Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 142 — ‘To Catch a Sly’

Dallas, Debbie Rennard, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Sly Lovegren, To Catch a Sly

Spy another day

One of the reasons J.R. Ewing is so entertaining is because he’s always a few steps ahead of the “Dallas” audience. We watch him plot and scheme, never knowing what trick he’s going to pull out of his sleeve next. That’s why the show’s seventh-season corporate espionage storyline is so unusual. From the beginning, viewers know Cliff Barnes is blackmailing J.R.’s secretary Sly into leaking Ewing Oil secrets, but J.R. is in the dark. Interestingly, this never makes Larry Hagman’s character seem weak or even vulnerable. In fact, it has almost the opposite effect, because we know once J.R. finds out who’s betraying him, there’s going to be hell to pay.

Indeed, that’s pretty much what happens in “To Catch a Sly.” When the episode begins, J.R. has just learned Cliff has a spy at Ewing Oil but he doesn’t know who it is, so he goes to work trying to root out the fink. He finally discovers Sly is the culprit in the fourth act, and in the closing moments, he confronts her. This scene begins with Sly at her desk at the end of a workday, getting ready to go home. J.R. appears in his office doorway and summons her inside. She swallows hard before entering the room, where J.R. makes small talk and begins opening a bottle of wine. “You know, you’ve been looking a little peaked lately, Sly,” he says. She tells him she’s been having “some personal problems,” adding that “it’s nothing serious.” J.R. turns toward her, hands her the glass of wine he just poured and says, “If it’s the problem I’m thinking of, it’s very serious indeed.” Uh-oh.

What follows is one of the great “Dallas” moments. Sly sits in one of J.R.’s guest chairs as he walks to his desk and retrieves a stack of photos that show her and Cliff during some of their secret meetings. The director, Michael Preece, keeps Debbie Rennard in the foreground as Hagman hovers in the distance, holding the pictures aloft. With this shot, Preece encapsulates the whole storyline: Here’s J.R., the businessman who’s been betrayed; Sly, the secretary who’s been forced to double-cross her boss; and Cliff, the smarmy enemy who’s stooped to a new low in his never-ending quest for vengeance. As soon as I saw how Preece framed this scene, I knew it would be the image that accompanied this critique.

As the sequence continues, J.R. slowly shuffles through the photos, showing them to Sly one by one. “You recognize anybody in these pictures?” he asks. She stares at the floor in silence. “Sure, you do,” he says. “This is you, and this is Cliff Barnes.” Hagman’s voice is calm, soft, almost melodic. It reminds me of Mister Rogers addressing an audience of children, although when J.R. speaks this way, it’s anything but reassuring. Preece, who has been focusing on the pictures in a tight close-up, pans upward and allows Hagman’s face to fill the frame. Finally, J.R. poses the question he’s been waiting to ask: “Sly, why did you betray me to that man?”

The line alleviates the tension because it suggests J.R. is going to stop torturing Sly with politeness and cut to the chase. He listens as she tearfully explains how Cliff pressured her to sneak him advanced information about J.R.’s business dealings by threatening to prevent her jailed brother from being paroled. In a clever touch, Rennard doesn’t make eye contact with Hagman until Sly says, “J.R., I love my brother. I couldn’t pass up a chance to help him.” Preece cuts to a reaction shot from J.R., whose face displays a flicker of recognition. He knows a thing or two about brotherly love, after all.

Indeed, this is the moment we know J.R. is going to show Sly mercy. He tells her that he’s pleased she didn’t try to “cover up” when he confronted her with the pictures, and then Hagman lifts the corners of his mouth, ever so slightly. You can practically see the wheels turning inside J.R.’s head. He suggests he’s going to turn Sly into a double agent, using her to feed Cliff bad information. “You’re going to set him up?” she asks. J.R. shakes his head no. “He set himself up,” he says. “What I’m going to do is bring him down — and bring him down very, very hard.”

The episode ends there, leaving us with plenty to ponder. For starters: How twisted is it that J.R. turns out to be pleased by this turn of events? He now has an excuse to go after Cliff with gusto, not that he needs one; batting around Cliff has always been J.R.’s favorite sport. For a moment, I also wondered if J.R.’s vow to “bring him down” reflected paternal feelings toward Sly. In other words: Does he want to avenge her honor after Cliff took advantage of her? Ultimately, I decided that’s not what’s happening here. I have no doubt J.R. has affection for Sly, but if he really cared about her, would he turn her into a double agent? Isn’t he treating her like a pawn, just like Cliff did?

