"The world is littered with the bodies of people who tried to stick it to old J.R. Ewing."
Dark days, indeed, in Dallas.... Warner Bros. has released Dallas: The Thirteenth Season in another 3 flipper-disc set crammed full with 1989-1990's 27 episodes, shoddily transferred, as expected. As I wrote before, by this advanced point in the series the most notable element of any of these last seasons was the fact that the show was still actually on the air (I distinctly remember watching this season, more out of morbid fascination - and nostalgic sadness - than anything else. Dallas just seemed so...passť in 1990). And season thirteen is certainly no different. Some interesting new characters show up (Sasha Mitchell's James Beaumont gets top honors in this category), while we wait in vain for favorites to come back (no more Linda Gray - devastating to the series), and all the while, the same cycle of betrayals and back-room deals and romances and family tensions are endlessly recycled. There just aren't any more surprises here - and that used to be Dallas's hallmark. Still...like any good or deliberately bad pulpy read, it's difficult to put Dallas down - Mr. Nielsen finally took care of that, with garbage like ABC's 1989 "TGIF" line-up of crap - Full House, Family Matters, and Perfect Strangers - helping to put the final ki-bosh on CBS's once-mighty Friday night line-up). And even if the remaining cast regulars look as if they're hanging on like grim death for their next paychecks, small pleasures still can be found here.
I've written extensively about Dallas (you can click on Season Five, Season Six, Season Seven, Season Eight, Season Nine, Season Ten, Season Eleven, and Season Twelve, to read my earlier reviews), and I make no bones about being fascinated with its unabashed preoccupation with, and celebration of, American wealth and American sex and American power...and the greater the size and vulgarity of those elements, the crazy-better. Featuring the single greatest villain ever created for television (in the guise of utter rat bastard, J.R. Ewing, played brilliantly by Larry Hagman), Dallas, minute for minute, was the best drama on TV in the late 70s and early-to-mid 80s, creating a world of "haves" and "have-mores" who screwed each other over with utter, madcap abandon; an upside-down Dickensonian world where it was always "the best of times" at least financially, while the participants rutted and backstabbed in a morally suspect universe more akin to Dreiser. It makes for endlessly amusing TV, with a solid dramatic core that kept you coming back for more.
MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS!
That is, until the rapidly dwindling audiences said, "Enough is enough! I've had it with the endlessly recycled conflicts, the introduced-then-dropped subplots, and characters that don't act like the characters I loved and hated from seasons past!" And nothing - not the storylines, not the scripts, not the characters - has been improved at this point; by this thirteenth season, it's difficult to work up much enthusiasm for what's paraded around here because it's all been done to death in seasons past. I certainly perked up when episode one came on, sporting a new Aaron Copland-esque theme arrangement in the opening credits (which were minus the iconic triptych panels for the stars). However...events quickly went back to SOP (they ditch that music fast), and the feeling of warmed-over "better times" was soon overwhelming. Loose ends from last season's underwhelming cliffhangers are half-heartedly tied up, including a brief appearance by Afton (Audrey Landers, looking for the escape hatch) finally ditching Ken Kercheval's Cliff Barnes (and poor Andrew Prine - one brief scene and pffftt! Out.), and J.R. ineffectually demanding that some poor minion find Sue Ellen's film while also keeping tabs on her every move (both demands are never mentioned again). And then it's on to new business (I mean old business). By this point, not even Larry Hagman's J.R. can jump-start too much excitement into his now-limited bag of tricks, with the opening oil refinery scam behind Bobby's (Patrick Duffy) back coming off as too little, too late. Later on in the season, a major subplot involving a decrepit old tanker J.R. bought colliding with Carter McKay's (George Kennedy) Westar tanker, certainly spins a few webs throughout its multi-episode arc...but it amounts to little more than an opportunity for the writers to slip in on the sly (for our own good, of course, since we're dolts to them) typical Hollywood liberal activist nonsense about commercial threats to our environment (someone uses the word "ecology" in about every episode), or even sillier, a totally unrelated one-time no-nukes message slipped in for the hell of it. I don't tune into Dallas for a message, folks (and neither did its few remaining viewers back in 1989). I want to wallow in human excess; I want to see my worst feelings about humanity confirmed. In other words: I want some fun! So to paraphrase Goldwyn: use Western Union to send your messages.
