The Dallas Decoder Guide to Texas Justice

Rogue’s gallery

Gang’s all here

The Ewings go to court in “Trial and Error,” TNT’s latest “Dallas” episode, and if past is prologue, the experience will be as enlightening as it is entertaining. Here’s what we learned about the Texas legal system from watching the original “Dallas.”

Rush to judgment

Rush to judgment

Justice is swift. (Except when it isn’t.) When someone in the Ewing camp is accused of a crime, the wheels of justice either spin super fast – or grind to a halt. Jock (Jim Davis) was charged with killing Hutch McKinney and indicted a week later, and then his trial lasted all of one day. But when Bobby’s girlfriend Jenna Wade went on trial for murdering Naldo Marchetta, the case dragged on for 11 episodes – almost a third of that season!

Snide and prejudice

Snide and prejudice

What conflict of interest? When Jock’s case went to trial, the assistant prosecutor was – drumroll, please – Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval). Did it matter that Cliff’s father was once Jock’s business partner? Or that Cliff’s sister was married to Jock’s son? Of course not! Look, if Senator Bobby Ewing could preside over a legislative inquiry into J.R.’s shady dealings, surely Cliff could prosecute Jock without prejudice. Right?

Cliff jumping

Cliff jumping

What courtroom etiquette? You know how Christopher has a penchant for courtroom outbursts on TNT’s “Dallas”? Uncle Cliff had the same habit on the old show. Remember when he interrupted a Ewing Oil ownership hearing by loudly telling opponent Jack Ewing, “This is all a setup by J.R. Ewing! You are here to cheat me!” The judge vowed to eject Cliff, but of course he didn’t. Do TV judges ever follow through on that threat?

Greasing the wheels

Chamber of commerce

Judges are for bribing. J.R. (Larry Hagman) never met a judge he didn’t try to influence. When Cliff tried to weasel his way into Ewing Oil, J.R. gave Judge Loeb (Jerry Hardin) some valuable stock tips in exchange for an injunction stalling Cliff’s case. Of course, these things sometimes backfired. When J.R. tried to pressure Jenna’s judge, the judge jacked up her bail to $2 million. Silly jurist. That’s what the Ewings call “pocket change.”

Mr. Cool

Mr. Cool

Scotty Demarest: Texas’s Matlock. Whenever the Ewings landed in hot legal water, they summoned Scotty (Stephen Elliott), an ultra-cool legal eagle whose disarming drawl added a few extra syllables to every word. Scotty’s best stunt: putting accused shooter Jenna on the witness stand and asking her to activate the gun’s “sy-luntz-uh.” She couldn’t, giving “Dallas” its own if-it-doesn’t-fit-you-must-acquit moment.

Spectacles of justice

Spectacles of justice

Harv Smithfield was cool too. Who didn’t love Harv (George O. Petrie), the Ewings’ loyal consigliere? He wasn’t quite as flamboyant as Scotty, but he had a flair for legal theatrics nonetheless. I mean, is it me or did Harv only trot out his lawyerly pince-nez spectacles when he was in court? The other remarkable thing about Harv: He was highly ethical. So how’d he manage to stay on the Ewing payroll for so long?

He must object

He must object

Don’t forget about Cole Young! Cole (Walter Brooke) helped acquit Cliff of Julie Grey’s murder through sheer incredulity. During J.R.’s three-minute testimony against Cliff, Cole objected five times. Cole was especially outraged when he thought the prosecutor was being mean to Pam on the witness stand. As Cole put it: “I protest that, not only as an officer of this court but as a citizen of the great state of Texas!” You tell ’em, Cole!

He’ll smell ya later

He’ll smell ya later

Trials are for stargazing. In addition to Brooke, who famously gave Dustin Hoffman career advice in “The Graduate” (“plastics!”), “Dallas” also gave us stars-in-the-making, including Steven Williams (the boss on “21 Jump Street”) as the bailiff during Ray’s trial for Mickey Trotter’s death and James Avery (Will Smith’s Uncle Phil on “The Fresh Prince Bel-Air”) as the judge in one of little Christopher’s many custody hearings.

Got a stack of those?

Might want a stack of those, just in case

Testify! The amazing thing about the Ewings: They often told the truth in court. For example, Bobby allowed the sordid story of Christopher’s paternity to come out during his final custody fight for the boy. J.R. even delivered potentially damaging testimony against his daddy at Jock’s trial, although he declined to drag Sue Ellen’s name through the mud at their first divorce hearing. Who says miracles don’t happen in “Dallas”?

What have the Ewings taught you about the justice system? Share your comments below and read more “Dallas Decoder Guides.”

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 23 – ‘The Red File, Part 2’

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Pam Ewing, Patrick Duffy, Red File Part 2, Victoria Principal

Split decision

“The Red File, Part 2” plays a lot like a ’70s crime drama, with Bobby in the role of the dashing detective. He spends much of the episode tooling around town in his red convertible, chasing clues in his investigation into Julie’s death.

This installment also features some terrific “Perry Mason”-style legal theatrics, with the wonderful Walter Brooke commanding every courtroom scene as Cliff’s perpetually incredulous attorney, Cole Young. (Trivia: In “The Graduate,” Brooke portrayed Mr. McGuire, who famously advised Dustin Hoffman’s character to go into plastics.)

But “The Red File, Part 2” is mostly notable because the events of this episode change Bobby’s character, hardening his edges and forever altering his dynamic with J.R. The script demands a lot from Patrick Duffy, and he more than delivers. This is one of his best “Dallas” performances.

Bobby throws himself into his investigation not so much because he wants to clear Cliff’s name but because he needs to find out for himself how far J.R. is willing to sink. In the scene where Bobby confronts J.R. with the phony codicil to Jock’s will, Duffy makes Bobby’s indignation palpable. The character’s disappointment is downright heartbreaking.

The episode’s other pivotal scene comes at the end, when Bobby tells J.R., “For the first time in my life, I know exactly what you’re all about.”

This is the moment Bobby appoints himself J.R.’s guardian, the role he’ll occupy through the rest of “Dallas’s” run. It isn’t a job he wants, but after finally seeing J.R.’s red file, Bobby knows he’s the only member of the Ewing family with the moral compass – and the muscle – needed to keep his older brother in check.

It all culminates during “The Red File, Part 2’s” poignant finale, when Bobby tells Pam he isn’t willing to leave Southfork to save their marriage. The man who talked about wanting to “resign” from his family at the beginning of this episode knows that’s no longer an option, now that he’s charged himself with protecting the world from J.R.

Grade: A


Cliff Barnes, Cole Young, Dallas, Ken Kercheval, Red File Part 2, Walter Brooke

Error and trial


Season 2, Episode 18

Airdate: February 9, 1979

Audience: 16.2 million homes, ranking 18th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Leonard Katzman

Synopsis: Cliff’s past is scrutinized at a hearing before his trial for Julie’s murder. Bobby uncovers J.R.’s red file and uses it to clear Cliff and squelch J.R.’s scheme to forge Jock’s will. Pam tells Bobby she isn’t ready to return to Southfork.

Cast: John Ashton (Willie Joe Garr), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Walter Brooke (Cole Young), Jordan Charney (Lieutenant Sutton), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Meg Gallagher (Louella), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), John Harkins (Judge Potter), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Jeanna Michaels (Connie), John Petlock (Dan Marsh), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Charles Siebert (Assistant District Attorney Sloan), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Sandy Ward (Jeb Ames)

“The Red File, Part 2” is available on DVD and at and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.