As I wrote last year, Dallas returns to television this summer in a fast-moving, new incarnation on cable TV’s TNT. Having seen rough cuts of the first four episodes, including the pilot, I must say that it’s easy to get hooked on the oil-rich Ewing family’s drama.
The original, long-running Lorimar-made series premiered in 1978 and ran on CBS starring Larry Hagman as dastardly J.R., Linda Gray as alcoholic Sue Ellen, Patrick Duffy as benevolent Bobby and Victoria Principal as innocent Pam, with Barbara Bel Geddes as Southfork Ranch’s matriarch Miss Ellie. Hagman, Gray and Duffy reprise their roles, and other series regulars return, too, with plot lines that mirror the original series’ themes of being an outsider, family rivalry and people that strive to be good when it seems that everyone in the family’s gone bad.
The new show has energy, with older Ewings saying they want to bury the hatchets, younger Ewings playing out the same nasty cycle – in a contest between an environmentalist (Jesse Metcalfe, who can act) and a capitalist (Josh Henderson, who needs help but gets better), with the capitalist portrayed as wicked, just like J.R. – and everyone within the Dallas/Ft. Worth metropolitan area fair game for treachery.
The city of Dallas shines in lush photography, Southfork’s still sprawling and the oil pumping, gushing and scheming get an attractive makeover. By the fourth episode, someone’s either bipolar, part of a billion-dollar swindle to seize Southfork, being photographed in ropes, handcuffs or liplocks or running for governor. Bobby gets a new wife, Ann (Brenda Strong), who’s not afraid to use a rifle when an intruder’s on her property, the dueling Ewing boys get dueling love interests (Julie Gonzalo, who can act, and Jordana Brewster, who gets better) and J.R. gets the best lines, including a howler about brimstone and crazy when he meets up with an old nemesis in one of the best scenes.
Dallas was always less campy than its Denver oil rival Dynasty over on ABC, where the Carringtons were essentially good but prone to be bad, and TNT’s reboot replays the characters more kindly, with all the timeless Texan elements of cattle, land, oil and big deals in a drama that blends a bit of the original’s nasty ways with the class warfare of Giant (1956) and the adoptive son of ABC’s The Big Valley (1965). It doesn’t always work, with some bad acting and when it moves too improbably or too fast, and no one seems to lock the doors at Southfork which would make things much easier, but J.R.’s still one of the best characters on TV and Hagman’s having a blast playing dirty all over again.
For all the blatant side-taking against the capitalist, pro-oil characters, what’s most interesting is that, intentionally or not, the ecology-minded characters are more insidiously willing to claw and scrape to get what they want than the oil bunch and in their own ways they have less integrity, not that anyone here has anything close to that virtue, though the Ewings are measurably less sadistic and masochistic than they were back in the 20th century. So, don’t be alarmed if you wind up rooting for those whom we’re obviously supposed to regard as the bad guys, although everyone in this town’s as ethically challenged as they were 30 years ago. Dallas is scheduled to air on Wednesdays at 9 pm ET/PT with a two-episode premiere on June 13.