Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 157 — ‘Blow Up’

Alexis Smith, Blow Up, Dallas

Cut a bitch

“Dallas” delivers its share of camp over the years, but “Blow Up” manages to pack more silliness into a single episode than virtually any other. Donna runs around the Southfork patio, snapping Polaroids of the Ewings; Lucy gets stewed to the gills and airs the family’s dirty laundry at a poolside soiree; and Lady Jessica takes a break from helping Miss Ellie chop vegetables to contemplate slicing and dicing Mama herself. These scenes aren’t without their charms, but I can’t help but wish this episode took the characters and their storylines a little more seriously.

The scenes with Donna and her camera are fun because it’s nice to think the Ewings spend their Sunday afternoons enjoying each other’s company, just like so many families do in real life. I also like the picture Donna snaps of Ray and his half-brothers sitting together and holding their beers, although the shot is so casual, it takes me out of the moment. This looks like a picture of Larry, Patrick and Steve, not J.R., Bobby and Ray. I also wish this scene could have been filmed on the real Southfork patio instead of the show’s Hollywood soundstage, which seems faker than usual. Maybe it’s the studio acoustics; notice how you hear every footstep the actors take, something that rarely happens when you see patio scenes that were shot outdoors in Texas.

The patio is also the setting for the party the Ewings throw for Jessica, although these scenes are a little more convincing because they take place at night, when the darkness helps conceal the soundstage’s shortcomings. The gathering recalls the shindig in “Triangle” (right down to Ray’s plaid suit, which he wears to both parties), although I get the biggest kick out of seeing J.R. whisper into Lucy’s ear, feeding her suspicions as they watch Sue Ellen and Peter dance. Uncle and niece are like two characters in a play standing in the shadows, commenting on the action unfolding downstage. Too bad it falls apart when Lucy gets drunk and accuses Sue Ellen and Peter of having an affair. Charlene Tilton gives this performance her all, but Lucy’s preoccupation with Peter is no more believable than Sue Ellen’s interest in him. Also, is it me or is Lucy angrier than she was last season, when she blamed Sue Ellen’s drunken driving for paralyzing Mickey Trotter?

Of course, nothing in “Blow Up” approaches the campiness of Jessica’s big scene. How can you not roll your eyes when you see her standing at the Southfork kitchen counter, a huge knife in one hand and a tomato in the other as she glares at Ellie? How about when composer Lance Rubin’s eerie piano score swells just as Donna enters the room and snaps Jessica out of her trance-like state? Perhaps this scene was genuinely creepy when it debuted in 1984, but now it plays like a parody of a slasher film from that era. “Blow Up’s” climactic moment, when Jessica enters her bedroom and cuts Ellie’s face out of one of Donna’s snapshots, holds up better. I especially like how Patrick Duffy, who directed this episode, uses a handheld camera to follow Alexis Smith as she circles the picture on the nightstand. It adds to the sense that Jessica is spinning out of control.

A lot of “Dallas” fans love the over-the-top depiction of Jessica’s villainy and Smith’s ferocious approach to the role, but I prefer the show to play it straight. Just think: At this point during the previous season, Sue Ellen was walking in on J.R. and Holly Harwood in bed. Yes, it was a scene of pure soap opera, but it set the stage for some of the darkest, most absorbing hours in “Dallas” history. The more I watch the seventh season, the more I find myself wondering what happened to the show that gave us J.R. and Bobby’s contest for Ewing Oil, the collapse of J.R. and Sue Ellen’s marriage and the sweet romance between Lucy and Mickey.

On the other hand: Not everything about “Blow Up” falls short of the show’s usual standards. There’s surprising poignancy to the scene where J.R. tells Sue Ellen it’s time they begin living again like man and wife; Linda Gray does a beautiful job conveying Sue Ellen’s inner conflict, and Hagman gives us the impression J.R. is willing to forgive his wife and abandon his secret plot against her, if only she’d give him another chance. When she turns him down, you feel sympathy for both of them.

I also like Victoria Principal’s performance, although Mark and Pam’s storyline — he doesn’t know he’s dying but she does and is desperately trying to keep the secret — is beginning to feel like demented version of a “Three’s Company” plot. Kudos also go to Morgan Brittany, who makes Katherine’s concern for Mark seem sincere. Sure, Mark’s diagnosis may represent a stroke of dumb luck for Katherine because it’s helping push Pam deeper into his arms, thus making it easier for Katherine to snatch Bobby for herself, but I also get the feeling Katherine genuinely likes Mark and feels sorry for him.

Wait, did I just suggest Katherine Wentworth is becoming a believable character? Isn’t it funny how different this show looks now that Lady Jessica around?

