Monday, February 10, 2014

Dallas: The Complete Second Season DVD review

The second season of Dallas is also available to stream on Netflix.

It’s not often that one can discuss and even recommend an entire season of a television series because of a single episode, which sort of goes to show how special of a TV series Dallas (in any incarnation) really is. But episode 8 of this second helping of the rejiggered soap juggernaut, entitled “J.R.’s Masterpiece,” is such a fascinating slice of TV, from both sides of the camera, that it makes this season must-see.

When Larry Hagman lost his battle with cancer at the age of 81, on Nov. 23rd, 2012, Dallas was smack in the middle of shooting its second season – a season that had already been planned and plotted out through to the end, much of it involving J.R. Indeed, J.R.’s machinations were as essential to the show now as they were back in its ‘80s heyday, and likewise, Hagman was just as committed to the series as ever, and was working on it as recently as four days prior to his passing.

Yes, Dallas is a special series, and J.R. Ewing was more than “just” a TV character (as Hagman was so much more than just an actor). It could be said that J.R. Ewing is the greatest or most important TV character ever created, and few would argue. J.R.’s sudden absence could not simply be explained away with a few lines of dialogue, so showrunner Cynthia Cidre and her cohorts went in a direction that few shows would (or even could) if similar circumstances afflicted their production, and not just devoted an entire episode to celebrating J.R., but also structured an entire mystery that rippled throughout the remainder of the season: “Who Killed J.R.?”

But back to “J.R’s Masterpiece,” which lives up to its title and instantly leaps onto the list of seminal, cornerstone Dallas episodes. In the final moments of the episode prior to it (“The Furious and the Fast”), thanks to slick editing and a bit of CGI mixed with leftover footage of Hagman, J.R. meets his untimely demise. “Masterpiece” traces the Ewing clan traveling to Mexico where the deed occurred, in an effort to learn more of the mysterious goings-on, as well as indentify the body. Does Carlos Del Sol know more than he’s letting on? The body is taken back to Dallas, where a public wake and a private funeral – which together make up the meatiest portions of the episode – are held.

The wake is a lively affair, with numerous faces from days of Dallas past making appearances alongside real life Dallas (the city, not the show) icons, like Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban, playing themselves. Then the fun is put into funeral with the unceremonious arrival of Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval), which leads to a classic, if not slightly abbreviated, Dallas brawl. By contrast, the funeral held at Southfork, is a somber affair, in which family members take turns telling stories and remembrances of J.R. After the funeral comes the twist, which I won’t go into here, because it’s what gives the rest of the season so much of its heft.

What is ultimately so moving about “J.R.’s Masterpiece” is its clever and careful melding of fiction and reality (the altered opening credits sequence alone will move you to silence). It was shot in January of 2013, less than two months after Hagman’s passing. The emotions on display from much of the cast are very real, contemplative, and raw. Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy in particular give some of the very best work of their Dallas careers here. I’m not sure if there’s ever been an episode of TV quite like this, and of those shows that have celebrated an actor’s passing through the demise of the fictitious character they played (the recent episode of Glee that dealt with Cory Monteith’s passing through Finn’s death leaps instantly to mind), few have done it with such class and grace as what Cidre (who wrote the episode) and executive producer Michael S. Robin (who directed it) have achieved here.

Further, “J.R.’s Masterpiece” isn’t just a hermetically sealed one-off. No, what happens in this episode goes on to inform and shape the remainder of the season – Cidre and her team came together to reformat the ongoing plot in order to honor J.R.’s larger than life legacy. While the mystery of “Who killed J.R.?” was certainly not the cultural touchstone its infamous forefather, “Who shot J.R.?,” was, there’s no question that it’s an engaging storyline with a befitting series of endings that culminate in the season finale, “Legacies.” No doubt, Hagman would be tickled pink to know what went down with the remainder of this season of Dallas in his absence.

Of course, there are 14 other episodes on this set (6 or 7 of which feature Hagman prominently, doing the final work of his career). This season, with the success of the first season behind it, fires on all cylinders, despite the behind the scenes turmoil, and the loss of its patriarchal figure. It moves at an almost breakneck pace, offering up one episodic cliffhanger after the next, miring its large cast of characters in the stickiest of situations. What blows me away the most about it, is that even with Hagman sadly gone, I can think of no solid reason to shut this series down, any more so than the original series should’ve shut down over the passing of Jim Davis. This version of Dallas could conceivably go for many more years, such is the sprawling, devious cast of new characters Cidre has brought to life, as well as the nerve-rattling situations she so often places them in. Fine, fine TV, and the rowdiest, most riveting nighttime soap on TV today, just as the original Dallas was in its day.

DVD Extras: “J.R’s Masterpiece” gets an optional extended cut, which runs about 7 minutes longer than the TV cut. To watch it, you must go into the special features menu to activate it. Also present is a commentary track for the extended cut with Cidre and Robin, in which they detail the effects of Hagman’s death on the cast and crew, creating the episode, and how they had to rearrange the entire season - unquestionably illuminating, and much more interesting than your standard, run of the mill TV episode commentary.  

There are at least a half dozen installments of an ongoing series called “Dallas: Fashion Files” which feature costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin discussing her many decisions throughout the season (typically alongside Jordana Brewster). “Dallas at PaleyFest 2013” is a 30-minute panel discussion with the core cast, sans Hagman, as he was already gone. Three more featurettes: “The Battle for Ewing Energies: Blood is Thicker Than Oil” is a sort of season overview; “Memories of Larry Hagman: A Cast and Crew Tribute” is self-explanatory; and “One Last Conversation with Larry Hagman” appears to date back to the first season. Lastly, there are roughly 33 minutes worth of deleted scenes scattered across the four discs.

Special thanks to Harry Thomas of MySA’s DVD Extra blog for passing his copy of this DVD set my way.