Regardless, Rennard does a nice job conveying Sly’s shame and guilt, as well as the character’s paranoia in her earlier scenes in “To Catch a Sly,” when Sly realizes J.R. is closing in on her. This episode also reminds us how much Hagman’s performance has evolved over the years. Remember: This isn’t the first time one of J.R.’s secretaries has betrayed him. In “Spy in the House,” the show’s third episode, Julie Grey sneaks a copy of Ewing Oil’s notorious “red file” to Cliff. When J.R. discovers Julie double-crossed him, he looks devastated, but Hagman offers no hint that J.R. feels personally wounded by Sly’s treachery. At this point during “Dallas’s” run, the actor had long since honed J.R.’s killer instincts, and that’s what he gives the audience here.

David Paulsen’s sharp script gives us lots to consider besides this final scene. For example, when J.R. drops by Cliff’s office and plants the recording device in his phone, I wondered: Would Cliff really be foolish enough to allow J.R. to use his office when he isn’t there? I decided he would be. I’ve always believed Cliff doesn’t want to beat J.R. as much as he wants to be J.R. Cliff mimics his enemy as far back as the second-season episode “For Love or Money,” when he uses one of J.R.’s own lines to break up with Sue Ellen. Cliff also emulates him when he blackmails Sly, tossing around the word “baby” the way J.R. does “darlin’.” So in “To Catch a Sly,” when J.R. shows up on Cliff’s doorstep to congratulate him on his recent victories over Ewing Oil, I can buy that Cliff is so blinded by the idea that J.R. is impressed with him that he lets down his guard and leaves him alone in his office. Besides, just because Cliff is devious doesn’t mean he’s smart.

“Dallas’s” various romantic entanglements also take interesting twists in “To Catch a Sly.” The episode opens with the newly divorced Pam awakening after sleeping with Mark for the first time, while Bobby continues to resist bedding Jenna, even though she says she wants to have sex with him. Did you ever expect to see a Ewing man insist on taking things slowly with a woman? Meanwhile, Sue Ellen’s ongoing May/December flirtation with Peter Richards leaves me feeling a little cold, at least in this episode. Until now, I’ve been intrigued by Sue Ellen and Peter’s connection, but he seems a little bratty — not to mention stalkerish — when he follows her to her appointment with hairdresser Mr. David. (By the way: Mr. David has evidently moved to new digs since the exterior of his salon doesn’t match the building used in the previous season. And where’s the valet parking?)

Finally, a few words about the technology displayed in “To Catch a Sly.” This episode seems to offer more than the usual share of gadgets and gizmos that were considered cutting-edge in 1983 and now seem hopelessly dated. Examples: J.R. wears a pager on his belt when he visits Cliff’s office, and after he bugs his phone, he listens to the recorded conversations on what appears to be a Sony Walkman. (How, exactly, does the little device that J.R. drops into Cliff’s receiver yield audiocassette recordings of Cliff’s calls?) Later, when Katherine goes to the library to dig up dirt on Jenna, she looks up old newspaper articles on microfiche. Finally, when J.R. brings John Ross to the Ewing Oil offices, the little boy pounds on the keyboard attached to Sly’s computer, which has a monitor that seems to display graphics in two colors: white and blue.

Look closely and you’ll also see the logo of the company that made the machine: Texas Instruments. What else would you expect from the Ewings?

Grade: A

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Dallas, Debbie Rennard, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Sly Lovegren, To Catch a Sly

Busted

‘TO CATCH A SLY’

Season 7, Episode 11

Airdate: December 9, 1983

Audience: 23 million homes, ranking 3rd in the weekly ratings

Writer: David Paulsen

Director: Michael Preece

Synopsis: J.R. discovers Sly is spying on him for Cliff and decides to turn her into a double agent. Bobby is bothered when he discovers Pam slept with Mark. Katherine noses around in Jenna’s past. Sue Ellen begins planning the annual Ewing Barbecue and feels envious when Lucy expresses interest in dating Peter.

Cast: Mary Armstrong (Louise), Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), James L. Brown (Detective Harry McSween), 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), Sherril Lynn Katzman (Jackie Dugan), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Lisa LeMole (Judy Baker), Edward Mallory (Stanger), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Danone Simpson (Kendall), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis)

“To Catch a Sly” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 139 — ‘The Oil Baron’s Ball’

Dallas, Linda Gray, OIl Baron's Ball, Sue Ellen Ewing

Open door policy

J.R. and Sue Ellen’s relationship takes a lot of twists over the years, but nothing fascinates me more than when she starts emulating him. It begins during Linda Gray’s final seasons on the original “Dallas,” when Sue Ellen becomes a wheeler-dealer in business, and it continues on TNT’s sequel series, when we see her reach into J.R.’s bag of tricks to defeat enemies like Governor McConaughey. In “The Oil Baron’s Ball,” Sue Ellen’s transformation into J.R.’s protégé is still a few years away, but this episode nonetheless offers a glimpse of where Gray’s character is headed. By the end of the hour, we see just how much Sue Ellen is learning at the feet of the master.

