TNT's Dallas remake hampered by a less potent J.R. Ewing and changing times
Watch the 1978 pilot episode of Dallas today, and it is hard to imagine how this show became such a smashing success.
Back then, Patrick Duffy was a fluffy piece of man candy as Bobby Ewing, the youngest son of a powerful Texas family who blithely married the daughter of the guy his daddy swindled out of an oil fortune 40 years ago. Victoria Principal was that daughter, relentlessly optimistic Pamela Barnes, who couldn’t understand why her alcoholic father would react like his child just died after learning of her marriage to Bobby.
But Larry Hagman proved a scenery chewing delight as oldest Ewing brother John Ross “J.R.” Ewing Jr., a manipulative smoothie willing to hire someone to seduce his new sister-in-law if it served his purpose.
His confident, sleazy charm held together the most implausible scenes for years, shrugging off the nighttime soap’s stilted dialogue and clunky staging like Superman handling a speeding bullet. (though even Hagman couldn’t smooth over the way producers explained Bobby's death and a season's worth of episodes by saying saying Duffy’s character had been dreaming).
Hagman’s J.R. was the original TV antihero; the villain fans would love to hate before Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan or Don Draper. His unabashed pursuit of wealth and power was also the face of an emerging class – the business-centered yuppie of the 1980s – whose rise would fuel the Reagan Revolution and the meteoric, 13-year success of the original Dallas series.
He’s also why the new Dallas -- revived this week by the king of middlebrow cable TV, TNT – doesn’t work quite so well for me.
Hagman, his wintry white eyebrows arching to the ceiling, still turns a menacing phrase as a newly-revitalized J.R., working with his once-neglected son John Ross Ewing III (Josh Henderson) to try secretly wresting control of the family’s Southfork Ranch from do-gooder Bobby.
Filmed for the HD world with better landscapes, better acting and slightly better writing, this newly retooled Dallas feels upgraded from the early, fumbling pace of the original series' early days.
But, at 81 years of age, Hagman has slowed a bit, perhaps in part due to his bout with throat cancer earlier this year. Except for longtime fans, viewers won’t likely feel that electric anticipation when J.R. enters a scene; his super-contrived manipulations feel like kindergarten kickball to an audience weaned on the hyped-up drama of Grey’s Anatomy and creative sophistication of The Good Wife.
Linda Gray also returns as J.R.'s once-again ex-wife Sue Ellen, reincarnated here as an ambitious politician gunning for the governor’s mansion. But Bobby’s wife Ann Ewing gets more attention, played by towering Desperate Housewives alum Brenda Strong as a gutsy lady who hefts a rifle in at least three scenes across the first two episodes.
Principal seems the biggest name from the old cast who declined to return, long known as the castmember least likely to participate in any reunions and most ambivalent about hanging with her fellow castmates.
Newcomers Henderson and Jesse Metcalfe (as Bobby’s adopted son Chris) seem imported from a Texas-set CW series, easy on the eyes and light on the acting chops.
But in the end, what makes this Dallas so awkward is that it feels like a program out of its time. Thanks to a cratered economy, tales of sprawling wealth feel awkward; if we want to see families of dysfunctional, backstabbing rich people bouncing off each other, we need only flip on the latest Real Housewives or Kardashian family marathon.
Even the storylines feel only distantly connected to the culture. Christopher is trying to develop energy technology using methane gas, but he still carries a torch for the housekeeper’s daughter Elena (Jordana Brewster), who is involved with J.R. III – a snake pressing Elena to gain Christopher’s confidence so he can sink his energy company.
It’s the kind of convoluted plot twists which used to feel like over-the-top fun back in the days of Dynasty, Falcon Crest and Dallas spin-off Knots Landing. But in a TV world where even daytime soaps are an endangered species, I wonder if there’s much patience for such old school television pleasures.
Given TNT’s head-scratching success with conventional series such as Rizzoli & Isles and Franklin & Bash, I wouldn’t be surprised if this Dallas reboot somehow worked, too – if only because so many fans are curious about seeing J.R., Bobby, Sue Ellen and even old nemesis Cliff Barnes in action once more.
And let's not forget; Dallas ruled the ratings in the 1980s – the revelation of who shot J.R. in 1980 drew 80 percent of those watching TV at the time. Everyone from Susan Lucci and Barbara Eden to Ian McShane and Priscilla Presley dropped by the old series, which still airs overseas and draws 100,000 people a year to visit the real Southfork Ranch in Parker, Texas.
But today’s soap operas play out on larger stages; the fairy tale-meets-reality world of Once Upon a Time or the Twilight-inspired bloodsuckers of the CW’s Vampire Diaries.
I'm probably in the minority, but for me a world of oil leases, adultery and methane gas wasn't quite enough to snare the attention of the iPad generation, anymore.
Even if it comes wrapped in the faded legend of J.R. Ewing.
Dallas returns at 9 tonight on TNT.