Grade: B

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Dallas, Blow Up

Who shot the Ewings?

‘BLOW UP’

Season 7, Episode 26

Airdate: April 6, 1984

Audience: 22 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: David Paulsen

Director: Patrick Duffy

Synopsis: Donna becomes suspicious of Jessica, who assures J.R. that Miss Ellie and Clayton’s wedding won’t take place. J.R. feeds Lucy’s suspicions about Sue Ellen and Peter. Mark refuses to rush his wedding to Pam, who orders Cliff to not ask her fiancé for a loan. Katherine offers to sell Ewing Oil some valuable land in exchange for Bobby teaching her about the industry.

Cast: Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Pat Colbért (Teresa), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Walker Edmiston (Ewing Oil employee), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Nanci Hammond (hostess), Alice Hirson (Mavis Anderson), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Barry Jenner (Dr. Jerry Kenderson), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), Denny Miller (Max Flowers), Dennis Patrick (Vaughn Leland), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Danone Simpson (Kendall), Alexis Smith (Lady Jessica Montford), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson)

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

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 61 – ‘The Fourth Son’

Dallas, Fourth Son, Ray Krebbs, Steve Kanaly

Rising son

In “The Fourth Son’s” third act, Jock tells Ray he’s his father, a fact the Ewing patriarch didn’t discover until earlier in the episode but a truth he’s probably always known, deep down. The scene is beautifully written and performed, and no matter how often I watch it, it always moves me. “Dallas” simply doesn’t get better than this.

The sequence opens with Jock’s Lincoln Town Car kicking up dust as it comes down the gravel road toward Ray’s newly constructed rambler. Director Irving J. Moore brings us into the car for a close-up of Jim Davis, who looks serious as always but more pensive than usual. The Ewing patriarch is in the driver’s seat, but it isn’t clear where this journey is going to take him. You can feel the uncertainty.

When Jock parks the car and gets out, Ray puts down the ax he’s using to chop wood, takes the older man by the arm and leads him to the patio table. “Come on out of the sun,” Ray says, and with that single, small gesture, we’re reminded both of Jock’s mortality and the ranch foreman’s abiding affection for his boss and mentor.

Scriptwriter Howard Lakin’s dialogue in the conversation that follows is so good because it tells us so much. Almost every line signals something more than what’s actually being said.

Ray recalls his mother’s memories of her nursing days (“Seems like the only time in her life she ever felt useful.”) and we realize what a sad, unfulfilled life this woman must have led. He suggests telling the truth about his paternity could cause problems for Jock’s “family” and we known precisely what family member he’s referring to. Jock reminds Ray he’s “got a lot at stake here” and the line – along with the slight smile from Davis that accompanies it – lets us know how impressed Jock is with Ray’s willingness to sacrifice his right to share in the Ewing riches.

Davis is wonderful in this scene – strong and solemn, yet full of love and pride – and so is Steve Kanaly, who wears the mantle of plainspoken humility so convincingly, I wonder how much “acting” is taking place here. I don’t know if Davis and Kanaly were friends in real life, but my goodness, in this exchange, they make me believe in the respect their characters feel for each other.

Matters of Honor

Amos Krebbs, Dallas, Fourth Son, William Windom

She never let him forget

The crux of Jock and Ray’s conversation – Jock wants to acknowledge Ray as his son, while Ray is “happy to leave things just the way they are” – reflects “The Fourth Son’s” broader theme, which is how doing the honorable thing sometimes means hurting others.

We see this at the end of the episode, when Jock summons Ray and the Ewings to the Southfork living room and tells them the ranch’s longtime foreman is the product of a wartime affair Jock confessed to Miss Ellie long ago. For Jock, acknowledging Ray is the right thing to do, but Ellie’s stony expression makes it clear her husband’s past indiscretion still hurts.

In the same spirit, Ray’s willingness to keep his paternity secret echoes the decision his mother, Margaret, made years earlier. For her, not telling Jock about Ray was a necessary sacrifice – but how did that affect Amos?

When we meet him in “The Fourth Son,” he’s a loathsome figure – character actor William Windom is perfectly unsavory in the role – but was Amos always this awful? Lakin’s dialogue suggests the character had a hard-knock life: He was a bastard son and a “4-F” who wasn’t physically qualified to serve his country, and then his fiancée came home from the war pregnant with another man’s child.

Yet Amos married Margaret anyway. Why? Was he willing to give Margaret his name and raise Ray as his own because he felt sorry for her? Or was it because he loved her? Either way, did he end up abandoning his family because the reality of the situation proved too difficult? At one point, Amos tells Jock, “I know she was in love with you. She never let me forget it.” The mystery of what really happened in Kansas lingers.

