Critique: TNT’s ‘Dallas’ Episode 39 — ‘Endgame’

Dallas, Endgame, John Ross Ewing, Josh Henderson, TNT, Which Ewing Dies?

Our hero

In “Endgame,” does John Ross go to Mexico to save his company or his mistress? He later tells Emma his rescue mission was strictly business, but I’m not convinced. John Ross seems to genuinely care for her, which makes his decision to take her place as Luis’s hostage seem surprisingly selfless. It brings to mind the occasions when J.R. acted nobly, like the time he rescued his kidnapped son from the clutches of the villainous B.D. Calhoun. I suppose this makes John Ross’s heroics in “Endgame” yet another example of how the poor guy can’t escape Daddy’s shadow. Whenever John Ross does bad, he reminds us of J.R.; now we know the same thing is true when John Ross does good.

Not that our young hero is willing to admit this to anyone, or even to himself. At the beginning of “Endgame,” after Bobby shoots down John Ross’s offer to bypass the CIA and meet with Luis to negotiate Emma’s release, Pamela accuses her estranged husband of using Emma’s rescue as a smokescreen to reclaim Ewing Global from the cartel. Pamela’s words seem to sting John Ross, prompting her to deadpan, “Oh, my God. Have you actually convinced yourself you’re doing it for her?” John Ross quickly regains his composure, flashes his grin and responds, “You know me better than that. The only person I’ve ever cared about is me.”

John Ross might be mocking Pamela’s lack of faith in him, or he could be using his bravado to shield his softer side, something J.R. was known to do too. After all, there are plenty of examples of John Ross demonstrating concern for others, including the scene earlier this season when he sat on Pamela’s hospital bed and poured out his heart to her. Also, consider what happens in “Endgame” after John Ross has defied Bobby and gone to the Mexican house to see Luis. The two men are sitting at the kitchen table, hashing out their deal, when a cartel thug brings Emma into the room. John Ross instantly leaps to his feet and goes toward her, only to have another gunman shove him back into his seat. If John Ross was as self-centered as he claims, would his instincts compel him to go to Emma the moment he spots her?

Regardless of what’s going on inside John Ross’s head and heart, it’s fun to watch Josh Henderson swagger his way through “Endgame,” wearing that cool leather jacket and delivering all the instantly quotable dialogue in Bruce Rasmussen’s script. When John Ross visits the commando-for-hire Walter (more shades of B.D. Calhoun), Walter asks him why he needs his services. John Ross’s crisp response: “In the next couple of days, I’m going to get myself in a very bad situation. I’d like you to come get me out of it.” Henderson also gets to play the tough guy at the end of episode, when the newly freed Emma shares her fear the cartel will kill him. “People may die in this house, but it ain’t gonna be me,” John Ross says. And like every good action hero, Henderson also gets to toss off some one-liners, like this gem about the perpetually in-the-dark Ewings: “We’re slow, but we do figure things out.”

If “Endgame” feels like an action movie version of “Dallas,” I suspect that’s purely intentional. The original show also did action episodes, although many of them drew from “Dallas’s” western traditions, unlike “Endgame,” which is darker and more noirish. The pacing is relentless from the get-go; before the credits even roll, U.S. marshals have stormed Nicolas and Elena’s lake house. The thrills continue when Bobby retrieves Ann from the trunk she’s been stuffed into and when Nicolas makes his getaway in a scramble of minivans, which has the odd effect of making us admire the bad guys’ craftiness. I also like the tension director Millicent Shelton builds when the kidnapped Emma comes so close to passing a note to a neighborhood boy, only to be caught by Luis. (The implication that he then rapes Emma is heartbreaking, although I suspect it will give the wonderful Emma Bell some good material to work with if the show returns next year.)

Shelton balances all the suspense with quiet surprises. I expected the long-awaited meeting of Sue Ellen Ewing and Judith Ryland to be a dramatic showdown between two soap queens, but it turns out to be anything but. In the scene, everyone is nervously awaiting word from Bobby’s visit to the Mexican house when he calls and tells Sue Ellen he’s coming home with Ann — but not Emma. Judith hears this and accuses Bobby of betraying the Rylands by saving “that bitch wife of his,” but instead of spewing venom back at Judith, Sue Ellen tries to comfort her. Linda Gray makes her character’s sympathy palpable, while Judith Light manages to pound the coffee table — and her head — without getting too theatrical. What could have become a moment of camp instead stirs feelings of compassion.

“Endgame’s” biggest surprise of all is how absorbing I find the cartel drama, a storyline I’ve knocked more than once this year. The casting has proven superb, especially Juan Pablo Di Pace as Nicolas and Antonio Jaramillo as Luis. In some scenes, I despise these characters and in others, I feel sympathetic toward them; occasionally, I experience both feelings at the same time. (I also like Carlos Miranda, who does a nice turn as Fernando, the sweet-faced thug whom Emma charms in her bid for freedom.) The “sibling” rivalry between the oh-so-smooth Nicolas and the rough-around-the-edges Luis is another clever touch, and I love how Rasmussen’s script has John Ross play on Luis’s insecurities by comparing his relationship with Nicolas to John Ross’s relationship with Christopher.

