Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Redemption of Cliff Barnes

One of the most annoying characters in television history is Cliff Barnes, played by Ken Kercheval, on "Dallas."  Throughout most of the run of the original series, which ran from 1978 to 1991, and even now in the revival "Dallas" series on TNT, Cliff is always the bane of the existence of JR Ewing (Larry Hagman) and his family.  Cliff hates the Ewings because of what he perceives to be an injustice committed against his father Willard "Digger" Barnes (David Wayne and, later, Keenan Wynn) by his former best friend Jock Ewing (Jim Davis) when they were wildcatting for oil in the 1930s.  Digger always believed that Jock stole his fortune, and his sweetheart Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) from him, and Cliff was raised to believe that his sole purpose in life was to avenge his father's purported maltreatment at the hands of the Ewings.  As such, Cliff was incredibly insufferable throughout much of "Dallas."  He started out as a dignified, ambitious attorney but eventually, over the years, degenerated into a pathetic comical figure.  His repeated inability to defeat JR or the Ewings eventually branded him a "loser" and Cliff lost much of his edge as time wore on.  We knew that Cliff would never really defeat JR for long, and so a change in course was long due for his character.

That change occurred in 1987, at the end of the 9th season, when Victoria Principal, who played Cliff's sister Pamela, left the series in a bizarre storyline where Pam is burned alive in a car crash and badly disfigured.  The producers, still reeling from having to bring Bobby (Patrick Duffy) back from the dead when ratings fell drastically in his absence, made the entire 1985-86 season of "Dallas" a dream, a move that still divides fans to this day.  The producers decided to avoid this by concocting a story of having Pam run away to parts unknown so that they wouldn't have to kill her off.  The reason given for Pam's disappearance was her fear that her disfigurement from the burns sustained in the car crash would traumatize her loved ones.  I remember reading an interview where Ken Kercheval expressed concern that Pam's absence would leave Cliff with little to do on the show.  By that point, Cliff had pretty much outlived his usefulness as an effective adversary against JR, and most of his storylines towards the end of Victoria Principal's tenure involved Cliff's interaction with Pam.  He needn't have worried, because Principal's departure actually paved the way for some of Kercheval's best work on "Dallas."

Starting in the 10th (1987-88) and continuing into the 11th (1988-89) seasons of "Dallas," after Pam disappeared, the writers created a fascinating storyline where Cliff had to reconsider his entire raison d'etre.  He realized that he was truly alone because he had lost virtually every member of his family and he also lost much of the drive he once had to destroy JR and the Ewings.  Cliff's storyline during that time was profoundly existential, as he was forced to truly define who he was as a man.  Cliff's epiphany began right after Pam's disappearance, when he befriended an elderly drunk in a bar Harrison "Dandy" Dandridge (Bert Remsen), an aging old wildcatter who never found success and only found solace in a bottle.  Dandy reminded Cliff of his daddy Digger and so Cliff decided to help Dandy fulfill his dream of drilling for oil on a piece of land that Dandy owned, but could never convince anyone to let him explore.  As it happens, Cliff and Dandy don't find oil, but a rich deposit of natural gas.  When a drunk Dandy turns on Cliff and tries to shoot him in front of other guests at the annual Ewing barbecue, Cliff realizes that Dandy's delusion that Cliff tried to swindle him out of their natural gas discovery echoed all of the times Digger had blamed Jock for "stealing" Ewing Oil away from him.  He realizes that the alcoholic, self-pitying Digger squandered all of the opportunities given to him and that Jock had actually never tried to take anything away from him.  He makes amends with Miss Ellie in a very touching scene where he makes peace with the Ewing family, and asks for her forgiveness for having caused her family so much turmoil through the years.  You can see it here.  Miss Ellie asks hopefully "Does this new way of thinking include you and JR too?"  Cliff laughs and says "You know, what's gone on between your son and me goes far beyond the Barnes and the Ewings and, I swear, I think JR and I would've hated each other no matter what our names were."  Cliff then solemnly adds, "I tell you what would've about made this day perfect though is if Pam could've been here just to see her brother learn his lesson."  In so doing, Cliff has finally stopped living his life for his father.

