controlling Rylands to take her away when she was a child (“You escaped! You did four years! I did 20, Ann!”). I also cheer when Ann tells her daughter she won’t bail her out until she agrees to get help for her addictions. “Why are you doing this?” Emma screams as Sheriff Derrick leads her away in handcuffs. “Because I’m your mother!” Ann responds. This is probably Bell’s best scene yet and Strong’s finest moment since Ann’s testimony in “Trial and Error.” (Perhaps not coincidentally, that episode, like “Love and Family,” was written by John Whelpley, who joined the “Dallas” writing team this season.)

“Love and Family’s” other great performances come from Jordana Brewster and Kuno Becker, who knock me out in the scene where Drew finally confesses his role in the rig explosion to Elena. Brewster has to convey a lot of emotions – shock, anger, disappointment – all in the same breath. She sells every one. Likewise, Becker makes me feel Drew’s anguish and guilt. These two actors have another terrific scene at the end of the episode when Elena and Carmen (Marlene Forte, who holds her own against her on-screen children) bring Drew money and bid him farewell as he sets off to find Harris’s missing henchman, Roy Vickers. It’s a measure of how much I’ve come to like Becker that as I watch Drew ride away on his motorcycle, I find myself worried for the character.

The same thing can’t be said about Cliff. The scene where we learn Katherine willed her share of the Barnes-Wentworth empire to him raised the ire of “Dallas” diehards who remember there was never any love lost between those two characters. I suspect we’re going to find out there’s more to this story. Perhaps Cliff cheated Katherine out of her share, or maybe she faked her death and is in cahoots with him in his plot against the Ewings. (On “Dallas,” stranger alliances have occurred.) Either way, this seems to be another nail in Cliff’s coffin. The character has turned so villainous; it’s hard for me to imagine how the show can redeem him.

More and more, I wonder if we might be witnessing the last hurrah of Cliff Barnes. Ken Kercheval was positively chilling at the beginning of the season, when Cliff was so focused on bringing down the Ewings, he allowed Frank to kill himself rather than disrupt his schemes. Since J.R.’s death, Kercheval has given us glimpses of the man Cliff used to be – a sweeping hand gesture here, a self-satisfied smirk there – which is a clever way of signaling how Cliff is letting his guard down. (Costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin’s choices for Cliff’s wardrobe might be telling too. Notice how his all-black outfits are slowly giving way to more colorful garments. Even the old pocket squares are back.) With the Rylands now established as potent Ewing foes, I wonder if John Ross and Pamela’s wedding in this episode will mark the beginning of a new chapter in the Barnes/Ewing feud – or will it serve as a kind of denouement?

With these questions on my mind, I can’t help but find Bobby’s slow-motion walk away from Cliff at the end of this episode kind of poignant. After all these years, Cliff has gotten his revenge. (Tellingly, the title of the terrific song that plays during this sequence is “My Time Has Come” by the Bowery Riots.) Even if you don’t like Cliff, you have to admire his persistence. You also have to admit: It’s going to be mighty satisfying to see the Ewings take this bastard down.

Grade: A

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Dallas, John Ross Ewing, Josh Henderson, Julie Gonzalo, Love and Family, Pamela Barnes, TNT

Here we go again?

‘LOVE AND FAMILY’

Season 2, Episode 13

Telecast: April 8, 2013

Writer: John Whelpley

Director: Randy Zisk

Audience: 2.4 million viewers on April 8

Synopsis: John Ross marries Pamela after she persuades Cliff to give her one-third of Barnes Global. Cliff takes control of Ewing Energies. After Emma gets high and wrecks her car, Ann refuses to bail her out. Drew confesses his role in the bombing to Elena, who gives him money after he goes on the run to find the missing Vickers. Christopher and Elena leave for Zurich to find Pam.