It all culminates in “Endgame’s” tense, taut climax, when El Pozolero delivers his blunt description of the cartel: “We are not businessmen who commit crimes. We are criminals who do business.” (Another line about murder being “a wonderful bonding experience” is memorable for the wrong reason.) I also like seeing El Pozolero referring the argument between his squabbling “sons,” which comes off like a parallel universe version of the great scenes where Bobby sits at his desk in the Southfork den, mediating fights between John Ross and Christopher. Watching this scene again yesterday, it struck me: After the events of the next episode, “Brave New World,” we’ll never see Bobby intervene in another clash between the Ewing cousins. How sad is that?

Grade: A

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Dallas, Emma Bell, Emma Ryland, Endgame, TNT, Which Ewing Dies?

Prisonera

‘ENDGAME’

Season 3, Episode 14

Telecast: September 22, 2014

Audience: 1.72 million viewers on September 22

Writer: Bruce Rasmussen

Director: Millicent Shelton

Synopsis: Bobby asks Luis to release Emma, but Luis frees Ann instead. When Emma tries to escape, Luis rapes her. After the CIA finds Nicolas and takes him into custody, he agrees to lead U.S. marshals to a meeting with El Pozolero at the Mexican house, but once the cartel’s thugs have Nicolas, they ditch the feds. John Ross tells Judith that Harris is working with the CIA, hires a commando squad to secretly follow him to Mexico and then goes to the cartel’s house, where he persuades Luis to sell him the Ewing Global assets in exchange for Emma’s release. After Emma returns Southfork, El Pozolero and Nicolas converge at the house, where Nicolas tries to prove his mettle by pointing a gun at John Ross’s head as Luis pressures him to shoot.

Cast: Emma Bell (Emma Ryland), Jordana Brewster (Elena Ramos), Juan Pablo Di Pace (Nicolas Treviño), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Julie Gonzalo (Pamela Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Josh Henderson (John Ross Ewing), Antonio Jaramillo (Luis), Judith Light (Judith Ryland), Carlos Miranda (Fernando), Jesse Metcalfe (Christopher Ewing), Kevin Page (Bum), Gino Anthony Pesi (George Tatangelo), Mitch Pileggi (Harris Ryland), Miguel Sandoval (El Pozolero), Brenda Strong (Ann Ewing), Mikal Vega (Walter)

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

Critique: TNT’s ‘Dallas’ Episode 32 — ‘Like a Bad Penny’

Dallas, John Ross Ewing, Josh Henderson, Like a Bad Penny, TNT

Not afraid to lose

John Ross has never reminded me of J.R. as much as he does in “Like a Bad Penny.” To salvage a botched business deal with a powerful sheik, John Ross competes against him in a high-stakes poker game and deliberately loses, even though it means gambling away his prized “J.R.” wristwatch. Except the watch is never really at risk, is it? John Ross bets that by humbling himself in the sheik’s presence, he’ll win the man’s approval and eventually recover the timepiece, which is precisely what happens at the end of the episode. Could J.R. have played it any better?

At every turn in “Like a Bad Penny,” Josh Henderson evokes a little of the old Hagman magic. After John Ross throws the game and surrenders the watch, he offers the sheik a J.R.-esque, fake-sincere apology for bungling the deal in the first place. Then, John Ross huddles privately with Pamela and hints his defeat is part of a bigger scheme. This is the kind of conversation J.R. used to have with Sly on the original “Dallas”; whenever the chips were down, he’d let his loyal secretary — and by extension, the audience — know he had one more trick up his sleeve. John Ross does something similar here by offering Pamela a sly grin and a nugget of J.R.-style wisdom: “Sometimes the only way to win is to show the other person you’re not afraid to lose.”

Sure enough, in “Like a Bad Penny’s” most satisfying scene, the sheik’s son Nasir comes to Southfork, tells John Ross the sheik wants to do business with him after all — and returns the wristwatch. This is a poignant moment because it gets to the conflict brewing within John Ross. Earlier, when he loses the watch, he expresses his relief to Pamela, saying he wants to his “own man, instead of the man everybody else wants me to be.” John Ross seems sincere in that scene, but you can also see how happy he is when he gets the watch back and hears Nasir say, “My father saw J.R. in you.” I can’t help but feel sympathy for John Ross: He desperately wants to escape J.R.’s shadow, but he’s also as desperate as ever to make his father proud. (I also have to wonder: What kind of snow job did J.R. pull on his old friend the sheik to make him think he was such an upstanding, honorable businessman?)

