Wednesday, August 29, 2012

 

Dallas – Jumping the Shower

After two decades in limbo, Dallas’ new series will get its UK premiere a week tonight, in what is surely the third-most-anticipated return of the next week, and probably achieve the impossible – get people watching Channel 5. Tonight, John Barrowman meets the cast for an exciting advertising feature; the trailer gives the best line, of course, to J.R.; and now seems the moment to confess that I’ve been watching the old series on the even more obscure channel CBS Drama, where it’s now back in 1986-7 and in the middle of the supersoap’s most turbulent, improbable and infamous stretch.

Dallas’ most famous moment? The end-of-season cliffhanger: who shot J.R.?

Dallas’ most infamous moment? The end-of-season cliffhanger: how showers Bobby?

Famously, Patrick Duffy having decided to leave the series and insisting on Bobby Ewing being killed off in front of so many witnesses that he couldn’t possibly be brought back, ratings dived for the following season… So they brought him back. In that most disappointing of all narrative devices, ‘It was all a dream’ (don’t tell Mr Moffat). So it’s generally said that the series has a problem with its ‘Dream Season’, which everyone now has to ignore. The problem for me is that the season that never was was rather more fun than those either side… And that it’s really all three of those seasons that look shaky as a result. Never mind Bobby; two years earlier, his mother Miss Ellie went on honeymoon with Clayton at the end of the season, and came back a new woman. For the dream season, the gaping void of a screen presence that was Donna Reed vanished with as little explanation as she came, with Barbara Bel Geddes returning to the role that rarely gave her any decent lines or character beyond looking a bit forlorn, but that at least she managed to give a bit of oomph to. So was that all a dream, too?

With CBS Drama currently about half-way through the series’ tenth season, the one that started with the morning after, it’s clear that you can’t just go right back and pretend a season never happened. You’d have to assume viewers remember where every plot had got to and then make each of them go in a different direction so as still to be a surprise, and to undo a year of characterisation, in itself more jarring to many viewers than the plotting. So what we get is an uneasy mix that picks up some strands, drops others and generally ties itself in knots.

A Dream To Some…

The 1986-7 season’s first episode a couple of weeks ago had a big job to do, and was in its way one of the funniest pieces of television of the ’80s, as everyone but Bobby (who wasn’t in it) and Pam (who, waking to find her year-dead lover in the shower, dreamt it all) struggled not to mention anything about the previous year, while the writers threw in masses of exposition and randomly chose which plotlines to carry on with or go back to. So, to match his brother Bobby in the shower, we first see J.R. naked in bed with Mandy explaining at length how Sue Ellen is back to being a hostile drunk he wants rid of and not the love of his life she was last time anyone tuned in, as you know, mistress of mine; cousin Jack and J.R. share exposition about how Jack owns 10% of Ewing Oil and he’s not evolved into being a part of the family that J.R.’s gone through hell and several assassination attempts with, just a con-man; but Bobby’s ex Jenna, having slowly deteriorated over a full year from capable, independent woman into helpless hysteric, now manages to take exactly the same fall in approximately three minutes to get her to where audiences expect her to be. Pam, on the other hand, was a bit stronger than usual the previous year, but has now instantly turned into blancmange who can only say “Oh, Bobby!” in tearful soft focus (that’s nothing to how ‘Pam’ will be at the beginning of the next season, in the series’ most breathtakingly out-of-character plotline). Other cousin Jamie, on the other hand, is back to being the one despicable turd Cliff only married for two-thirds of Ewing Oil and now finds is the only Ewing without any of it, so he’s putting her down at every opportunity. More of that story later.

Three lines stood out for me.