The other main J.R. plotlines this season - J.R. trying to dump his sweet wife Cally (the heavenly Cathy Podewell), his striking oil in Miss Ellie's own bought-and-paid-for little town of Pride, Texas, and of course his being committed to a mental institution - are hit-and-miss...but mostly miss. The entire Pride, Texas section makes little sense, once it turns away from the Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes)/Clayton (Howard Keel) mystery tour, towards J.R. somehow reestablishing his manhood by striking oil. There's zero set-up for this turn of events; Miss Ellie is going to drill, and the next thing you know, J.R.'s down there yelling at everyone that there is oil down there while his relatives bite their lips, for the oil...and for...J.R.. It has no resonance, feeling like it's been chopped out of an earlier season and inexplicably plunked down here. As for J.R.'s finale-stopping stint in the crackers ward, it should be a dream-come-true for Hagman and the writers, giving the J.R. character lift-off potential into almost comic book sensibilities (like the previous season's hilarious Cool Hand Luke/Tex Avery pastiche when 'ole J.R. winds up on a hillbilly chain gang). But alas, Hagman looks almost embarrassed to be enacting this too-ridiculous-for-words plot - whatever possessed them to bring back Clayton's crazy sister, Jessica, played by Alexis Smith for a few episodes seasons ago, when every potential for her character was already exhausted? - and the transparency of the ruse (not to mention its illogical idiocy), render it mortifyingly inept. Even Dallas can push the limits of its audience's patience.
As for Bobby...why did they bring him back from the dead if they were going to treat him so shabbily? What is he doing in these episodes? Not much...except being saddled again with anonymous ex-girlfriends (I had to backtrack through my old reviews to remember who the hell Kay Lloyd was - still don't care, she's so dull), and poor whiney boob April (Sheeree J. Wilson), who used to be Dallas' hottest little ticket, but who now spends her time crying over Bobby, crying over obscene phone calls (again: why bring back J.Eddie Peck's silly, over-the-top Tommy McKay character?), crying over Carter McKay's squeeze play with her oil leases, and crying over her newly-arrived sister, Michelle (limber Kimberly Foster). Taking a much needed break from April, Bobby's sick Vertigo-like relationship with Pam look-a-like, Jeanne O'Brien, I'll have to admit, did start to feel enjoyably dirty and perverted, particularly when Jeanne offered herself sexually to Bobby as Pam, anytime he wanted (jackpot!). However, the Bobby character by now has become such a moral stiff that in the end, he chickens out after only one night in the sack, feeling bad about using her (now had it been J.R. with a Sue Ellen look-a-like...). Making the second-biggest mistake of his life (after marrying Pam), Bobby twice asks April (in-between sobs) to marry him, and she finally agrees, but what kind of wedding is that? Looking like it was shot in a broom closet, with a laughably fake backdrop that's supposed to be the Southfork horizon, April and Bobby are shown in a tight three-shot (with minister), and nothing else: no guests, no reception, no fight at said reception, no fashion show for the women out there, no bar-b-que, no Stetsons, nothing. The wedding is one shot, and it last about two minutes. Huh? Was this cheap-jack look the result of budget-cutting, or hasty, last-minute shooting due to script changes? I'll let the Dallas experts out there weigh in on that, but to say Bobby's and April's wedding is a lost opportunity, is an understatement.
And don't even bring up Miss Ellie and Clayton. Apparently, they've got ants in their pants, because they're never around Southfork anymore. Sounding like a Hardy Boys book - The Mysterious Key of Pride, Texas - that particular subplot is certainly intriguing, with a quietly powerful revelation at its end (apparently, Jock saved some Jews during the war), but it has nothing to do with the shenanigans back in Dallas, and only serves to keep Miss Ellie's and Clayton's scenes separated from the rest of the cast. And no sooner than you can say, "Angela Lansbury," they're off on some kind of fool Murder, She Wrote plot involving old wildcatter coots getting bumped off...with Clayton on the list of would-be victims (I'll admit some of this was fun, including the Charade-worthy shot of one victim hideously drowned in a full-sized fish tank). But again...what does any of this have to do with Ewing Oil, and her boys' eternal, primal battle over it? With the matriarch of Southfork gone all the time, where is the series' tower of personal integrity and its moral compass that continually assuages Bobby's interminable angst, and constantly bedevils J.R.'s transgressions?