Across the next two seasons, we start to see Cliff make real strides towards finally growing up.  He and his brother-in-law Bobby develop a genuine friendship and Cliff becomes an attentive and loving uncle to his nephew Christopher (Joshua Harris).  When Lisa Alden, the adopted Christopher's biological aunt, shows up during the 10th season suing for custody of her nephew, Cliff attempts to bribe Lisa into giving up her claim on Christopher, not only because he is the only family that Cliff has left, but also because Bobby and Christopher have suffered enough in recent months due to Pam's accident and disappearance.  Cliff even becomes best friends with April Stevens (Sheree J. Wilson), a scheming blonde once married to an Ewing cousin who had come to Dallas to build her powerbase and fortune.  Cliff grows to genuinely care for April as a surrogate sister in Pam's absence.  Rather than having little to do, this new Cliff actually entered into the most interesting phase of his time on "Dallas."  He existed as a character on his own terms because his raison d'etre was no longer tied to feuding with JR or the Ewings.

At the end of the 10th season, Cliff learns about Pam's whereabouts from Jordan Lee (Don Starr) after Jordan spotted a woman who looked very much like Pam while he was vacationing.  At the start of the following 11th season Cliff, accompanied by April Stevens, goes off in search of Pam with the intent to bring her back.  When Cliff finds Pam as a patient in a sanitarium, she tells him that she had reconstructive surgery to give her a new face (thereby allowing a new actress named Margaret Michaels to play the role) and announces she has fallen in love with her doctor and has no intention of ever returning to Dallas.  Cliff begs Pam to return with him ("You can't turn your back on us...on me.  You're all I've got."), but she refuses.  She urges Cliff to go back home and says "forget you ever had a sister.  Go home.  Live your own life....Goodbye, Cliff.  We're never gonna see each other again."  Cliff is so heartbroken he can't even tell April, who was waiting outside in the hallway, what happened.  Cliff never realizes that Pam lied to him because she is dying and does not want raise the hopes of her loved ones by coming back to Dallas only to then have her family see her deteriorate and die.  Cliff, who was never the most gracious or sensitive person on "Dallas," decides not to tell Bobby or Christopher that he found Pam, in order to spare them the pain of believing that she chose someone else over them.  Kercheval makes the scene work with his heartfelt performance.  He digs deep to bring forth a reservoir of feeling to convey the inconsolable hurt Cliff experiences at being rejected by his sister.  He is so good, he makes you forget that Victoria Principal isn't even playing Pam in this scene.

Cliff takes Pam's advice to heart and begins making drastic changes in his life.  He decides to sell Barnes-Wentworth Oil to Bobby, spends even more time mentoring Christopher and his cousin John Ross, and begins dating Tammy Miller (Irena Ferris), one of Bobby Ewing's college girlfriends.  He develops warm feelings for Tammy until he realizes that she is still hung up on Bobby, but Cliff doesn't get spiteful over it.  Cliff even turns down Sue Ellen's offer to team up together to destroy JR once and for all, telling her that it's a waste of time to carry around that level of hatred.  Even Sue Ellen notices Cliff's change in character.  When she observes how caring and attentive he is with Christopher and her own son John Ross, an impressed Sue Ellen comments that she wished she had seen this side of Cliff years ago when the two of them were still romantically involved.  Because he is no longer looking to fight with JR, Cliff has stopped putting himself in situations where he will be considered a "loser."  Bobby even invites Cliff to join his newly recreated Ewing Oil as a full partner, an offer Cliff accepts as long as JR is not involved.  Even when Bobby allows JR to rejoin Ewing Oil, Cliff attempts to stay out of JR's way and tries not to let his presence fluster him. 