Gray has three notable scenes in this episode. In the first, Sue Ellen is strolling through a park when she notices all the happy young couples surrounding her. Eventually, she comes across a group of attractive, shirtless men playing football and stops to watch. Writer-director Leonard Katzman shows the game in slow motion, allowing the camera to linger on the players. There’s no doubt what this scene is supposed to represent: Sue Ellen’s sexual desires, which have gone unfulfilled since she moved out of J.R.’s bedroom several episodes earlier. By today’s standards, the football scene seems a little campy — especially when all those half-naked, straight-from-the-80s hunks start falling all over each other — but it also strikes me as surprisingly progressive. Here’s “Dallas,” easily one of the era’s most chauvinistic TV shows, taking a moment to acknowledge that women don’t exist solely to please men; they have needs of their own. How can you not admire that?

As soon as the football scene ends, Katzman cuts to Southfork that night, where J.R. is reading in bed. Suddenly, the door opens, revealing Sue Ellen’s silhouette. “Do you want something?” he asks. She strides into the room, flings the door closed behind her and climbs onto the bed. “Yes, I want something,” she says, taking the book out of J.R.’s hand and kissing him aggressively as the screen fades to black. The next time we see the couple, Sue Ellen is turning on the bedside lamp as a beaming J.R. watches from under the covers. When she tells him she’s going back to her room, he’s confused. Sue Ellen explains: “You see, J.R., I have no desire to live with you. Now, granted, from time to time, I may need you. And if and when that happens, then I’ll be back. But that’s all. That’s as close to being married as we will ever be.” J.R. is furious and accuses her of treating him like “some kind of stud service.” Her response: “What other possible use would I have for you?”

This is a terrific scene for a lot of reasons, beginning with Gray’s playfully sultry delivery. It’s a moment of triumph for Sue Ellen — and Gray savors every second of it. Indeed, consider how far her character has come: In “Spy in the House,” “Dallas’s” third episode, a sexually neglected Sue Ellen buys a negligee, hoping to get J.R.’s attention; when he calls it “cheap” and walks out on her, she collapses in tears. Sue Ellen soon begins turning to other men, but “The Oil Baron’s Ball” marks the first time we see her take charge of her sexual relationship with J.R. It puts her on the same page as Pam, who is the original “Dallas’s” most sexually liberated woman (occasionally incurring her own husband’s wrath). Perhaps more anything, J.R. and Sue Ellen’s bedroom scene is an exercise in poetic justice: The man who has treated countless mistresses as sexual playthings now gets a taste of his own medicine — and from his wife, no less.

Sue Ellen’s most J.R.-like moment in “The Oil Baron’s Ball” is yet to come. In the third act, our newly empowered heroine visits Windsor Meadow and sends John Ross to summon Peter, the camp counselor to whom she finds herself increasingly attracted. Sue Ellen asks Peter to escort Lucy to this year’s Oil Baron’s Ball, although it’s pretty obvious that Sue Ellen really wants Peter for herself, not for her niece. Peter is reluctant to accept — the young man harbors a secret crush on Sue Ellen and has never even met Lucy — but every time he comes up with an excuse to not go, Sue Ellen is one step ahead of him. When Peter tells her that he would feel out of place at the ball, she responds there’s no place he wouldn’t fit in perfectly. When he says he doesn’t own a dark suit, Sue Ellen reveals she has already arranged for him to visit J.R.’s tailor to be fitted for a tuxedo, compliments of her. Peter has no choice but to say yes, demonstrating once again how much she has learned from her husband. Sue Ellen has always had a manipulative streak, but her use of charm, confidence and gifts to bend Peter’s will comes straight from J.R.’s playbook.

The rest of “The Oil Baron’s Ball” is a mix of heavy drama and light moments. The episode picks up where the previous hour left off, with Lil taking the stand in Ray’s trial and revealing he did indeed pull the plug on Mickey, but only because she couldn’t bring herself to do it. This is a fake-out worthy of TNT’s “Dallas” (admit it: you thought Lil was the culprit), and Kate Reid does a nice job delivering her character’s monologue. The most moving moment, though, comes when Donna tells Ray that even though she believes he had no right to take Mickey’s life, she doesn’t want him to go prison for it. I love this scene because Susan Howard is so good in it — she makes me feel very ounce of Donna’s anguish — and also because it clearly spells out the character’s dilemma of reconciling her personal beliefs with her desire to stand by her husband.

Still, I can’t help but think this conversation between Ray and Donna should have occurred at the beginning of the “who killed Mickey?” mystery, not at the end. For that matter, I also wish this storyline should had been wrapped up in the previous episode, “Ray’s Trial.” No sooner has the judge handed down Ray’s sentence — parole, not jail (naturally) — than Ray and Donna are dancing at the glittery ball. It’s odd to see these characters move on so quickly. Likewise, we never see Lil bid farewell to the Krebbses; after the verdict is announced, Reid simply vanishes from “Dallas” (although she does pop up again briefly a few years later). After the trial, wouldn’t it have been nice to see Ray, Donna, Lil and Lucy visit Mickey’s grave? Besides giving the audience a sense of closure, it would have served as a nice bookend to the memorable Amos Krebbs’s funeral scene a year earlier, when the Trotters were introduced.

