When considering properties ripe for a reboot, revamp, or in this case, continuation, a 20-year-old property that had probably outstayed its initial welcome by carrying on for a whopping 14 seasons isn’t what one immediately thinks of as the next big thing. Like other recently revisited programs (the failed Charlie’s Angels comes to mind),Dallas proved to have risen above being a mere television program to become a part of the pop culture lexicon. It was so popular, in fact, that it spawned imitators, each successful in their own right, like Dynasty and Falcon Crest, and certainly played a part in the creation of equally transcendent programs like Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place.
So from that perspective, it’s easy to understand why Dallas, and more importantly, the ever-feuding Ewings and their Southfork Ranch, could be considered worth another visit. The trick, however, isn’t just putting the appropriate pieces in place for there to be a truly loyal update of such a beloved series. The real concern is whether or not this new generation of Ewings - namely, Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe) and John Ross (Josh Henderson) – can help usher in a new level of decadent trashiness that helped the series’ initial run become so immensely popular.
What initially started out in the late ’70s as a somewhat gaudy television version of Romeo & Juliet, set against the sweeping backdrop of Texas oil, quickly became the poster child for glamorizing the excess and extravagances of the wealthy and the frequently crazy things they would do to one another in the pursuit of more wealth. As the show progressively became more of a soap opera, one character in particular began to stand out: J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman). His embodiment of a duplicitous oil magnate quickly became the centerpiece for the entire series, and, in fact, the finale revolved entirely around whether or not he would commit suicide. But now, thanks in part to a few television movies, and this TNT revival, J.R. is revealed to still be alive, though not particularly well. Whether or not that’s a suitable description of this new Dallas may depend on how deep it’s willing to dig into its old bag of tricks.
Right off the bat, this Dallas wants to set up John Ross (J.R. Jr. – if you hadn’t already made that connection) as every bit the conniving antagonist his father was. Here, we are introduced to John Ross as he and his girlfriend Elena Ramos (Jordana Brewster) strike oil in Southfork. Not just some oil, though – enough to make the Ewings wealthier than they could ever imagine. The trouble is, when the Ewing matriarch, Miss Ellie, passed away, she forbade future drilling for oil. As a sure sign of the times, oil in 2012 Dallas takes on something of a boogeyman role, a one-time means to an end that is now largely avoided – not unlike Hagman’s near-comatose J.R.
But the promise of more Ewing oil is enough to resurrect not only old feuds and feelings of ownership and control, but also to effectively raise J.R. out of his clinical depression in order to play puppet master to his son’s ambitions of ruling the empire. Naturally, there must be an idyllic Ewing yin to John Ross’ yang, and so we’re introduced to Bobby’s (Patrick Duffy) son Christopher, who is home from Asia where he researches – what else? Alternative energy. Unlike John Ross, however, Christopher isn’t home to partake in any drilling on Ewing land; he’s actually getting married to Rebecca Sutter (Julie Golanzo).
And then, as the two younger Ewings face off at the dinner table about the future of oil vs. alternative forms of energy (it turns out Christopher is actively pursuing the capture of methane from the ocean floor), Dallas finally begins to feel like the Dallas of old. The burgeoning feud between Christopher and John Ross initially seems to be a battle over beliefs, but it really started some time ago. It seems Elena and Christopher were to be married, but they split up the very day of their nuptials. Christopher fled to Asia, while Elena eventually sought comfort in the arms of John Ross while in Mexico. Adding fuel to the fire, we learn pretty early on that Christopher isn’t a biological Ewing – rather, he was sold by a family that no longer wanted him, according to a bitter John Ross.
In addition to all of that smoldering tension between past and present lovers, Dallas also throws in the curveball of Bobby having cancer, but he keeps it from his family long enough to reveal his plans to sell Southfork to a conservancy in order to ensure the land doesn’t fall into misuse.
Of course, the pending sale of Southfork acts as the appropriate catalyst for the Ewings to quickly get back to lying, cheating and stealing – well, J.R., anyway. The elder Ewing plays his hand late in the first episode, revealing the potential conservator of Southfork, Marta Del Sol (Leonor Varela), to be in his employ. Initially, it all seems to have wrapped up too easily – especially for an old man who was all but unconscious for the majority of the show. Thankfully, Dallas is willing to go the full J.R. and reveal John Ross to be the true conspirator. The apple certainly doesn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to an unquenchable thirst for wealth and power.
Saying that Dallas works isn’t too much of a surprise. After all, it’s only real obstacle was getting the audience up to date of what had transpired over the last 20 or so years; the rest was pretty much business as usual. While Metcalfe and Henderson look every bit the posh, privileged youngsters battling to make the Ewing name mean something for a new generation, there was something genuine missing in both performances. Perhaps it’s too soon to be comparing one Dallas to another, but there was a feeling of – and pardon the expression – richness about the Dallas of old. And, if a network is going to continue a series with such a well-known history, any comparisons, regardless of when they’re made, should be expected.
Right now, though, without the likes of Val, Gary, Ray and Cliff Barnes – or some updated analogs – Dallas feels a little empty. It’s like The CW has moved into Southfork, and while they look good, they haven’t quite mastered what it means to be Ewings. Thankfully, Hagman hasn’t lost an ounce of his snake-like charm, and Duffy remains as earnest as he ever was.
On another bright side, the site of two Sue Ellens (Dallas’ Linda Gray and Brenda Strong, who played Sue Ellen Mischke on Seinfeld) side-by-side was good for a laugh. If anyone is going to replace Pam Ewing, the former heiress to the Oh Henry! candy bar fortune is a pretty good find. Besides, Strong’s Ann Ewing seems ready to dispense a little Texas justice, so Southfork is likely just fine in her care.
In the end, any time an old property gets dusted off, the question becomes: Did we need this? In the case of Dallas, the answer is: No. Heck, we weren’t even asking for it. But since the creators didn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel (just take it around the track a few more times), the whole thing can be chalked up to no harm, no foul. Ultimately, this Dallas rebirth is as unimpressive as it is inoffensive – the two work to sort of cancel each other out.
If you’re feeling the need to take in a little prime-time soap that isn’t dripping in irony, then Dallas will certainly fit the bill. It worked for 14 seasons, so TNT is likely guessing they can bring up a few more before the well actually does run dry.
Dallas airs Wednesdays @9pm on TNT.