The wonderful TV and literary critic and dexterous light-verse emitter, Clive James, once wrote that “J.R. Ewing’s reign as the King of Dallas reached its apotheosis under Reagan. Now that corrupt America was passé and straight-arrow America was back in business, it was time for J.R. to get his. The shooting of J.R. was announced in advance all over the world. It was fictional, but it made news like fact… J.R. was no longer an actor, he was a real man. He was more than that, he was a Messiah. He rose from the dead and continued with the next series, like a President going into his next term.”
Well, last night, J.R.’s body was lowered into the grave once more, with finality, because we were also, in effect, watching Larry Hagman’s body achieve sepulchral grace. J.R. was Hagman’s creation as much as it was creator David Jacobs’, or any writer or producer, who worked on the original run of Dallas. The actor invested what could have been a cartoonish villain with an evil intelligence. Yes, sure, because this was a frequently outlandish nighttime soap opera, with what has come to be called in the fan-boy culture of TV analysis as a knotty “mythology,” there were regular moments when J.R. was a caricature of venality. But more often, Hagman made sure that J.R. was in on the joke – the big-buck Ewing relished his power and his ability to make mere mortals (frequently his brother Bobby, played with superb asperity by Patrick Duffy) tremble.
J.R. was capitalism with unruly eyebrows, aging but still fitfully potent. Last week on Dallas, two shots rang out during a phone call J.R. had placed from another country. He referred to a gesture he would make that he called his “masterpiece.” No: It was a fate forced upon the character after Hagman died during production of the rebooted Dallas’ second season. The bang-bang occurred at the very end of that hour, and so last night’s edition featured the funeral and a deepening mystery. Old Dallas characters were hauled out to pay their (sometimes dis-)respects to J.R., and even the most ardent fan probably spent some time gazing at his or her HD screen to note whose jaw-line was sagging, whose gut strained a Texas belt buckle.
Now that J.R. is gone, who beyond the hardcore devotees will continue to watch Dallas, with its cleverly conceived but mostly plastic-looking young co-stars intended to continue the J.R.-Bobby brawling? Certainly Josh Henderson, as J.R.’s son John Ross, has stepped up to achieve his own semi-original take on J.R.-style mendacity. (I qualify the originality since what Henderson, with his drooping eyelids and mumbled menace is doing frequently seems half-Hagman, half-Elvis Presley.)
The hour, titled “J.R.’s Masterpiece,” was written by Cynthia Cidre, and was shrewdly executed. By the end, we knew that J.R. had not been killed in Mexico by a random thug; that Sue Ellen had fallen off the wagon; that Emma Brown was popping clonazepam and having sex with John Ross, who is technically her step-cousin – kissin’ cousins.
I’ll be interested to see how much the ratings dip, or surge, in the weeks to come. The young demo that the new Dallas is aiming for have far less invested in J.R.; just as original fans used to admire what Clive James called the “peachy epidermis” of Sue Ellen and Pam Ewing, so the current generation of viewers may be entranced by the Bachelor-style curviness and musculature of the younger actors.
Writer Cidre has set up the rest of the season with an echo of the famous 1980 “Who Shot J.R.?” cliffhanger. Now it’s being promoted as “Who Killed J.R.?” Cancer killed Larry Hagman, but he hovers over the proceedings now and forever. We’ll never again see eyebrows that did as much acting as any puny human who tried to share to screen with J.R.