I’m less enthralled with this episode’s depiction of Pamela. If John Ross is the “new” J.R., is she doomed to fulfill Sue Ellen’s old role of the subservient wife? Despite all the “us against the world” talk between John Ross and Pamela at the top of the hour, she’s relegated to the background during the big poker scene. Even worse, she’s still in the dark about her husband’s affair with Emma. (At this point, who doesn’t know John Ross and Emma are sleeping together?) Also worth mentioning: While John Ross eventually reclaims his watch, Pamela doesn’t get back her emerald earrings, which she puts up as collateral so he can enter the card game. It’s just like the old days, when Sue Ellen always seemed to pay the price for J.R.’s transgressions.

But not all the Sue Ellen/Pamela parallels are lamentable: In the poker scene, I love how costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin puts Julie Gonzalo in that spectacular black-and-white dress, evoking one of Linda Gray’s signature looks. Speaking of Gray: She’s very moving in Sue Ellen’s sanitarium scenes, although it’s hard to see the character slip back into her bad, old habits. During her conversation with Ann, Sue Ellen blames J.R.’s cheating for turning her into an alcoholic, which suggests she has forgotten all the lessons she learned during the original series about taking responsibility for her own life. Bobby also falls back into an old pattern when he insists on taking Sue Ellen home to Southfork over the objections of her doctor. This lapse I don’t mind, though, because the Ewings’ insistence on taking care of their own has always been one of “Dallas’s” charms.

“Like a Bad Penny,” the first “Dallas” script from Pierluigi D. Cothran, is directed by Millicent Shelton, who previously helmed “Trust Me,” the episode that brought back Judith Ryland in such memorable fashion. There are no coke-snorting shockers here, although it is kind of surprising to see “Dallas” adding more characters. Besides introducing Nasir, the sheik’s son, this episode brings back Drew; the Mexican drug lord Luis; and Hunter, the mysterious McKay offspring who surfaced in “Like Father, Like Son.” I recognize “Dallas” needs newcomers to interact with the core cast, but I would’ve preferred the show devote more attention to Sue Ellen’s sanitarium stay or to Elena, who needs clarity. She doesn’t mind lying to Christopher about Nicolas’s identity, but she refuses to show Pamela the video of John Ross and Emma? And can someone explain why both Ramos siblings blame the whole Ewing family for J.R.’s sins against their father?

I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m being overly critical, because there’s a lot about this episode to admire. Christopher’s entanglement with Heather and Bo has turned into one of the third season’s most effective storylines: The McCabes bring a touch of working-class humanity to the show, helping to keep it grounded, and all of the actors are doing good work. I also get a kick out of Emma’s investigation into Harris’s shenanigans in “Like a Bad Penny”; if ever she tires of being John Ross’s girl on the side, she could have a future as “Dallas’s” resident girl detective.

This raises a question: Who — or what — does the title of this episode refer to? Is it the John Ross/Emma video clip, which pops up repeatedly during the course of the hour? Is it Candace’s blue dress, which seems destined to join the list of “Dallas’s” most famous outfits? Is it Drew? Or is it J.R.’s watch? If it’s the latter, here’s hoping more of J.R.’s “bad pennies” turn up. I’m impressed by the clever way “Dallas” is using props to help keep his spirit alive, beginning with the J.R. Ewing Bourbon bottle in “D.T.R.” and now the wristwatch in “Like a Bad Penny.” The scene where Nasir stands at the Southfork gate and places the timepiece in John Ross’s hand is surprisingly moving; it’s almost as if J.R. himself has come home.

Let’s just hope John Ross remembers to check the watch for bugs.

Grade: B

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Dallas, Linda Gray, Like a Bad Penny, Sue Ellen Ewing, TNT

Blame game

‘LIKE A BAD PENNY’

Season 3, Episode 7

Telecast: April 7, 2014

Audience: 1.87 million viewers on April 7

Writer: Pierluigi D. Cothran

Director: Millicent Shelton

Synopsis: John Ross meets Nasir Ali and persuades his father, a powerful sheik, to supply the capital he needs to buy a controlling interest in Ewing Global once it goes public. Bobby and Ann get Sue Ellen released from the sanitarium and bring her to Southfork to recover. John Ross and Harris each dismiss Candace, who tells Emma about her father’s scheme to frame John Ross for a sex crime. Christopher tries to help Bo, who tells Heather he wants to reconcile. Drew returns to Dallas and vows revenge against the Ewings after discovering J.R. swindled the Ramoses out of their land. Elena refuses to show Pamela the video of John Ross and Emma, so Nicolas goes behind her back and sends it Pamela on his own. Nicolas also meets with his secret partners: Hunter McKay, who wants to bring down the Ewings, and the Mexican drug lord Luis, who wants to take over Ewing Global and use it to launder the cartel’s drug profits.