While Pam is gushing and crying about her horrible nightmare in the first scene (“And there was so much more! It seemed so real!”), wet Bobby – who may be just out of the shower, but is far, far less wet than his fully-clothed fiancée – holds her at manly arms’-length, looks compellingly into her eyes (which is the only reason he’s not holding the camera at manly arms’-length and looking compellingly into our eyes, possibly with a wink), and says, with the heaviest emphasis on every word of a sentence ever uttered by an actor:
“None of that happened.”
J.R., having been told by Bobby that he’s remarrying Pam:
“You are the dumbest brother any man could ever have.”
[Pause, considers]
“Aside from Gary and Ray, of course.”
And Pam, in her own little palace, having been railroaded by Bobby telling everyone she’ll live at Southfork, and even her ugly little son Damien Christopher asking excitedly if they can, because he can play with John Ross and the horses and it’s got so much… Victoria Principal, bless her, having talked a few minutes before about the reactions of Bobby’s brother J.R., who hates her, and her brother Cliff, who hates all Ewings, manages to put a lot of meaning into one line, as she answers her son:
“Yes,” she says. “It has everything.”
The Biggest Losers (apart from the viewers)

The biggest immediate change for me was in the feel of the characters and their relationships; while the writers did their best to have Jenna disintegrate on cue, they don’t seem to have thought so clearly about everyone else. With most couples by the end of the previous season having grown together as characters as far as soap couples ever do, all they could do was mark a right turn on each of them by everyone instead getting nasty with each other.

The second-biggest loser, character-wise, is Pam, who it’s difficult to take seriously when one potential husband had improbably returned from the dead only for her to wake up and find it was the other one who’d done it. This leaves the dangling plot of two years’ earlier – that terminally ill fiancé Mark Graison might not in fact have killed himself in an air crash in massively ambiguous and bodiless circumstances, particularly with mysterious people obstructing Pam’s search for him in sinister-but-compassionate ways – forever dangling, and only minutes of screen time after they had for once ponied up for a Southfork wedding rather than it happening, as was the usual custom, between ad breaks, with the minister blessing the happy couple, ‘I now pronounce you moustache, and beard’.

The biggest loser as a character is J.R., who in his brother and rival’s absence had had to become a more rounded individual than the clichéd pantomime villain, however enjoyable; his meanness and petulance in the first episode post-Dream came across as a real let-down after he’d really stretched his impressive acting chops in depth the previous year, despite Larry Hagman as a person being far happier with his friend to spark off against than in carrying the series on his own. One scene since, at least, has stayed with me as evidence other than merely Larry Hagman’s charisma vs Ken Kercheval’s weaseldom that J.R. is a better man (rather than just a better operator) than Cliff Barnes; in one of last week’s episodes, two scenes following close on each other showed both Cliff and J.R. being whining sexists to their estranged wives. Except that when Jamie was clearly proved right, Cliff doubled down as an objectionable jerk. But when Sue Ellen revealed that she was in fact a devious Machiavellian and business genius rolled into one, the person behind a long-laid plot that both despatched J.R.’s mistress (and Mandy being by far the most memorable of those, to boot) to Singapore and made a ton of money… For a few seconds, Hagman looked mean, and sullen, and angry. Then he gave a slight smile and, for the first time all season, quietly congratulated her as being quite brilliant. Then absolutely beamed, simply appreciating her achievement. He’s had too few moments like that since his brother and rival got better from death. Linda Gray really shone, too.

In the meantime, I became suddenly very aware of this season’s main plot arcs and coming mad guest star with bomb – I’m only surprised they didn’t get Barbara Carrera back to play the psychotic mercenary. Or have her as Jock, and Steve Forrest’s Ben Stivers Wes Parmalee as the villain. I miss her – she was so much fun last year, making such a little Fatima Blush go such a very long way, in costumes by TRAVILLA (probably Travis in huge red shoulderpads and a diamanté eyepatch). Anyway, at that point we’d not met this year’s loony yet, to be played as you’ll know if you’ve been watching since by an actor who rejoices in the name “Hunter Von Leer”, but everyone’s talking about how low the price of oil is, and how it’s all OPEC’s fault. Tedious tosser Cliff has been saying how there’s nothing anyone can do about it; Jamie has a brilliant idea; Cliff pours scorn on her as an idiot who knows nothing; Cliff then nicks the idea and has a big press conference with the Cartel. And this brilliant concept, that nobody says ‘Hang on…’ about? Protectionism. She wants all the Texas oil businesses to get the US government to put tariffs on foreign oil so that they can sell at the price they want and not be undercut. How clever! To which no-one, oddly, says, ‘But won’t that mean counter-tariffs that will hurt our trade back the other way, and surely Congress isn’t going to vote to massively increase the pump price for the gas-guzzling ordinary American anyway just so the oil barons can rip them off some more?’