Even if the juxtaposition between the courtroom and the ball is jarring, I must admit: The latter scenes are awfully fun. Ken Kercheval somehow manages to make Cliff seem both humbled and overbearing in the instant when the character is named oilman of the year, and the clash between the Ewing and Barnes/Wentworth women in the powder room is delicious. Above all, I love the bon mots J.R. drops during the course of the ball. When Pam arrives and drops by the Ewing table, J.R. delights in re-introducing her to Bobby’s date, Jenna Wade. Bobby tells him to cut it out, but J.R. can’t help himself. “Well, for those who don’t have a program, I’m just going to have to announce the names of all the players, aren’t I?” he says. Larry Hagman’s smile is even more mischievous than usual.

Later, when J.R. sees how uncomfortable Bobby, Pam and Jenna are around each other, he declares this is going to be “one of the great nights of my life.” Leave it to Sue Ellen to put him in his place. “Nothing brings out the best in you like other peoples’ unhappiness,” she says. The line makes me think: Perhaps J.R. has a thing or two to learn from her too.

Grade: B

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Dallas, Donna Krebbs, Oil Baron's Ball, Ray Krebbs, Steve Kanaly, Susan Howard

At last

‘THE OIL BARON’S BALL’

Season 7, Episode 8

Airdate: November 18, 1983

Audience: 23 million homes, ranking 2nd in the weekly ratings

Writer and Director: Leonard Katzman

Synopsis: After Lil testifies that Ray pulled the plug on Mickey at her request, Ray is found guilty but given parole. Sue Ellen treats J.R. like a sexual plaything and persuades Peter to escort Lucy to the Oil Baron’s Ball. At the ball, Pam and Jenna clash and Cliff is named oilman of the year.

Cast: Charles Aidman (Judge Emmett Brocks), Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Delores Cantú (Doris), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Glenn Corbett (Paul Morgan), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), 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), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Timothy Patrick Murphy (Mickey Trotter), Priscilla Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Kate Reid (Lil Trotter), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis), Debi Sue Voorhees (Caroline), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson)

“The Oil Baron’s Ball” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

The Best & Worst of Dallas: Season 1

“Dallas’s” first season is comprised of just five episodes, but there’s no shortage of things to cheer and jeer.

Performances

Dallas, Digger's Daughter, Pam Ewing, Victoria Principal

Own it, honey

Sorry Mr. Hagman, but Victoria Principal owns Season 1. The actress makes Pam confident and charming, with a laugh that would make Julia Roberts envious. Pam is also unapologetically sexual, making her one of television’s breakthrough women characters. If you’ve forgotten how intriguing Pam is when “Dallas” begins – and how terrific Principal is in the role – go watch any of the first five episodes. She’s the best thing about each one.

Episodes

I tend to like my “Dallas” dark, which might be why “Digger’s Daughter” is my favorite first-season entry. Some of this has to do with the writing, but a lot of it has to with the weather: This episode was filmed in the real-life Dallas in early 1978, when the city was in the midst of its coldest-ever winter, and all those stark landscapes and lifeless skies make it one of the show’s moodiest, broodiest hours. It’s also remarkable how many “Dallas” hallmarks are present from the very beginning: the Southfork cocktail hour, J.R. and Bobby’s Cain-and-Abel shtick, J.R.’s daddy issues, everyone’s obsession with the firstborn grandson.

Some fans consider “Lessons” the season’s lowlight. I don’t. Yes, the episode’s main plot – Lucy is skipping school! – makes “Lessons” feel more like an “ABC Afterschool Special” than “Dallas,” but don’t overlook the many wonderful character-building moments here, including Miss Ellie and Pam’s coffee talk and the precedent-setting office scene between J.R. and Bobby. As an added bonus, “Lessons” concludes with that ’70stastic disco sequence, which only gets more fabulous with age.

Scenes

Hands down, the season’s best scene showcases two characters you’ve probably forgotten: Tilly and Sam, the gossipy caterers who appear in “Barbecue” and are never seen or mentioned again. Irma P. Hall and Haskel Craver are a hoot; imagine the cheeky, “Downton Abbey” vibe they would have lent the show if they had become regulars.

No scene qualifies as the first season’s “worst,” although hindsight being what it is, I could do without all those shots of Lucy and Ray cavorting in the hayloft.

Supporting Players

Dallas, Julie Grey, Tina Louise

Grey matters

Oh, how I love Tina Louise in “Spy in the House.” Of all of J.R.’s mistresses, Julie Grey will always be my favorite because Louise makes the character feel so heartbreakingly real. I can’t help but root for Julie, even when she doesn’t root for herself.

