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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
t’s always a little sad when a long-running series begins to show its age, yet fights against it tooth and nail, and that’s more or less what’s happening with “Dallas” in its twelfth season. The core cast that remains is getting noticeably grayer, and so younger, prettier actors have been brought in to help spice things up – a move that seems to work only about half the time. The plots, too, seem to have been given a bit of an overhaul, probably in an attempt to compete with other primetime dramas of the day. This isn’t a show that has by any means “lost it,” but it’s most certainly one that has seen far better days.
After the Nicholas Pearce debacle of Season Eleven, which provided the season cliffhanger, J.R. (Larry Hagman) has once again been shot – this time by Sue Ellen (Linda Gray). His recovery is swift and he’s back on his feet by the second episode, and the entire incident is written off by the authorities as self-defense on everyone’s part, so no charges are filed against anyone. But Pearce is dead, and Sue Ellen wants revenge against J.R., and so begins her story arc for the entire season, which would turn out to be Gray’s last on the series proper. It cannot be calculated exactly how much class Gray brought to this series, and so it’s something of shame that she doesn’t get a stronger exit. As the season moves forward, she meets a screenwriter/director named Don Lockwood (Ian McShane), and hatches a plan that involves bringing the details of her sordid marriage to J.R. to the big screen. (She describes it as “Citizen Kane” in Texas.) The aim is to produce a work that will humble and humiliate J.R. for good. This entire idea probably seemed a great deal cleverer back when it first aired, but in this day and age it feels awfully quaint, and worst of all, what little we see of the resulting movie makes it looks like a disastrous picture that nobody would ever want to sit through. And to top it all off, J.R.’s viewing of the movie provides Season Twelve with its cliffhanger – surely one of the most anticlimactic this series ever produced.
But all is not lost, and I’ve gotten ahead of myself. There’s still a lot to like in this season, most notably in the first half, when J.R. and Bobby (Patrick Duffy) take their boys on a hunting trip to a small town called Haleyville on the Louisiana border, where J.R. meets his hillbilly fantasy in the form of Cally Harper (Cathy Podewell). He romances her and steals her virginity, only to end up on the other end of a shotgun being held by her redneck brothers. And so begins a lengthy story arc involving J.R. suffering all manner of indignities at the hands of this small town, seemingly the one place on Earth his money and power carries absolutely no weight. It’s actually fairly compelling material, and how you’ll react to it will depend entirely on how you feel about J.R. I felt sorry for the guy, yet some may watch and think he’s finally getting what he deserves. Eventually J.R. makes it back to Dallas, and Cally follows him, eventually becoming the new Mrs. J.R. Ewing, which is a plot development that will surely fall flat for many a viewer, as we end up seeing a much softer side of Mr. Nasty (and Podewell’s atrocious hillbilly accent certainly doesn’t help matters).
Another highpoint of the season is a “range war” instigated by an all-new Ewing nemesis, Carter McKay (George Kennedy). McKay moves into Ray’s old house near Southfork and begins to cause all manner of trouble for the first family of oil. Guns, explosives and mercenaries; “Dallas” becomes quite the series of action all of a sudden! Kennedy is one of those actors who’s been around for so long, and been in so many things, that he’s very easy to take for granted. Here he proves to be a solid addition to the cast, and over the course of the season ends up a surprisingly complex and layered character. It’s no wonder that once Kennedy came onboard, he stayed with the show until the end, and even came back for the reunion movies. He’s undoubtedly an important part of the glue holding the show together at this point, and he turns in one hell of a performance.
So yes, Season Twelve has its share of both good and bad, but ultimately you just know the show is on the downhill slide when, towards the end of the season, it whips out the single most clichéd plot development in the soap opera handbook: One of the show’s main characters develops amnesia, which lasts two or three episodes. It does nothing to serve the greater plot, and it isn’t tied to any other aspect of the narrative. The character hits their head and loses their memory, and that’s about all there is to it. It genuinely has that feeling of “Oh shit, the writers have finally run out of ideas.” They haven’t, of course, but it sure does feel that way.
Lastly, mention must be made of the video quality of this set, which is probably the worst transfer yet on a “Dallas” season set. I’ve been largely forgiving of the dubious video quality of the “Dallas” sets, but this time around it can’t go unpunished. I would’ve given this set three stars, but I really feel the need to subtract a half a star due to the poor video presentation, which looks far closer to VHS than DVD. What is going on here? How is it that the episodes from ‘88 look so much worse than the ones from ’78? There are only two more seasons of “Dallas” left; come on Warner Brothers, can’t we see this show go out on a high note from a presentation standpoint?
Special Features: Fat chance. There haven’t been any special features on the “Dallas” sets for the past three or four releases, and this follows suit. But again, I make a plea to the WB: Can you guys at the very least cook up a Hagman/Duffy commentary track for “Conundrum” for the Season 14 set? Pretty please, with some bourbon and branch on top?