Critique: TNT’s ‘Dallas’ Episode 35 — ‘Dead Reckoning’

Dallas, Dead Reckoning, Elena Ramos, John Ross Ewing, Josh Henderson, TNT

Losin’ it

“Dead Reckoning” is another episode about loss and how the “Dallas” characters cope with it. In this one, John Ross suffers the demise of his marriage to Pamela and his dream of “becoming” J.R., while Christopher bids farewell to his latest love and the Ramoses mourn Drew’s death. This is the TNT series’ strongest hour this season, elevated by graceful writing and direction and heartfelt performances from virtually everyone in the cast. More than anything, “Dead Reckoning” proves an old “Dallas” truism: This show is at its best when things for the Ewings are at their worst.

Like so many recent episodes, “Dead Reckoning” showcases Josh Henderson, beginning with the scene where John Ross stands with Bum in the charred remains of his Southfork bedroom and laments his efforts to emulate his father. Henderson makes his character’s regret feel genuine here, as well as in a later scene, when John Ross sits at Pamela’s hospital bedside and pleads with her to give their marriage another chance. It recalls a memorable moment from the original series, when J.R. sat on Sue Ellen’s bed, proclaimed his love and begged her to forgive him for his latest indiscretion. You have to wonder: Even when John Ross is vowing to be a better man, does he realize he’s still emulating J.R.?

Henderson’s delivery in the scene with Pamela deserves special attention. John Ross tells his wife he’ll be “different” four times in quick succession; at one point, Henderson allows his voice to crack and at another, he trips over his words. It’s almost as if John Ross is trying to convince himself he’s capable of changing as much as he’s trying to persuade Pamela. (It’s also a point of distinction between John Ross and the silver-tongued J.R., who was never at a loss for words and rarely showed vulnerability.) Julie Gonzalo is pitch perfect too: She makes Pamela seem hurt and angry, but not soap opera bitchy. The dialogue here is also revealing, especially when Pamela notes the similarities between her husband and her father. Talk about a cruel twist for John Ross: He’s spent much of his life modeling himself after J.R., only to learn the woman he loves considers him another Cliff.

Julia Cohen’s solid script also does a nice job drawing cross-generation parallels between Sue Ellen and Pamela. When Pamela tells Sue Ellen the doctor won’t discharge her until he’s convinced she’s not a danger to herself, Pamela rolls her eyes and says, “It’s ridiculous.” It’s a small moment, but the hint of uncertainty in Gonzalo’s voice lets us know Pamela is more vulnerable than she seems, recalling all the times Sue Ellen served as “Dallas’s” resident queen of denial.

Later, after the two women admit to each other how terrified they are by their recent near-death experiences, Pamela tells Sue Ellen she isn’t going to divorce John Ross because she doesn’t want him to snag her Ewing Global shares. Gray allows her character a subtle smile here, suggesting Sue Ellen feels torn. On the one hand, she undoubtedly feels obligated to support John Ross; on the other hand, Sue Ellen must admire Pamela’s determination not to allow a man to take advantage of her — even if that man is Sue Ellen’s own son.

The other great performance in “Dead Reckoning” comes from Marlene Forte, who gives me chills in the scene where Carmen sees Drew’s body in the morgue, collapses into Bobby’s arms and lets out a painful wail. Anyone who’s ever witnessed a mother lose a son knows how real this scene feels. Forte is also wonderful when Carmen receives Drew’s belongings and wonders why his St. Christopher’s medal isn’t among the possessions. There’s no doubt that medal is going to pop up again — recall that in the previous episode, Nicolas yanked off Drew’s necklace before he was executed — but it’s also a nice reminder of the importance of Carmen’s faith. It’s the kind of detail you don’t often get on a show like this.

I also love the quiet dignity Forte brings to the scene where Carmen stands over Drew’s casket and strokes his military uniform before leaning down and kissing him. The actress gets lots of support from Jordana Brewster, who makes Elena’s grief palpable, as well as Juan Pablo Di Pace, who looks positively stricken in Nicolas’s scenes with Elena and Carmen. It would be easy to overlook Patrick Duffy in these scenes, since Bobby does little more than stand around with the Ramoses as they deal with the fallout from Drew’s death, but isn’t it reassuring to see Bobby there? If nothing else, this episode reminds us how heroic Duffy’s character can be when he’s not yelling at John Ross or Ann.

There’s much more to like about “Dead Reckoning,” which is also another technical achievement for this series. This episode was filmed in the winter, allowing Anton Cropper, a first-time “Dallas” director, to use the stark Texas landscapes to emphasize the sense of loss and despair. Cropper also delivers several nifty shots, including the cinematic opening scene, where Drew’s body is dumped at his father’s old drill site, as well as an Altman-esque moment where Sue Ellen, Bobby and Christopher move out of the frame in mid-conversation, revealing another exchange happening between Elena and Carmen. I also like the musical montage near the end of the episode, when we see the workers who must clean up all the messes these characters create: the funeral director who receives Drew’s uniform, the coroner piecing together evidence from his death, the fire marshal examining evidence from the Southfork fire. (In a similar spirit, Texas actress Cynthia Jackson’s small role as the no-nonsense nurse who refuses to be charmed by John Ross is easily one of this season’s best moments.)