My least favorite guest star: Cooper Huckabee, who cackles his way through his role as Payton Allen, Brian Dennehy’s “Winds of Vengeance” sidekick.

Locales

I know this puts me in the minority among “Dallas” diehards, but I like the estate used as Southfork during the first season. The compound-style setting – one big house for Jock and Miss Ellie, surrounded by a series of smaller homes for each son and his wife – feels more credible as a wealthy family’s homestead.

Worst set: Sky Blue, the Braddock disco where the Ewings shake their booties in “Lessons,” is the least convincing nightclub I’ve ever seen. Was this place a Sizzler in real life?

Costumes

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman

Seeing red

Bobby’s leather jacket is iconic and also metaphorical: He’s wearing it at the beginning of “Digger’s Daughter” when he and Pam are nervously headed to Southfork to announce their nuptials. We wonder: Are the Ewings are going to tan Bobby’s actual hide when they discover he has wed a Barnes?

Worst wardrobe choice: J.R.’s garish red belt buckle. Of course, as gaudy as it is, at least it’s not covered in gold and stamped with the character’s initials like the one he sports on the new TNT series.

Behind the Scenes

Every time I watch these early episodes, I can’t help but wonder what direction “Dallas” might have taken if creator David Jacobs had retained control of the series after the first season. Jacobs is a television genius; if he had stuck around, I have no doubt this great show would have turned out even greater.

What do you love and loathe about “Dallas’s” first season? Share your comments below and read more “Best & Worst” reviews.

TNT’s Dallas Styles: Bobby’s Pajamas

Dead men don’t wear plaid. Right?

In “Family Business,” TNT continues an old “Dallas” tradition: using the Ewings’ sleepwear to telegraph their vulnerabilities.

The practice can be traced to “Spy in the House,” the original show’s third episode, when a sexually neglected Sue Ellen buys a negligee, hoping to arouse J.R.’s interest. Her plan doesn’t work: J.R. calls the nightie “cheap” and storms out of the room, leaving his wife in tears.

In the second-season episode “Survival,” a bathrobe-clad Jock weeps when he learns a plane carrying J.R. and Bobby has crashed. Later, in the third-season episode “Ellie Saves the Day,” Jock and Miss Ellie are both wearing robes when they learn J.R.’s latest oil deal has brought the Ewing empire to the brink of collapse.

And when we encounter a deeply depressed J.R. at the beginning of “Changing of the Guard,” TNT’s first “Dallas” episode, what’s he wearing? You guessed it: a robe and pajamas.

In “Family Business,” Patrick Duffy sports plaid pajamas and what appears to be a dark green robe after Bobby is diagnosed with a life-threatening cerebral aneurysm. The PJs, like the reading glasses perched on Bobby’s nose, remind us our silver-haired hero is entering the twilight of his life – a point Bobby himself makes when he poignantly reminds J.R., “Nobody lives forever.”

But the sleepwear lets us know something else too: Even in pajamas, Patrick Duffy is still dashing.

Dallas Isn’t ‘Brokeback Southfork,’ But It’s Pretty Gay

Dallas, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing

You go, girl

By today’s standards, “Dallas” isn’t a “gay” show. Southfork never hosts a “Brokeback Mountain”-esque love story. There are no same-sex office romances at Ewing Oil. Dusty Farlow wears ascots to keep dust out of his face, not because he’s fabulous.

Yet “Dallas” is very much a show with gay sensibilities. It regularly explores themes – empowerment, identity, gender roles – that resonate with gay audiences, and often in ways that are surprisingly smart.

I didn’t catch a lot of this while watching the show in the 1980s, when I was a pretty confused gay kid. But when I think about those years now, I wonder if “Dallas’s” gay subtext helps explain its appeal to me. Maybe my middle-school gaydar was stronger than I realized.

Kit, But Not Much Kaboodle

“Dallas” makes subtle references to homosexuality in early episodes like “Election,” when J.R. questions Cliff’s close relationship with his male campaign manager, and “Call Girl,” when J.R. creates a scandal by making it look like Pam is involved in a three-way relationship with a man and another woman.

The show stops dancing around the issue in “Royal Marriage,” the 1979 episode where Kit Mainwaring, an oil-and-cattle heir who is secretly gay, breaks his engagement to Lucy and comes out of the closet. This episode, which reflects the ’70s trend toward “socially conscious” television (see also: “All in the Family,” “Lou Grant,” et. al.), is handled with surprising sophistication, making Kit one of prime-time television’s breakthrough gay characters.

Kit is also a footnote: “Dallas” ran 14 seasons and produced 357 episodes, yet he is the only character whose homosexuality is ever acknowledged on the show.

