A BRIEF DALLAS INTERLUDE: PART 11 OF 12
Episode Title: The Family Ewing
Season 09, Episode 01
Written by Leonard Katzman
Directed by Nick Havinga
Original Airdate: Friday, September 27th, 1985
The Plot (Courtesy of TV.com): The Ewings come together for Bobby's funeral; Dusty tells Sue Ellen he loves her; Miss Ellie is happy to have Gary back for a time.
Welcome back to A Brief Dallas Interlude. Do you realize it’s been nearly three years since we’ve covered one of these? Remember the old days when it felt like these Interludes were popping up kinda constantly? Then Jock’s Will came along in 1982 and Gary showed up for that, but since then, we haven’t had any stops off in Texas and it was a rather interesting feeling to return to that world again after so much time away. In fact, I should mention that I feel like I’m gonna end up talking about Dallas a lot more in this writeup than I might have thought before My Beloved Grammy and I watched the ep. With the previous Interludes, I’ve tried to strictly focus on what Gary/Val do in their appearances and kinda ignore all the Dallas storylines and shenanigans going on, but with The Family Ewing, it’s gonna be a little trickier, mostly because I just have so much to say about, well, so much different stuff. First off, this is the last time we are going to see something happen on Dallas and then directly affect the stories over on KL, so that’s significant, but also I just found a lot of interesting points within this ep that are just interesting on their own merits. Let’s just go ahead and dive right in.
First off, this was one of our smoothest transitions from a KL ep to a Dallas Interlude, in my opinion. Usually, we’re watching KL and then I feel somewhat apologetic when I get up to take out the KL disk and put in a Dallas disk and I’m kinda like, “Yeah, sorry, we gotta watch a Dallas now,” and it usually feels like it’s sorta killing the momentum we’ve been building over on the better series. This time, however, our penultimate scene of The Longest Day was Gary receiving the news that his brother Bobby had died, and then we had one more short little scene after that before the ep concluded, and then we make the jump into The Family Ewing and it immediately starts with everyone reacting to Bobby’s death and it felt rather seamless, actually. Even though we were pausing the events of Val and her babies and Laura and Greg and all that stuff to go off and visit Texas for 48 minutes, it still felt surprisingly organic and not whiplash inducing as previous Interludes have felt. Even better, when The Family Ewing concluded and I switched us back over to KL for Here In My Arms, that felt super organic, too, for reasons I’ll explain further down the line.
Basically we open up with everyone in the cast reacting to Bobby’s death, with some displaying better acting than others. Right away, I’m sorta torn two ways here, because on one hand this ep ended up playing a lot better than I had remembered it, reminding me that very rarely does a show simply turn to complete crap between eps; it’s usually a slow and steady decline. So even though I tend to go on about, “Just watch seasons 1-8 of Dallas and then never watch 9-14,” it’s honestly not like you start this episode and you’re immediately like, “Oh, this is awful!” In fact, it reminded me that, when watching the dream season, it actually played pretty okay for about five or ten eps and started to decline rapidly around the middle section of the season (whenever the hell Barbara Carrera shows up). So on one hand, I’m watching this ep and thinking, “This is actually kinda sorta almost good,” but then at the same time, I recognize that it’s so clearly inferior to KL in absolutely every way, and the most obvious example is the acting and the writing. I’m not gonna shit on too many people here, but let’s just look at this early scene where Pam is gathered around her bed with Cliff and, um, that forgettable chick who is in a couple of seasons (Jamie?) by her side, and she’s crying and freaking out about Bobby’s death and saying, “It was my fault,” and it’s just all very over-the-top and campy. Ken Kercheval is clearly drunk in the scene (although I’m pretty sure he’s clearly drunk in every scene of the series he’s in from start to finish), but that’s not even what I’m focusing on; it’s more the way Pam expresses her grief. The music is pounding and super loud and everything is just very extreme. Contrast this with how it would be handled on KL, where it would probably be a much more quiet and realistic thing (go on back to my writeup on Critical Condition and that amazing moment when the characters found out Sid had died). So right off the bat, we see a good clear example of some Dallas shortcomings that KL usually manages to avoid.
Another good example of Dallas shortcomings came pretty much right away when we got to the stuff involving Sue Ellen being drunk again. Yeah yeah, I know this is the season where she hits rock bottom and then finally sobers up and Bob Loblaw, but I’m just talking about how seeing her drinking made me reflect on the difference between the two shows. Over on KL, Gary goes on exactly two benders, the first in season one and the second in season four. The season four bender is not just the writers being like, “Uh, we need something to do with Gary; let’s just get him drunk again.” No, rather it was an almost spiritual journey in which he hit his own rock bottom and then came out of it and was able to get his life back together and start becoming a mature, adult person. With Dallas, however, I feel like Sue Ellen returning to the booze was just a crutch the writers would fall on when they couldn’t think of anything else to do (and if there’s one thing the Dallas writers were not good at, it was giving their female characters interesting storylines and things to do).
