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Detroit automobile pioneer, Dallas oilman liven up TV

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Today's TV column focuses on a pair of mega-millionaire moguls -- one real, and the other completely and over-the-top whimsically fictional.

What's interesting is that after watching both, you might have a hard time deciding which tycoon's tale is more bizarre and hard to believe.

Inventor and auto-industry pioneer Henry Ford is the subject of a new documentary on PBS's American Experience (Tuesday at 8 p.m., Prairie Public TV), while double-dealing oil driller J.R. Ewing (played by Larry Hagman) remains a focal point in the first few episodes of the revived and reshuffled prime-time soap Dallas (which has its second-season première Monday at 8 p.m. on Bravo).

After more than three decades in the pop-culture landscape, it's safe to say there's nothing J.R. could do to surprise anyone. What PBS's profile reveals about Ford, however, will probably shock most viewers who know him only as the guy who designed the Model T and basically invented the concept of assembly-line mass production.

Henry Ford, written and directed by filmmaker Sarah Colt, is a thoroughly captivating biography of a man who set out to create an automobile that average people could afford and ended up becoming one of the most controversial and misunderstood industrialists of the 20th century.

The product of a rural upbringing in 19th-century Michigan, Ford was a tinkerer who hated farm life and loved machinery of all kinds. At age 16, he left home to pursue his dream of working in the big city -- Detroit -- and spent a decade shuffling between factory jobs while developing skills as an expert machinist.

His early years in Detroit coincided with the dawn of the automobile age, and Ford was fascinated by horseless carriages, spending his off hours developing his own version -- a gas-powered vehicle he called the "quadricycle."

Driving the tiny contraption around town, Ford attracted a lot of attention and no small amount of scorn, but also sparked the interest of investors who helped him establish his first auto-building company. That effort failed, largely because his financial backers disagreed with Ford's idea that motorcars should not just be playthings for the wealthy but should be a transformative means of conveyance accessible to people of all income levels.

Ford's vision, of course, was proved right, when he started a second company and introduced the Model T in 1908. The fabric of American society was forever changed, not just by the Ford vehicle's affordability, but also by the manner in which Ford treated the people who built it -- paying them a higher wage than any other car manufacturer and making them shareholders in the company's success.

But as Henry Ford illustrates, the rapid accumulation of wealth and power changed Ford; in time, the rural-raised man of the people became an enigmatic bully who insisted on controlling every aspect of his workers' lives. As a boss, a business foe and a family man, Henry Ford eventually became something of a monster.

It's a fascinating tale, and very well told.

Less difficult to decipher and decidedly more reliable in terms of consistent evil intent is good ol' J.R. Ewing, who returns to prime time along with the rest of the South Fork clan in Season 2 of the surprisingly successful Dallas reboot.

Looking frail but still able to chew up the scenery in every scene he's in, Hagman -- who died last November after a lengthy battle with cancer -- is still the dark force that drives the new-age Dallas. According to media reports, the J.R. character will appear in the first half-dozen episodes of the new season, leading up to a big-impact exit that will do justice to the character and pay tribute to the actor who made him TV's most beloved bad guy.

As for the series, it's pretty much Dallas as usual -- good guy Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe) continuing his effort to transform Ewing Energies into an eco-friendly empire, with bad seed John Ross (Josh Henderson) using all the tricks his daddy taught him to make sure the whole thing blows up. It's campy, predictable, pleasantly mindless fun.

The younger generation may be the focus of the series, but until he's gone -- and probably forever after -- Dallas will continue to be powered by J.R.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

TV REVIEW

American Experience: Henry Ford

Written and directed by Sarah Colt

Tuesday at 8 p.m.

PBS

4 stars out of 5

 

Dallas

Starring Jesse Metcalfe, Josh Henderson, Patrick Duffy, Linda Gray and Larry Hagman

Monday at 8 p.m.

Bravo

3 stars out of 5

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2013 G6

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