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J.R. lives!

J.R. lives!


From oil company skulduggery to human drama to prime-time TV's most famous shooting, Dallas: The Complete Third Season delivers the goods

Required disclosure--I have always loved Dallas. I loved it so much that I moved to the city in 1985. I loved it so much that I spent my 23rd birthday at Southfork. I loved it so much that I used to tape every episode when it was syndicated. A few years back, I lamented having thrown away those tapes. My chagrin is now over, as Dallas: The Complete Third Season is now available on DVD from Warner Home Video. Not only can I rewatch these episodes but I can now turn an adult eye on a show that set the precedent for every serial drama thereafter.

The beauty of the third season of Dallas is that, in addition to intriguing plots, the emphasis was on characterization. Dallas saw itself as a drama; there was a true sincerity to the actors' work and a lack of over-the-top irony. Many scenes dealt only with characters' emotions and other characters' responses to them. To achieve that characterization, the show relied on long shots, close-ups (that truly showed emotional reactions), and long silences. By today's fast-cut standards and demand for immediate gratification, these scenes may appear slow. To the contrary, these scenes treat the audience's intelligence and feelings with respect.

The standout story line in that regard concerns Miss Ellie's breast cancer and subsequent mastectomy in episodes 9 and 10. Barbara Bel Geddes won a well-deserved Emmy for these episodes, which contain frank discussions of self-examination, reconstructive surgery, and a woman's sense of worth and self-esteem. The actors stay true to their characters throughout, even if their characters' reactions weren't "nice." Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) makes it clear that she puts ultimate value on her looks; Lucy (Charlene Tilton) is angry and resentful toward her grandmother. It's a touching and tearful moment when Miss Ellie politely but forcefully scolds Lucy for being resentful and implores her (and the viewer) to live life to the utmost. Sadly, Bel Geddes passed away from complications due to lung cancer on August 8, one day before the release of this set. Her words remain true and act as a testament to her spirit and a touchstone to all who are beset with challenges to their health.

Cancer was not the only health issue tackled by the show. There was a continuing plot regarding a genetic disease that Digger Barnes (Keenan Wynn) may have passed on to his children, Cliff (Ken Kercheval) and Pam (Victoria Principal). Pam deals with the conflict in deciding whether she should have an abortion to prevent her from passing along the disease. And no fewer than three characters--Digger, Sue Ellen, and middle Ewing brother Gary (Ted Shackelford)--had problems with alcoholism.

Of course, in addition to characterization, Dallas focused on plot. In effect, the entire season can be seen as one large arc, leading up to the shooting of J.R. (Larry Hagman), with many smaller arcs presented throughout. Lawyer Alan Beam (Randy Powell) and Sue Ellen's evil sister Kristin (Mary Crosby) spend the year working with J.R. to undermine other characters and events--including Cliff's bid for Congress, Lucy's wedding, the mortgage of Southfork, the battle over Asian oil wells, questions regarding the paternity of baby John Ross, and Sue Ellen's efforts at sobriety. Each story line affects another, lending the show both credibility and fun.

These discs also provide a time capsule of the turn of the decade and the city of Dallas. Much of the series was shot in Big D's downtown--around Reunion Tower, the Kennedy Memorial, and Love Field--as well as the campus at Southern Methodist University. The show also used hundreds of locals in episode 8 for the annual Ewing picnic and rodeo. Real clips of roping, bull riding, and bronc busting appear in that episode to give it that perfect down-home Texas feel.

Aging less well, alas, are the fashions. The men wore an awful lot of brown shirts and vests with their suits. The "Barnes for Congress" roller-disco party in episode 16 defies description. And the women's hairstyles hark back to a time when one's hair defined her personality: Sue Ellen's helmet shows that she is willing to take on J.R. Miss Ellie's sensible part displays calm control. Valene's bows say, "I'm a happy child at heart." Lucy's straight hair with loose waves shows her maturation. Kristin's wild mane suggests that she refuses to be tamed. And Pam's Jhirmack-infused coif defines beauty and grace.

Prime-time soap afficionados will appreciate how the third season brought back characters from the first--Valene and Gary; Jeb Ames and Willie Jo Garr--and added characters who would prove to be monumental in future seasons--Dusty Farlow, Donna Culver, the cartel members, and Jenna Wade. And true soap geeks will bask in the appearance of a pre-Falcon Crest Laura Johnson (as Betty Lou Barker) and a pre-Dynasty Geoffrey Scott (as an unnamed cowboy who attempts to take advantage of drunk Sue Ellen).

The season is not without its faults, though. Episodes 18, 19, and 20 were fairly dull. Also, the sexually harassing dialogue is almost painful to hear: Every time Harrison Page (Mel Ferrer) refers to his employee Pam as "dear," another zero could be added to the lawsuit. And despite all the alcoholism among these folks, drinking is still portrayed as glamorous and something that the family does every night before dinner.

To anyone who has not seen the episode where J.R. gets shot, this collection is a must. Over the course of the season, Larry Hagman makes J.R. the devil you love to hate and hate to love. Whether he is blackmailing, stealing, lying, or cheating, he does it with a smile on his face. By the final episode, no fewer than eight characters have every reason to shoot the man. Even when one already knows the shooter's identity, the episode is so well done that, at the freeze-frame, one can still be a little unsure.

The extras on the disc are slight. There is an interesting Who Shot J.R.? featurette that probably belongs with the next box, as it deals more with the hysteria and revelation than the lead-up. While there are only two commentaries, it is enjoyable to hear Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray reminisce about the show, provide inside trivia, and laugh as only long-time friends can.

Dallas: The Complete Third Season has handsome men, beautiful women, bedroom and boardroom intrigue, true-life drama, bar fights, rodeos, and 1980's shot heard round the world. Simply put, it's damn fun to watch. Y'all should. Real soon.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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Mark Salzberg