“Dallas,"which in its love of the anti-hero and elevation of the cliffhanger set the stage for much of what is now considered Important Television, is back, 21 years after the end of the series proper and 14 years from the last branded TV movie. And the presence of Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray as JR, Bobby and Sue Ellen Ewing — arguably the most important characters from the original series — means that you should take it as seriously, on its less than serious terms.
In order not to make the new version, which has devolved from CBS to TNT, entirely geriatric — it was a sea of gray even when the first run ran down — much of the action focuses on the rivalry between cousins John Ross (Josh Henderson), the son of JR and ex-wife Sue Ellen, and Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe), the adopted son of Bobby and the departed Pam, played long ago by Victoria Principal and referred to here as having “just disappeared one day.”
Like their parents, and alongside them, they have different visions of the future of the Ewings and the meaning of the old homestead, Southfork Ranch, over whose disposition they argue with a perhaps too frequent use of the word “birthright.” (The new series adds a debate between fossil fuel versus alternative energies — I will leave it to you to guess on which side each faction comes down). Additionally, John Ross and Christopher each have their own complicated romantic relationships, with housekeeper’s daughter Elena (Jordana Brewster) and out-of-town lawyer Rebecca (Julie Gonzalo), who is engaged to Christopher.
If TNT is no CBS, CBS is not what it was when “Dallas” reigned, and advances in television technology mean that even in this relatively more economy-minded venue, it is a fancier affair — and given looser standards and practices, an edgier, more explicit one — than the original. But as redeveloped by Cynthia Cidre (the 2007 CBS prime-time soap"Cane”), it is very much its heir, in spirit and execution.
Then as now — and acknowledging some good work among the younger set, especially the Texas-born Henderson — it is Hagman’s show. To say there is no series here that would be worth watching without him is indeed only to point out another way in which the new “Dallas” is very much like the old.
There is some sloppy writing, as when information regarding Christopher’s undersea mining project, which the script treats as somehow secret and valuable, is also displayed as news available on the Internet. And it can look phony: A key opening scene set around a gushing oil well just seems like actors and extras at work; other characters speak technobabble issues like a phonetically rehearsed foreign language.
But “Dallas” never was a series that worried over a little wooden acting, or prized sense over the sensational: The narrative flexibility of the original was such that, in the mid-1980s, in order to rewrite a briefly departed Duffy back into the show, an entire season was declared to have been a dream.
The Ewings and their extended family of foes and frenemies can seem to be absurdly gullible, liable to believe anything anyone tells them (except, often, when it is the truth). They are prone to half-baked deals and secrets fatally kept out of pride, which would have done them no harm if revealed in the first place.
Bobby, who wants Southfork — I keep wanting to write South Park — pristine into perpetuity, whether he gets to live there or not, is so blindly good a person as to seem at times a simpleton: He’s the Prince Myshkin of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, and Duffy, still sporting an impressive head of hair, plays him almost as before, down to the frequently worried cast of his eyebrows. I say “almost” because he buttons his shirts higher than in his disco-beat youth. But that’s the only significant difference.
As Sue Ellen, Gray has changed her hair but not her makeup, which still lies heavily upon her lips and along her eyes, but which is, after all, not inappropriate either to her character or to the real women of her place and class; she is said to be running for governor, though there is no evidence that she has any interest or experience in politics. She does have an office with a view, which is all the series really needs to convey authority.
Hagman doesn’t need the office: At 80, the actor has lost a little of his suppleness, but none of his sparkle, and even mouthing generalities he seems to come from a place of a genuine knowledge. His JR is less a character than a force of nature — he just wants to win and knows he will, whatever comes his way. “Bullets don’t seem to have much effect on me,” he tells Bobby’s shotgun-toting new wife, Ann, played by Brenda Strong.)
The pilot dawdles until the right word rouses him back to action like a demon from his thousand-year sleep. His eyes light up, and the party starts.
When: 9 and 10:15 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)