This weaves well into what I want to discuss now, which is the glorious appearance of Gary within the confines of this ep. Man, in my memory, Gary just sorta showed up and had a brief scene or two and didn’t make much of an impression, but my memories must have been very wrong. See, the first time we see Gary in this ep, it’s during a phone conversation with Miss Ellie (who at this point has morphed into Donna Reed and, now, back into Barbara Bel Geddes). I paid real close attention to this scene, by the way, because I wanted to see if Gary is clearly standing on the same set as his ranch on KL, but I fear my eye is not sharp enough. All I can remember is that he’s standing in front of some venetian blinds, and I can’t remember if those venetian blinds are part of the KL Westfork set or not; anyone else know? Also, and to me very significant for the next batch of KL eps we have to watch, Gary says to Miss Ellie, “He’s gone and I never got a chance to tell him how much I cared for him.” Wow, this line actually hit me kinda hard, probably cuz I have a brother of my own and I love him about as much as anyone in the world. After that line, Gary says how he’ll be there soon for the funeral and then we don’t see him for a couple of minutes.
When we next see him, he’s arriving at Southfork and, here’s another interesting thing to note, he shakes Clayton’s hand and says, “Good to meet you.” It’s very strange to think that, yeah, Gary has never met his mother’s new husband; he’s been too busy having his amazing and exciting adventures over in California. I’m not pointing this out as a flaw, but just as an interesting observation, although I do think it’s a flaw that Lucy is nowhere in sight and all we get is Gary having a phone call with her, hanging up the phone, and then declaring that Lucy can’t make it to the funeral. This is a flaw, but it’s a Dallas flaw, not a KL flaw. Charlene Tilton had just left the show (or been fired or something), so that’s the real reason she’s not here, but it’s clearly asinine to think that she wouldn’t be able to show up for her own damn uncle’s funeral, plus you’d also think she’d want to see her daddy (they throw in some shitty line about, “She and Mitch can’t get a plane on time,” or something ridiculous like that, as if the Ewing family with all their money and power couldn’t just pull some strings to get her here). Anyway, I noted this because it also further illustrates how truly estranged both Gary and Val are from Lucy by this point; her little crossover appearance way back in season one feels like nothing but a distant memory now.
The best Gary scene, and one that really came alive in a special way when viewed through the lens of only including these Interludes when they pop up, was the one where he takes a walk around the ranch with Miss Ellie and they have a little chat (and yet another example for my continuing “KL is better than Dallas” argument pops up here, because Southfork is so boringly shot and visually uninteresting compared to how sprawling and epic Westfork feels over on KL, where everything is just shot with more cinematic flair and life). In the chat, Miss Ellie encourages Gary to stay in California, saying, “Your show is really quite good and the most recent season ranked #9 in the ratings, so I think you should stay there.” Okay, she doesn’t say that, but she does say that Gary belongs in California and then she gives him this big hug and says, “There’s a strength in you that wasn’t there before.” It’s this line that really stuck out to me here, and let me try to explain why.
A long time back, when my brother and I got heavy into Dallas, we only cared strictly about Dallas and whenever Gary would show up, neither of us cared all that much; we’d just be like, “Oh, there’s that drunk black sheep brother from over in California.” Even by this point, when we were starting the freaking ninth season of the series, I still don’t think I had even bothered to go do some research on the spinoff series yet. I knew it existed, but I just didn’t care (can you imagine?!). So with a scene like this, it was just like, “Oh, there’s Gary from California,” and Miss Ellie’s line about strength didn’t really have any meaning for me. Now, however, I see that it’s tracking very nicely with what we have spent the last three seasons of KL watching. The last time Gary showed up on Dallas, he was a complete mess who was headed rapidly back to the bottle, but over the course of seasons four, five, and six, he managed to strengthen up and become this awesome, sexy, confident, mature Gary that we now know and love. So suddenly I’m watching this brief little scene with a whole new context and everything has so much more meaning to me; it’s really kinda a cool feeling.
The last significant Gary scene occurs late in the episode in the Ewing family’s favorite room, their cocktail room (oh wait, every room at Southfork is the cocktail room). Basically, J.R. is all upset because, you know, his brother died, and Ray says how he could help J.R. out with anything he needs help with over in the Ewing Oil offices, and then J.R. gives this really nasty speech about how, “I only had one brother and now he’s dead and nobody can take his place, least of all the two of you,” and he gives a really evil glare to both Ray and Gary. What I noted in this scene was Gary’s under reaction; he doesn’t get all offended or pissed off with J.R., but rather remains mellow. If this was a few years ago, he’d probably get all upset and run for the bottle, but now he lets J.R.’s comments roll off of his back because he’s the new, self actualized Gary. Ah, what a fabulous thing to witness.
