I never watched Dallas during its broadcast run, not even once. It just didn’t interest me. But years later, after I got interested in vintage television, I began to suspect that I’d probably like it, if I gave it a chance.
One day, I saw that an eBay dealer was offering the DVD sets of all fourteen seasons as a package deal. On impulse, I put down a decent bid and won the auction. I started watching this epic from its first episode, and nearly a year later I’m still watching it. I’ve gotten interested in other shows, of course— passionate even— but somehow they’ve all found their way to the back burner after a while. But Dallas has held my attention, for 150 episodes and counting. It’s hardly the greatest show of all time, but there’s something addicting about it.
Season 5 aired from October 1981 to April 1982. As always, it juggles multiple storylines of varying duration, keeping ten or twelve leading characters busy for 26 episodes. That alone is pretty remarkable, and it’s one thing that Dallas consistently did right, at least throughout its heyday. The characters aren’t all uniformly fascinating, but the producers seem to have recognized that problem very early on, and the least-interesting of them (good-guy Bobby Ewing and shrewish pain in the ass Sue Ellen) find themselves dealing with the show’s best character (the devious J.R. Ewing) with remarkable frequency.
Early seasons benefited greatly from the presence of the family patriarch, Jock Ewing. Season 5 isn’t so lucky. Jim Davis, who’d spent a lifetime toiling in mundane low-budget westerns, rather unexpectedly brought that character to vibrant, three-dimensional life, right from the very first episode. While I admire Steve Kanaly’s performance as ranch foreman Ray Krebbs, Jim Davis’ work stood alone for its authenticity. He embodied the character so perfectly that I’d always forget I was watching an actor, and for a potboiler melodrama like Dallas, that’s really something. Sadly, Davis discovered while shooting the third season that he had cancer. He fought the disease and kept working, but sadly he succumbed about a year later, and for a surprisingly long time the producers drew a blank about resolving the character.
Deep into Season 5, Jock’s demise is finally spelled out, then prolonged for an uncomfortably long time as matriarch Miss Ellie refuses to accept it. Meanwhile, Bobby is adopting a baby outside the proper legal channels (flushing all his principles for the sake of keeping the missus happy), and his scheming brother J.R. is having troubles of his own.
Dallas is most successful when J.R. is at his worst, and he’s in rare form this season. Back-stabbing his business associates is to be expected, but here he plunges to new depths of jealousy, pettiness, arrogance and cruelty. Better yet, one of his schemes blows out of control so badly that it’s nearly the ruin of himself, his family and Ewing Oil to boot.
The protracted dogfight between J.R. and perennial rival Cliff Barnes is always a Dallas highlight, and it’s frankly what saved this season from burying itself in a morass of domestic issues that never caught my interest. Admittedly, a lot of viewers (maybe most of them) prefer the domestic drama to the boardroom battleground, and in other seasons Dallas really shines with those storylines. But at least in this season, the romantic and parental struggles of the show’s other characters just seemed to meander for months at a time, creating a lot of dramatic smoke but mighty little fire.
No, the main attraction at this fairground is J.R. Ewing, and this season tests the limits of how nasty the character can become without alienating the audience. Dallas walks that tightrope very well. I also enjoyed seeing the return of Dennis Patrick, playing a minor character that had a lot of potential. I have no idea why the producers didn’t bring him aboard more often, but it’s good to see someone whose grin is even more shark-like than Larry Hagman’s. Newly prominent is Howard Keel, a welcome addition and soon to become a regular member of the cast. As usual, the early episodes (shot on location in Dallas) have by far the most visual appeal, and the season winds up with another cliffhanger ending. Season 5 is not quite Dallas at its best, but overall it’s good stuff. I enjoyed it… and dove eagerly into Season 6.