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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
y 1990, the ‘80s nighttime power soaps were on the way out, and new types of soapy television, like “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Melrose Place,” were either on the air or on the horizon. “Dynasty” and “Falcon Crest” were gone, “Knots Landing” only had a couple seasons left in it, and the one that started them all, “Dallas,” was kicking off its final season. What on earth was there left for this show to do that it hadn’t done in the 13 seasons previous? Having successfully revamped the show in the previous year (at least artistically, even if not commercially), the producers now had to find a way to end it all. The core cast had dwindled down to only three characters that had been there since the start: J.R., Bobby and Cliff. And yet, if you’ve got those three guys, you’ve still got quite a bit to work with, and while the final season is never going to go down as a “Dallas” highpoint, at least it doesn’t go out like a bruised, whimpering puppy with its tail between its legs. Well, not quite.
When last we saw J.R. (Larry Hagman), thanks to his son James (Sasha Mitchell), he was being hauled off back into the looney bin where he’d been conducting some unsavory deeds. In this season, that story continues on for another five or so episodes, as he finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into an unhealthy state, although for perhaps the first time in his life, J.R. finds himself making actual friends. Meanwhile, Bobby (Patrick Duffy) and April (Sheree J. Wilson) are honeymooning in Paris, and no sooner than they get off the plane than they run into Susan Lucci. Now, it’s a shame that soap characters are forced to live in a bubble, because as a viewer you’re yelling at the screen, “That’s Susan fucking Lucci! She’s evil!! No good can come from this. Stay away from her, Bobby and April!!!” Of course, they do not, and terrible, terrible things happen, but since the production has moved to Paris for an extended shoot, at least the proceedings look nice.
Back in Dallas, Cliff (Ken Kercheval) is angling for a government position as Energy Czar of the U.S., while at the same time romancing Liz Adams (Barbara Stock), a lady with a few secrets of her own which revolve around a slick, macho blowhard named John Danzig, a.k.a. Johnny Dancer (Ramy Zada). Sooner, rather than later, Dancer ends up deceased. But who done it? Cliff? Liz? Carter McKay (George Kennedy)? Plenty of people had a motive, but everyone’s got an alibi. Also lurking on the sidelines is Michelle Stevens (Kimberly Foster), and she’s got some serious payback in mind for J.R. after he shipped her away last year. Enter Lee Ann De Le Vega played by none other than Hagman’s old “I Dream of Jeannie” co-star Barbara Eden. Stunt casting? Perhaps. I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt for the duration of the Lee Ann storyline which in the end fizzled out to at least some degree. Credit must be given to the writers for stifling the urge to work in any “Jeannie” references or in-jokes.
Part of the problem with this season is that it doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on what to do with characters like Michelle and James, who are so new to the “Dallas” fold, that the show doesn’t have much history with them for the writers to work with. By the end, I was pretty tired of them both, which is a huge shame because they seemed like fine additions when they were introduced last year. But really, who watches “Dallas” for the likes of Michelle and James? We watch it for J.R. and Bobby. In fact, I need to add on to something I wrote a few seasons back, when Bobby was brought back and the entirety of Season Nine became a dream. At the time I wrote, “…the show – weak ratings be damned – worked just fine without [Bobby]. Three components are needed to make ‘Dallas’ fly: J.R. Ewing, oil, and Texas.” While I still stand by that assertion in relation to that period of the show, it must be said that Patrick Duffy is a hugely important component of “Dallas,” and he’s excellent throughout this entire season, as he’s basically given one long season arc to traverse, and it’s a seriously emotional and bumpy ride.
Of course, Hagman is no slouch either, and while the season throws out a wider variety of crap for him to deal with, there also seems to be an attempt to turn him into a man who’s learned a few lessons. The entire scope of Southfork has changed, and J.R. begins to realize how important family really is to him. But when you’ve built up 13 years of bad karma against every person you know, maybe it’s just a little too late to try to make things right. There’s a strange vibe of melancholy that seemingly pervades this entire season, and I can’t decide if that’s because it was actually written that way, or if it’s because, after seven years of watching 14 seasons of this show on DVD, I simply felt bummed having reached the end of the road. It’s highly probable that it’s some of both, but to lead you to believe the series ends on a wide, leering grin after J.R. has made the granddaddy of all deals would be folly. That’s not what this season is about, and that may very well be why it isn’t terribly popular with fans.
The penultimate episode of the season, “The Decline and Fall of the Ewing Empire,” with a little tweaking, could very well have been the finale for the series. However, it didn’t end there. The series proper finishes up with a feature-length episode called “Conundrum,” in which a comical demon named Adam (played by Joel Grey), turns up and insists on showing J.R. what life would have been like for everyone had he never been born. While people like Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) fare much better without him, someone like Bobby ends up being a royal screw-up and addicted to gambling. The episode brings back others like Ray (Steve Kanaly) and Kristen (Mary Crosby), and even allows Gary (Ted Shackelford) and Valene (Joan Van Ark) to cross back over from “Knots Landing” for one last time. The episode twists and turns all over the place – some of it works really well, and some of it not so much; with a running time of nearly 100 minutes, that’s probably to be expected for such a gimmick.
Yet it’s a bold, strange move for this series to go out on such an odd series of notes. In my Season 13 review, I noted that “Twin Peaks” had just started airing near the end of that season, and in this season, there’s even a straight-up reference to “Peaks.” (I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ll know it when you hear it, assuming you’re a fan of that show.) One wonders if the weirdness that “Peaks” was delivering over the airwaves at the time might even have been an influence on the finale. This isn’t to imply that “Conundrum” comes even close to a David Lynch nightmare, but it’s certainly possible that the producers thought, “If we can’t beat ‘em, why not try to join ‘em?”
Of course, this isn’t quite the end of “Dallas.” There are still the two TV reunion movies, “J.R. Returns” and “War of the Ewings,” as well as “Dallas: The Early Years.” All three of those will be hitting DVD in one set in April. Good thing, too, because it’s entirely possible that before the end of this year, TNT will be unveiling their new series of “Dallas,” centered around John Ross and Christopher, at which point younger folks may just want to go back to the beginning and find out where this whole “Dallas” thing started. I’m sure Warner can be counted on to release some boffo “Complete Series” DVD set for next Christmas.
Special Features: Despite my pleas for a “Conundrum” commentary, no such luck, although that episode is presented in its movie-length format, and not in its two-part syndicated version, so that’s something I guess. Perhaps the closest thing here that resembles a true special feature is that for the first time, in all the years Warner Bros. has been releasing these sets, they’ve placed these episodes on five single-sided DVDs as opposed to double-sided discs. Does it affect the picture quality for the better? Maybe, just a little.