Other highlights in “Dead Reckoning” include lovely turns from Jesse Metcalfe and AnnaLynne McCord, whose characters, Christopher and Heather, share a bittersweet farewell. I’m sorry to see “Dallas” say goodbye to McCord, as well as Donny Boaz, who plays Bo; the McCabes bring down-to-earth sincerity to “Dallas” at a time when the show can really use it, as evidenced by the increasingly silly drug cartel storyline and this episode’s odd, out-of-place scene where a tarted-up Emma meets with Luis, the cartel emissary. I’m more forgiving of Elena’s quest for revenge, although I can’t help but think how much more poignant her end-of-episode reunion with John Ross would seem if she wasn’t playing him to get her hands on J.R.’s letter.

Speaking of our late hero: I also can’t help but notice the parallels between this episode and “J.R.’s Masterpiece,” last year’s instant-classic salute to Larry Hagman’s iconic character. Both segments show us distraught family members going to a morgue to identify a dead loved one, as well as scenes where survivors receive beautifully written letters from the deceased (Emma in “Dead Reckoning,” Sue Ellen in “J.R.’s Masterpiece”), drunken hookups that begin on the Southfork lawn (John Ross and Elena, John Ross and Emma) and heroines knocking back glass after glass of booze (Elena, Sue Ellen). The two episodes also feature Harris’s unwelcome arrival at Southfork and shots of the Ewing cousins sitting together at the kitchen counter, drinking.

Is the show paying homage to itself, or are these similarities merely coincidental? Either way, this is probably the first time “Dallas” has come close to matching the emotional resonance of “J.R.’s Masterpiece.” Here’s hoping it won’t be the last.

Grade: A

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Carmen Ramos, Dallas, Dead Reckoning, Marlene Forte, TNT

Mother’s day

‘DEAD RECKONING’

Season 3, Episode 10

Telecast: August 25, 2014

Audience: 1.84 million viewers on August 25

Writer: Julia Cohen

Director: Anton Cropper

Synopsis: The cartel makes it look like Drew shot himself, but when Carmen learns her son is dead, she refuses to believe he committed suicide. When the fire marshal’s investigation reveals Drew set the Southfork blaze, Elena tells Carmen how J.R. cheated the Ramoses, which prompts Carmen to tell Elena about the letter J.R. wrote before his death. Elena seduces a drunk John Ross and finds the letter, which outlines the scheme to frame Cliff. Pamela tells Sue Ellen she won’t divorce John Ross because she doesn’t want to lose her Ewing Global shares to him. Emma blames Harris for Drew’s death and tells Luis to put her father back in jail. Christopher pays for Bo to have spinal cord surgery in Israel and bids farewell to Heather, who makes plans to leave Dallas to be with her ex-husband and their son, Michael.

Cast: Kuno Becker (Drew Ramos), Emma Bell (Emma Ryland), Donny Boaz (Bo McCabe), Jordana Brewster (Elena Ramos), Dallas Clark (Michael McCabe), Juan Pablo Di Pace (Nicolas Treviño), Akai Draco (Sherriff Derrick), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), GiGi Erneta (Dr. Bosnar), DentonEverett (Dr. Levi Sussman), Marlene Forte (Carmen Ramos), Julie Gonzalo (Pamela Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Josh Henderson (John Ross Ewing), Cynthia Jackson (Nurse Harlan), Antonio Jaramillo (Luis), John McCalmont (Detective Marc Linnell), Jesse Metcalfe (Christopher Ewing), Joe Nemmers (Lt. Bennett), Ben Panchasarp (medical examiner), Pete Partida (Jacobo), Mitch Pileggi (Harris Ryland), Brenda Strong (Ann Ewing), Javier Andy Zavala Jr. (nurse)

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

Critique: TNT’s ‘Dallas’ Episode 31 — ‘Like Father, Like Son’

Dallas, John Ross Ewing, Josh Henderson, Like Father Like Son, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing, TNT

Revealed

Josh Henderson is a revelation in “Like Father, Like Son.” I’ve admired Henderson’s work on “Dallas” from the beginning, but I didn’t know he was capable of the kind of performance he delivers in this episode. In some scenes, I want to reach through my screen and break John Ross in two; in others, my heart breaks for him. This reminds me of the early days of the original series, when we were beginning to discover what J.R. Ewing and Larry Hagman were made of. John Ross is becoming as bad as J.R.; will we one day say Henderson is as good as Hagman? Time will tell, but what a thrilling prospect to consider.

