Syncing up to the somewhat untimely death in November of 81-year-old Larry Hagman from complications of leukemia, “Dallas” has reached the inevitable point of now saying goodbye to J.R. The solution to writing the legendary oilman out of the series was all too obvious, and thus comes in the form of a bullet. At the end of last week’s episode, J.R. was on the phone with his son John Ross (Josh Henderson), conspiring to pull off one of his biggest schemes yet. He told John Ross that he loved him, that he admired how his son was “tip to tail” a true Ewing. Then John Ross heard gunfire, then silence.
So here we are, once again: Who shot — and killed — J.R.?
That’s not the point this time. J.R. met his end in a Mexican hotel room, where investigators determined he was the random victim of a robbery. After identifying the body, the older and younger Ewings seem at first almost too beleaguered to pursue their usual route of conspiracy and accusation.
Even Linda Gray’s Sue Ellen halts her grieving long enough to hold up the Dallas white pages and declare that half the people in it would have happily pulled the trigger. (Really, Sue Ellen — a phone book? Where is your iPad?) Having been down this road before in 1980, when she was the most prime of suspects, Sue Ellen is standing in for all of America when she urges John Ross to let it rest. Maybe, she suggests, “dying at the hands of a petty thief could be one of the master ironies of [J.R.’s] life.”
Monday’s episode, titled “J.R.’s Masterpiece,” seeks a balance between becoming an hour-long tribute to a pop icon and staying true to the show’s mission as a fast-moving soap opera. To the delight of anyone who watched the show during its initial (and epic) run, old characters come out of the woodwork for a memorial service at the Dallas Petroleum Club to drink bourbon and branch (J.R.’s favorite drink) and share memories — mostly about how J.R. lied to them, stole from them or otherwise left them broken and scarred.
The writers and producers have done what they can to incorporate Hagman’s death into this season’s narrative, and certainly the whodunit will fill out the rest of the season. But the results are understandably mixed, with the actors (Duffy, in particular) mourning as characters while simultaneously mourning as colleagues bound in an eternal franchise. As actors, they know well enough to work with their real grief, not against it; even with a body in a coffin, no one convinces viewers that J.R. is truly gone, mainly because the story they’ve come up with isn’t grand enough.
The answer, naturally, is to treat J.R.’s funeral as a watershed event, both for “Dallas” the series and for the mythical Dallas of the mind. It’s a blend of fictional grief with the more abstract feelings we express on Twitter and Facebook when a television celebrity passes on. The show can’t resist including hammy cameos from Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who mingle in a room of Big-D make-believe that includes Ray Krebbs and Lucy Ewing (Steve Kanaly and Charlene Tilton); Gary Ewing (Ted Shackelford, looking older than the original macadam on “Knots Landing”); and two of J.R.’s latter-day squeezes, including a post-Sue Ellen spouse, Cally (Cathy Podewell), who declares that J.R. was “as bad as they come and as hot as hell.”
Soon enough, Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval) hobbles into the room to loudly “pay my disrespects — and good riddance!” Which of course leads to threats of future ruinations of disputed oil empires. Which of course leads to an almost ritual kind of fistfight among the younger men. As ever, “Dallas” favors conflict and complications over rumination or meaning.
The announcement of the show’s return was met with initial groans, but what debuted last summer felt fresh and fizzy and absolutely true to its roots. Hagman very clearly relished playing J.R. once more — first as a nursing-home resident feigning catatonia, then as his wily old self. Duffy returned as a world-weary Bobby, saddled with the legacy of steering his family’s ranch and energy fortunes to the future.
And although both men gave the new “Dallas” their level-best performances, the real treat, I think, has been watching Gray discover some new depth as an older and much wiser Sue Ellen. She is this show’s version of a dowager countess, and any scene she’s in is immediately improved.
Once “Dallas” got past an episode or two of nostalgia, it quickly got down to the sudsy business of its usual saga, which, for any recent example, found Bobby’s wife, Ann (Brenda Strong), facing trial, accused of shooting her ex-husband. (Guilty! But justified, and sentenced only to parole.) While the plausibility factor has not changed, “Dallas” has wisely adapted its inherent and outrageous sense of tragedy to the sort of television we’re accustomed to watching now, where no character is either all bad or all good. Even 35 years ago, “Dallas” had a knack for that.
Which brings us all the way back around to J.R.: His spirit looms not only over the rebooted “Dallas” but over any drama that encourages us to applaud and even admire the schemer, the philanderer and the brazen criminal. These days, that’s just about any show. J.R. was a complex and even lovable bad boy, and part of what made him such a sensation in the American culture of the late-1970s was that he represented a scoundrel with whom we could identify, smack in the middle of an oil boom and just in time for Ronald Reagan’s rainmaking tax cuts. Slightly ahead of “Wall Street’s” Gordon Gekko, J.R. promoted and reveled in greed; slightly behind the bluntness of Tony Soprano, J.R. would do almost anything to stay on top.
“Throughout my life, it’s pretty much been easy for me to do good, because I could always count on J.R. to do bad,” a stricken Bobby says, graveside. “Now I have to figure out just what I’m supposed to do in this grand scheme of things.”
Soon enough, posthumous gifts from J.R. begin arriving, including an envelope whose contents leave its recipient reeling. You can almost sense the writers of “Dallas” brightening at some unknown clause in the will: J.R. has left them his entire estate, as well as his legacy. It’s theirs to squander.
(one hour) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on TNT.