Questions of integrity and sacrifice also figure into Bobby’s storyline, where he must choose between keeping Jock’s commitment to Mort Wilkinson, a longtime Ewing Oil client, and honoring a deal Bobby himself made with Brady York. At one point, Bobby is ready to abandon Wilkinson – until he’s told Jock sealed the deal 20 years earlier with nothing more than a handshake. “That makes it sacred,” Bobby says.

The subplot where Mr. Eugene helps Bobby expose Sally’s dirty dealings also offers a play on “The Fourth Son’s” central theme. Eugene gives Bobby “carte blanche” to seek retribution from Sally, but the old man warns him: “You remember this: I plan to keep her.” A few moments later, while gazing at a framed picture of Sally, Eugene says, “What God and money hath joined together, let no man put asunder.”

Fathers and Sons and Fathers and Sons

Dallas, Fourth Son, Jim Davis, Jock Ewing

Grand father

Ultimately, “The Fourth Son” is an episode about fatherhood, which becomes one of the “Dallas” franchise’s most resilient themes, particularly in TNT’s new series.

Interestingly, the story told here wasn’t planned: According to Barbara Curran’s 2005 book “Dallas: The Complete Story of the World’s Favorite Prime-Time Soap,” Kanaly had grown frustrated with his role by the end of the third season, so the producers decided to make his character Jock’s illegitimate son to keep the actor from leaving the show. In retrospect, it seems like this is the direction “Dallas” was headed in all along. (Remember the classic second-season episode “Triangle,” when Jock gave Ray a plot of Southfork land?)

The irony is that while the “The Fourth Son” succeeds in rooting Ray more firmly in the “Dallas” mythos, it ends up doing just as much to burnish Jock’s reputation. After this episode, there are four Ewing sons but still only one father, and watching the way he acknowledges Ray makes us better understand why Jock is so revered.

Grade: A+

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Amos Krebbs, Dallas, Fourth Son, Jim Davis, Jock Ewing, William Windom

His two dads

‘THE FOURTH SON’

Season 4, Episode 7

Airdate: December 12, 1980

Audience: 27.9 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: Howard Lakin

Director: Irving J. Moore

Synopsis: The sinking of the Bullocks’ tanker almost forces Bobby to stiff one of Ewing Oil’s longtime clients. When Bobby discovers J.R. and Sally faked the loss of the oil aboard the tanker, he turns the tables on them. Ray’s father Amos arrives and announces Ray’s real father is Jock, who welcomes Ray into the family.

Cast: E.J. André (Eugene Bullock), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Joanna Cassidy (Sally Bullock), John Crawford (Mort Wilkinson), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Ted Gehring (Brady York), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Culver), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Leigh McCloskey (Mitch Cooper), Jeanna Michaels (Connie), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), William Windom (Amos Krebbs)

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

Dallas Styles: Ray’s Plaid Suit

Good men wear plaid

When “Dallas” begins, J.R. isn’t the only shady character at Southfork – so is his buddy Ray. The two men try to break up Bobby and Pam and go carousing in Waco, all while Ray is secretly having trysts in the hayloft with Lucy.

Perhaps realizing two cads are two too many, “Dallas” turns Ray into a hero during the second season. The evolution doesn’t happen overnight – on his way to redemption, Ray has a one-night stand with Sue Ellen – but it’s soon clear Ray is becoming a new man.

The character grows more honest and reliable, and much more honorable. In other words, Ray becomes a lot like the cowboys who preceded him in prime time. Think Marshal Matt Dillon, but without the badge.

To underscore this change, “Dallas” tweaks Steve Kanaly’s wardrobe. The orange hunting vest and heavy jacket he wears during the first season are replaced by a more traditional cowboy uniform of plaid shirts and blue jeans.

The transformation continues in “Triangle,” when Ray falls for Garnet McGee, an ambitious country-western singer who cheats on him with J.R. It’s the first time we really root for Ray, which is pretty remarkable given all the smarmy stuff he’s done in the past.

In one of “Triangle’s” pivotal moments, Ray brings Garnet to a nighttime party at Southfork. The scene is a plot device to introduce Garnet to J.R., who is instantly smitten with her, but the show also uses the sequence as another opportunity to remind us of Ray’s cowboy bona fides.

The character comes to the party dressed in a gray plaid suit with a blue string tie, not unlike the ones Colonel Sanders used to wear in those Kentucky Fried Chicken commercials. Ray’s outfit is thoroughly western, letting us know he’s a cowboy even when’s off the clock.

It’s a little surprising Kanaly is given a gray hat to wear in this scene instead of a white one, which is the color of choice for most western heroes.

