Tuesday, March 05, 2013

J.R.'s swan song

J.R. Ewing has ridden off into the sunset.

His final scenes were shown in last night's episode of TNT's reboot of "Dallas." Call me crazy, but I feel like I've lost an old friend.

"Dallas" and I are about the same age. My parents and paternal grandparents loved it. It became a Friday night ritual throughout most of the 1980s. I didn't get much of it then, but I liked J.R. and I loved the fact Elvis' ex-wife was on it and I went nuts over the opening theme song. In the days before DVRs (or even VCRs for most of us), people would actually leave Friday night football games early to get home in time to follow J.R.'s antics. I've never seen anything like it and I never will again in our on-demand, 400 channel era.

Even though the show was a shell of its former self by its final years, I made sure we were home to watch the 1991 finale. For the record, it was one of the worst last episodes in TV history. I don't think "Dallas" quite recovered after Pam dreamt the entire 1985-86 season. But, that's another story for another day.

Around the same time it left CBS, "Dallas" reruns popped up on cable. I watched. After a short hiatus, the reruns began airing on TNN when I was in college. I was hooked. Taped every episode. I even made a sojourn to Southfork one summer with buddies Drew and Dewayne. Somewhere, I've got a photo of us standing in front of Jock Ewing's portrait in the living room. We knew more about the show than the tour guide did.

I enjoyed the 1996 reunion movie. I cringed at the second one. After that, we didn't hear much about "Dallas" until it arrived, again in reruns, on SoapNet in 2003.

I started buying "Dallas" when it came out on DVD that same year. After an initial binge, I got into a habit of watching the discs when I was sick, especially when I had kidney stones. Watching J.R. in action was better than any painkiller, I can tell you that. Everybody always loved to hate him, but he was my favorite character (other than Jim Davis' Jock Ewing). Although he was originally intended to be a secondary character, without J.R., "Dallas" wouldn't have lasted six weeks.

Out of nowhere, "Dallas" returned last summer on TNT. Although I had my doubts, it was a runaway smash and a pretty darn good show. Larry Hagman hadn't missed a beat. J.R. was back!

And then, around Thanksgiving, Larry Hagman died. He'd survived a liver transplant in '95, but cancer, thought to be in remission, had gotten him.

It's funny. Just as the role of Barnabas Collins returned for former "Dark Shadows" star Jonathan Frid just before he died last April (Frid made a cameo in Johnny Depp's 2012 feature film reboot), J.R. was there for Larry Hagman in the end. It was a fitting epitaph for a fine career.

I could be wrong, but I doubt the new "Dallas" will last much longer. This season's episodes have by and large been fairly dull, more like the show I thought I was going to see last year. One big reason? Less screen time for Larry Hagman.

He once said that J.R. Ewing is like Othello: even when he isn't on stage, everybody's talking about him. I just don't see how the show continues without J.R. The kids look great but can't act. I don't think Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray can carry the show without Hagman. The relationship between J.R. and his baby brother and on-again, off-again wife were what made the old show (and the new one) work.

Thank God the producers were smart enough not to even think about recasting the role. That would have been worse than the year Donna Reed filled in for Barbara Bel Geddes' Miss Ellie.

Last night's episode was a snoozer. As good as it was to see Ted Shackelford again, when Ricky Rudd plays a major part in an episode, you know something's wrong. Plus, I'm over the whole storyline between Judith Light and Mitch Pileggi. "Dallas" is about the Ewings and the Barneses, y'all.

The show is already in trouble. It lost more than half its audience from last year, maybe because the second season should have been saved for summer, maybe because Larry Hagman's death sucked the oil well dry. Ratings have crept up a bit and should be pretty good next week. I'll tune in next Monday night for sure. I'm eager to see J.R.'s funeral, see who shows up, see how they give the man his goodbye. (It better be a damn good one.) But  unless the writers and producers pull off a miracle, the show should be buried right next to the man that made it a smash.

I'm planning on watching the show through the end of the season. But without Larry Hagman, "Dallas" has left behind a Texas-sized pair of cowboy boots that nobody -- and I mean nobody -- can fill.


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