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'Dallas' back with aging J.R., but will TV audiences care?

Watch the 1978 pilot episode of Dallas today, and you may wonder how this show became an international hit.

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, Jock, swindled out of an oil fortune 40 years ago.

Sweet-faced Victoria Principal was that daughter, relentlessly optimistic Pamela Barnes, devastated when her alcoholic father reacted like his child just died after learning of her marriage to Bobby.

Larry Hagman proved a scenery-chewing savior as oldest 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.

Hagman's J.R. was the original TV antihero whom 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.

Hagman, his wintery 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 sprawling Southfork Ranch from do-gooder Bobby.

But, at 80, Hagman has slowed a bit, perhaps in part due to his recent bout with throat cancer. Excepting longtime fans, viewers won't likely feel that same electric anticipation when J.R. enters a scene; his super-contrived manipulations feel like kindergarten kickball to audiences weaned on Kardashian series marathons.

Principal seems the biggest name from the old cast who declined to return. She has been known as the alum least likely to participate in reunions and revivals. 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.

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 marathon.

In a TV world where even daytime soaps are an endangered species, I wonder if there's much patience left for such old-school television pleasures.

Given TNT's head-scratching success with conventional series such as Rizzoli & Isles, 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 and Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) in action once more.

Still, today's soap operas play out on larger stages like the fairy tale world of Once Upon a Time or the Twilight-inspired bloodsuckers of the CW's Vampire Diaries.

I fear Dallas' world of oil leases and family fights may feel a bit old fashioned to the iPad generation — even if it comes wrapped in the legend of a diminished J.R. Ewing.

Dallas returns at 9 p.m. Wednesday on TNT.

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com. See The Feed blog at www.tampabay.com/blogs/media.

'Dallas' back with aging J.R., but will TV audiences care? 06/11/12 [Last modified: Monday, June 11, 2012 9:55am]

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