Cast: Jonathan Adams (Calvin Hanna), Kuno Becker (Drew Ramos), Emma Bell (Emma Ryland), Donny Boaz (Bo McCabe), Jordana Brewster (Elena Ramos), Dallas Clark (Michael), Gail Cronauer (Dr. Monika Englert), Jude Demorest (Candace Shaw), Juan Pablo Di Pace (Nicolas Treviño), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Julie Gonzalo (Pamela Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Josh Henderson (John Ross Ewing), Janeen Howard (Nadia), Antonio Jaramillo (Luis), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Fran Kranz (Hunter McKay), AnnaLynne McCord (Heather), Jesse Metcalfe (Christopher Ewing), Kevin Page (Bum), Mitch Pileggi (Harris Ryland), Brenda Strong (Ann Ewing), Pej Vahdat (Nasir Ali)

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

Critique: TNT’s ‘Dallas’ Episode 27 — ‘Trust Me’

Dallas, Harris Ryland, Judith Light, Judith Ryland, Mitch Pileggi, TNT, Trust Me

Snow job

Is “Trust Me” the most audacious episode in “Dallas” history? It’s hard to think of another one that shocked me more. Judith Ryland seals a deal with a Mexican drug lord by snorting a few lines of coke, Harris Ryland is revealed as a CIA informant — these are not the kinds of things we’re used to seeing on this show. Some fans are upset with the producers for taking our beloved franchise in such wild directions, but you’ll hear no complaints from me. “Dallas” measures its longevity in decades; at this point, I’d be disappointed if the people in charge weren’t exploring fresh storytelling terrain.

Besides, it’s not like the twists and turns come from out of nowhere. Both scenes fit with the theme of “Trust Me,” which shows how the characters deal with the people who doubt them — and how they deal with their doubts about themselves. The word “trust” pops up repeatedly: Harris tells Judith that Emma can’t be trusted. Elena and Nicolas each tell Carmen to trust their choice to work against the Ewings. Elena tells Christopher to trust her ability to handle Nicolas. Bobby wonders if the old Southfork seismographs can be trusted. Even when “trust” isn’t used, it’s implied: Witness the scene where John Ross stands in front of Pamela, raises his right hand and swears he isn’t cheating with his new secretary. Talk about splitting hairs.

And then there’s Judith’s coke-snorting scene. It’s inexplicably staged in some kind of dirt-floored equestrian arena, where the Mexican drug lord Luis is surrounded by an entourage that includes a young man holding a golden box of cocaine, several thugs toting big guns and two costumed rodeo performers who stand on horses, twirling lassos. A setting like this wouldn’t feel out of place in a Tarantino film. Judith and Harris arrive to meet with Luis, and before you know it, she’s putting Luis’s hands all over her body and talking about the importance of trust in business relationships. Judith implies the point of her self-directed pat down is to prove she’s not wearing a wire, but does anyone doubt she’s also seeking cheap thrills? For that matter, isn’t she also telegraphing a message about her mettle to Harris, who stands next to her, his mouth agape?

The scene continues with Judith shrewdly explaining how she’s going to use shell companies, wastewater trucks and unmapped roads to smuggle Luis’s drugs into Texas — and then we get to the moment that sent “Dallas” fans into a tweeting frenzy on the night “Trust Me” debuted. Judith leans into Luis’s cocaine box, snorts, throws back her head and delivers her hashtag-ready exclamation: “Hot damn! Mama like.” She even rubs a little coke on her gums for good measure. I suppose this is another way for Judith to prove her trustworthiness to the cartel, but let’s not kid ourselves: “Dallas” is trying to shock us — not that there’s anything wrong with that. I love this show’s insistence on being unpredictable. If this scene does nothing else, it demonstrates how eager the people who make “Dallas” are to entertain us. How can you not appreciate that?

As much as I admire Judith Light’s fearlessness in this scene, I have to hand it to Mitch Pileggi, whose reaction shots are priceless. (Director Millicent Shelton, who also helmed last season’s Harris-centric “Let Me In,” is smart enough to keep cutting back to him throughout Judith’s antics in the arena.) I also love how Light and Pileggi play off each other in their other scene in “Trust Me,” when Judith returns to the Ryland roost and announces she’s taking charge of the family trucking — er, transportation — business. Bruce Rasmussen’s script gives Light one delicious line after another, including an allegory that could have rolled off the silver tongue of J.R. Ewing: “Money and morality are like two cars on a one-lane road. When they meet, morality’s going to end up in the ditch.” Light savors every syllable, and once again, Pileggi holds his own. I think it’s telling that after I saw “Trust Me,” I spent more time quoting one of Harris’s lines (“You think you know what you’re getting into, but you don’t”) than any of Judith’s. I don’t know what I love more: Pileggi’s Texas accent, or the way he snarls his dialogue.