It's always good to see George Kennedy as worthy villain, Carter McKay (he's great at being sweet one moment, mooning over his psycho son, and despicable the next, whoring out his brand-new bride to blackmail Cliff). Delightful character actor Denver Pyle (Uncle Jessie!) is on board for a little while as wildcatter Blackie (too bad they couldn't find more room for him here), and veteran Dallas cast member Fern Fitzgerald comes back as horny little cougar Marilee Stone (one of only a paltry two Dallas women in swimsuits this season...what the hell is that about?). As usual with this funny character, she gets off some great lines to J.R. ("I love to see a man on his knees - it offers such...possibilities." How'd that get by the censors?). But J.R. gives as good as he gets, suggesting Marilee hurry up after lunch before someone else gets her street corner. Newcomers to the cast are a mixed-bag. Granted, it's great to look at Kimberly Foster's ripped body (copiously on display, with plenty of bare midriff), but her character is but a faint reminder of the little sh*t-stirrer that her sister April used to be, and she's quickly hustled off to some island resort before the end of the season (and seriously - where's the ceremonial siring of Dallas' newest hottie by J.R., as prescribed by Dallas scripture?). Who wants to hear Michelle and April bitch about men while they plan their lame singles club (it's going to have telephones at each booth!), fending off at the same time the smooth Eugene Inagaki (Richard Narita), a ruthless Japanese businessman trotted out by the producers to play on Americans' fears of the once-might Japanese economy? Nobody, that's who.
About the only bright spot for new talent this season is the arrival of dreamboat Sasha Mitchell as J.R.'s long-hidden son, James Beaumont. Mitchell and the writers wisely keep James relatively innocent and good-natured for much of the season, until they slowly de-evolve him under the infectious influence of Daddy, J.R., thereby making his final descent to J.R.'s level quite effective. His "coming out" scene, where he spills the beans to J.R. and family at a restaurant, is a fun moment right out of the good old bad days of Dallas, as Cliff chortles with glee about J.R.'s "other little bastards." Most depressing, though, is the lack of focus on the Cally character (my favorite from last season, and one of Dallas's series best), who spends endless episodes pursuing a painting career, to zero interest from the audience, before she gets some surprisingly strong scenes in with Hagman concerning their crumbling marriage (Podewell is like a tonic with Hagman). It's a shame more couldn't have been done with the character, but her last-minute pregnancy should be a juicy subplot for Dallas' next - and gasp, last! - season.
Here are the 27 episodes from the three-disc collection, Dallas: The Complete Thirteenth Season, as described on the enclosed episode guide pamphlet:
DISC ONE: SIDE A
Phantom of the Oil Rig
New in town: April's man-hungry sister Michelle. Back in town: a reformed Tommy McKay. Out of town: J.R. in Hollywood.
The Leopard's Spots
A leopard can't change its spots. And J.R. can't change his lyin' ways when he smells a big-money oil deal.
Cry Me a River of Oil
Bobby's bad day: J.R. betrays him in the Shaughnessy deal and Tommy leaves him a booby-trapped briefcase.
One down, one to go. After he offs Rolf Brundin, Tommy has another go at blasting Bobby into the hereafter.
Cally's art career blossoms, J.R.'s cut-rate tanker may be lost, and Tommy's violent path reaches an abrupt end.
DISC ONE: SIDE B
Pride and Prejudice
There's a woman-chasing, slick-talking wheeler-dealer in Dallas, and another J.R.. Welcome to Big D, James Richard Beaumont.
Fathers and Other Strangers
Turns out there's a reason James and J.R. are as alike as two prairie rattlers. And Clayton and Miss Ellie discover a secret about Jock.