The dramatic highpoint in “Like Father, Like Son” is the scene where John Ross confronts Sue Ellen over her betrayal. This is a two-minute emotional roller coaster, and Henderson brings us along for the whole gut-wrenching ride. We feel everything John Ross does: his rage when he storms into his mother’s house, his incredulity when she accuses him of cheating, his disappointment when he realizes how drunk she is. I especially love when John Ross holds up Sue Ellen’s bottle of booze and says, “Why are you doing this to yourself again, huh?” It’s one of the best lines in Julia Cohen’s taut script because it shows how much John Ross cares about Sue Ellen while inviting us to consider what it must have been like for him to grow up with an alcoholic mother. As much time as I’ve devoted to “Dallas” over the years, I’m not sure that’s something I’ve thought much about until now.

Of course, nothing gives me chills like the moment John Ross slams his hand on Sue Ellen’s kitchen counter and exclaims, “I am not my father!” Henderson delivers the line with such uncontrolled force, it feels like the most genuine thing John Ross has ever said. Indeed, his statement is very true: John Ross loves J.R. and takes pride in being his son, as evidenced by the fact that he runs around wearing Daddy’s wristwatch. But I believe John Ross sees himself as being a better man than J.R. We witnessed this in the first-season classic “Family Business,” when John Ross urged J.R. to return ownership of Southfork to the cancer-stricken Bobby, and we see it again in this episode, when John Ross rejects Candace’s overtures. (Would J.R. have turned down the advances of a comely secretary?) This is why Sue Ellen’s accusations sting her son more than we might have expected.

Yet no matter how much John Ross might want to think of himself as being “better” than J.R, he can’t resist all of his dark impulses: At the end of “Like Father, Like Son,” John Ross takes advantage of Sue Ellen’s relapse by blackmailing Judge Blackwell to send her to rehab against her will. (Blackwell: “You certainly are just like your father.” John Ross: “You hear that enough, eventually you start to believe it.”) Is John Ross doing this because it will help his mother, or because it will make it easier for him to take Ewing Global public and seize control of the company? Perhaps we’ll never know, and maybe in John Ross’s mind, there’s no difference. I’m not sure J.R. saw too many distinctions when he committed Sue Ellen to a sanitarium during the original “Dallas.” Yes, J.R. knew his wife needed help for her alcoholism, but he was also eager to get her out of the way before she spilled their marital secrets to the rest of the family.

Regardless of John Ross’s motivation, I admire Henderson’s willingness to take his character into such dark territory. I also have to hand it to Linda Gray, who fearlessly takes Sue Ellen back to her roots. In the confrontation with John Ross, Sue Ellen stands in her kitchen, drinking openly; there’s no more discreet nipping from the flask. This is not the confident, successful Sue Ellen we’ve come to know; this is the old-school, deeply vulnerable Sue Ellen. She lashes out at John Ross and blames him for her problems (“You did this to me!”), just like she used to do with J.R. I’ve gotten so used to seeing Gray play Sue Ellen as a functional alcoholic, it’s surprising to see the character lose control like this.

The most startling moment: John Ross denies he’s cheating and Sue Ellen screams, “Bullshit!” Did you ever dream you’d see Miss Texas use this kind of language? It’s shocking, and yet it makes perfect sense: The love of Sue Ellen’s life is dead, her relationship with her son is broken, and now she’s back on the bottle. Sue Ellen’s entire identity is slipping away; of course her sense of decorum would go with it. I also love Gray’s reaction shots during this sequence. As John Ross loses control and gets choked up, so does Sue Ellen. Just as our hearts break for John Ross, so does hers. It’s similar to what Gray did in “J.R.’s Masterpiece,” when she became the audience’s avatar and allowed us to express our grief through her. Will someone please give this woman an Emmy already?

Together, Sue Ellen’s relapse and John Ross’s descent into full-fledged J.R.-dom fit with the broader theme of “Like Father, Like Son,” which shows how the “Dallas” characters struggle to break old patterns. We also see this when Ann urges Emma to find a man who will love her and not use her for sex. The pained expression on Emma Bell’s face at the end of this scene suggests Ann’s words have sunk in, but of course Emma later has, ahem, relations with John Ross in exchange for the file he wants on the judge. (After he satisfies her — without ever undressing himself, notably — she tells him, “Now go home and kiss your wife.” This might be “Dallas’s” naughtiest moment ever.) Even Bobby gives in to his baser instincts, using his new position as the railroad commissioner to threaten Nicolas. I suppose I should chastise “Dallas” for once again taking a dim view of public service, but at least Bobby isn’t patronizing Judith’s brothel like most of the other political figures on this show.

There’s much more to like about “Like Father, Like Son,” especially the slow-motion sequence that director Steve Robin gives us at the end of the episode, when John Ross walks away from Bobby after telling him he’s going to use Sue Ellen’s power of attorney in his bid to take Ewing Global public. Unlike Patrick Duffy’s slow-mo walk during Season 2, which felt so triumphant, Henderson’s version is positively chilling. I also love Jesse Metcalfe’s adorable scenes with Dallas Clark (yes, that’s his name), the child actor who plays little Michael, as well as Metcalfe’s charming rapport with AnnaLynne McCord’s Heather. McCord has proven an especially welcome addition to this show. I know a lot of fans watch “Dallas” for escapism, but isn’t it nice to see Heather experience a real-life problem like finding last-minute child care?

