Wednesday, 23 March 2016
First viewed : 5 September 1978
Autumn 1978 saw the modest beginning of an eighties classic. I only saw the tail end of the first episode which my mum and sister had been watching but I soon got hooked. It was only supposed to be a five episode mini-series , loosely based on James Dean's final film Giant, but went down so well it was developed into a mega-soap.
The series began with an impromptu wedding between Bobby Ewing ( Patrick Duffy fresh from Man from Atlantis ) , youngest son of an oil tycoon Jock ( Jim Davis ) and Pamela Barnes ( the impressively-chested Victoria Principal ) , daughter of a guy called Digger , formerly Jock's partner but now an embittered old drunk believing that Jock stole his fortune and his girl Miss Ellie ( Barbara Bel Geddes ) heir to the Southfork cattle ranch. You never really got to the bottom of what happened until a spin-off mini-series halfway through the show's run. Pam's encouragement to Bobby to get more seriously involved in the family business, Ewing Oil, ensures the hostility of elder brother John Ross Jnr or J.R. ( Larry Hagman ) who schemes to break them up. To hook the youngsters you also had saucy teenager Lucy Ewing ( the pretty but vertically- challenged Charlene Tilton ) , the child of a middle brother , Gary, who'd fled the nest before the series started. The initial series was a bit of a mish-mash - the episode where the family is held hostage by a couple of hicks ( one of them played by Brian Dennehy ) is a strange one - but it introduced the main characters and one or two series tropes like Bobby's handiness with his fists, J.R's womanising and Lucy's promiscuity.
A 24-part second series was already in production when the first one hit the UK. The expansion of the series led to two characters getting promoted to the opening titles ; JR's neglected trophy wife Sue Ellen ( Linda Gray ) and ranch foreman / stud Ray Krebbs ( Steve Kanaly ) . It began with a two-parter about the temporary return of Gary to the family fold with his white trash wife Valene. Most significantly for the future, it established J.R. , in the first series a rather awkward, insecure, conservative older brother , as the manipulative villain we came to love. It was also the second and last appearance of Pam's cousin Jimmy, a character that was never developed ( I'm not sure he was even mentioned again ) but he does have the distinction of being the first character to change heads between series.
The story of Gary's return was one of three two-parters as the series was in transition between standalone stories with guest characters ( some of whom later became series regulars though not always with the original actor ) and the long -running story arcs of a soap. After Gary departed, the next episode featured Bobby's ex-girlfriend Jenna Wade and her daughter Charlie who might be his. There were also one episode appearances by Ellie's brother and Pam's ex-husband. The meatier storylines revolved around JR , his relationship with Sue Ellen and his lifelong feud with Pam's revenge-crazed brother Cliff ( Ken Kercheval ). This led to the death of JR's former secretary/ mistress Julie who became the series' first casualty when she was chased off a roof.
The season ended with the sort of cliffhanger that became a trademark of the series. Sue Ellen , drunk and pregnant with either J.R's child or Cliff's , crashes her car and both lives are in the balance.
By the end of it the series was enormously popular in the UK and had its number one cheerleader in Radio Two's Terry Wogan who kept up a running commentary on the events at Southfork although I doubt Ms Tilton was fully appreciative of her nickname the "Poison Dwarf".
For the third season , it was Kercheval's turn to be promoted to the main credits and unfortunately it went to his head ; his mugging seemed to get worse with each succeeding season. This was when the series really hit its stride with JR the undisputed star as he swindled his business associates and bonked his sister-in-law Kristin ( now played by Mary "daughter of Bing" Crosby after Colleen Camp played her in the second series ). The paternity issue was settled in his favour so his love for son John Ross became a redeeming feature. Sue Ellen herself got a lover in cowboy Dusty Farlow ( Jared Martin ). Digger Barnes came back with a new head ( Keenan Wynn) and a deathbed confession both to a murder and the fact that Pam wasn't his daughter. Gary returned briefly, also with a new head ( Ted Shackleford ), to promote spin-off show Knots Landing and Lucy got engaged to lawyer Alan Beam ( Randolph Powell from Logan's Run with his amazingly abundant chest hair ) who was working undercover for JR to undermine Cliff. The season built up to the most famous cliffhanger of all in "Who Shot JR ? ", the TV phenomenon of 1980. It's hard to imagine just how big a deal the issue was in the summer of 1980. Hagman came over for an interview with Wogan, did a series of ads as JR for Dunlop and then appeared in the Royal Variety Performance . This was probably a mistake as first he forgot the lyrics to his song and then was completely upstaged by his mother, veteran musical star Mary Martin, standing awkwardly to the side while she did her turn. Bookies ran a sweep on the shooting issue with Lusty Dusty the favourite but inevitably, with the new season broadcasting first in the States news leaked out that it was actually Kristin who'd done the dirty deed.
