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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
ne of the great pleasures of a TV on DVD addiction is basking in the ongoing releases of a series that lasted for a really long time. For me, one such series is “Dallas,” and I’ve been following it season by season since the sets started coming out several years ago. Season Eight is noteworthy for two major reasons: Donna Reed took over the role of Miss Ellie, and at the time, its finale was to be Patrick Duffy’s swan song as Bobby Ewing (literally - the episode is actually titled “Swan Song!”).
“Dallas” is one of those rare shows that remain entertaining no matter how ridiculous it gets. Season Eight (which aired in ’84 and ’85 and packs a whopping 30 episodes) should logically be the last to deliver solid goods, as it’s the one before the over-the-top theatrics of the infamous dream season; at least that’s what I was expecting. Turns out that a fin circled “Dallas” even at this stage, but we’ll come to that in due course. The proceedings begin where we left off. Bobby, who was hanging out in J.R.’s (Larry Hagman) office late at night, has been shot. Presumably the shooter thought it was J.R., but since the high-backed office chair Bobby was sitting in was turned around -- well, you get the idea. The cliffhanger, along with the first handful of episodes of Season Eight, seems designed to replicate the “Who shot J.R.?” hysteria that had been Must See TV several years prior, but time has proven the magic didn’t work twice. After all, “Who shot Bobby?” isn’t a phrase that entered into the Famous TV Slogans lexicon. Needless to say, Bobby survives – temporarily blinded! – and we do eventually find out who shot him, but I’m not going to blow it for you here.
There are only two actors/characters who hung in through all 14 seasons of “Dallas,” Larry Hagman’s J.R. and Ken Kercheval’s Cliff Barnes, and for my viewing pleasure it’s their rivalry that keeps the show going. The genius in the writing of the two adversaries is in the crafting of Barnes as far more of an unlikable rat bastard than J.R. could ever be. History calls J.R. Ewing a villain, but I see him as an antihero. Season Eight portrays him in full-on antihero mode, as he’s constantly on the verge of losing everything. Barnes is currently basking in the biggest oil strike to hit Texas in years, and he takes great pleasure in rubbing it in J.R.’s face at every turn. As the season progresses, new information comes to light and Cliff stands a very good chance of legally owning a third of Ewing Oil, along with a partner who’d own another third - leaving J.R. and Bobby with only a paltry third of their own. The mysteries surrounding these developments and the drama that comes with them are at the season’s core and make it well worth viewing.
New to the table are three younger faces: Jenilee Harrison, Deborah Shelton and Dack Rambo. Harrison, whom you might recall as Cindy Snow from “Three’s Company,” is the most significant. She plays Jamie Ewing, a cousin who shows up at Southfork after the death of her father, Jason (Ewing patriarch Jock’s long-lost brother). Jamie is as salt of the earth as the Ewings are born with silver spoons in their mouths, but J.R. puts her to the test a bit too harshly, and he may just feel her sting by pushing harder. Harrison’s a fine addition to the cast and her work here shows that she’s a far better dramatic actress than she was a comedic one. Shelton’s Mandy Winger is brought in as Cliff’s new girlfriend, but it doesn’t take long for him to start disrespectin’ her, and she eventually finds herself the object of J.R.’s obsession (which is sorta creepy, even by J.R. standards). Shelton’s quite the looker, which leads to another hallmark of this season: for about the first 10 or so episodes, the ladies spend insane amounts of time in various bathing suits and bikinis and they all look fantastic. (For those into the male physique, even Patrick Duffy is forced to don a Speedo at one point.) There isn’t much to say about Dack Rambo’s Jack - who doesn’t show up until near the season’s close - except that it must have been annoying to go through the ‘80s with the last name Rambo.
And now for the misfires. An ongoing plotline involves Pam (Victoria Principal) engaged in a lengthy search for her fiancé, Mark Graison, who was killed last season, but now appears to have possibly faked his death. Pam’s travels take her all the way to Hong Kong, with Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) in tow. The search is a frustrating one because every time Pam gets close to the answer, she immediately finds herself further away from the truth. If it annoyed me, with all the episodes at my disposal, it must have been blandly maddening for TV viewers enduring it for months on end. The silver lining is that the production team actually went to Hong Kong to film, which makes for a refreshing change of locale (and no doubt was a nice bonus for Principal and Gray as well).
But Pam’s trek has nothing on the trial of Jenna Wade (Priscilla Presley) for the murder of her first husband, which is so ham-fistedly scripted and mind-bogglingly, ineptly executed that you’ll wonder how grown men and women could come together to create such nonsensical drama. Almost nothing about the murder and ensuing trial makes sense, and you’ll think fondly of the worst lawyer you ever had after seeing the series of bungled maneuvers made by “the best lawyer in Texas,” Scotty Demarest (Stephen Elliott). You’ll shout at your screen and no doubt have fun if you go in with the knowledge that it’s all a bunch of hooey (unlike me, who watched expecting it to come together at some point).
How about that Donna Reed? After seven years of owning the role of Miss Ellie, Barbara Bel Geddes either took ill or was involved in a contract dispute (various sources say one or the other). Recasting was a bold move, but it makes sense as the show had already lost Jim Davis’ Jock, and Ellie and Clayton Farlow (Howard Keel) had married at the close of the previous year. To kill her off would have forced the series into areas the producers weren’t ready for. Reed doesn’t show up until episode seven, “Homecoming” (prior to that she and Clayton are on honeymoon). She takes some getting used to, as she bears no resemblance to the Ellie we’ve come to know and love – and not just in appearance, either. Her attitude, manner of speech and most notably her sense of fashion is just so not Miss Ellie. But as the season moves on, Reed is given so little to do that it becomes a non-issue. It’s a shame she didn’t have stronger material because her work on “Dallas” is the last she ever did. Donna Reed died less than a year later, and the season finale’s title has an even deeper meaning in that respect. In a perfect universe, all this would have happened the following year during the dream, but alas, we do not live a perfect universe and Season Eight of “Dallas” is further proof.
Special Features: As has been the case with the “Dallas” sets for a while now, only one special feature is present. This time it’s a featurette entitled, “Dallas Makeover: Travilla Style.” Travilla was a costume designer, most famous for dressing Marilyn Monroe in numerous films, who was brought on board the series in ’84 to amp up the fashion sense. Boy, does he ever. I’m sure he was responsible for all the aforementioned emphasis on swimwear, but he also brings to the table all manner of garish ‘80s headwear and padded shoulders.