This episode’s other highlight: The dueling boys’ and girls’ nights out on the town, although just once, I’d like to see television characters in these kinds of settings have to shout at each other over the sound of the music, the way people do in real-life nightclubs. As my husband Andrew pointed out, the sequence with the women brings a touch of “Sex and the City” to “Dallas,” except one of the ladies is cheating with the other’s husband, and a third is trying to prove it. By the way: Cynthia Addai-Robinson brings an undeniable sense of cool to her scenes as Jasper, Elena’s private eye. How much fun would it be to see her go toe to toe with Kevin Page’s Bum (who is sadly missing from this episode, along with Mitch Pileggi’s Harris)?

Meanwhile, some fans are wondering how Carter McKay, George Kennedy’s character from the original “Dallas’s” final seasons, has a grandson as old as Hunter, who is introduced in this episode as one of John Ross’s childhood friends. As far as we know, Tracey and Tommy, Carter’s children, didn’t have kids of their own. In light of this episode’s boardroom showdown, there’s also confusion in Fan Land about the ownership of Ewing Global and how it’s divided. I, too, wish the show handled these details better, so my only advice to fellow fans — and I know this won’t satisfy many of you — is to just go with it.

My other gripe has to do with Harris’s accordion file. It’s become a treasure trove for storyline purposes, so I wish the show had made it an updated version of J.R.’s infamous “red file” instead; it would have been another nifty way to keep Larry Hagman’s spirit alive. Then again, Josh Henderson is doing a pretty good job of doing that on his own.

Grade: A

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Dallas, Linda Gray, Like Father Like Son, Sue Ellen Ewing, TNT

Slipping away

‘LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON’

Season 3, Episode 6

Telecast: March 31, 2014

Audience: 1.82 million viewers on March 31

Writer: Julie Cohen

Director: Steve Robin

Synopsis: Bobby gives control of his Ewing Global shares to Christopher and, in his new role as railroad commissioner, vows to scrutinize Nicolas’s Texas holdings. Elena hires a private eye to follow John Ross and discovers he’s cheating with Emma. John Ross’s childhood friend, Hunter McKay, gives him the idea of taking Ewing Global public. John Ross gets support from Nicolas, who aims to take control of the company once it goes public, and also Sue Ellen, but when she gets the impression John Ross is cheating with Candace, she votes against her son, incurring his wrath. John Ross blackmails a judge into having Sue Ellen committed to rehab against her will and tells Bobby he has her power of attorney, which gives him her vote to take the company public.

Cast: Cynthia Addai-Robinson (Jasper), Emma Bell (Emma Ryland), Donny Boaz (Bo McCabe), Jordana Brewster (Elena Ramos), Dallas Clark (Michael), Jude Demorest (Candace), Juan Pablo Di Pace (Nicolas Treviño), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Julie Gonzalo (Pamela Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Josh Henderson (John Ross Ewing), Rick Herod (Judge Blackwell), Fran Kranz (Hunter McKay), Jesse Metcalfe (Christopher Ewing), Bryan Pitts (paramedic), Brenda Strong (Ann Ewing), Kenneisha Thompson (police officer)

“Like Father, Like Son” is available at DallasTNT.com, Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Critique: TNT’s ‘Dallas’ Episode 22 – ‘A Call to Arms’

Call to Arms, Dallas, John Ross Ewing, Josh Henderson, TNT

Cry wolf

The new “Dallas” often feels like more of an ensemble show than the original series did. Every member of the endlessly growing cast generally gets a meaningful scene or two in each episode, although there are times when one actor seems to leave a bigger impression than others. In “A Call to Arms,” Josh Henderson is the one to watch. With help from Gail Gilchriest and Julia Cohen’s solid script, Henderson gives us a fresh look at John Ross’s vulnerabilities as the character struggles with Pamela’s rejection and begins to question his decision to follow in J.R.’s footsteps as Southfork’s schemer-in-chief. It’s a terrific performance.

My favorite scene is John Ross’s exchange with Uncle Bobby. The younger man sits in the bedroom he inherited from J.R., drinking his father’s bourbon and feeling regretful because Pamela didn’t believe him when he tried to tell her about Cliff’s machinations. “For once in my damn life, I told the truth. And she thought it was a move. I guess I’m the like boy who cried wolf,” John Ross says. This line reminds us how different John Ross is from his father. J.R. had plenty of moments of introspection on the old show, but we didn’t see him wrestle too often with feelings of self-doubt or remorse. John Ross, on the other hand, feels a little more moralistic. We saw this for the first time last season, when he tried to persuade J.R. to give up his battle for Southfork, and now we see it again in this scene with Uncle Bobby.