J.R. stands at the back and says what a stupid idea it is, but only because it’s come from Cliff, before finding someone competent to run it instead (and, coincidentally, to get them out of his hair). Shame. I’d have liked him to say some of the above, because he’s meant to be the bright one. But no, it was merely because a/ it was Cliff's (nicked), and b/ do you think he might have some slightly more direct action in mind that could go disastrously wrong?

Back From the Dead – Haven’t We Already Done This (in two ways)?

And the final arc plot to be crippled by the missing season involved… A much-loved member of the Ewing family returning from the dead. I wonder why they eventually decided people might not swallow it? You get the feeling they only decided to bring Bobby back at the very last minute, as only in the last couple of episodes of the Dream Season were we introduced to rugged old oil-and-cattleman Ben Stivers, played by grey-white-haired Steve Forrest, who everyone is strangely drawn to but who hides an enigmatic secret (or does he?). Pam may be wetter than a very wet thing, but she has at least gained psychic powers: for into this completely different and not-dreamed season comes rugged old oil-and-cattleman Wes Parmalee, played by grey-brown-haired Steve Forrest (no relation), who everyone is strangely drawn to but who hides an enigmatic secret (or does he?). Well, if you’ve been watching, you’ll have found out that he doesn’t, but several of the conflicting reports of what the writers had been planning suggest he really was going to turn out to be the long-lost and heavily plastic-surgeried Ewing patriarch who was not in fact killed in an air crash in massively ambiguous and bodiless circumstances some years earlier. His storyline has been chuntering along for a dozen episodes or more, making it increasingly likely that he was Jock (and with Forrest’s gravelly timbre and manner at times capturing something eerie of Jim Davis, even if his slighter frame never did)… And then, suddenly, it stopped, with a tedious three episodes of exposition afterwards proving that, in fact, the only thing less credible than having someone suddenly return from the dead with minimal explanation is having him suddenly turn out not to have done. Every awkward exposition piled on makes it seem increasingly and incredibly unlikely that he’d ever have been able to pull it off in the first place (he just happened to be there and taking notes while Jock told him his life story in a fever! And so on through all the uncanny physical similarities) and more unlikely still that he’d have thrown it all away.

I suppose we were at least spared Donna Reid crying out in torment to Steve Forrest, ‘But you don’t look like Jock!’

Sue Ellen Predicts New Dallas

One other scene stays with me eerily from early on in this season. With Pam and Bobby remarried and Christopher back at Southfork too, naturally by this week’s episodes J.R.’s son John Ross was beating up the smaller kid. While viewers across the land reeled at how such ugly children could ever grow up to be such buff adults (they crashed into Desperate Housewives and had plastic surgery), Pam became massively overprotective and accused John Ross of becoming just like his father. Later, Christopher asks Bobby if he can teach him how to use a gun. Now, that’s more like J.R. (are we quite sure the abandoned plotline in which Christopher was J.R.’s son as well – no, I won’t go into it, things are complicated enough – truly expired?). But Bambi-eyed Pam’s bouncing from insane optimism to molly-coddling could never compare to Sue Ellen, whose own psychic powers came to the fore a fortnight earlier. That scene had Sue Ellen pouring cold vodka on Pam’s plan to remarry in lines that should surely make the trailers for the new series:
“You’re even moving back to Southfork!”
“Christopher can hardly wait. You know, he and John Ross are going to be great friends.”
“Another generation of Ewing boys. What a picture. Maybe the oil industry will be just a memory by the time they grow up – there won’t be any competition. Miss? Would you bring me another, please?”

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