Cast: Kuno Becker (Drew Ramos), Will Beinbrink (Curran), Emma Bell (Emma Brown), Jordana Brewster (Elena Ramos), Ralph Brown (justice of the peace), Ron Corning (news anchor), Jerry Cotton (judge), Akai Draco (Sheriff Derrick), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Todd Everett (prosecutor), Alex Fernandez (Roy Vickers), Marlene Forte (Carmen Ramos), Julie Gonzalo (Pamela Barnes), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Josh Henderson (John Ross Ewing), Cynthia Izaguirre (news anchor), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Jesse Metcalfe (Christopher Ewing), Kevin Page (Bum), Mitch Pileggi (Harris Ryland), Brenda Strong (Ann Ewing), Steven Weber (Governor Sam McConaughey)

“Love and Family” is available at DallasTNT.com, Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Critique: TNT’s ‘Dallas’ Episode 15 – ‘Trial and Error’

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, TNT, Trial and Error

Last stand

“Trial and Error” gives us the last scenes that Larry Hagman filmed as J.R. Ewing, including his poignant reconciliation with turncoat son John Ross, as well as a spirited clash with Sue Ellen that recalls the couple’s stormier days. But as much as I cherish these final, dwindling moments with my hero, I can’t deny that “Trial and Error” belongs to Brenda Strong. The actress is superb throughout this episode, especially when Ann testifies during her trial. Strong delivers more than 400 words of dialogue, and each one feels achingly real. It’s one of the most moving speeches in “Dallas” history.

Since the new “Dallas” began I’ve rooted for Ann, a modern Texas woman who is every bit as comfortable in pearls and heels as she is in boots and jeans. One of my favorite scenes during the show’s first season was Ann’s showdown with Harris, when she tricked him into confessing to money laundering and other crimes, then slugged him and warned him to stay away from her family. This is why I was so troubled when Ann shot Harris two episodes ago. A punch is one thing, but Harris doesn’t deserve a bullet to the chest. No one does.

“Trial and Error” marks the beginning of Ann’s redemption, although it feels like something even bigger is happening. Ann isn’t really being tried for shooting Harris; she’s on trial for being an imperfect wife and mother. The show isn’t asking us to forgive Ann as much as it’s asking us to accept her humanity. The character’s testimony, the highlight of “Dallas” newcomer John Whelpley’s script, is the crucial moment. During the course of this four-minute scene, Ann recalls being a tall, awkward girl who found love with Harris, only to have his controlling mother Judith undermine her. She also remembers giving birth to Emma and struggling with motherhood, then having the child snatched from her during a fateful visit to the state fair. It’s wrenching.

I suspect many members of the “Dallas” audience nod silently when they watch Ann’s testimony. The situations she describes might be melodramatic, but the feelings they evoke are easily recognizable. When Ann recalls how Judith made fun of her for not going to college, or how Harris chastised her for using the wrong fork at dinner, how can you not think about a time in your own life when you were made to feel inadequate? Likewise, if you’re a mom or dad, do Ann’s memories of Emma’s abduction remind you of a time when you made a parenting mistake? You’d have to reach far back into Ewing family lore – perhaps to Sue Ellen’s sanitarium meltdown during the original show’s third season – to find a “Dallas” monologue that yields so many genuine emotions.

Strong’s beautifully measured, heartfelt delivery provides “Trial and Error” with its moment of catharsis, but there are many other scenes I like. Several involve Jesse Metcalfe and newcomer Emma Bell. No one does impassioned earnestness better than Metcalfe, as we witness in the nice sequence where Christopher urges Emma to give Ann another chance. Metcalfe is also touching when the camera cuts to Christopher during Ann’s testimony and we see that his eyes are wet, as well as in the scene where Christopher puts his hand on Pamela’s pregnant belly and feels their unborn twins. Bell, in the meantime, reveals herself to be the rare actress who requires no dialogue to shine. Emma is a mostly a silent observer in the courtroom, but never once do we question what she’s thinking. Bell lets us see the doubt and confusion tormenting her character.