Kristin didn't go to prison because she was pregnant and claimed it was JRs. After giving birth to the baby she ended up floating in the Southfork swimming pool in the season's cliffhanger. In other developments in what was a rather anti-climactic season, Ray finally settled down with a good woman in Donna ( Susan Howard from Petrocelli ) then found out he was Jock's bastard son ( a development prompted by Kanaly's dissatisfaction with his marginal role ) , Lucy married a medical student called Mitch ( Leigh McCloskey ) , JR bedded the latter's busty sister Afton ( Audrey Landers ) before she moved on to Cliff ( I must draw up a list sometime of the girls who went to bed with both of them; it must run into double figures ) and Pam tracked down her long lost mother Rebecca ( Priscilla Pointer ). The most dramatic event happened offscreen with the death of Jim Davis so Jock Ewing was no more. I'm sure Davis was a nice guy but I didn't mourn the character finding him a really objectionable old tyrant who treated his family like shit.
Season 5 ( with Howard replacing Davis in the opening titles ) took 12 episodes to confirm that Jock was dead, killed during an extended visit to South America but not until he'd divided the voting shares in Ewing Oil amongst his family, an arrangement that would drive the plot for years to come. Sue Ellen moved in with Dusty but his impotence came between them and his father Clayton ( Howard Keel moved in ). By a convoluted series of events Kristin's baby ended up being adopted by Pam and Bobby as their son Christopher. Rebecca's wealthy husband died leaving Cliff with his own rival oil company to run but he and Pam now had a psychopathic half-sister Katherine ( Morgan Brittany ) with whom to deal. The cliffhanger revolved around Cliff's suicide attempt.
I lost interest in the series at that point and missed all of Season 6 ( 1982-3 ) in which Rebecca was killed off . I watched Season 7 intermittently and was greatly taken with JR's secretary Sly ( Deborah Rennard ) who he used as a double agent to feed false information to Cliff. There are a couple of scenes where Cliff talks to her after she's just got out of the pool and looks gobsmackingly beautiful. Though she stayed in the series right through to the end she was never featured as prominently again and I always thought that was a great shame.
The other main storylines were Ellie and Clayton getting it together and Pam and Bobby drifting apart. Jenna returned with a third head ( Elvis's widow Priscilla despite her extremely limited acting experience ) and stuck around while Pam found a new boyfriend in Mark ( John Beck ).
I was largely back on board for Season 8 for which Keel and Presley were promoted to the opening credits. The most dramatic cast change was replacing the ill Bel Geddes with Donna Reed who was an experienced actress but never settled into the role and was hated by audiences. Fortunately Bel Geddes was able to resume the role and with one exception the producers never re-cast a major character again. Another stunner was introduced to the cast in Mandy ( model Deborah Shelton ) who , you guessed it, went to bed with Cliff and JR. They also pepped up the Ewing family with two younger additions Jamie ( Jennilee Harrison ) and Jack ( Dack Rambo ), children of Jock's never previously mentioned brother Jason. Harrison had an amazing body but unfortunately a rather mis-shapen mouth which spoiled the effect. Jack had clearly been drafted in to replace Bobby as Duffy wanted to spread his wings and leave the series and so at the third attempt he was killed off by Katherine. Also departing at this point was Lucy as producers felt the character had run its course.
Season 9 was probably my favourite of all. I had nothing against Duffy but Bobby was never the most interesting character and his departure allowed others to breathe. JR and Pam's relationship as she took Bobby's place in the office developed in interesting ways and JR and Jack became friends as they both got involved in a series-long murder plot organised by mysterious tycoon Angelica Nero ( Barbara Carrrera with her black nipples ). Donna and Ray got involved in working with handicapped children. However ratings were not what they were and Hagman convinced the producers that they should attempt to draw his friend Duffy ( who wasn't finding much work due to his very limited abilities as an actor ) back into the fold.
This led to the most famous "jump the shark" moment in TV history - even more so than Fonzie's aquatic acrobatic display itself - when Season 9 ended with Bobby walking out of the shower and making every event of the season, even those she was nowhere near, part of Pam's nightmare.
I was really disappointed and though I continued it to watch it , it rarely resonated in the same way. Season 10 was rather troubled. Firstly it was shot in a different aspect which didn't translate so well to British analogue TV so the picture quality notably dipped. Then they had to come up with new departures for Katherine and Jamie who were also resurrected from the dead by Pam waking up. Then they had to dispose of the now redundant Jack who disappeared shortly after his ex-wife April ( Sheree J Wilson ) was introduced . A wound of their own making was continuing with the silly plot about a fake Jock which had started towards the end of the dream series.
The remaining seasons saw a steady exodus of the key players. Principal decided to quit at the end of season 10 so the cliffhanger had her crashing into a petrol tank. Reluctant to lose such a major star the writers decided on a very messy line that she was in hiding after plastic surgery in the hope that Principal could be persuaded back but it never happened. Howard left at the same time after being openly critical of the decision to bring Bobby back. Tilton was persuaded to return at the end of series 11 but to no great effect. As she returned Presley and Kanaly, now an item on screen, departed although he would return occasionally.