It’s also worth noting how much “Trust Me” humanizes Harris Ryland. In the scene where Judith negotiates the new deal with the cartel, notice how Harris doesn’t say a word until Luis implies he’ll hurt Emma if the Rylands don’t hold up their end of the bargain. “My daughter has nothing to do with this!” he says. For that matter, notice how Harris keeps a framed photograph of Ann with baby Emma in his office. This is a man who cares about the women in his life, even if he sometimes calls them names. (Pileggi’s other great line in this episode describes Emma: “She’s a little monster who put me in jail.”)

This also explains why I welcome the episode-ending revelation about Harris’s connection to the CIA, which requires more than a little trust on Bobby and Ann’s behalf. Like Larry Hagman, Pileggi is such a charismatic actor you can’t help but root for his character, no matter how wicked he becomes. I was having a hard time cheering for Harris, though, knowing that he was a drug trafficker. Now I’m glad I can cast those concerns aside. (I can cast them aside, right “Dallas”?) I don’t think there’s any danger of Harris turning into a white knight, but I’m glad to know there are lines he won’t cross.

Of course, as much as the Rylands fascinate me, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out how good the rest of “Trust Me” is. The Southfork barbecue scenes evoke the spirit — if not the down-home grandeur — of Ewing shindigs from days gone by. It’s fun to see John Ross rankle all the women in his life — mother, wife, mistress — by chatting up the other pretty ladies. (One is played by “Survivor” contestant Andrea Boehlke, who is Josh Henderson’s girlfriend in real life.) The only thing I enjoy more is Pamela’s hot dance with the ever-intriguing Nicolas Treviño — not just because it’s good to see Pamela give her flirtatious husband a taste of his own medicine, but also because it demonstrates why the magnetic Juan Pablo Di Pace is such a smart addition to this show. Di Pace enlivens every scene he appears in; as one of my fellow fans pointed out on Twitter the other night, he has chemistry with everyone, including Jesse Metcalfe’s Christopher, whose tête-à-tête with Nicolas over a couple of Miller Lites is another barbecue highlight.

Rasmussen’s script allows “Dallas’s” supporting performers to shine too. No one impresses me more than Kevin Page, whose character Bum has become the conscience of this show. Besides Judith Light’s dialogue, Page has the episode’s most memorable line when he shows John Ross the pictures he took of him and Emma and says, “Grow into your father’s greatness, not his weakness.” Bum’s mysterious-but-strong connection to J.R. makes him the only character on this show who can get away with putting John Ross in his place; he could become an even more effective surrogate father than Uncle Bobby. It’s tempting to chastise Bum for deceiving Sue Ellen about John Ross’s adultery, except there’s no doubt he’s only trying to spare her heartache. And am I the only one who wants to see more scenes between Page and Linda Gray?

This episode’s other M.V.P.: Marlene Forte, who has two great scenes. In the first, Carmen is aghast to learn Elena is working against the family to whom Carmen has pledged her loyalty; in the second, Carmen comes face to face with Nicolas, a boy she helped raise who is now Elena’s partner in crime. I love when Carmen touches the medal around Nicolas’s neck and tells him, “If even for a moment I sense that you are leading either of my children into the darkness, not even St. Christopher will be able to save you.” I’ve always believed Carmen has the potential to become one of this show’s moral centers, and now it looks like that might be happening.

It’s true that Nicolas’s backstory with the Ramoses is a little odd: I suppose we’re meant to believe Carmen and her husband raised him in Mexico but left him behind when they moved to Texas with their biological children, which is why Nicolas isn’t familiar to the Ewings. It’s another example of how the details on this show are sometimes fuzzy, although I’ve learned it’s not worth sweating the small stuff because the new “Dallas” almost always gets the big picture right. Will I still feel that way at the end of this season? Who knows? I have no idea where this series is headed next, but after watching its first 27 hours, I have faith in the people who make it. They’ve earned my respect — and my trust.

Grade: A

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Bum, Dallas, Kevin Page, TNT, Trust Me

Independent lens

‘TRUST ME’

Season 3, Episode 2

Telecast: March 3, 2014

Audience: 1.9 million viewers on March 3

Writer: Bruce Rasmussen

Director: Millicent Shelton

Synopsis: At Sue Ellen’s request, Bum follows John Ross, but Bum lies and tells her there’s no evidence her son is cheating on Pamela. At the Ewing Barbecue, Christopher and Heather grow closer and Pamela arouses John Ross’s jealousy by dancing with Nicolas. Elena snoops around Bobby’s laptop and discovers an email that connects him and Carlos to Rhonda. Judith takes over Harris’s drug trafficking operation and negotiates a new deal with the cartel. When Bobby and Ann begin investigating Harris’s release from jail, Harris reveals the truth to them: He’s secretly working with the CIA to bring down the cartel.

