Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 143 — ‘Barbecue Four’

Barbara Bel Geddes, Barbecue Four, Dallas, Miss Ellie Ewing

The return

Mama’s back! In “Barbecue Four,” Barbara Bel Geddes returns to “Dallas” after being absent from the previous 11 episodes. In real life, the actress was recovering from heart surgery, so the producers temporarily wrote her out of the show by having Clayton whisk Miss Ellie away so she could distance herself from J.R. and Bobby’s bitter battle for Ewing Oil. I’m glad “Dallas” gave Bel Geddes time off, but I wish the writers had come up with a better excuse for her character’s absence. Ellie is so emotionally fragile, she had to run away? That’s not the mama I know.

Regardless, it’s good to have Bel Geddes back. She is the original “Dallas’s” best actress, bringing warmth and grace to a show that could always use a little more of both. Bel Geddes makes Ellie feel like the kind of person you might know in real life, which can’t be said about a lot of other “Dallas” characters, no matter how much we love them. I didn’t realize how much I missed her until she pops up again in “Barbecue Four.” (On the other hand, Bel Geddes’ time away did offer a bright spot: It allowed Sue Ellen to finally fulfill her dream of becoming the lady of the manor. It’s fun to see her take charge of planning the annual Ewing Barbecue in this episode and the previous one, and I like how the writers use Sue Ellen to fill the void left by Southfork’s original nurturer-in-chief. In “The Quality of Mercy,” for example, we see Sue Ellen give Lucy advice on coping with Mickey’s paralysis. If Bel Geddes had been around, I suspect Ellie would have been the one dispensing wisdom to Lucy.)

I also appreciate how “Barbecue Four” scriptwriter Arthur Bernard Lewis and director Leonard Katzman give Bel Geddes a dramatic entrance. It begins with the Ewings gathered in the Southfork dining room, where J.R. is lobbing one sly insult after another at his relatives. (My favorite: “That’s right, Ray. You sit where Gary used to. You two have so much in common.”) When J.R. raises his glass in tribute to “Ewing traditions,” we hear a woman’s familiar voice off-screen: “May we join you in that toast?” The camera cuts to Bel Geddes and Howard Keel standing in the doorway as Katzman zooms in on Ellie; soon all the Ewings are on their feet, hugging and kissing their beaming mama. It’s another reminder of why Bel Geddes is so essential to “Dallas.” When she’s around, these characters feel like a family.

Of course, the cozy atmosphere doesn’t last long. After the Ewings have welcomed Ellie home, she sits at the table and invites Clayton to join the family for dinner. He silently takes a place across from her, sliding into the seat Jock once occupied. Ellie smiles nonchalantly, but Bobby and Ray appear unnerved and J.R. looks positively stricken. What I like best about this moment is how it plays on the audience’s familiarity with “Dallas’s” customs. No mention of Jock is made, but none is needed. Katzman and Lewis trust the viewer to recognize what a momentous occasion it is to see another man sitting in Jock’s seat. I feel sorry for Clayton — the poor chap doesn’t know what he’s getting into, does he? — but no matter how you feel about Keel’s character, the fact that “Dallas” is able to create a dramatic moment out of someone sitting down is impressive.

“Barbecue Four” also includes a lot of other fun scenes, including the sequence where J.R. drops by Pam’s house to invite her, Cliff and their significant others to the Ewings’ annual barbecue. The only thing that amuses me more than seeing J.R. pretend to be nice to the Barneses is seeing how Cliff and Pam seem to buy his Mr. Nice Guy act. Then again, Larry Hagman almost convinces me that J.R. is being sincere. The barbecue scenes are also a kick. These events always yield a dramatic moment or two, and this one is no exception: Bobby has a tense confrontation with Mark, Sue Ellen sneaks off to the barn to see Peter and Pam runs into Charlie Wade, who doesn’t seem to hold a grudge against Pam for swiping her doll during the second season.

Lewis’s script seems to contain a couple of inside jokes too. In one scene, Peter and Lucy exit a movie theater after seeing a sci-fi flick. He bemoans the plot and declares, “It’ll drive me right back to TV.” Is this a nod to Christopher Atkins’ own film career? (A few weeks before “Barbecue Four” debuted, the actor’s latest film, “A Night in Heaven,” was released. He played an exotic dancer who fell for an older woman.) Later, Afton watches Cliff stuffing himself with food at the barbecue and compares him to a squirrel getting ready for winter. His response: “Baby, this is going to be the best winter ever. It’s going to be Christmas every day.” Is it a coincidence that Cliff refers to the holiday in this episode, which debuted nine days before Christmas 1983?