Season 12 did have its moments. George Kennedy joined the cast as Carter McKay a new adversary for the Ewings with the twist that Bobby rather than JR was the main target of his ire. JR got a new wife after a shotgun wedding with a gorgeous young hick girl Cally ( Cathy Podewell ) he'd taken to bed; I remember my mum's outrage at the age gap between them. Pam was finally written out with a guest appearance by a lookalike actress. In the most ridiculous storyline Sue Ellen hired a British film director Don Lockwood , played very unconvincingly by Ian McShane who looked ill at ease throughout the season, to make a film about JR which came to look like and excuse to pad the series out with old clips. Linda Gray then became the next major departure as she and Don left for England at the end of the season.
Season 13 introduced Sasha Mitchell as James an illegitimate son of JR and Michelle Foster as April's sister but the series was really beginning to creak by this point. However it did end on a high with a completely bonkers but hilarious storyline whereby JR commits himself to a mental asylum to get Clayton's mad sister Jessica ( unmentioned for half a decade ) to sign some business papers. The script and Hagman's comic timing in the asylum scenes are brilliant although certainly in questionable taste.
That's really where it should have ended but it returned for a sorry final season. The BBC immediately realised they had a turkey on their hands and stuck it in a graveyard Sunday teatime slot. Season 14 had a real smell of death about it ; it was like watching a house clearance. Ellie and Lucy were gone and Clayton only made a handful of appearances April was killed off early on by a group of terrorists led by daytime soap regular Susan Lucci and Bobby spent most of the series trying to track her down by dating her entirely innocent daughter Jori. The business transactions were a real yawn, impossible to follow and we'd seen it all before. The worst moment came when Bobby met Jori on campus and two of her fellow students started talking about a daft TV idea they had which featured a woman with a log ( i.e Twin Peaks ) which begged the response - get your own house in order before you start knocking other shows. The only part worth watching was when James's wife tracked him down with their baby son and JR's joy at having a grandson. In the penultimate episode JR finally loses Ewing Oil and is pretty much deserted by everyone setting up the bizarre final episode, a sort of perverted take on It's A Wonderful Life with a camp demon played by Cabaret's Joel Grey showing what life would have been like for selected other characters ( including a supposed replacement brother for Gary and Bobby ) if he'd never existed. For example , Bobby would be just a small time hustler and Cliff would be President ( I guess he couldn't be worse than Trump ). It was just weird , closing a landmark series with alternative futures for minor characters like Gary. At the end JR supposedly committed suicide.
There were a couple of TV movies in the late nineties which confirmed that he hadn't actually shot himself but I'm not sure they were broadcast here. In 2010 though a revival of the series was announced, 20 years after it finished. The main characters now were John Ross ( John Henderson ) and Christopher ( Jess Metcalfe ) now grown up though not quite as much as they should have been given the time lapse. Duffy , Gray and Hagman ( now 80 ) were the returning regulars while Kercheval was semi-regular. A sprinkling of other old characters - Ray , Lucy, Gary, Valene, Cally, Mandy, Afton - appeared in tiny inconsequential cameos. Others were airbrushed out of history : James was never mentioned. The main new characters were Bobby's new wife Ann ( Brenda Strong who'd been in the original series as a different minor character, Elena ( the lovely but un-Latin Jordana Brewster ) daughter of a Mexican cook at Southfork , and Cliff's daughter Pamela ( the not so lovely Julie Gonzalo who is Latin ) . The latter two were involved in a love quadrangle with John Ross and Christopher. In the second season the cast expanded to include Ann's jealous ex-husband Ryland ( Mitch Pileggi ) , their scheming minx of a daughter Emma ( the very tasty Emma Bell ) and his batty old brothel-running mum Judith ( Judith Light - I guess those in charge of naming the characters were running short of inspiration though Emma and Judith did better than the guy playing JR's fixer who was christened Bum ) whose continued interest in sex at an advanced age gave her scenes a distinctly queasy feel.
I thought it was a brave attempt to match past with present , to bring the Ewing feuds into the world of the internet , darker sex , carbon reduction and murderous drug cartels but it didn't quite come off. The pace was dizzying ; John Ross seemed to be trying to set a new world record for how many words he could cram into a second and often finished his lines with his back to the camera. The most egregious departure from the original was Cliff's turning into a murderous gangster willing to have his own daughter blown up to scupper the Ewings ; I'm disappointed Kercheval didn't put his foot down over that. Gray and Duffy looked fine though obviously older but it was clearly a bit late in the day for Hagman. He managed OK in the first series but by the second he was suffering from cancer , could hardly speak and was being plonked down in a seat for scenes he had no business to be in , just looking on helplessly. Sadly he died while the second season was in production; his meagre contribution was eked out to the middle of the season when JR was shot once more and the rest of the season given to the unfolding of a "master plan" he'd devised to fix the Ewings' enemies.
Without Hagman , the once decent ratings plummeted and though it made a third series the show was cancelled a couple of years ago with its plot lines unresolved. It was broadcast here with some fanfare on Channel 5 but gradually got pushed later and later in the schedules and I ended up watching the third series on the internet. I guess that really is it for the Ewings but who knows ?