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TV Tonight: Dallas Returns, 20 Years Later

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John Ross Ewing (Henderson) and JR (Hagman) in the resurrected Dallas.

In the original 1978–91 series of Dallas, J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) and his brother Bobby (Patrick Duffy) fought each other over the future of the family oil business. In TNT’s remake, they’re back, but now J.R.’s son John Ross (Josh Henderson) and Bobby’s adopted son Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe) are fighting each other over the future of the energy industry—John Ross a dedicated, hungry oil driller, Christopher an evangelist for alternative fuel sources. But it still all comes down to scheming, shooting and sex.

Fossil fuels may not last forever. But family feuds, TNT’s instantly familiar if unspectacular revival of Dallas tells us, are an endlessly renewable resource.

Dallas (two-hour debut tonight) is not a thematically changed, more ambitious “reimagining” of an old show, like Battlestar Galactica. It’s not a “reboot” that borrows the title and premise for a new generation of characters, like Charlie’s Angels or 90210. It’s a rarer thing, a continuation, that picks up with the same story, the same bloodlines and many of the same characters, some 20 years later, adding a younger cohort of sexy young scions to sweeten the demographics.

(MORE: Greed, Melodrama and the Unexpected: What Made Dallas TV’s Greatest Happy Accident)

Stripped of Original Formula Dallas’ context, novelty and Who-Shot-J.R. watercooler heat, the new Dallas can’t compete with the iconic original. It’s one more cable drama, which means it has to stand on its performances (bland to hammy) and its dialogue (overheated). But what’s impressive about it in its own small way is how ordinary it seems: take away the appearance of Hagman and Duffy (and Linda Gray as Sue Ellen, now a top Texas politician) and it’s a perfectly credible nighttime summer soap.

The relaunch doesn’t take away Hagman and Duffy, though, and that’s one of its better moves. Rather than treat the older-generation characters as special guests or decorations, it enmeshes them directly in the new plot. It starts with oil: John Ross, cocky and hungry, has been secretly wildcat-drilling on Southfork, where he hits a massive gusher. There’s only one problem—Southfork is now in the hands of Bobby, who is determined to hold to his mother Miss Ellie’s wishes that there be no drilling on the family ranch. To protect it, Bobby plans to sell Southfork to a conservancy.

This being Dallas, good intentions are tied up with self-interest; Bobby wants to use the proceeds to protect Christopher’s business plan to become a tycoon in methane hydrates, frozen methane trapped on the ocean floor. The methane could arguably replace oil, and theoretically make Christopher very, very rich.

In case you didn’t get that this is J.R. and Bobby redux, Dallas lays it out pretty plain for you. “You and I, we’ve been on opposite tracks since we were born,” Christopher tells John Ross in the second hour. But they’ve also got plenty of connections, including romantic ones: John Ross is now in love (or is he!) with Elena (Jordana Brewster), the working-class girl once engaged to Christopher until he spurned her (or did he!) for Rebecca (Julie Gonzalo), the woman Christopher is about to marry (or will he!, &c.).

Christopher, an earnest square more comfortable with spreadsheets than drill bits, goes to Bobby, who’s weary, harboring a secret illness and worried about ugly family history repeating. The elder Ewing goes to visit J.R., who–unsettlingly for anyone who remembers him swaggering in a cowboy hat–is in a convalescent home, mute and suffering from clinical depression. “All the bitterness and bad blood you and I had,” Bobby says to his silent, weakened brother. “I don’t want them to be like us.” (Bit of a spoiler coming up, though not much of one if you’ve at all followed the promotions for the new show.) John Ross follows soon behind, complaining to his estranged dad that Bobby wants to screw him out of a fortune, and—as if the whiff of oil money is like smelling salts to him—J.R. wakens back to his old, wicked self.

(MORE: TNT Is Remaking Dallas. Why Are You Remaking Dallas, TNT?)

J.R. wasn’t meant to be the star of the original Dallas, until his conniving and Hagman’s charming swagger forced him into the role. And seeing him reinflate into his calculating, venomous role is a treat, like watching Darth Vader rise again in his helmet. Lots of actors can play evil; few can communicate such enjoyment of it as Hagman, whose J.R. still prepares for a scheme like he’s about to cut into a juicy steak. “It’s nice to be in the company of a legend,” Bobby’s new wife Ann (Brenda Strong) tells him. (Duffy, now as then, cannot quite keep up in the conflicted nice-guy role.)

As for the younger generation, John Ross and Christopher work—in theory. There’s clearly an attempt to parallel them with their daddies’ conflict, but the producers have added some interesting complications. John Ross is savvy but not book-smart, motivated not just by greed but by a need to prove himself and spite the people who have told him he’s no good like his father. Christopher wants to prove he’s a true Ewing, by money if not blood, and when his alternative-energy plans run into trouble, it sets up some interesting questions about the limits of idealism. But in practice, Henderson lacks Hagman’s finesse and Metcalfe is as handsome and dynamic as a catalog still photo. The conflict, though, at least has potential.

Not too much potential, which sounds like an insult but I mean at least as a kind of compliment. The new Dallas isn’t aiming for creative reinvention or epic sweep; instead it seems to want to be a competent 2012 soap.  It’s not something I’m personally likely to keep up with, but on the terms of its own modest aims, it could work. Caveat: For triage reasons, I’m basing this review on four episodes of seven TNT sent out, and already at that point it has sprung some reveals and triple-twists that are outlandish even by primetime-soap standards. I understand the show wanting to hook viewers, but at this pace it risks plot whiplash.

Still, despite some flat performances, the show does a better job than I might have expected bringing a 20th-century broadcast-TV icon down to 21st-century cable size. As the revived J.R. crows in the new show’s first hour, “Blood may be thicker than water, but oil is a hell of a lot thicker than both.” And there’s no reason they each can’t keep gushing forth.

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