Cast: John Athas (U.S. Attorney Ellis Larsen), Emma Bell (Emma Ryland), Andrea Boehlke (barbecue guest), Jordana Brewster (Elena Ramos), Christian Clemenson (Howard Rieder), Candace (Jude Demorest), Juan Pablo Di Pace (Nicolas Treviño), Akai Draco (Sherriff Derrick), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Julie Gonzalo (Pamela Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Josh Henderson (John Ross Ewing), Antonio Jaramillo (Luis), Judith Light (Judith Ryland), AnnaLynne McCord (Heather), Jesse Metcalfe (Christopher Ewing), Kevin Page (Bum), Gino Anthony Pesi (George Tatangelo), Mitch Pileggi (Harris Ryland), Brenda Strong (Ann Ewing)

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

In Season 3, ‘Dallas’ Resets the Chessboard, J.R. Style

Dallas, John Ross Ewing, Josh Henderson, Linda Gray, Return, Sue Ellen Ewing, TNT

Welcome back, darlins

Who misses J.R.? We all do, but the third season of TNT’s “Dallas” still manages to be fun, freewheeling television — even if our beloved Larry Hagman is no longer there to breathe life into his most famous character. Watching next week’s season premiere is a little like attending a family reunion after the loss of a favorite uncle. You can’t help but wish the old guy was still around, but isn’t it nice to see everyone else again?

Besides, it’s not like J.R. is gone altogether. His memory looms large in Season 3’s first two episodes. Some examples: John Ross inherits his daddy’s Southfork-sized belt buckle and hires contractors to renovate the house using blueprints J.R. commissioned before his death. Bobby, once again at odds with his ambitious nephew, growls that John Ross isn’t “half the man” J.R. was. Bum, the Ewings’ go-to private eye who now doubles as John Ross’s conscience, urges him to “grow into your father’s greatness, not his weakness.” There’s even a much-improved painting of J.R. hanging in the Ewing offices, allowing Hagman’s visage to peer over the shoulders of the other actors as they move around the set.

With so many verbal and visual references to J.R., isn’t the show just reminding us that this franchise has lost its marquee player? Yes, but since most of us can’t tune into “Dallas” without thinking about Hagman anyway, the producers might as well acknowledge the ghost in the room. Besides, when your franchise is built on a character as endlessly fascinating as J.R. Ewing, why not use him to pull everyone’s strings from the great beyond?

That’s why “The Return,” the third-season premiere, resets the “Dallas” chessboard, J.R.-style. The episode — penned by Cynthia Cidre and Robert Rovner and directed by Steve Robin — picks up 12 hours after last year’s finale, when we learned J.R. was dying of cancer and masterminded his own “murder” so archenemy Cliff Barnes could be framed for the crime, thus ending the Barnes/Ewing feud. (Ha!) The finale also positioned John Ross as J.R.’s heir in every way, and so at the beginning of “The Return,” we learn why the young newlywed went to that hotel room to cheat with Emma, who appears to have traded her pill habit for an addiction to risky encounters with John Ross.

We’ll also hear how John Ross justifies the fling to Kevin Page’s Bum; his excuse will sound familiar to longtime “Dallas” fans who remember how J.R. used to rationalize his cheating on Sue Ellen. This storyline has upset a lot of fans of the John Ross/Pamela pairing, but it allows Josh Henderson to display the sly charisma that makes him almost as much fun to watch as Hagman was in his heyday. And even though John Ross is a cheat, we can’t help but feel charmed by his relationship with Julie Gonzalo’s Pamela, whose smoldering gaze makes her the ideal match for the oh-so-suave Henderson. Let’s acknowledge something else too: As much as we despise Emma, there’s no denying that Emma Bell is terrific in this role. Not since Mary Crosby’s Kristin have “Dallas” viewers had a vixen who’s so much fun to hate.

During last year’s execution of the Ewings’ “master plan” against Cliff, almost all of the characters got in touch with their inner J.R., but Season 3 finds the good guys returning to familiar terrain. Patrick Duffy’s Bobby slides back into his role as the heroic guardian of Southfork traditions, while Jesse Metcalfe’s Christopher gets a refreshingly angst-free romance with Heather, a new ranch hand. This role is played with equal parts spunk and sex appeal by AnnaLynne McCord, who was the best part of the CW’s “90210” and makes a welcome addition to “Dallas,” a far better revival.

(Oh, and even though “The Return” begins 12 hours after Season 2 ended, Christopher now sports a face full of scruff. How did he grow a thick beard in a half-day? It’s probably better not to ask. Let’s consider it this era’s version of Sue Ellen’s hair, which magically shortened itself between seasons in the early 1980s, even though mere minutes had passed on screen.)

