TNT reboot of Dallas takes off like it’s never been away

Review by C.J. Bunce

A strange thing happened.  I was watching Dallas on TV on a Friday night in 1991, then I fell asleep and it was 2012 and nothing had happened in between.  I flipped on the TV and the Dallas logo swiped across the TV screen.  Was it all a dream?

Quick pacing, conniving characters, a well-balanced cast of new actors, and only a well-tempered dose of nostalgia made Wednesday’s pilot for the new TNT TV series Dallas appear to be a real contender for viewers, 21 years after we last saw J.R., Bobby, and Sue Ellen at Southfork.

The battle again is over control of Southfork Ranch, left to be run by Bobby Ewing by family matriarch Miss Ellie (played in the original series by the late Barbara Bel Geddes, years after she acted alongside Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo).  Bobby is sick, and doesn’t want to die and leave son Christopher to spend his life fighting cousin John Ross for the property as he and brother J.R. once did.  John Ross has defied Miss Ellie’s directive and drilled and found a lucrative oil deposit on the land.  And what is left is an all out battle in the shadows by the darker elements to outwit Bobby and Christopher.

There are times when you ask yourself “did they wait a bit too long for this continuation of the series?”  Then Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing steps out of a depression induced stupor, like Rip Van Winkle or someone who has been in suspended animation since 1991, and even at 80 years old Hagman plays Ewing as conniving and slithery as ever, and you just know continuing this series is a good move.  Instead of ignoring the age factor of the few original cast members, the series embraces this–Bobby Ewing (played solidly again by Patrick Duffy) has cancer, J.R. suffers from depression.  In a brilliant twist, the walking disaster (made that way by husband J.R.) that was Sue Ellen of 21 years ago is now an exciting and progressive new Sue Ellen (played by Linda Gray), being primed to run for Texas governor.  Brenda Strong plays an even keeled and supportive Annie, trying to let husband Bobby be stalwart while befriending her new daughter-in-law.

J.R., Bobby, and Sue Ellen are not shoved aside any by the scheming new younger set.  What could have been another show rehashing vengeance stories like ABC’s Revenge, Bobby’s son Christopher and J.R.’s son John Ross, played by Jesse Metcalfe and Josh Henderson, respectively, do seem very young for their roles as a seasoned alternate energy wonk and would-be oil baron.  But even their youth is played up against the wisdom of the Ewing brothers with Bobby as the good mentor and J.R. as the old pro who has seen it all before.

And holding her own as far as scheming is concerned, new series star Jordana Brewster (formerly Chuck’s ex-girlfriend Jill on the TV series Chuck) plays Elena Ramos, a former girlfriend to Christopher who left him at the altar in a bit of a a misunderstanding right out of BBC’s As Time Goes By.  Elena is smart and carefully weighing her options as subplots unfold.  Her role is a bit of an archetype for revenge stories, the Cinderella, or daughter of the maid who sat by and wished she were one of the members of the family who owns the estate she grew up on.  Christopher’s new wife Rebecca (Julie Gonzalo) at first appeared a weak throwaway character, but by the second hour of the series premiere night we learned she will be another force to be reckoned with in the series, as part of a con game with her brother.

And then there’s the big double cross–the element that made the original series survive 14 seasons, between 1978 and 1991.  J.R. is plotting with a friend’s daughter to take back Southfork when Bobby puts it up for sale.  Meanwhile son John Ross is making the same play.  And all the young women have their own plans for taking the Ewing wealth.

Can the new generation of good folk (Christopher) and bad (John Ross & Co.) outwit the hardened, tried and true original series characters to take over the billions in wealth at stake?  Will one of the Bushes make an appearance?  Will we see any Saudi oil baron plots?  The world in 2012 is very different than 1978, yet much is shared–bad economy, international strife, battles over cheaper energy–you could envision several concepts Dallas’s writers can explore.  Will we get to see Ken Kerchival reprise his role as Cliff Barnes?  Victoria Principal as Pamela Barnes?  Priscilla Presley as Jenna Wade?  Audrey Landers?  Jenilee Harrison?  How about cast from the spin-off Knot’s Landing, like Joan Van Ark or Ted Shackleford?  Recall one of the best episode arcs on that series featured a young Alec Baldwin.  Of course, he was killed, but if the original Dallas was known for anything it was that year that Bobby died, that ended up being just a dream.  So bring on Alec Baldwin!

The negatives of the series opener are few.  John Ross’s strange dialogue seems odd for a modern rich kid in Dallas, even one who worked the ranch.  Everyone must say the name aloud of the person they are speaking with in every scene.  Real people don’t do this.  Try it.  Walk around the office or your home all day and count how many times people call you by name other than when they are trying to get your attention.  I can’t decide if I like the grandiose gesture at the end of the pilot episode–John Ross meets his conspirator on the 50 yard line at the Dallas Cowboys football stadium.  It certainly illustrates that Dallas has designs to be as big as Texas.  Do you need to have seen the original series to jump into this new series?  I don’t think so, although the characters’ motivations probably make more sense if you had seen the original.  Things like the fact that J.R. was once shot by Kristin Shepard (yes, the answer to the big question “Who shot J.R.?”), Shepard was played by Bing Crosby’s daughter Mary, and is the real mother of Bobby’s adopted son Christopher.

One more thing.  The original Dallas theme song is a great tune with powerful brass, but the new arrangement feels somewhat lackluster in comparison (I actually had to crank up the volume to get the right vibe).  It’s incredible how such a song gets stuck in your head so many years later.

But these “negatives” amount to nothing.  Episodes 1 and 2 were engaging enough to add this to the ongoing watch list.  Bobby and J.R.’s dialogue is pretty much perfect and consistent with their characters of decades ago.  Keep an eye out for an appearance by Charlene Tilton, reprising her role as Lucy Ewing Cooper.

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