Then again, no “Dallas” character is all good or all bad – and even though Ray is becoming a better man, he’s far from perfect – so maybe a gray hat is the best choice after all.

Dallas Scene of the Day: ‘What’s Your Excuse?’

Dallas, Garnet McGee, J.R. Ewing, Kate Mulgrew, Larry Hagman, Triangle

Pillow talk

In “Triangle,” a second-season “Dallas” episode, country-western singer Garnet McGee (Kate Mulgrew) nibbles from a plate on her dining room table while J.R. (Larry Hagman), stretched across her bed, pours himself a drink.

J.R.: You hungry again?

GARNET: Honey, I am always hungry.

J.R.: Were you very poor?

GARNET: Uh-huh. You want some of this? [He shakes his head no. She sits at the table.] There were 10 of us, J.R. You know, I never had a pair of shoes of my own, brand-new, till I was 16 years old and started working? Always had my mama’s or my big sister’s. I figure that’s how come I’m so greedy now. What’s your excuse?

J.R.: [Takes a sip] I don’t need one.

GARNET: [Joins him on the bed] That’s probably how come I like you so much.

J.R.: Is it?

GARNET: You’re just the way I am. [Counts the money from their poker game while he caresses her hair] Maybe a little worse. And not the least little bit ashamed of it, are you?

J.R.: Do you really like me?

GARNET: Well, I still have a whole pack of little brothers and sisters to take care of – not to mention myself. [He nuzzles her neck.] Hey, hey J.R. Don’t you have to go home now?

J.R.: Sue Ellen’s a very understanding wife. When Ray gets back, I want you to finish it. I mean it. Finish it with him – because if you don’t, I will. [Nuzzles her neck again]

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 16 – ‘Triangle’

Dallas, Garnet McGee, Kate Mulgrew, Triangle

Honky-tonk angel

“Triangle” is an episode about a country-western singer, and it plays out like an old-fashioned country-western song. Hearts are broken, dreams are dashed and before all is said and done, Ray nearly tells the Ewings to take their job and shove it.

Kate Mulgrew is mesmerizing as Garnet McGee, the rising star who gets caught between Ray and J.R. Mulgrew looks like a glammed-up Patsy Cline and sounds a bit like her, too. This is Garnet’s only appearance on “Dallas,” but Mulgrew makes such a strong impression, the character is referred to periodically throughout the show’s run, including during the series finale.

“Dallas” probably wants the audience to dislike Garnet after she cheats on Ray, but I’m willing to cut her some slack. After all, Garnet is trying to make it in showbiz – “a life of hard work and terrible disappointment,” as Miss Ellie describes it – and it’s not like she isn’t upfront with Ray about her priorities.

Consider the scene where Ray asks her to elope and she turns him down, citing her weekend singing engagements. Garnet is direct (“I can’t afford a reputation for running out on club dates”), but Ray is both dismissive (“It’s only a weekend”) and manipulative (“You don’t want to marry me. That’s it, isn’t it?”).

J.R. and Garnet’s revealing pillow talk also makes me sympathetic toward her.

After she sleeps with him to get a record deal, she notes their similarities. “You’re just the way I am,” she says. “Maybe a little worse. And not the least bit ashamed of it.” The implication: Ray isn’t the first man who has made Garnet feel bad about her own ambition.

A similar theme is explored during an earlier second-season episode, “Black Market Baby,” when Bobby objects to Pam’s desire to delay motherhood so she can pursue a career. In “Triangle,” Pam doesn’t seem to begrudge Garnet’s aspirations, but she clearly doesn’t approve of her methods.

During the Southfork party scene, Pam accuses Garnet of using Ray “until something better comes along.” Garnet, alluding to Pam’s romance with Ray before she married Bobby, responds, “Didn’t you?”

Meow! So much for sisterhood.

Of course, even if Garnet and Pam are bitchy to each other, at least they know there’s more to life than standing by your man.

Grade: A

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Dallas, Garnet McGee, J.R. Ewing, Kate Mulgrew, Larry Hagman, Triangle

Cheatin’ hearts

‘TRIANGLE’

Season 2, Episode 11

Airdate: November 26, 1978

Audience: 13.2 million homes, ranking 39th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Camille Marchetta

Director: Vincent McEveety

Synopsis: Ray falls for country singer Garnet McGee, who rejects his marriage proposal to focus on her career. She sleeps with J.R. to get a record deal, and when a heartbroken Ray discovers her infidelity, he ends their relationship.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Nancy Bleier (Connie), Edward Call (Sam Gurney), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Michael Dudikoff (Joe Newcomb), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Meg Gallagher (Louella), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Harry Middlebrooks (Mervin), Kate Mulgrew (Garnet McGee), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing)

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