This is a big week on television for the return of former Texas oilmen who walk with a swagger and wear what some call a sneer. First, President Bush held a rare news conference Thursday after his re-election, and now comes J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) tomorrow night on CBS in Dallas Reunion: Return to Southfork.
Actually, it's not a reunion show. To qualify as one of those, a majority of cast members have to appear in character in a new story line, according to The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows. Dallas already had two of those - one in 1996, and another in '98.
Return to Southfork is a retrospective, and those are generally pretty cheesy affairs. Older actors, many of whom seem to have spent too much time under a plastic surgeon's knife, show up in black tie and gowns to front a clip-and-paste job of memorable scenes, bloopers and reminiscences. If the actors don't have enough left in their tanks to do much performing, the producers will sit them in front of an audience of fans and fill time with the cast answering sweetheart questions about the show.
Indeed, producer Henry Winkler does so much padding to fill the two hours that viewers have to endure the scene in which Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) gets killed not once, but twice. The violence of Bobby getting hit by a car is not what makes the scene so difficult to watch - it's the failed effort by Victoria Principal, as his wife, Pam, to reach any acting notes beyond the range of what one would find in daytime soap opera as her husband dies in her arms.
Viewers also get to hear this piece of dialogue between J.R. and his wife, Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), more than once during the special:
Sue Ellen: What [bimbo] are you gonna sleep with tonight, J.R.?
J.R.: Whichever it is, she has got to be more interesting than the [bimbo] I am looking at now.
At least, that exchange suggests a bit of the over-the-top spin that Hagman could put on a really nasty line. The actor's trick is in the way Hagman seems to sadistically savor its effect, while winking at the viewer. Hagman's ability to simultaneously play to both the actor whom he is facing on-screen and the TV audience allowed viewers to watch the show on more than one level - some could believe in its heart and soul, while others could smile on as if they and Hagman were both aware of its emotional excess.
But that's not enough for Winkler and CBS. This is a November sweeps special, after all, and the claims made for Dallas are huge. (Viewers should also know that few of them are true.)
"It was the greatest drama series of all time," viewers are told at the start of the special. "It was filmed with thrilling action, scandalous sex, and the most famous event in prime-time television history."
The event they are talking about, the revelation of who shot J.R. Ewing, was seen by about 82 million Americans when it aired Nov. 21, 1980. (For those of short memory, J.R.'s mistress, played by Mary Crosby, did the deed.) That's famous, but not as famous as Janet Jackson's bared breast, for example, which was seen by 96 million viewers when the Super Bowl aired in January on CBS.
Then there is Duffy further overstating the phenomenon: "President Ford called the production company or somebody, trying to put some pressure on to find out who shot J.R." And, remarkably, Duffy is the only person who knows about that call.
But there are also claims made in the program that are worth thinking about. The series, which debuted in 1978, made an undeniable connection with the national psyche at a time of great cultural change. There is no doubt that it reflected in myriad ways the epoch known as the Reagan Era.
"The series celebrated the pursuit of wealth years before the 1980s became known as the Decade of Greed," viewers are told in voiceover. "The show's self-involved characters set the tone for the Me Generation."
It is said with pride and no sense of irony. It is said with the swagger of a former Texas oilman.
Dallas Reunion: Return to South fork
When: Tomorrow at 9 p.m.
Where: WJZ (Channel 13)
In brief: Clip-job retrospective on a series that helped define the 1980s.