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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
fter giving fairly middling reviews to the last several seasons of “Dallas,” one thing I wasn’t expecting from this penultimate collection of episodes was some of the strongest material the show’s offered up in a good long while. With Season Thirteen, the powers that be managed to create one of the very best seasons of the latter half of the series, although it goes without saying that you can’t please all the people all of the time. There are always going to be folks who’ll instantly dismiss the last two years of the series based solely on how few of the original cast members remain. At this point, the show is down to only five major characters that’ve been around since the show’s inception – J.R., Bobby, Cliff, Miss Ellie, and Lucy. But Clayton’s been such a fixture on the series for a long time now, and it’s only fair to include him as well, so let’s bump that up to a half dozen.
In addition to the new characters of Cally Harper Ewing (Cathy Podewell) and Carter McKay (George Kennedy) that were introduced in Season Twelve, here we’re given an additional two major players in the forms of James Beaumont (Sasha Mitchell) and Michelle Stevens (Kimberly Foster); the former is the illegitimate son of J.R., and the latter is the sister of April (Sheree J. Wilson).
I know, I know – hackneyed phrases like “illegitimate son” make it sound as though “Dallas” is scraping the bottom of the soap opera barrel. But you can take a well worn cliché and do nothing with it, or you can take that same cliché and do something with it, and rather than dwell on the soapier sides of such a gimmick, the show puts James in numerous situations where he does the drama far more good than harm. Once J.R. adjusts to the son he never knew he had, he continually exposes the kid to the seediest aspects of his demeanor, and in the process gradually builds a brand new enemy. It’s an engaging dynamic between father and son and one that could never have been previously explored on the show due to John Ross’s age. No doubt plenty of viewers will take an instant dislike to Mitchell, but as the season moved forward, he really grew on me in a Keanu Reeves-y sort of way. He’s certainly not the most engaging actor to grace the “Dallas” landscape, but he’s far from the worst, and the material he’s given always manages to make up for whatever shortcomings he may have as a screen presence.
Kimberly Foster, on the other hand, is a force to be reckoned with coming out of the gate. Tall, blond and incredibly easy on the eyes, Michelle is at first drawn as a typical “Dallas” femme fatale, out to wreak as much havoc as she can muster. But as the season moves forward, she’s shown to have plenty of other sides, and I look forward to seeing what the show does with her in its final season. And I really can’t stress enough how damn hot this woman is.
One of the things that’s been happening with the show in recent years is a gradual move toward the drawing of its female characters as smarter and more competent than they were “back in the day.” Even at its peak, “Dallas” was pretty chauvinistic in its portrayal of women, but by this point in the series, the women are as strong as – if not often stronger than – the men. Case in point: Wilson’s April Stevens. She’s been on the show for several years now, and in my numerous “Dallas” reviews I’ve really failed to give her her due. With Sue Ellen now off the show, it pretty much falls on April to be the central female character. Not only is she smart and pretty, but more importantly, she’s an incredibly astute businesswoman and doesn’t have to jump into the sack in order to make deals. She makes a far more engaging love interest for Bobby than Pam probably ever did. Once upon a time, the only women involved in the oil business on this show were vamps like Marilee Stone (Fern Fitzgerald), who constantly used her sexuality in conjunction with doing business. Now, that made for plenty of fun “Dallas” back in the day, but here we are and the ‘90s are upon the series, and the show really needed to move with the times. (It’s interesting to note that “Twin Peaks” was premiering on ABC concurrent with the tail end of this season of “Dallas.”) Even Cally, who seemed to be such a cipher last year, really comes into her own here – so much so that it’s hard to imagine this incarnation of the series without Podewell as a major player, an idea that was unfathomable to me while watching Season Twelve.
At the heart of the series, however, remain the antics of J.R., and while he deceptively starts the season off as a shadow of his former self (seemingly a deliberate decision on the part of the writers, and probably Larry Hagman as well, who has an executive producer credit at this point in the series), as the story moves on, his behavior grows more and more inexcusable, and the sheer number of people he double-crosses and manipulates over the course of this year took me all the way back to his machinations in the season leading up to the infamous “Who Shot J.R.?” incident all those years before. The character has simply not been this devious in ages, and it’s a joy to behold. If you thought “Dallas” didn’t have much life left in it based on the past few seasons (as I did), think again. With an open mind, this season will prove you wrong. It’s loaded with surprises and plenty of material that’ll catch you off guard and keep you guessing, and it finishes up with a cliffhanger, which, while not cut from the traditional “Dallas” mold, is inspired, strange and beautiful all the same.
Special Features: Of course, nothing. But since I have this platform, I’ll use it to beg the folks at Warner Brothers to make sure the original 90-minute version of the series finale “Conundrum” (opposed to the two-part syndicated version) is used for the last box set. And once again, I urge WB to get Hagman and Duffy to, at the very least, record a commentary track for that episode. You guys gotta give us “Dallas” fans something special on the last set. We’ve earned it, having stuck with you all these seasons despite inconsistent video and audio quality and minor edits to the occasional episode. Give something back to the fans who’ve given so much to you.