If media coverage wasn't enough to indicate tonight's "Dallas" marks the end of iconic character J.R. Ewing, a downbeat, mournful variation on the show's theme song offers another clue as it plays over re-edited opening credits.
It's not unheard of for a cast member to die during a show's production, but for "Dallas" (9 tonight, TNT), the death of original series star Larry Hagman in late November at age 81 is a particularly notable loss.
Granted, this "Dallas 2.0" did not always have an elderly J.R. at the center of stories but he still got the best dialogue, delivered with Hagman's trademark winking charm. That was evident even in the outtakes used to shoehorn Hagman's presence into the show's two most recent episodes.
TNT's "Dallas" revival will never live up to the original 1980s series that aired on CBS -- in part because prime-time soaps have evolved and "Dallas" has not -- but give credit to "Dallas" executive producer Cynthia Cidre for a masterful job of integrating Hagman's death into the show on the fly.
At the time of his death, Hagman had filmed the first five episodes of season two of TNT's "Dallas." Footage cut from previous episodes was used to insert scenes of J.R. into the show's sixth and seventh episodes.
Sometimes it worked better than others. When J.R. started sending brother Bobby (Patrick Duffy) links to online videos of a basketball-playing dog in episode six, it was kind of dopey. But that scene was likely borne out of a desire to give some sentimental closure to the J.R.-Bobby relationship that's been at the heart of "Dallas" for three decades.
The fact that the show's three primary returning stars -- Hagman, Mr. Duffy and Linda Gray, who plays J.R.'s ex-wife, Sue Ellen -- remained close friends in real life adds a layer of genuine emotion to tonight's episode featuring J.R.'s funeral. Viewers know the wistful moments at a memorial and the tearful scenes graveside are being influenced not only by Ms. Cidre's script but also by the actors' personal loss stemming from Hagman's death.
Tonight's episode, titled "J.R.'s Masterpiece," picks up from last week's final scene that featured J.R. on the phone with his son, John Ross (Josh Henderson), telling him, "You shouldn't have to pay for my sins. Just remember, I'm proud of you: You're my son, from tip to tail," just before two gunshots rang out.
J.R.'s demise is confirmed early in tonight's episode but as Bobby notes, "Things with J.R. are never what they appear to be." This remains true even in death. The end of the episode sets up several new plots that seem likely to be a story engine for the remainder of "Dallas'" 15-episode second season.
Even in death, J.R. Ewing has the potential to make "Dallas" better. The knock on this new "Dallas" is that the younger characters, who tend to be the focus, are less interesting than the veteran characters. And although the show's second season has done a better job of integrating the two generations than season one managed, it's still true that the veterans benefit from more depth and seem less one-dimensional.
The death of J.R. highlights this generational disconnect by bringing back even more characters from the show's past. Last week another Ewing brother, Gary (Ted Shackelford, who starred in the 1979 "Dallas" spinoff, "Knots Landing"), returned to Dallas. He sticks around for the funeral tonight that also welcomes back family members Lucy Ewing Cooper (Charlene Tilton) and Ray Krebbs (Steven Kanaly); J.R.'s ex-wife, Cally (Cathy Podewell), and J.R.'s mistress, Mandy Winger (Deborah Shelton).
No Ewing gathering would be complete without J.R.'s nemesis Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval) making a scene.
"I came to pay my disrespects and good riddance!" Cliff declares, just before a brawl breaks out at J.R.'s memorial.
Other famous memorial guests include real-life Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Mavericks owner and Mt. Lebanon native Mark Cuban.
But the cameos are just an additional nod to the importance of this character's passing. The scenes of mourning featuring Bobby and Sue Ellen make the hour a worthy ode to rascally J.R.
Bobby, in particular, seems to speak words that apply for his character and for the potential future of a J.R.-less "Dallas" when he says, "Throughout my life it's always been pretty easy for me to do good because I could count on J.R. to do bad. ... Now I have to figure out just what I'm supposed to do in this grand scheme of things."
On the web
Read more about the "Dallas" funeral for J.R. Ewing tomorrow in Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv.
TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.