J.R. hustles to blame someone else when his rust bucket collides with a Westar tanker, turning the Gulf into a gooey mess.
Power positions: James settles in at Southfork and Ewing Oil, Cliff chairs the crash investigation, McKay sues the Ewings for every cent they possess.
Jock's letter inspires J.R. to save Ewing Oil, any rotten way he can. Cally is sure Michelle is putting her brand on J.R.'s hide.
DISC TWO: SIDE A
Cally on a Hot Tin Roof
Cally and Alex, Michelle and James, J.R. and Diane: a few rounds of musical beds end in a desperate act.
Sex, Lies and Videotape
Honey, could you do me a favor? McKay asks his brand-new bride to seduce Cliff and videotape the action. Objective: blackmail.
Tale of Two Cities
J.R., Bobby, and McKay play a game of move and countermove, threats and schemes as the tanker-crash hearings heat up.
The hearings are deadlocked with the deciding vote in Cliff's hands. Will he finally take his revenge on J.R.?
Unchain My Heart
The Bobby-April engagement goes toes-up just in time for Bobby to spy Pam across a crowded room.
DISC TWO: SIDE B
I Dream of Jeannie
Bobby's pursuit of Pam's look-alike leads to romance. J.R.'s pursuit of a deal leads to an old geezer who breaks into jails.
Proving that good things happen to bad people, J.R. strikes a gusher. And a hot-to-trot archery fan takes aim at James.
With Stephanie's PR help, Cliff's political career is on the rise. And don't that just put J.R.'s boxers in a bundle.
Dear Hearts and Gentle People
Ellie and Clayton get mixed up in murder. J.R. believes that when it comes to adultery, practice makes perfect.
J.R. wants to see a marriage counselor. Is the leopard changing his spots...or is ol' J.R. playing an angle?
DISC THREE: SIDE A
Ellie and Clayton discover a drowned corpse in an unlikely place. Cally defends J.R. on a tell-all TV talk show.
The Smiling Cobra
Busy, busy, busy. J.R. has his hands full plotting against two beautiful women: his wife and Stephanie.
Everyone's schemes seem might small potatoes when loony Jessica returns to Southfork, lethal injection in hand.
Clued in: Ellie and Clayton's murder mystery is solved. Clueless: in a bad career move, Cliff pink slips Stephanie.
DISC THREE: SIDE B
The Southfork Wedding Jinx
Bobby and April wed. J.R., plotting to grab Jessica's Westar stock, concocts a crazy plan to get himself committed to her mental hospital.
Three, Three, Three (Part 1)
Cuckoo's Nest time for J.R.: the new inmate finds ward life a lot freakier than he bargained for.
Three, Three, Three (Part 2)
James and Cally get their revenge as J.R.'s scheme backfires, leaving him mano-a-mano with some beefy psychiatric orderlies.
Yet again, Dallas - The Complete Thirteenth Season comes crammed onto three flipper discs, as opposed to previous seasons' five-disc offerings. An additional episode has been added to each side, making for some obvious compression problems, including some shimmering and smearing (interfacing was also a problem). Even on a smaller monitor, these transfers look more akin to VHS copies than digital. As well, as with all the Dallas DVDs I've reviewed, the source materials look quite beat up, with scratches, dirt and some nasty splices here and there. Colors are all over the place, as well. Episodes are hit-and-miss in overall quality, but I suspect Dallas fans understand by now that Warners isn't going to shell out for restorations for these episodes.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track accurately reflects the original network broadcast presentation. All dialogue is heard cleanly, although hiss is audible (it's minor). English subtitles and close-captions are available.
No extras for Dallas - The Complete Thirteenth Season, naturally.
Blah. Not much works here in Dallas' penultimate season, with storylines that either smack of better ones from earlier seasons, or that meander off ineffectually. Sasha Mitchell is good as J.R.'s newly-found son, but he's about the only thing new here that succeeds. It's all so...tired, and out-of-time. And worse - it knows it (just check out everyone's hang-dog expression). Strictly one for the die-hards, and a rental, at that.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.