Finally, some casting trivia. “Barbecue Four” introduces Pat Colbért as Dora Mae, the hostess at the Oil Baron’s Club, while Peyton E. Park once again plays Larry, the Ewings’ caterer, who also appeared in the two previous barbecue-themed episodes. Most notably, Mitch Pileggi makes his “Dallas” debut in “Barbecue Four.” The actor, who now stars on TNT’s “Dallas” as Harris Ryland, had a few small roles on the original series, beginning with a part in this episode as a rowdy cowboy who harasses Jenna while she’s waiting tables. In the scene, Bobby tries to rescue Jenna, but she sends him away and says she can take care of herself as Pileggi flashes his wicked grin at Patrick Duffy. Who knew these two were just getting warmed up?

Grade: B

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Barbecue Four, Clayton Farlow, Dallas, Howard Keel

Changing of the guard

‘BARBECUE FOUR’

Season 7, Episode 12

Airdate: December 16, 1983

Audience: 22 million homes, ranking 3rd in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Leonard Katzman

Synopsis: Miss Ellie returns home and announces her engagement to Clayton. With J.R.’s blessing, Sly feeds Cliff information about a lucrative deal, which Cliff steals. Ray and Donna entertain her friend Edgar Randolph, a federal government official who is overseeing the auction of offshore oil leases. Peter accepts Lucy’s invitation to the Ewing Barbecue, where he sneaks off with Sue Ellen and professes his love for her. Katherine travels to Italy and obtains a copy of Charlie’s birth certificate, which lists Bobby as the father.

Cast: Christopher Albee (Travis Boyd), Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Martin E. Brooks (Edgar Randolph), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Pat Colbért (Dora Mae), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Anne Lucas (Cassie), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), Alberto Morin (Armando Sidoni), Peyton E. Park (Larry), Mitch Pileggi (bar patron), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Peter Renaday (Rigsby), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis)

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

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 138 — ‘Ray’s Trial’

Dallas, Ray Krebbs, Ray's Trial, Steve Kanaly

His day in court

I always remembered the mystery surrounding Mickey Trotter’s death as boiling down to a single question: Did Ray or Lil pull the plug on him? Last week, when I re-watched “Ray’s Trial” for the first time in a few years, I realized “Dallas” also poses a second, more complicated question: Did Mickey want to live or die? Ray and Lucy each offer different answers during the course of the episode, and technically, both of their statements are accurate. Does that mean both statements are also true? I’m not sure anyone can answer that definitively, which makes the storyline feel a lot more interesting than I previously gave it credit for.

To appreciate this aspect of “Ray’s Trial,” it’s worth remembering two crucial scenes from the preceding episodes. In “My Brother’s Keeper,” when Mickey is struggling to come to grips with his paralysis, he pulls Ray aside and tells him, “The idea of living like a vegetable with some damn machine keeping me alive disgusts me. It’s the worst horror I can imagine. … If it happens, I hope and pray that no one’s going to let me live that way.” Later, in “The Quality of Mercy,” Mickey’s mood brightens when he realizes Lucy is determined to stand by him despite the fact that he’ll never walk again. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll get married yet,” Mickey tells her.

But this is “Dallas,” so of course that never happens. When Mickey slips into a coma, his respirator is disconnected off-screen by either Ray or Lil, the two people with him at the time. The district attorney charges Ray, although the show goes out of its way to drop hints that the real culprit is Lil and Ray is only covering up for her. “Dallas” doesn’t solve the mystery until the next episode, allowing the audience to spend “Ray’s Trial” pondering what Mickey wanted, which turns out to be the more interesting question anyway. At the top of the hour, Ray meets with his lawyer and recalls Mickey’s “worst horror” comment, holding this up as evidence that Mickey preferred death to being kept alive via medical machinery. Later, when Lucy testifies at Ray’s trial, she recalls the marriage plans she and Mickey were making before he slipped into the coma. “He wanted to live. He really did,” she says.

Once again, these are two characters offering two technically accurate but fundamentally different answers to the question of whether Mickey wanted to live or die. Who you choose to believe may come down to where you stand on the issue of euthanasia, which is where “Ray’s Trial” ultimately falls short. Scriptwriter Arthur Bernard Lewis doesn’t devote much time to examining the moral implications of Mickey’s death, which is somewhat surprising considering the difference of opinion Ray and Donna apparently bring to the issue. At one point, Ray tells his lawyer, “What I did was not immoral.” This seems to put him at odds with Donna, whose personal beliefs are hinted at in the previous episode when she declares, “Nobody has the right to play God.” So why doesn’t “Ray’s Trial” give us a scene of husband and wife debating the issue?

Even if the material feels incomplete, Steve Kanaly makes the most of it. In my recent interview with him, Kanaly recalled growing up watching westerns and admiring actors like Gary Cooper. The comment must have lodged itself in the back of my mind because when I watched “Ray’s Trial” a few days later, I was struck by how much Kanaly reminds me of Cooper. The actors share similarly quiet, dignified mannerisms, and both are able to say a lot without uttering a single line of dialogue. In Kanaly’s case, watch his haunted eyes in this episode and you’ll see everything that the script doesn’t tell us about what Ray is feeling.

