Welcome back to the second of my Dallas retrospective reviews. This week, Dallas moves to the real Southfork, and all sorts of shadows appear from the mist of the past.
Plot in a nutshell
Bobby finds the third Ewing brother, Gary (David Ackroyd), in Las Vegas. Gary – Ellie’s favourite son – never bonded with his father, and never wanted the power and status of his family name. He married a waitress, Valene Clements (Joan Van Ark), who was rejected by the family. After Lucy’s birth, Gary and Valene drifted apart, but Gary left Southfork in shame. When Bobby drags him back, the family rush to judgement – even more so when Lucy convinces her mother to return in the hope of a reunion. J.R., of course, plots both their downfalls. Gary cracks first and leaves; Valene takes longer to go but J.R. pays her off as he did once before.
Pam and Bobby face threats to their young marriage. First, Pam’s recent miscarriage has her on edge, and she desperately tries to get pregnant again. Second, Bobby’s former lover Jenna Wade (Morgan Fairchild) arrives in town, with a daughter, Charlie, who he thinks is his. J.R. tries to help promote this idea, but Bobby manages to convince Pam otherwise. Then, Pam gets a job at the Nieman-Marcus-esque “The Store” while Bobby starts to work full time at Ewing Oil; with each job choice casing doubt in the other. Finally, Pam’s first husband shows up to cause further struggles, and Digger refuses to accept his daughter’s marriage – instead telling her that she is no longer a Barnes.
For the rest of the family, things are no better. Jock has a heart attack, stressing Miss Ellie to breaking point but finally allowing her to pry him from work. Sue Ellen sees Pam’s fertility as a battle and tries desperately to get a baby – even by buying one! Lucy runs away and is subsequently kidnapped. And Bobby ultimately chooses the ranch over Ewing Oil, which J.R. now has to himself.
On the Barnes side of things, Cliff meets Sue Ellen and is enchanted by her. He has bigger things on his plate though, when he enters the race for Texas state senator and J.R. (of course) spearheads a movement to bring him down. When he finds out a key secret about Cliff, J.R. succeeds, and successfully ignites a second-generation Ewing/Barnes feud.
When Dallas returned to the airwaves for a full season in September 1978, it moved to Saturday nights at 10 – up against Fantasy Island and the less memorable Sword of Justice. It spent the first part of the season ranking around 40th (sometimes dipping lower than 50th) in the ratings, which was middling but consistent.
The show also began filming at the “real” Southfork, Duncan Acres ranch in Texas. The unusual filming scheme was as follows: a third-or-so of the season’s exteriors were shot at the ranch, then the equivalent episodes were filmed in California. The crew would return again to film the next third’s exteriors, before returning to California for the rest of the year. (As a result, the final episodes of the season would rarely feature genuine Dallas exterior shots, as there was no money or time to go back to Texas for a third shoot).
It’s interesting to see here how the writers loved a good slow-boil. After a brief dalliance with Ewing Oil, Bobby refuses to take over. In fact, he won’t fully sit at the reins for another year-and-a-half yet. Similarly, the Ewing/Barnes feud is actually only reignited after “Election”, when before that it was primarily disdain on the one side and hatred on the other. It is an impressive sign that so early on, the producers were willing to go slowly rather than – like most nighttime soap operas these days – tell an entire relationship in half a season, and then play around with the same concept for seasons to come. (Of course, this show would eventually fall into that trap, but it would take a while!)
It’s interesting to see here how the writers were already fans a good slow-boil. After a brief dalliance with Ewing Oil, Bobby refuses to take over. In fact, he won’t fully sit at the reins for another year-and-a-half yet. Similarly, the next generation of the Ewing/Barnes feud is actually only ignited after “Election”, when before that it was just disdain on the one side and hatred on the other. It is an impressive sign that so early on, the producers were willing to go slowly rather than – like most nighttime soap operas these days – tell an entire relationship in half a season, and then play around with the same concept for seasons to come. (Of course, this show would eventually fall into that trap, but it would take a while.)
The Ewing/Barnes feud, incidentally, was partly ignited because the writers changed their initial outlook for Cliff: they had originally conceived him as a Kennedy-esque figure, but instead took him in the opposite direction. Hence we begin to see the Cliff we love: a thrifty and gullible Chinese food obsessive (a wonderful homage to his father, no?).
Notable performances this time around go to Barbara Bel Geddes, who deals beautifully with her husband’s sickness; Linda Gray, who brings Sue Ellen from a minor character to front page centre; and Larry Hagman, who proved here and now that J.R. was the character to be watching. It would be another year before the whole world would be watching them, but the Dallas cast were ready.
(Right: Yes, that’s her: Pamela Ewing (Victoria Principal) becomes a sex symbol.)
Patrick Duffy does admirably as Bobby, but even he was put off by the blandness of the character. While the decision not to kill off Bobby in “Barbecue” was hardly regrettable, Duffy and the producers knew that Bobby had to be a nice, barely-flawed hero who could stand up to the rest of his family. It was for this reason that Duffy would be the first cast member to tire of the show.
These early episodes have an intense watchability. Phil Capice joked about the episodic nature of them and he wasn’t wrong: this feels so unlike Dallas where characters and problems rise and go away within one episode. But on the other hand, they were placing the seeds of long running storylines here early on. The nice thing about this style is that no character is wasted. Every character but Ray has had a centric episode already (and he’ll get his soon enough). A very well-put together little drama.
In the early seasons, the budget was quite small and a lot of footage was shot on locations at homes and offices, which were cheaper than building entire sets each episode. The poor ratings and initial low-budget filming had a strengthening effect on the cast. Later performers such as Leigh McCloskey and, infamously, Donna Reed would comment on what a tightknit cast it was, and how newcomers often felt like outsiders.
* We first meet Pam and Cliff’s Aunt Maggie (Sarah Cunningham); JR’s henchmen Willie Joe Garr (John Ashton) and Ed Nelsen (Jeb Ames); the first Dr. Harlan Danvers (Dan Ammerman); Pam’s boss Liz Craig (Barbara Babcock); businessman Jordan Lee (Don Starr); and J.R.’s secretary Louella Carraway (Meg Gallagher)
* Philip Levien takes over the role of Jimmy Monahan, Pam’s cousin, but we’ll never see him again after this episode.
* David Ackroyd plays Gary. He will be replaced in his next appearance by Ted Shackelford, who will keep the role for the reminader of the series run (and his own series, Knot’s Landing).
* This is the last we’ll see of David Wayne as Digger. His scheduling problems led to Keenan Wynn taking over the role.
* The second half of “Reunion” received the show’s first major award nomination: an Emmy for Editor Fred W. Berger. (Ironically, this is the show’s least-watched episode ever.)
* Morgan Fairchild plays Bobby’s former lover Jenna Wade while her daughter Charlie is here played by Laurie Lynn Myers. We’ll see them played by two more actors, until both characters take on a significant (oversignificant?) role in the show. But that’s for later…
Next time: Season 2 Episodes 9 – 16. Dallas begins its transition from episodic drama to story-arc soap opera when Sue Ellen has a baby…. with two potential fathers; we meet Kristin Shepard and Marilee Stone; the Southfork plane takes a dive; and we get our second kidnapping of the season. See you then!