Dallas Could Learn From Mad Men
TNT's Dallas midseason finale sets Southfork — not series — on fire
What if Dallas episodes were as well-crafted as those of cable's best series, Mad Men? What if they were written with wit and style? What if they actually gave viewers some accurate, trenchant insight into the lives of rich people like the Ewings, the aging oil-and-cattle barons left over from the Texas of yesteryear whose kids are doing tech start-ups and joining museum boards?
In other words, why isn't Dallas as interesting as Dallas?
This week's episode was the half-season finale as the show takes a hiatus until August 18 to make way for 10 new scripted series debuting on TNT this summer. Those include new shows by TV drama heavy-hitters Steven Bochco, Michael Bay and the producers of Showtime's Emmy winner, Homeland.
There's no big story arc to tie episodes together week to week. No cliffhangers worth caring about. No characters to love or hate enough to make the show a must-see.
Watch out: Those folks know how to write for television. If their series take off ratings-wise, they could squeeze Dallas off the primetime schedule.
Which might not be such a tragedy. As a reboot of the top-rated oldie from the 1980s, this Dallas suffers terribly from a lack of quality writing. (This week's episode, titled "Where There's Smoke" was co-written by series producer Cynthia Cidre and Robert Rovner.)
There's no big season-long story arc to tie episodes together week to week. No cliffhangers worth caring about. No characters to love or hate enough to make the show a must-see.
On the old Dallas, you knew who were heroes and villains. Now characters flip from rotten to righteous to rotten again from episode to episode. Characters behave so erratically, it's as if the writers aren't reading each other's scripts.
One week Sue Ellen (Linda Gray, soldiering through every awful line of dialogue like the champ she is) is a drunk, the next she's sober, then she's blotto again. Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) has done little this year but whisper-yell each week that he will allow neither fracking nor redecorating at Southfork.
"Over my dead body," he's said a few times to scheming nephew John Ross (the height-challenged, inexpressive Josh Henderson). "Don't tempt me, Uncle Bobby," John Ross mumbles back.
The show's writers, different from week to week, have tried to make John Ross into J.R. Jr. But Henderson's no Hagman, so the attention heaped on his character just emphasizes the actor's inability to carry the series as a leading man.
This season had John Ross marrying doe-eyed brunette Pamela Rebecca Barnes (Julie Gonzalo) twice and moving her into J.R.'s old bedroom at Southfork. But he was simultaneously carrying on a rather soggy affair with pert blond Emma Brown (Emma Bell).
Emma's his cousin-by-marriage because she's Bobby's wife Annie's daughter, though Annie hadn't seen the girl in 20 years after ditching her at the State Fair in her baby buggy — a little something she'd never bothered to mention to Bobby. Emma was raised by her rich birth-father, Harris Ryland (Mitch Pileggi), and her Cruella-like grandmother, Judith (Judith Light). They run a trucking firm and a whorehouse on Swiss Avenue. As you do.
This kind of writing on a primetime drama is so ridiculous that it's insulting to the viewers. It's cheap and tawdry.
See? This kind of writing on a primetime drama is so ridiculous that it's insulting to the viewers. It's cheap and tawdry. Cartoonish one minute, bawdy the next. And Henderson as a sexy devil? He looks more excited discussing fracking than he does when he's fornicating.
On Mad Men, we believe Jon Hamm is that complicated advertising man, Don Draper. He has zipper problems like John Ross does, but Don's sexual profligacy seems to come from somewhere. Don has depth. The writers on that show, led by the master, Matthew Weiner, have taken time to give Don Draper a soul.
On Dallas, even the characters held over from the Reagan years now are just vague facsimiles of the complicated Ewings we used to know. And the new kids — John Ross, Christopher (Bobby's kid, played with maximum stubble by Jesse Metcalfe), Pamela, Emma, Elena, etc. — are so shallow and emotionally vacant, they're little more than pretty ciphers.
Whether kissing or arguing, their faces don't move. Hard to tell if it's Botox or bad acting.
Dallas has tried to sex it up this season. Every episode has had John Ross playing bouncing bedmates with Pamela and Emma. Hip to the shenanigans, Annie and Sue Ellen tried to stop John Ross' extramarital hijinks.