The other performer to watch is Charlene Tilton, who appears only twice but makes a lasting impression. She does a beautiful job delivering Lucy’s tearful testimony, which supplies “Ray’s Trial” with its moment of emotional catharsis. My favorite scene, though, comes a few moments later, when Donna comforts Lucy in the courthouse corridor after Lucy reluctantly testifies against Ray. This is a brief scene and the script doesn’t give Tilton much dialogue, but none is needed. Her anguished expression says it all. The courtroom scenes also feature a couple of old pros — Richard Jaeckel as prosecutor Percy Meredith and Glenn Corbett as Paul Morgan, Ray’s defense lawyer — as well as a young Steven Williams, who appears here as a bailiff and later plays the police captain on “21 Jump Street.”

This episode’s other notable moments include Mark Graison’s polo match, which might be “Dallas’s” most thrilling horseback riding sequence since Jock Ewing surged across the Southfork plains at the beginning of the second-season classic “Bypass.” “Ray’s Trial” also marks Lois Chiles’ final appearance as Holly Harwood. In her last scene, Holly approaches J.R. in a cocktail lounge and taunts him over losing the battle for Ewing Oil. Besides giving Chiles one last opportunity to spar with Larry Hagman, I like how this scene mimics J.R. and Holly’s first on-screen encounter, which also takes place in a cocktail lounge.

The other highlight of “Ray’s Trial” is the arrival of Priscilla Presley, who makes her “Dallas” debut as Jenna Wade. It’s a fine first appearance, although it includes a bit of a curiosity. In one of Presley’s scenes, Bobby pulls up in front of Jenna’s home as she approaches the sidewalk. He invites her to join him for lunch, but when director Michael Preece offers us a close-up shot of Bobby’s car radio, we see the clock reads “5:45.” From this, we can deduce one of two things: Either Ewings eat lunch very late, which makes them a lot different than you and me, or Bobby has yet to figure out how to set the clock in his car, in which case he’s just like us.

Grade: B

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Dallas, Jenna Wade, Priscilla Presley, Ray's Trial

Hello again

‘RAY’S TRIAL’

Season 7, Episode 7

Airdate: November 11, 1983

Audience: 22.4 million homes, ranking 2nd in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Michael Preece

Synopsis: Ray goes on trial and frustrates Donna with his reluctance to defend himself. Bobby runs into Jenna, who now works as a waitress. J.R. woos the cartel.

Cast: Charles Aidman (Judge Emmett Brocks), Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Lois Chiles (Holly Harwood), Glenn Corbett (Paul Morgan), Michael Cornelison (Dr. Snow), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Steven Fuller (bailiff), Tony Garcia (Raoul), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Richard Jaeckel (Assistant District Attorney Percy Meredith), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing),  Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Joseph R. Maross (Dr. Blakely), Andrea McCall (Tracy Anders), Priscilla Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Kate Reid (Lil Trotter), Paul Sorensen (Andy Bradley), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing)

“Ray’s Trial” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Dallas Scene of the Day: ‘Southfork Should Be Yours’

Dallas, John Ross Ewing, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Omri Katz, Quality of Mercy

Lessons from Daddy

In “The Quality of Mercy,” a seventh-season “Dallas” episode, John Ross (Omri Katz) is lying in bed when J.R. (Larry Hagman) enters the room.

J.R.: You still awake?

JOHN ROSS: Yes, Daddy.

J.R.: Want me to tuck you in?

JOHN ROSS: Yes.

J.R.: [Kneels beside the bed, adjusts the blanket] You had a good day at camp?

JOHN ROSS: Yes, but there’s a bigger boy there that’s mean to me.

J.R.: [Concerned] Mean to you? What’s his name?

JOHN ROSS: I don’t know.

J.R.: Well, I’ll tell you what. You find out his daddy’s name and I’ll see what I can do about getting him kicked out of camp — and maybe out of Dallas. I’m not going to have anybody picking on my boy.

JOHN ROSS: Peter talked to him, and he said he wouldn’t be mean anymore.

J.R.: Oh, Peter did, did he? Well, that’s good. That’s good. But the one person you come to when you’re in trouble is your daddy. You remember that. I’ll make everything good for you. Matter of fact, I’ll make everybody happy around here. I’m going to make your Uncle Bobby happy by making sure that he won’t have to worry about running Ewing Oil. And that’ll make your mama happy, seeing that we’re not fighting anymore. Well, and then I have a feeling that pretty soon, Uncle Bobby’s going to be leaving Southfork too. And that’ll leave everything for me — and for you. That’d be fun, huh?

JOHN ROSS: I guess so.

J.R.: No, son. No, that’s one thing you’ve got to be sure of. Ewing Oil and Southfork should be yours. And I’m going to get ’em for you. [Smiles, kisses him on the forehead] Night now.