I also like this exchange because it does such a nice job honoring “Dallas” history. Bobby recalls his marriage to his Pamela, and the glint in Patrick Duffy’s eye suggests his character isn’t just nostalgic for those days; I get the feeling he’s still carrying a torch for his first wife. The conversation also acknowledges the special bond that has always existed between Bobby and John Ross, as longtime fans who remember Duffy’s scenes with young Omri Katz can attest. Between “A Call to Arms” and the previous episode, when Bobby shakes John Ross’s hand and welcomes him home to Southfork, I have a feeling the relationship between uncle and nephew is going to take on greater prominence as the new “Dallas” progresses.

We also see a more mature John Ross in the scene where Cliff sweeps into the Ewing Energies conference room and announces he’s taken over the company’s bank loan. When Christopher calls Cliff a “son of a bitch” and begins to lunge at him, it’s John Ross who puts his hand on his cousin’s shoulder and eases him back into his seat. The moment echoes the beginning of the brawl at the memorial service in “J.R.’s Masterpiece,” when Christopher rushes to John Ross’s side (“I’ve got this, cousin”) after one of the mourners insults J.R.’s memory. I know this truce between John Ross and Christopher isn’t going to last, but isn’t it nice to see them getting along? It makes both characters feel less like boys and more like men.

Henderson has two more moments in “A Call to Arms” that stand out: the swoon-worthy scene where he sweeps Julie Gonzalo’s Pamela off her feet in the pouring rain, which might symbolize the storm swirling around the Ewings as their enemies descend upon them. (The scene also makes me appreciate the technical mastery of the people who work behind the camera on this show. My guess is the crew, led by first-time “Dallas” director Ken Topolsky, had to create that rain.) I also like the opening scene, when John Ross dramatically removes his sunglasses in front of McConaughey and recalls how J.R. took down three senators, two governors and a vice president (!), adding: “He taught me everything he knows. Your head’s going to look real nice above my fireplace, governor.” Even though I’m glad John Ross hasn’t become a carbon copy of his father, a little Hagman-esque flair is nice now and then, and Henderson nails it in that sequence.

Other good moments: Sue Ellen’s scene with Bum, which demonstrates the unexpectedly charming rapport between Linda Gray and Kevin Page; the chilling final scene, where Christopher and Elena learn his mother may be alive and living under the alias “Patricia Barrett” in Zurich; and all those what-will-she-do-next sequences with wild child Emma, including the kinky scene where she entices a rodeo cowboy into snagging some painkillers for her by biting his lip. I also got a chuckle from Ken Kercheval’s deliciously malevolent delivery when Cliff announces he’s picked up the Ewings’ bank note; the actor’s line – “I love a good fire sale” – might be a sly tribute to Cliff’s skinflint tendencies on the old show.

“A Call to Arms’” other highlight: Steven Weber, who gives another nicely measured performance as the corrupt McConaughey. If Weber feels any temptation to chomp scenery, he wisely resists it. The actor gets one of this episode’s best lines – “I guaran-damn-tee!” – but he avoids going over the top when he delivers it. I hope he’s going to be with “Dallas” for awhile.

I also appreciate how “A Call to Arms” brings back Jason Douglas as McConaughey’s aide, who first appeared in the TV news report about Sue Ellen’s imploding political campaign at the end of the second-season premiere, “Battle Lines.” Some trivia: When TNT sent a preview of that episode to critics and bloggers, Douglas was identified in the fictional newscast as “Sam McConaughey;” by the time the episode was telecast, the reporter’s voiceover narration and on-screen graphics had been changed to refer to him as the McConaughey campaign’s chief of staff.

Interesting, huh? Makes me wonder if there might be more recasts in this show’s future.

Grade: B

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Call to Arms, Dallas, John Ross Ewing, Josh Henderson, Julie Gonzalo, Pamela Barnes, TNT

Perfect storm

‘A CALL TO ARMS’

Season 2, Episode 12

Telecast: April 8, 2013

Writer: Gail Gilchriest and Julia Cohen

Director: Ken Topolsky

Audience: 1.9 million viewers on April 8

Synopsis: McConaughey uses the Henderson property to build a pipeline. Cliff buys the Ewings’ bank note and vows to take control of Ewing Energies if the family doesn’t repay the loan within one day. Vickers foils the Ewings’ attempt to discover what’s in Ryland’s cargo from Mexico. Pamela learns Cliff was behind the rig explosion and turns to John Ross. Christopher discovers his mother may be alive and living under a different name in Zurich. Sue Ellen asks Bum to find Ken. After Emma promises Ann she’ll give up her pills, she buys painkillers from a ranch hand and tries to drive away Drew.