There are only fleeting gay allusions in later episodes. During the sixth season, Lucy wonders if John Ross’s camp counselor Peter Richards is gay because he doesn’t want to date her (she doesn’t realize Peter is in love with Sue Ellen), but the show never again identifies a character as being gay.

This isn’t altogether surprising. Prime-time television mostly retreated to the closet during the AIDS hysteria in the 1980s. Also, once “Dallas” became television’s most-watched show, it embraced its escapist bent and pretty much stopped doing “issues” stories. Both factors probably explain why the producers notoriously dropped plans to make villainess Angelica Nero a lesbian during the 1985-86 season.

Sue Ellen: Icon – and Avatar

The absence of gay characters on “Dallas” doesn’t mean the show lacks characters and storylines gay audiences could identify with. Consider Sue Ellen, whose boozing, philandering and sharp tongue make her an icon among gay fans who love camp.

But Sue Ellen shouldn’t be treated only as a joke. If you consider her arc during the course of the series, she makes an ideal avatar for gay audiences.

When “Dallas” begins, Sue Ellen is the show’s most sexually repressed character. In the first-season episode “Spy in the House,” she tries to spark J.R.’s interest with a sexy negligee, only to have him cast it aside and accuse her of being unladylike. J.R.’s rejection sends Sue Ellen into the shadows, where she finds sexual fulfillment with other men and develops her drinking problem. This double life must have felt familiar to gay men and women who spent the ’70s and ’80s trapped in the closet.

By the end of the Reagan era, when AIDS was galvanizing gay people and giving the gay rights movement new momentum, Sue Ellen finally begins pulling herself together. She quits drinking, embarks on a successful business career and leaves J.R. for good.

During Linda Gray’s final appearance on the show in 1989, Sue Ellen turns the tables on J.R. and tells him off, one last time (“You will be the laughingstock of Texas.”). All “Dallas” fans cheered this moment, but for gay viewers, I suspect it had special meaning. Sue Ellen was standing up to her oppressor at a time when many gay Americans were beginning to do the same – in the voting booth, in the workplace, in the streets.

There’s Something About Gary

“Dallas’s” gay viewers might see themselves in other characters, too.

The series often explores the theme of confused identities. Two notable examples: Pam and Ray each learn they were raised by people who aren’t their biological fathers, and for both characters, this discovery triggers a lot of angst.

“Dallas’s” recurring theme of estranged fathers and sons is probably familiar to a lot of gay men. At various points, Jock has tense relations with each of the Ewing boys, especially Gary.

In fact, the dialogue during Gary’s homecoming in the second-season “Reunion” episodes makes me wonder if the producers were considering making the character gay. Pam points out Gary is “different.” Bobby calls him “gentle.” Lucy says she hopes Val will “straighten” him out. Was this coded language, dropped into the scripts to lay the groundwork for Gary’s eventual coming out?

Maybe, maybe not. But a gay Ewing is an interesting idea to contemplate.

Are you listening, TNT?

Do you consider “Dallas” a gay-friendly show? Share your comments below and read more opinions from Dallas Decoder.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 21 – ‘Julie’s Return’

Dallas, Jim Davis, Jock Ewing, Julie Grey, Julie's Return, Tina Louise

It’s just lunch

Julie Grey is “Dallas’s” most aptly named character. She inhabits a world with no absolutes, where nothing is only black or only white. Julie is all gray.

In “Julie’s Return,” J.R.’s onetime mistress and secretary blows back into town and renews her friendship with Jock. Like she did with J.R., Julie becomes Jock’s confidante, giving him the ego boost he needs as he recovers from the heart attack he suffered at the beginning of the second season.

In this episode’s best scene, Miss Ellie summons Julie to Southfork to find out why she is spending so much time with Jock. Julie tells her they are close friends.

“Our relationship is not what you thought it was,” Julie says.

“No, Julie. It’s far more serious,” Ellie responds.

Aside from being a great moment of domestic soap opera, this conversation reminds us how Julie, in the first-season episode “Spy in the House,” fails to recognize her relationship with J.R. is toxic until it’s too late. The pattern continues here: Julie refuses to acknowledge her friendship with Jock is inappropriate.

If a lesser actress played Julie, the audience would probably resent the character for coming between Jock and Ellie, but Tina Louise’s sympathetic performance makes that impossible. We don’t root for Julie here, but we recognize her humanity.

Listen to how Julie describes her relationship with Jock during her conversation with Miss Ellie: “For that man to need my friendship, to want my company, you don’t know what that means to me.” This is a woman who finds validation in her relationships with men. It’s sad.

Julie has a lot in common with another woman on “Dallas:” Sue Ellen. Is it a coincidence J.R.’s wife and mistress both suffer from such achingly low self-esteem?

