Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 186 — ‘Sentences’

Dallas, Jenna Wade, Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, Sentences

It’s a crime

Do you hate to see the judge send Jenna Wade to prison in “Sentences”? I do. Not because I think it’s unfair to punish Priscilla Beaulieu Presley’s character for a crime she didn’t commit. No, I’m sorry to see Jenna go to jail because I know she’ll be free by the end of the season. Think about it: If “Dallas” took place in real time, Jenna’s seven-year sentence means she’d be released in the spring of 1992, about a year after the series had gone off the air. How nice would it have been to never have to look at her again after this episode?

I know that sounds harsh, so let me make something clear: I have nothing against Presley, who is a capable and appealing actress. My gripe is with her hollow character. Jenna’s personality changes depending on whatever the story calls for. When the show needed someone to threaten Bobby and Pam’s marriage, Jenna (played by Morgan Fairchild and later, Francine Tacker) was a conniving vixen. Once Bobby and Pam were divorced and Patrick Duffy needed a new leading lady, Jenna was recast with Presley and turned into someone the audience could root for: a down-on-her-luck single mom who was willing to wait tables to make ends meet. Now that “Dallas” is laying the groundwork for Bobby and Pam’s reconciliation, Jenna has been reduced to a plot device. She exists solely to illustrate Bobby’s nobility: He’s such a good guy, he’ll fight to keep her out of jail, even though his heart belongs to another woman.

More than anything, this is why Jenna’s eighth-season storyline is one of “Dallas’s” worst narrative miscues. The show is asking the audience to invest in a character who is maddeningly inconsistent. To get an idea of what I mean, imagine if Sue Ellen was tried for murder instead of Jenna. Sure, we’d probably complain the court scenes were draggy, but the writers also would have had a deeper, richer character to build a storyline around. Sue Ellen might have collapsed under the pressure of a trial or she might have risen to the occasion and fought to prove her innocence, but you can bet the character would have been recognizable in either instance. Jenna, on the other hand, becomes a different person every time her circumstances change.

As much as Presley’s character weighs down “Sentences,” the episode isn’t a total loss. The show continues to slowly restore Larry Hagman’s character, giving J.R. a good scene in which he shows Nathan Billings the tape he made of him sleeping with Rhonda Cummings. When Billings sees himself on the TV, director Michael Preece appears to zoom in on actor Nicolas Pryor while pulling back the camera, a neat trick that recalls a similar shot of Roy Scheider in “Jaws.” (Spielberg himself borrowed the technique from Hitchcock.) In another clever touch, Preece uses the mirrors in J.R. and Sue Ellen’s bedroom to show us both characters’ expressions when she confronts him about his affair with Mandy. I also like how J.R. initially denies the affair, but as he stands at the dresser and slowly empties his pockets, he eventually unburdens himself and acknowledges the truth: Not only is he sleeping with Mandy, he’s fallen for her.

“Sentences” also offers an encounter between J.R. and Pam, although it isn’t quite as entertaining as their confrontation a few episodes ago in “Legacy of Hate.” J.R. visits his ex-sister-in-law and says that now that Jenna has gone to jail, he hopes Bobby and Pam will reconcile. Her response (“Did you suddenly find religion, or did your doctor tell you that you only have a week to live?”) isn’t as amusing today as it was in 1985, but more importantly, I wish we knew what J.R. is up to. Are we supposed to assume he wants Pam back on Southfork so she’ll stop supporting Cliff’s lawsuit to seize two-thirds of Ewing Oil? Ambiguities aside, I love how this scene begins: Pam is giving Christopher an afternoon snack when J.R. arrives and bends down to receive a kiss from the boy, only to end up with a cheek full of graham cracker crumbs. Eric Farlow’s reaction upon spotting Hagman (“Uncle J.R.!”) is also charming.

Other small but memorable moments in “Sentences” include Jackie interrupting Cliff and Pam to relay a radio news bulletin that Jenna has been found guilty. Sherril Lynn Katzman is quite good here; her expression lets us know that Jackie realizes her announcement will annoy Cliff, but she’s going to deliver the news anyway because Pam deserves to know. I also get a kick out of a later scene in which Cliff bursts into Pam’s office to tell her that Bobby has confessed to being Charlie’s father to gain custody of her. Who doesn’t get a kick out of Cliff’s description of the girl: “What’s that kid’s name? Charlie?” (At least Cliff is better informed than Ray, who mistakenly refers to Mickey as his nephew in this episode.)

“Sentences” also includes a memorable scene at the Oil Baron’s Club, where Marilee runs into Sue Ellen and eagerly tells her that J.R. was recently spotted around town with Mandy. This is delicious and fun, and not just because Linda Gray and Fern Fitzgerald are dressed to the nines. It’s also interesting to see the actresses share a scene and be reminded that their characters were once ladies who lunched and volunteered together on the charity circuit. The death of Marilee’s husband and her rise to power in his company moved her out of Sue Ellen’s orbit and into J.R.’s, but when you go back and watch Fitzgerald’s early appearances, you can see hints of the snide, cutting character she’d eventually become. Marilee’s steady, consistent development over the years makes her another contrast with whichever-the-way-the-wind blows Jenna.

You can also see Marilee as a template for Sue Ellen, who’ll eventually join her frenemy in the business world. At this point during “Dallas’s” run, though, Sue Ellen and Marilee are leading very different lives, although it’s not like they have nothing in common. I mean, do these bitches know how to rock a hat or what?

Grade: B

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Dallas, Linda Gray, Sentences, Sue Ellen Ewing

Top hat

‘SENTENCES’

Season 8, Episode 25

Airdate: March 29, 1985

Audience: 19.5 million homes, ranking 6th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Michael Preece

Synopsis: J.R. blackmails Billings into shutting down Cliff’s offshore oil operation and urges Pam to reconcile with Bobby. When Jenna is sentenced to a seven-year prison term, Bobby is awarded custody of Charlie and resumes his investigation into Veronica’s death. Marilee tells Sue Ellen about J.R.’s affair with Mandy. Ray urges Lucy to contact Mitch.

Cast: Mary Armstrong (Louise), Pat Colbert (Dora Mae), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Marj Dusay (Bernice Billings), Stephen Elliott (Scotty Demarest), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Heidi Hagman (Jury Forewoman), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Jenilee Harrison (Jamie Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Virginia Kiser (Judge Roberta Fenerty), Frederic Lehne (Eddie Cronin), Laura Malone (Janice Hopper), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), Allan Miller (Assistant District Attorney Frederick Hoskins), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Nicholas Pryor (Nathan Billings), Donna Reed (Miss Ellie Farlow), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Sherril Lynn Rettino (Jackie Dugan), Dean Santoro (Raymond Furguson), Deborah Shelton (Mandy Winger), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis)

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