Cast: John Athas (Ellis), Amber Bartlett (Jill), Kuno Becker (Drew Ramos), Emma Bell (Emma Brown), Donny Boas (McCabe), Jordana Brewster (Elena Ramos), Jason Douglas (Erik Allen), Akai Draco (Sheriff Derrick), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Alex Fernandez (Roy Vickers), Julie Gonzalo (Pamela Barnes), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Josh Henderson (John Ross Ewing), Bob Hess (Alan Westing), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Jesse Metcalfe (Christopher Ewing), Mitch Pileggi (Harris Ryland), Kevin Page (Bum), Brenda Strong (Ann Ewing), Steven Weber (Governor Sam McConaughey)

“A Call to Arms” is available at DallasTNT.com, Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Critique: TNT’s ‘Dallas’ Episode 17 – ‘The Furious and the Fast’

Dallas, Furious and the Fast, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, TNT

One last shot

We know it’s coming, but still it shocks us. “The Furious and the Fast” ends with the murder of J.R. Ewing, or at least what looks like his murder. It’s jarring, chilling, sad. It’s also a technological feat. The producers apparently created the sequence using recycled footage and audio clips, although the Hollywood trickery is probably obvious only to the most eagle-eyed “Dallas” obsessives. Yet as impressive as the scene is, it isn’t the only reason to admire this episode, which is one of the new “Dallas’s” most entertaining hours yet.

The historic final scene: John Ross is alone in the darkened Ewing Energies conference room, a drink in his hand, his shoes propped on the table. He receives a phone call from J.R., who wants an update on their latest plot against Bobby and Christopher. John Ross tells him the scheme failed, but J.R. is nonplussed: “Don’t you worry, son. I’ve got a plan. It’s going to be my masterpiece – because you shouldn’t have to pay for my sins.” John Ross looks puzzled and asks J.R. what he means. Another cryptic response: “Just remember: I’m proud of you. You’re my son, from tip to tail.” John Ross smiles, but when the camera cuts to J.R., the old man looks startled. Cut back to John Ross, who hears two gunshots and leaps to his feet. “Dad! Dad!” he exclaims. Then, finally: “Dad?”

“The Furious and the Fast” was filmed after Larry Hagman’s death last fall, and it appears as though the producers cobbled together J.R.’s final moments using bits and pieces from other recent scenes. The shots of him on the phone come from the “False Confessions” exchange where Frank calls J.R. to inform him that John Ross and Pamela have become lovers. (The original scene took place in J.R.’s bedroom; in the recycled version, the walls have been turned red.) Hagman’s dialogue, in the meantime, seems to have been pulled from a variety of episodes. J.R. delivered the “you shouldn’t have to pay for my sins” line in “The Price You Pay,” while the “masterpiece” bit comes from “Sins of the Father.” “Tip to tail” was memorably heard at the end of “Revelations,” the first-season finale.

I’m sure the “Dallas” producers would’ve preferred to film Hagman’s final performance as J.R. while the actor was still alive, or better yet, to never have occasion to create such a scene at all. This sequence represents their effort to make the best of a sad situation, so I salute them for coming up with something that not only looks and feels convincing, but also offers a fittingly mysterious beginning to the “Who Killed J.R.?” storyline that’s destined to dominate the rest of the season.

It also feels appropriate that J.R.’s final words are for his son since Josh Henderson sells this scene more than anyone. The smile that breaks across John Ross’s face when J.R. announces he’s proud of him is touching. You can also hear the heartbreak in Henderson’s voice when John Ross realizes what’s happening to his father on the other end of the phone. Credit also goes to director Rodney Charters, who pulls back the camera each time John Ross exclaims “Dad!” until we’re finally left with that wide shot of Henderson alone in the dark. The echo created by John Ross’s final “Dad?” is another nice touch.

Of course, even though I admire the audaciousness of trying to recapture the old “Who Shot J.R.?” magic, it’s a little unnerving to see the new “Dallas” shoot yet another character. J.R. is the fourth person on this show to take a bullet during the past eight episodes. It’s also worth noting how different this whodunit is from the one triggered by the 1980 episode “A House Divided.” Back then, J.R.’s shooting capped an hour in which several characters were each given a clear motivation for wanting him dead. This time around, there are no obvious suspects, although I’m sure they’ll emerge soon enough. Still, I wonder: What character in the “Dallas” mythology is big enough for this job? Who has the stature to take down J.R. Ewing?

I’ll save those worries for another day, though, because to focus only on the implications of “The Furious and the Fast’s” final scene would mean overlooking the rest of this excellent episode. Ted Shackelford’s return as Gary Ewing inspires many of the hour’s best moments, including his fun exchanges with Linda Gray. To get Gary to lower his defenses, Sue Ellen flirts shamelessly with him, allowing us to see a side of her that’s been dormant for much too long. How wonderful of “Dallas” to show that a woman in her 70s can still be sexy and playful. I also appreciate how Julia Cohen’s script has Sue Ellen and Gary acknowledge their past battles with the bottle, which seems to be a sly nod to the memorable scene in 1980 when Gary’s attempt to bond with fellow alcoholic Sue Ellen ended in disaster.

More highlights: John Ross’s bratty greeting to Uncle Gary (“Who the hell let you off the cul-de-sac?”) and Gary’s heart-to-heart with Bobby, when he reveals his fall from the wagon and split from Valene. Patrick Duffy and Shackelford slip comfortably into their familiar dynamic of the responsible baby brother and the all-too-human middle sibling. Isn’t it remarkable how two actors who look nothing alike can seem so believable as brothers? In my recent interview with Shackelford, he expressed his willingness to reprise his role beyond the three-episode stint that begins with this episode. Given how easily he interacts with Henderson, Gray and Duffy here, this seems like an idea worth serious consideration.