Just as Julie and Sue Ellen remind me of each other, the Julie/Jock/Ellie triangle makes me realize how closely “Julie’s Return” mirrors “Old Acquaintance,” an earlier second-season episode.

In both installments, a Ewing wife (Pam in “Old Acquaintance,” Ellie in “Julie’s Return”) feels threatened when her husband (Bobby, Jock) begins spending his free time with a woman from his past (Jenna, Julie).

“Dallas” acknowledges these parallels in “Julie’s Return” when Pam confronts a weepy Ellie in her bedroom and urges her to fight for her marriage. It’s a great scene and another reason why this episode is among the second season’s strongest.

Grade: A

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Dallas, Julie Grey, Julie's Return, Tina Louise

She’s baaack

‘JULIE’S RETURN’

Season 2, Episode 16

Airdate: January 26, 1979

Audience: 14.8 million homes, ranking 32nd in the weekly ratings

Writer: Rena Down

Director: Les Martinson

Synopsis: Julie returns to Dallas and renews her friendship with Jock. With Miss Ellie’s prodding, Jock ends the relationship, sending Julie back into J.R.’s arms.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Meg Gallagher (Louella), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Tina Louise (Julie Grey), Jeanna Michaels (Connie), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Richard Roat (Victor), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Kenneth White (Seth Stone)

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

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 13 – ‘Election’

Cliff Barnes, Dallas, Election, Ken Kercheval

Smear campaign

If ever anyone questioned the politics of “Dallas’s” first families, “Election” should clear things up.

Cliff runs for state senate on a pro-environment, anti-corruption platform. Martin Cole, the candidate the Ewings recruit to run against him, is described as a churchgoer who opposes gun control, abortion rights and higher taxes.

Could it be clearer?

When “Election” begins, the liberal Cliff is cast in a better light than the conservative Ewings. In the first scene, he rejects a big campaign contribution from a sleazy oil industry emissary – even though his shoestring campaign desperately needs cash.

Contrast this with J.R. and Jock. When Cole’s campaign flounders, they resort to dirty tricks, exposing the fact that when Cliff was younger, his pregnant girlfriend died after a botched abortion.

But ultimately, “Election” takes a cynical view of all politics. In the final scene, after Cliff has lost his race, he calls top aide Peter Larson and tells him he’ll run again – but in his next campaign, he’ll take the oil industry’s money. “Peter,” Cliff says, “I just became a realist.”

This is a turning point for Cliff – the moment he decides the ends (beating the Ewings) are more important than the means (honoring your principles). These are the values that will define his character through the rest of “Dallas’s” run.

Of course, “Election’s” harsh judgment of politics shouldn’t come as a surprise. Other early episodes make it clear “Dallas” doesn’t hold politicians in high regard.

“Digger’s Daughter” introduces Bobby as Ewing Oil’s “road man,” who supplies state legislators with broads and booze to get them to vote the company’s way. “Spy in the House” features a state senator who takes bribes. In “Old Acquaintance,” another senator’s mistress jeopardizes his appointment to a federal job.

Crooked politicians like these seem as realistic today as they did in the Watergate era, when “Dallas” debuted.

Just as timeless is “Election’s” references to the importance of television advertising in politics, although Jock goes a little overboard when he urges Cole to buy more airtime. “I want to see your face every time I turn that damn thing on,” the old man barks.

It’s the only thing in this episode that doesn’t really ring true. I mean, has anyone ever wished for more political ads on TV?

Grade: A

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Bobby Ewing, Cliff Barnes, Dallas, Election, Ken Kercheval, Pam Ewing, Patrick Duffy, Victoria Principal

Welcome to the real world

‘ELECTION’

Season 2, Episode 8

Airdate: November 5, 1978

Audience: 11.5 million homes, ranking 48th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Rena Down

Director: Barry Crane

Synopsis: Cliff’s run for state senate divides Pam and Bobby. After J.R. exposes skeletons in Cliff’s closet and he loses, Cliff vows to play dirty during his next campaign.

Cast: Robert Ackerman (Wade Luce), Norman Bartold (Evans), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Joshua Bryant (Peter Carson), Allen Cae (Martin Cole), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Meg Gallagher (Louella), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Buck Young (Seth Stone)

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

Pam Ewing, Prime-Time Pioneer

Dallas, Pam Ewing, Victoria Principal

O, pioneer!

If re-watching “Dallas’s” first season taught me anything, it’s this: Pam Ewing is one of prime-time television’s pioneering women.

No, really.

When “Dallas” begins, Pam isn’t the Miss Goody Two-Boots many of us remember from the show’s heyday. She’s spunkier, scrappier – and more sexual.

The show makes no secret of the fact Pam isn’t a virgin when she marries Bobby.