That about does it for the Gary footage for this ep, but I feel like I would like to address a few other things, some of which will be me talking some crap about Dallas and some of which will be me giving it some praise. Let’s get the trash talk out of the way first. I said that Victoria Principal’s acting when she’s crying on the bed left something to be desired, but it’s award worthy when put up against Priscilla Presley as Jenna, a character who wasn’t around when we did our last Interlude three years ago. Fuck, is she a bad actress. I grew up watching her in the Naked Gun trilogy and she’s perfect there (perhaps because the ZAZ team was smart enough to see that they could harness her bad acting and then channel it into the crazy goofy-but-still-being-played-as-serious world of The Naked Gun), but she is easily the worst cast member ever on Dallas and I feel like I must have blocked much of her bad acting out of my mind. In The Family Ewing, there’s a really painful scene in which she comes upon her daughter, Charlie (who is also not one of the most impressive actresses), like, petting her horse in the stables and talking to the horse, and then Charlie says, “Why did Bobby have to die?” and Jenna makes a really goofy face and then they have some dialogue or other. Basically it’s awful and I turned to My Beloved Grammy and said, “They would never allow acting this bad over on KL,” and I stand by that. I’m open to listening to other people’s opinions, though, so please, if you think there was ever anyone, either a main cast member or a recurring member or even just a small walk-on role for one episode of KL, if you really think there was ever anyone on KL who was as bad an actor or actress as Priscilla Presley is here, please write in and tell me and I will seriously consider your opinion.
But now I’m ready for compliments, and I guess what it boils down to is that this particular episode was just much, much better than I remembered it being and I enjoyed it enough that, God help me, I really think I’m gonna devote to watching all 31 eps of the dream season just because I enjoyed watching this particular ep. I actually saw a lot of good stuff coming out of the story of Bobby’s death, and I thought the acting by Hagman as he deals with his grief was rather fabulous (although you’ll never hear me saying a bad word about Hagman or his portrayal of J.R.). Jesus Christ, I even liked Miss Ellie in this ep; what’s happening to me? I think maybe I was just more willing to forgive her for being a mopey old hag because her son had died and I could understand why that would make her mopey. However, I also think part of it is just that I like the stuff I’m seeing in front of me, and it’s making it very clear to me that the big problem was not the fact that they killed Bobby, but the fact that they went and erased it a year later. Watching this, it actually makes me think of season three of KL and the death of Sid. He died right at the start of the season and then we spent the rest of the season watching the characters going on with their lives with this tragic event hanging over them. I feel like that’s what they’re trying to do right here in this season of Dallas, but the problem is that they just went and retconned it the next season and turned the whole thing into a big, terrible joke.
Oh yeah, and one last thing I liked about this episode was that it was much more well shot than I tend to think of Dallas being. It had a cool, colorful look and even some real style, like a sexy dissolve shot to Miss Ellie sitting at Bobby’s funeral. I always rant on and on incessantly about how KL is more visual than Dallas, and obviously that’s true, but maybe they were making some conscious effort to up the style this year, because it sure looked a hell of a lot better than I remember it looking (though still not comparable to what’s going on visually and stylistically at the same time over on KL).
The real reason that I’m considering rewatching this entire dream season (still haven’t made my mind up on it yet) is because I’m fascinated to study Peter Dunne’s contribution as the producer and showrunner for the year. I just can’t fathom how you go from three such brilliant years of television as seasons four, five, and six of KL to running a season of Dallas that pretty much everyone remembers as terrible. I’m also fascinated and slightly disgusted to discover that Peter Dunne actually writes way more eps of Dallas than he did of KL, and I’d be interested to watch those eps and look for the Peter Dunne touch in them. As I sit here typing this, yeah, I think I am gonna go ahead and watch the dream season, but I won’t do an episode-by-episode breakdown of them on this blog; this blog is about KL and that’s where my heart belongs. I think what I’ll do is just watch the season, on my own time, when I feel like it, by myself, and then afterwards I might write a little thing about it that’s not strictly related to KL but would just sorta be my thoughts on this season as its own individual little year, trying to watch it without the filter of knowing it all turns out to be a dream.
Okay, enough about all that. I’ll finish off by saying that this was probably my favorite Brief Dallas Interlude we’ve done not just cuz I enjoyed watching it as its own individual episode, but because I thought it gave us some great Gary material and felt like a very organic crossing over from spinoff series to parent series. I’m also eager to discuss how Gary’s appearance here has ramifications within the stories on KL in the next eps up for discussion. In fact, let’s go ahead and move right along now, away from Texas for a very, very long time (it will be a whopping six years before we have another Interlude, and that would be for the final ep of Dallas in 1991, Conundrum) and back into our glorious California world. Next up, we shall discuss the second ep of KL’s seventh season, Here In My Arms.