Indeed, if “The Furious and the Fast” does anything, it demonstrates how important it is to inject fresh blood (or in Shackelford’s case, familiar blood) into a show like this. I was apprehensive when I read last year about the producers’ plans to add newcomers like Kuno Becker and Emma Bell to the cast, fearing they would rob the core cast of screen time, which already feels too scarce. But I was wrong. Bell knocks me out as timid, confused Emma, and I’m completely charmed by Becker, whose effortless chemistry with Jordana Brewster might be the season’s nicest surprise.

Also fascinating: Mitch Pileggi and Judith Light as Harris and Judith Ryland, whose mother/son relationship grows weirder with each episode. (This episode’s best line: Judith’s frigid “Now pick that up” after Harris kicks over the chair in Emma’s bedroom.) Altogether, the “Dallas” cast now includes 11 regular cast members and several recurring guest stars, yet in this episode at least, no one gets shortchanged.

“The Furious and the Fast” also gets a big lift from Charters’ expertly executed racecar sequences, which generate genuine suspense and make the episode feel a little like this generation’s version of a Southfork rodeo. And even though it seems unlikely the city’s transportation chief would award Christopher the fuel contract on the basis of how many laps his methane-powered car can complete, you have to admit: The race offered a clever metaphor for the familial squabbling that is so central to this show. Like the Ewing Energies-sponsored car, John Ross and Christopher sometimes seem to go around in circles with their feuding, yet it rarely gets boring.

When I watched “The Furious and the Fast” for the first time the other night, I kept looking at the clock, expecting to see the show was almost ever. Some of this stemmed from the dread I was feeling, knowing this would be Hagman’s last episode. But my clock-watching was also done with a sense of wonder. This episode was so dense, every scene felt like it was bound to be the last one of the night. By the time those gunshots finally rang out, I was plenty sad, but I was also damn satisfied. J.R.’s final hour turned out to be one of “Dallas’s” finest.

Grade: A

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Dallas, Furious and the Fast, Gary Ewing, Ted Shackelford, TNT

Return engagement

‘THE FURIOUS AND THE FAST’

Season 2, Episode 7

Telecast: March 4, 2013

Writer: Julia Cohen

Director: Rodney Charters

Audience: 2.8 million viewers on March 4

Synopsis: Gary Ewing returns to Dallas and votes with Bobby to stop drilling on Southfork, which Bobby and Christopher hope will force Sue Ellen to return her share of Ewing Energies to Elena. Sue Ellen flirts with Gary, hoping to break his alliance with Bobby. Harris and Judith try to send Emma back to London, but she runs away to Southfork. At J.R.’s behest, Bum digs for dirt on Harris. Drew and Elena discover there may be oil under the land their father sold to Bobby. Christopher is poised to clinch the city fuel contract after the Ewing Energies car wins a big race. John Ross speaks to J.R. on the phone, but the call is interrupted when it appears J.R. is shot.

Cast: Kuno Becker (Drew Ramos), Emma Bell (Emma Brown), Kenneth Wayne Bradley (Jim West), Jordana Brewster (Elena Ramos), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Julie Gonzalo (Pamela Barnes), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Cory Hart (Brett Cochran), Josh Henderson (John Ross Ewing), Judith Light (Judith Ryland), Jesse Metcalfe (Christopher Ewing), Kevin Page (Bum), Mitch Pileggi (Harris Ryland), Ricky Rudd (himself), Ted Shackelford (Gary Ewing), Brenda Strong (Ann Ewing), Curtis Wayne (Denny Boyd), Annie Wersching (Alison Jones)

“The Furious and the Fast” is available at DallasTNT.com, Amazon.com and iTunesWatch the episode and share your comments below.

Critique: TNT’s ‘Dallas’ Episode 8 – ‘No Good Deed’

Dallas, John Ross Ewing, Josh Henderson, No Good Deed, TNT

Up close

In “No Good Deed,” John Ross is jailed for a murder he didn’t commit and then savagely beaten by a couple of inmates who are connected to the real killers. The Ewings respond to this crisis by rallying around their tarnished golden boy, making this the first time the characters on TNT’s “Dallas” begin to feel like a real family. Not coincidentally, it’s also the first time the new show begins to really feel like the old one.

The original “Dallas” is often described as a series about rich people behaving badly, but the deeper truth is that “Dallas,” at its heart, was a show about family. TNT seems to fully realize this in “No Good Deed.” This is an hour of big, dramatic moments that once again demonstrate an essential “Dallas” tenet: No matter how much the Ewings fight among themselves, when outside forces descend upon Southfork, they all pull together.

Several scenes in this episode give me chills. In the first, Bobby is in the den, railing to his lawyer about J.R. and the plot to steal Southfork, when Ann enters the room with a stricken look on her face. “It’s John Ross,” she says. The goose bumps return in the next scene, when we see Bobby, Ann, Elena and Christopher burst through the emergency room doors and circle a badly shaken Sue Ellen.