Millicent Shelton, a first-time “Dallas” director, also gives us some priceless courtroom reaction shots from Judith Light, who made her own mark in television with a classic witness stand breakdown on “One Life to Live” in 1979. While Light nibbles the scenery, Mitch Pileggi goes in another direction, offering expressions and gestures that seem to reveal Harris’s humanity. Notice how Pileggi bows his head when Ann mentions how Harris’s father committed suicide before he was born. Am I the only one who feels sorry for Harris at that moment?

I’m not sure why we never see Bobby testify on his wife’s behalf (or why he isn’t facing his own obstruction of justice trial for falsely confessing to Harris’s shooting). In the same spirit, it’s tempting to knock “Dallas” for offering up Sue Ellen (a disgraced politician) and Pamela (a recent murder suspect) as Ann’s character witnesses, but I’ll resist the urge because I like how it reminds us of the parallels between these flawed heroines. An especially nice touch: When Ann mentions suffering from post-partum depression after Emma’s birth, the camera cuts to Sue Ellen, who must be one of television’s most notorious sufferer of that disorder.

“Trial and Error” also gets a lift from Hagman, who filmed some of his scenes for this episode just days before his death last November – not that you’d know it by watching him here. Consider the shot of J.R. observing John Ross from the mezzanine inside the courthouse. Isn’t it amazing how Hagman can exert so much authority, just by standing silently? I also love J.R.’s quip-filled scene with John Ross in the men’s room (“We dinosaurs are known to bite”), even if it’s an odd place to stage their reconciliation, as well as the exchange where Sue Ellen gives her ex-husband a piece of her mind (“Fathers are supposed to take the high road when it comes to their sons. Forgive John Ross!”). J.R.’s surprise encounter with Cliff is old-school “Dallas” fun too, although I wish Hagman and Ken Kercheval could’ve done the scene face to face instead of over the phone.

This isn’t Hagman’s final “Dallas” appearance. A J.R. scene that was left over from a previous episode has reportedly been inserted into the next hour, “Blame Game,” although we probably won’t know what the moment entails until TNT telecasts it next week. This made watching “Trial and Error” a bit surreal. I wondered: Is J.R.’s exchange with Sue Ellen the last time we’ll see him share the screen with Linda Gray, or will we get one more chance to revel in their magic? What about Bobby and John Ross? Have we already seen J.R.’s final scenes with them too?

This feeling has plagued fans like me all season long, actually. Watching “Dallas” and knowing that our hero will soon go away is the worst of all possible spoilers. Part of me still refuses to believe it’s going to come true.

Grade: B

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Ann Ewing, Brenda Strong, Dallas, TNT, Trial and Error

Her day in court

‘TRIAL AND ERROR’

Season 2, Episode 5

Telecast: February 18, 2013

Writer: John Whelpley

Director: Millicent Shelton

Synopsis: Ann proves she shot Ryland and goes on trial. During her testimony, she reveals her struggles as a young mother but refutes Harris’s accusation of neglecting Emma. The jury finds Ann guilty. Cliff tells J.R. that John Ross betrayed him, but Sue Ellen persuades J.R. to forgive their son. Christopher softens toward Pamela, who rejects John Ross’s romantic overtures. Drew is arrested for transporting stolen goods.

Cast: John Athas (Ellis), Kuno Becker (Drew Ramos), Emma Bell (Emma Brown), Carlos Bernard (Vicente Cano), Holt Boggs (state trooper), Jordana Brewster (Elena Ramos), Brett Brock (Clyde Marshall), Candice Coke (Tamera Carson), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Rick Espaillat (Dr. LaFont), Wilbur Fitzgerald (Judge Wallace Tate), Julie Gonzalo (Pamela Barnes), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Josh Henderson (John Ross Ewing), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Judith Light (Judith Ryland), Jesse Metcalfe (Christopher Ewing), Glenn Morshower (Lou Bergen), Kevin Page (Bum), Mitch Pileggi (Harris Ryland), Brenda Strong (Ann Ewing), Brian Thornton (Detective Miles Danko), Rebekah Turner (jury foreman)

“Trial and Error” is available at DallasTNT.com, Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.