“The Return” also recasts Elena, once this show’s romantic heroine, into a shrewd schemer out for revenge — or as she calls it, “justice” — after Cliff revealed J.R. once stole oil-rich land from her father, just like Jock supposedly cheated Digger out of half the Ewing fortune. This might seem like a thin premise to extend the Barnes/Ewing feud, but it gives the underappreciated Jordana Brewster something to do besides moon over Henderson and Metcalfe’s characters. Cliff and Elena’s unlikely alliance also includes Nicolas Treviño, a dashing young billionaire played by Juan Pablo Di Pace, another strong addition to this ensemble.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: What about Sue Ellen? It’s no secret Linda Gray’s character is once again headed for rock bottom this season, although she goes nowhere near a drop of booze in “The Return.” Some fans hate to see Sue Ellen drinking again; I’m not wild about the idea either, but I have no doubt Gray will deliver another knockout performance, just like she did last year. She’s Hagman’s truest heir in a lot of ways, including this one: Like him, Gray can say more with an arched eyebrow or a wry smile than most actors can with a script full of dialogue. She exudes Old Hollywood star power, and whether Sue Ellen is drunk or sober, Gray always delivers riveting television.

“Dallas” fans also want to know about a couple of other favorites, including Brenda Strong’s Ann and her dastardly ex-husband Harris, played to menacing perfection by Mitch Pileggi. Regarding them, I’ll only say this: Just because you haven’t read much about their characters in “Dallas’s” pre-premiere publicity doesn’t mean they have nothing to do in the first two episodes. I also don’t want to give anything away about Judith Light’s character Judith Ryland, except to say her return in the season’s second hour, “Trust Me,” is a hoot.

That episode, written by Bruce Rasmussen and directed by Millicent Shelton, features a Ewing family gathering that showcases the brilliance of costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin, who never fails to impress, and hairdresser Charles Yusko, whose contributions to the success of this series shouldn’t be overlooked. You’ll also want to watch “Trust Me” to see the long-awaited reunion between two characters who had a charming scene last year, along with one of the most audacious moments I’ve ever seen on “Dallas” — or any other show, for that matter.

Most importantly, the episode ends with a shock that rocks two characters and will make you reconsider everything you think you know about a third. It’s a twist you’ll never see coming — and another reason this show remains so much fun, even without the man who got the party started.

“Dallas’s” third season begins Monday, February 24, at 9 p.m. Eastern on TNT. Are you excited? Share your comments below and read more opinions from Dallas Decoder.

Critique: TNT’s ‘Dallas’ Episode 21 – ‘Let Me In’

Dallas, Emma Bell, Emma Ryland, Harris Ryland, Let Me In, Mitch Pileggi, TNT

You’re a mean one, Mr. Ryland

“Let Me In” solves the dilemma of who will fill J.R. Ewing’s boots on “Dallas.” The answer: the audience, at least for now. By shifting the focus to the “Who Killed J.R.?” mystery and its corollaries, “Where’s Pam?” and the Barnes-Ryland conspiracy, this masterfully crafted episode gives us a chance to piece together a puzzle and try to outsmart everyone else, just like our hero used to do. Despite my own attempts to analyze the latest evidence, I still have no idea where “Dallas” is going with all of this, but I’m having a hell of a lot of fun trying to figure it out.

Beyond the mysteries, “Let Me In” allows the audience to get inside the heads of several characters, beginning with Harris. His most revealing moment occurs during the scene with Emma in the darkened parking garage. They sit together in his SUV as Harris recalls the first horse Emma fell in love with as a little girl, and how it injured her when she ignored his orders to stay away from it. It doesn’t take long to realize the story parallels Emma’s relationship with Drew, who she is dating against her father’s wishes. This is why it’s so chilling when Harris reminds Emma how he had the horse put down (“that dirty animal”), and then flicks on his truck’s headlights to reveal Drew, lying on the floor of the garage, bloodied and beaten as two of Harris’s thugs hover nearby.

Everything about this scene is superb: scriptwriter Aaron Allen’s taut dialogue, Mitch Pileggi’s pitch-perfect delivery, Emma Bell’s convincing tears, the way director Millicent Shelton pans her camera across the garage and brings the SUV into the center of the shot. I also love how Pileggi and Bell are cast in a green glow, which lends the scene a kind of cinematic quality. The color might also symbolize the envy that motivates Harris. He doesn’t want Emma to stay away from Drew just because he believes the young man isn’t good enough for her; Harris is jealous of Drew, just like he’d be jealous of anyone who receives attention from his daughter.

This scene also resonates because it reflects one of “Dallas’s” central themes, which is how generational patterns are seemingly impossible to break. Cliff inherits Digger’s enmity toward the Ewings. John Ross strives to escape J.R.’s shadow while simultaneously trying to emulate him. Now we see history repeating itself within the family Ryland: Harris’s preoccupation with Emma is awfully reminiscent of his mother’s obsession with him. Yet it also seems as though Harris genuinely loves his daughter, even if he expresses it through control and manipulation. It allows us to feel a twinge of sympathy for him. (I’m not sure this show’s other villainous daddy, Cliff, loves his daughter Pamela, but that’s a debate for another day.)

