Talk about a hiatus! The once-powerhouse primetime soap ‘Dallas’ ran on CBS for 14 seasons from 1978 to 1991, and single-handedly established the now-common convention of the season finale cliffhanger. The fourth season premiere episode (which answered the question “Who shot J.R.?”) was watched by 83 million viewers, and remains the second highest-rated television episode in history (topped only by the series finale of ‘M*A*S*H’). Sadly, over time, the show lost its luster, grew more ridiculous (the notorious “It was all a dream!” Season 9 premiere has been the butt of countless jokes over the years), and eventually left the air with a whimper. But now ‘Dallas’ is back, after a 21 year break, in a brand new revival on the TNT network that’s not a remake or a reboot, but a straight continuation with much of the original cast picking up where they left off. Against all odds, it’s surprisingly fun so far.
Technically, TNT considers last Wednesday’s two-part premiere (episodes ‘Changing of the Guard’ and ‘Hedging Your Bets’) to be the pilot for the first season of a new show. Whatever. For all intents and purposes, this is Season 15. The show even has the same theme song and opening credits. Sort of like the CW’s ‘90210’ revival, ‘Dallas’ introduces a new generation of characters while retaining some of the original cast. However, in this case, most of the important original players – including Larry Hagman’s conniving J.R. Ewing, Patrick Duffy’s earnest brother Bobby, and Linda Gray’s bitch-queen Sue Ellen – are still in place and have very prominent, central roles. Also unlike ‘90210’, the younger cast additions actually aren’t too annoying, except when they’re supposed to be, of course.
The basic plot pits J.R.’s jerkwad son John Ross (Josh Henderson) against family head Bobby. Against Bobby’s wishes, John Ross drills for oil on the Southfork ranch and discovers that they’re sitting on a reserve worth billions of dollars. Bobby, who hasn’t told anyone that he’s dying of cancer, refuses to let John Ross drill further. He prefers to honor his late mother’s wishes and preserve the land by selling it to a conservancy. Meanwhile, Bobby’s son Christopher (Jesse Metcalf) has been trying to get the family into the alternative energy business. Unfortunately, his efforts to extract methane from the ocean floor have a side effect of causing earthquakes. Whoops.
In the midst of this, elderly J.R. himself, diagnosed with clinical depression, has been sitting catatonic in a rest home. At least, that’s what he wants everyone to believe. Really, he’s been biding his time, and is now ready to wrest control of Southfork out from Bobby’s hands.
This sets off what can only be described as a cyclone of schemes and double-crosses, each more outrageous than the last. Every character has a secret agenda. Everyone tries to play everyone else for personal gain. Even just two episodes in, the show has already had so many twists and turns that it would be pointless for me to try to describe them all.
Sitting at the top of this pyramid is master manipulator J.R., pulling everybody’s strings. Larry Hagman is so goddamn much fun in this show. The actor clearly knows that J.R. Ewing is the role of his lifetime, and jumps back into those cowboy boots with gusto. He and his crazy eyebrows steal every scene.
I wouldn’t quite call myself a fan of the original ‘Dallas’. My mother was a regular viewer, and I caught bits and pieces every now and again, but I wasn’t really the target audience. Nonetheless, the new show does a very good job of quickly re-establishing all of the characters and their relationships in a way that’s perfectly clear – and entertaining – whether you’ve seen the old show or not. I watched the new pilot episode(s) without much in the way of expectations. I hardly expected the relaunch of an ’80s soap to be something I’d tune in for again, yet it turns out that ‘Dallas’ may just be exactly what the summer needed.