In “Digger’s Daughter,” the first episode, J.R. tells his younger brother that Ray, Pam’s ex-boyfriend, has bragged for years about her prowess in the bedroom. Later, in “Barbecue,” the season finale, J.R. ticks off a list of Pam’s past lovers (“Just offhand, she’s known Jack what’s-his-name and Ray Krebbs….”), before dismissing her as “trash, just plain trash.”

In this instance, Bobby belts J.R., but Pam’s reputation doesn’t seem to faze him otherwise. As Bobby tells Ray at the end of the first episode, “Pamela’s past is none of my business. She was not my wife in the past – but she is now.”

Bobby’s attitude is refreshing, but so is Pam’s. She’s never afraid to let her husband know she enjoys sex. In “Spy in the House,” for example, Pam suggestively invites Bobby to help her “try out” their new living quarters.

This makes Pam much different from her sister-in-law Sue Ellen, who feels sexually neglected by J.R. but is almost too afraid to tell him.

Breaking Barriers

Bobby and Pam’s healthy sex life makes them unlike most other couples on television during the 1970s – something Victoria Principal points out during the 2004 “Dallas” reunion special.

Standing next to Patrick Duffy, the actress recalls how unusual it was for them “to portray two happily married people who celebrated their physicality – and who were good vertically and horizontally.”

Yet Pam never seems to get a fair shake from television historians.  (Maybe because “Dallas” is a soap opera?)

When the barrier-breaking women of ’70s television are recalled, the focus is almost always on the characters who pursued careers (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”), expressed opinions (“Maude”) and raised children alone (“Alice,” “One Day at a Time”).

On “All in the Family,” Gloria Stivic was pretty frisky and “The Bob Newhart Show’s” Emily Hartley seemed to enjoy having sex with her husband, but their experiences were played for laughs.

Pam Ewing is probably the first woman on a prime-time drama who was sexually fulfilled – and not ashamed of it.  She helped make possible “The Good Wife” and other contemporary shows that aren’t afraid to depict women enjoying their sex lives.

Praising Principal

In interviews over the years, Principal has suggested she likes Pam best during “Dallas’s” first season – and when you watch these episodes, it shows. The actress is wonderful – confident, relaxed, charming. She supplies “Dallas” with heart.

Pam’s independent streak continues during the second season, when the character resumes her retail career – a decision that leaves Jock aghast. (“What does she need a job for? Ewing women don’t work!”)

But Pam changes during the third season, when she embarks on an all-consuming quest to give birth – reinforcing the old-fashioned notion that a woman’s fulfillment lies in motherhood.

The evolution in Pam’s character can probably be traced to the departure of “Dallas” creator David Jacobs, who essentially handed over the show’s creative reigns to producer Leonard Katzman after its first season.

Jacobs is a genius at writing for strong women characters, as he demonstrated with his next series, the “Dallas” spinoff “Knots Landing.” Under Katzman, “Dallas’s” depiction of women’s sexuality is different. When women are seen enjoying sex, it’s often under illicit circumstances (J.R.’s mistresses, Sue Ellen’s affairs).

J.R.’s increased popularity with audiences also alters Pam’s character. As he grows nastier, the producers try to counterbalance him by making Pam nobler (read: boring).

But no matter who Pam becomes, we shouldn’t lose sight of who she is when “Dallas” begins – and the trail she blazes during those fascinating first five episodes.

How do you feel about Pam Ewing? Share your comments below and read more opinions from Dallas Decoder.

The Art of Dallas: ‘Spy in the House’

J.R. and Sue Ellen (Larry Hagman, Linda Gray) have a spat in this 1978 publicity shot from “Spy in the House,” a first-season “Dallas” episode.

Dallas Scene of the Day: ‘There’s Nothing Eating Me Up, Pam!’

Dallas, Julie Grey, Pam Ewing, Spy in the House, Tina Louise, Victoria Principal

Focus, Julie!

In “Spy in the House,” a first-season “Dallas” episode, Pam (Victoria Principal) sees Julie (Tina Louise) leaving Cliff’s apartment building and begins walking alongside her.

PAM: I want to talk to you.

JULIE: I’m on my way to the office, Pam.

PAM: How long have you been seeing my brother?

JULIE: Who said I’ve been seeing your brother?

Pam grabs Julie’s arm. They stop.

PAM: Hey look, I know you gave Cliff the file – and it seems to be my business now.

JULIE: Pam, if you can’t hold your own with the Ewings – [Begins walking away; Pam quickly catches up to her]

PAM: Is that what’s been eating you up?

JULIE: [Flustered] There’s nothing eating me up, Pam!

PAM: I see, both of us working girls. You settled for what you could have with J.R. and I married Bobby. I did what you were afraid to even try!

JULIE: Listen, will you leave me alone?

Pam again grabs her arm. Again, they stop walking.

PAM: Maybe way back when, if you’d stood your ground, you could have been Mrs. Ewing. What have you got now, Julie? Nothing. Not even your self-respect.

Julie storms off.