Regarding Pamela: “Let Me In” does a nice job showing us her struggle to cope with the loss of her unborn children. In the nifty opening scene, we see alternating shots of Christopher tearing down the nursery at Southfork while Pamela assembles the babies’ room in her penthouse. She then sits alone amid the crib and stuffed animals, which tells us everything we need to know about her state of mind. It also offers a subtle nod to Pamela’s namesake aunt, who demonstrated similarly distressing behavior during her obsessive baby phase on the old show.

Rather smartly, “Let Me In” uses Pamela’s tragedy to generate sympathy for her character, who has engaged in some pretty unsavory practices since the new “Dallas” began. (In much the same way, Drew’s savage beating in this episode makes it easier to forgive him for his role the bombing of the Ewing Energies rig.) In this spirit, “Let Me In” also gives us the lovely scene where John Ross finds Pamela alone on her balcony, wraps his coat around her and brings her in from the cold. Allen, the scriptwriter, referred to this on Twitter the other night as an homage to “St. Elmo’s Fire,” but it also works as a metaphor for John Ross and Pamela’s relationship. These two bring out the warmth in each other. The passion they ignited at the beginning of the season has turned into something deeper, which is why the couple seems to have so many supporters among “Dallas” fans. I’m one of them. I started off rooting for John Ross and Pamela because I loved the idea of J.R. and Cliff’s children falling for each other, but now I see their relationship would make sense no matter what their last names are. They’re both driven characters with daddy issues. Of course they’d be drawn to each other.

“Let Me In” also gives us many moments of Ewing togetherness, beginning with the sequence where Bobby, Sue Ellen and the cousins huff out of the meeting with the state official who investigated the rig explosion. I don’t know about you, but I’m also enjoying the reprieve from Josh Henderson and Jesse Metcalfe’s on-screen bickering; the scene where John Ross expresses concern for Christopher after the loss of the twins makes the characters feel like real, mature men. There’s also the terrific sequence where Sue Ellen warns Lee Majors’ character, Ken Richards, about crossing the family, which recalls one of Miss Ellie’s most memorable moments from the old show. I also like when Sue Ellen spots Emma in the bar, and when she tells Ann about it later. A lot of fans have noted the similarities between Lucy and Emma, but I wonder if Sue Ellen recognizes a little of herself in Emma’s self-destructive tendencies?

“Let Me In’s” other highlights include the arrival of Governor McConaughey, played to smirking perfection by Steven Weber, as well as the second appearance from Majors, whose conflicted character gets to become a hero when he alerts Sue Ellen to Harris’s connection to McConaughey. The captivating Emily Kosloski (Patrick Duffy’s daughter-in-law), in the meantime, does a brief-but-memorable turn as Rhonda, the club hostess who may or may not be the last woman to see J.R. alive.

I also love “Let Me In’s” two episode-ending montages. In the first, Bobby lets Sue Ellen in on the secret that J.R. was devising a master plan against the family’s enemies when he died. Duffy delivers his character’s recap over slow-motion scenes of Bobby and Sue Ellen examining the evidence. In the second montage, Harris sits in the governor’s office and gives McConaughey a lesson on the hunting habits of the Komodo dragon, explaining how it injects its prey with venom and waits for its slow death. As Harris speaks, we watch the Ewings make the unsettling discovery that the governor has used his office to stop the flow of oil from Southfork, effectively cutting off the family’s fortune.

This dramatic ending leaves me wondering how the Ewings are going to get out of this latest jam. I wonder something else too. What does Pileggi savor more: the nuts he’s munching in this scene or the delicious dialogue Allen has written for him?

Grade: A

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Dallas, Ken Richards, Lee Majors, Let Me In, TNT

Enter the hero

‘LET ME IN’

Season 2, Episode 11

Telecast: April 1, 2013

Writer: Aaron Allen

Director: Millicent Shelton

Audience: 2.6 million viewers on April 1

Synopsis: The state concludes a technical glitch is to blame for the rig explosion and fines Ewing Energies $1 billion. After Governor Sam McConaughey forces him to resign from his post, Ken lets Sue Ellen know the governor is in Harris’s pocket. Later, McConaughey’s administration seizes the Henderson property, cutting off the flow of oil from Southfork. Bobby determines Christopher will inherit Pam’s share of Barnes Global if she’s dead. Harris has Drew beaten when Emma refuses to stop seeing him.

Cast: Kuno Becker (Drew Ramos), Emma Bell (Emma Brown), Jordana Brewster (Elena Ramos), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Alex Fernandez (Roy Vickers), Julie Gonzalo (Pamela Barnes), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Castulo Guerra (Carlos del Sol), Christian Heep (Travis), Josh Henderson (John Ross Ewing), Emily Kosloski (Rhonda), Lee Majors (Ken Richards), Jesse Metcalfe (Christopher Ewing), Jack O’Donnell (Emma’s friend), Mitch Pileggi (Harris Ryland), Natalie Quintanilla (Stacy), Jeffrey Schmidt (Scott Taylor), Brenda Strong (Ann Ewing), Steven Weber (Governor Sam McConaughey)

“Let Me In” 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.