As good as these moments are, “No Good Deed” also benefits from its many scenes of quiet familial warmth: J.R. arrives at John Ross’s hospital bedside in the dark of night and gently strokes his sleeping son’s hair. Bobby visits Miss Ellie’s grave and vows to protect the family, finally recognizing the people who live on the ranch matter more than the land itself. John Ross and Christopher stand in the Southfork driveway, shake hands and acknowledge they’re not that different from one another after all. “We’re both just trying to make our fathers proud,” Christopher says.

Then there are “No Good Deed’s” small but meaningful details: When a trembling Sue Ellen fumbles with a coffee dispenser in the hospital waiting room, Ann takes the cup and pumps the coffee for her. During a family conference in the Southfork living room, Ann rubs the back of a worried Elena. John Ross calls Sue Ellen “mama” when she brings him home from the hospital.

The nice thing about Julia Cohen’s script is that it doesn’t just make the Ewings feel like a real family, it also makes them feel like real individuals. “No Good Deed” is centered around the theme of sacrifice – Bobby offers to lift the ban on drilling the ranch, Sue Ellen surrenders her integrity, Christopher forgoes a piece of his gas hydrate project – and by seeing what the Ewings are willing to give up, we discover who these characters really are. (Shades of “Ellie Saves the Day,” one of the greatest episodes from the original series.)

“No Good Deed’s” most heartbreaking moment belongs to Sue Ellen, who musters the courage to bribe the medical examiner, only to discover her ethical lapse was for nothing. I can’t help but feel sorry for her when she stands at John Ross’s bedside and proudly predicts Marta’s death will be ruled a suicide, only to learn the charges against her son have been dropped because new evidence has emerged clearing him. It’s tragic stuff, but isn’t it nice to see Ann provide Sue Ellen with so much support and comfort throughout her ordeal?

Of course, the character who provides “No Good Deed” with its heart is the young man who is at the center of it all: John Ross. Yes, we feel sympathetic toward him after that savage beating, but those cuts and bruises merely symbolize how he’s finally become a flesh-and-blood character.

John Ross seems genuinely ashamed of his role in the plot to steal Southfork, as evidenced by his willingness to stay in jail rather than reveal his relationship with Marta and risk losing Elena’s faith in him. He also refuses to blame J.R. for his misfortune, another sign this is no longer the petulant brat we met in “Changing of the Guard.” I’ve been a fan of Josh Henderson’s from the beginning, but “No Good Deed” finally makes me a fan of John Ross.

“No Good Deed” is also distinguished by Michael Katleman’s arty direction, including the moody opening scene, where Henderson and Jordana Brewster’s faces fill the screen, recalling the tight close-ups that were a signature of the old “Dallas.” And while TNT’s show has a style all its own, there are times I wish it more deliberately mimicked its predecessor. How cool would it have been to hear a few notes of Jerrold Immel’s “Dallas” theme music when J.R. received the call about John Ross’s beating, the way we did in the classic episode “Swan Song,” when J.R. got the call Bobby was dying?

Katleman also does a masterful job in “No Good Deed’s” final scene, when Tommy backs Rebecca against the wall, threatens her and then plants his mouth on hers, thus revealing the Sutters aren’t siblings after all. I suspect that creepy buss will have “Dallas” fans buzzing today, but I hope they don’t allow the shock value to obscure all the warm and wonderful moments to be found in “No Good Deed.”

The Sutters may not be family, but after this episode the Ewings finally are, and my goodness, isn’t that nice to see?

Grade: A

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Dallas, John Ross Ewing, Josh Henderson, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, No Good Deed, TNT

Touching

‘NO GOOD DEED’

Season 1, Episode 8

Telecast: July 25, 2012

Writer: Julia Cohen

Director: Michael Katleman

Audience: 5 million viewers (including 3.3 million viewers on July 25, ranking 24th in the weekly cable ratings)

Synopsis: When Cano’s thugs beat John Ross in jail, Sue Ellen bribes the medical examiner to rule Marta’s death a suicide so her son will be freed. Her sacrifice is for naught: Christopher gives Cano the South American rights to his gas hydrate project, which prompts Cano to release evidence that clears John Ross. Christopher makes amends with John Ross and reconciles with Rebecca, who is later confronted by Tommy, who isn’t really her brother.

Cast: Amir Arison (Varun Rasmussen), Carlos Bernard (Vicente Cano), Jordana Brewster (Elena Ramos), Damon Carney (Paul Jacob), Akai Draco (Sheriff Derrick), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Julie Gonzalo (Rebecca Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Callard Harris (Tommy Sutter), Josh Henderson (John Ross Ewing), Jesse Metcalfe (Christopher Ewing), Glenn Morshower (Lou), Kevin Page (Bum), Marisol Ramirez (Detective), Brenda Strong (Ann Ewing)

“No Good Deed” is available at DallasTNT.com, Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.