All of the developments occurring with Cliff in Season 11 help set the stage for his most important story arc that season, the return of his ex-girlfriend Afton Cooper (Audrey Landers).  Afton broke up with Cliff and left Dallas almost 5 years earlier when it was apparent that his obsession in defeating JR and the Ewings was all-consuming.  She is back in Dallas for a lucrative singing engagement that even she could not turn down.  Afton was Cliff's most important love interest on "Dallas," a girl who genuinely cared about him and tried to support him when he was constantly abused by JR or taken for granted by Sue Ellen.  It's very touching to see Cliff make a sincere effort to show Afton how much he has changed in the last few years.  The interesting twist to the storyline is when Cliff learns Afton has a 4 and a half year old daughter named Pamela Rebecca Cooper.  He senses that this girl must be his child because she is named after his sister and his mother.  At the end of the season, when Afton realizes that Cliff has been snooping around to prove his paternity, she flees Dallas with her daughter, with Cliff giving chase.

More than any other time in "Dallas" history, we root for Cliff to have a happy ending during these two seasons.  He makes dramatic strides towards growing up and has finally become a man that his sister can be proud of.  Cliff is no longer as self-centered or narcissistic as he once was.  He is a flawed, but sincere and caring individual.  Ken Kercheval gave some of his best performances as Cliff during this period of the show.  He brought out unexpectedly touching nuances to a character that had, only a short time earlier, grown tiresome, annoying and repetitive.  Cliff and JR don't really interact much during this time on the series, and this allows Cliff an opportunity to develop beyond being a mere foil or plot device for the show.  For once, Cliff is somebody that the audience actually cares about and does not want to see bad things happen to him.  During these seasons, he is no longer a comic figure of ridicule.  I particularly like how Cliff and Bobby have become good friends, after they had been adversarial brothers-in-law for years.  Which is why it's so perplexing that the creators of the new "Dallas" have decided to do a 180 on Cliff and bring him back to the series as a vengeful character who ruthlessly uses his grown daughter Pamela Rebecca and his nephew Christopher as pawns in his scheme to destroy JR and the Ewings.

In the new series, he has Pamela Rebecca pose as another girl in order to trick Christopher into marrying her so that she will be strategically placed in the Ewing family to help initiate and execute his intricate plans for revenge.  This completely contradicts the genuine love he expresses for his daughter and his nephew, as well as the respect and friendship he has forged with Bobby, on the original series.  Even though Cliff and the Ewings would continue to have a few more scrapes with each other in the remaining two years of the original "Dallas," nothing that occurred between then and now would have prepared the audience for how evil and hateful Cliff has now become.  As much as I admire the new "Dallas," this regression in the Cliff character is one of the reasons why I can't fully appreciate the show.  When the 2nd season for the new "Dallas" premieres next month, they will have to explain what has happened to Cliff in the last 20 years that would make him resume his venomous hatred for the Ewings.  Otherwise, I'll be inclined to write off the new "Dallas" as another one of Pam's season-long dreams. 


  1. Thanks for the incredible history lesson! I lost track of DALLAS after they solved who shot JR! I had no idea it continued for 11 seasons, and had so many plot twists and turns that Cliff Barnes became a likeable, respectable character rather than a shrill, whining, holier-than-thou menace. He was always worse than even Bobby Ewing in his self-righteousness.

    In any case, that was a great treatment. You should try to publish it!

    By the way, since I was not privy to the seasons 10-11 transition Cliff Barnes, I thought that his character on the new series was exactly right. He is his old, evil, twisted self that offers the perfect foil to giant of giants, JR Ewing. I don't know how they will explain it, except perhaps to reveal that the Ewings, after Miss Ellie's death, treated him horribly. But I know that it is his evil machinations that make the show worth watching.

  2. What a wonderful post! Like you, I struggle to understand why Cliff is such a dark, villainous character on the new series. Did you see this week's episode? Cliff has become the Godfather! I really loved the growth of Cliff's character as the series progressed, so it's somewhat disappointing to see him become so evil. This much is certain: Ken Kercheval is still a fascinating actor.

  3. Cliff actually became even more evil than JR. JR may have driven some people to suicide, but not on purpose. Cliff not only ordered the rig blown up knowing people, including his pregnant daughter were inside, he actually ordered the murder of one of his own goons in prison!


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