Worrying about it drove Sue Ellen back to the bottle. Annie kicked Emma out of Southfork for about 10 minutes, then invited her back. Sue Ellen moved back into Southfork too, with Bobby and Annie providing a "sober coach" (never seen, though wouldn't that make some good scenes?) to help her stop drinking. How nice of them to keep all the crystal decanters of hooch around the house to sabotage the effort.
So many dopey subplots keep getting in the way of this show ever finding its rhythm. Drug cartels overthrowing the Mexican government. Arctic oil leases up for grabs. A tedious storyline that had John Ross, Ewing Global employees Elena Ramos (Jordana Brewster) and Nicolas Trevino (gorgeously oily Juan Pablo di Pace), Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval), and a half dozen other characters trying to buy enough shares of stock to take over the company.
Jesse Metcalfe is about 400 times hunkier than Josh Henderson. And he can act! Why not really make him the white hat against bad-boy John Ross?
That whole thing fizzled out. Wasn't even mentioned in this week's "finale." And J.R., long dead now, is mentioned so often that we half expect him to stride into the boardroom. Ring out the dead, Dallas. You're not helping yourself by reminding us what's not there anymore.
Blackmail attempts, fistfights, two women trying to get John Ross' DNA on the same lace dress — sheesh, writers, try to focus.
Another problem: too many cellphones. Every scene seems to revolve around somebody's iPhone buzzing or someone checking or sending an email. This week's big plot twist had Emma sending video of her latest tryst with John Ross to his wife Pamela, who watched it on her phone and then went into a stupor as her bathtub overflowed.
(Odd that no cellphone company actually sponsors this show. There are so many phones in characters' hands, it looks like product placement.)
To give Christopher a love interest, they've paired him up with a young ranch hand played by dead-eyed AnnaLynne McCord. This week her ex-husband absconded with her little boy.
Christopher and Bobby, playing superheroes in their magic pick-up truck, left lunch at Lee Harvey's and arrived at the Mesquite Rodeo minutes later to retrieve the tyke. (Nice cameo there by Dallas Theater Center and Second Thought Theater actor Steven Walters as an angry rodeo dude.)
Look, Jesse Metcalfe is about 400 times hunkier than Josh Henderson. And he can act! But all season he's been stuck in one dead-end plotline after another. Why not really make him the white hat against bad-boy John Ross?
Let them go at it in business and on the homefront. Hard to recall even one scene with both actors in it. Maybe it's because Henderson would need an apple crate to stand on to be eye-to-eye with Metcalfe.
The real star of this Dallas is Judith Light. In the role of evil matriarch Judith Ryland, she doesn't just chew scenery, she goes after it like a human chainsaw.
The real star of this Dallas is actress Judith Light. In the role of evil matriarch Judith Ryland, she doesn't just chew scenery, she goes after it like a human chainsaw. This season has seen her snorting coke and declaring "Mama like" as she licked her gums, and, this week, instructing her slutty granddaughter on how to handle men.
"They heel better when they have a leash around their necks," she snarled. Delicious.
Light and Pileggi have the ginchiest chemistry of any two actors on this series, but they've shared barely two minutes of screen time. He's especially good at biting back at Light's character. Seeing that she was upset this week, Pileggi's Harris Ryland cracked, "One of the Dalmatians get loose?"
More lines like that, please. And more actors like these two.
This week's season opener of AMC's Mad Men featured, as always, deft use of period-perfect music to reflect what was happening to various characters in 1969. The episode ended with Don Draper drunk on his penthouse terrace and his old pal Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) crumpled on the floor of her apartment as Vanilla Fudge's version of "You Keep Me Hangin' On" throbbed on the soundtrack.
The song made a statement about where these characters are in their lives and what they mean to each other. It hinted at things to come.
This week's Dallas used a rock song to end on too. As flames licked at the eaves of Southfork — yes, they're burning it down, which is a good way to get those renovations covered by insurance — and John Ross interrupted some girl-on-girl action between Emma and Pamela in his favorite boffing suite at the Omni Dallas hotel, we heard the Doors singing "Break on Through (to the Other Side)."
The song made no sense against the visuals. Rights to "Light My Fire" must have been too expensive.
Catch all episodes in rerun at TNT online. New episodes of Dallas return August 18.