Recall if you will that Bobby and Pam (RIP?), after attempts to conceive, adopted a baby boy named Christopher. Recall, too, how at the height of her alcoholism struggle, Sue Ellen presented J.R. with a male heir in the first season, John Ross Ewing III, who turned out to be something of a demon seed. These acts of narrative recollection are in fact “Dallas’s” small reward for loyalists: Ken Kercheval’s Cliff Barnes, J.R.’s eternal nemesis, ambles in and out of the storyline, rich beyond his wildest dreams; illicit lovers Ray Krebbs and Lucy Ewing (Steve Kanaly and Charlene Tilton) show up to family events on the ranch, all smiles and double chins. You’ll forget why you ever despised any of these folks and remember only why you loved them. Reunions are like that.
The camera’s attention, then, is mainly on Southfork’s next generation — their chiseled physiques and low-cut blouses; their shiny sports cars and loft condominiums. The ranch appears to have enjoyed some relative bliss in the intervening years. Ewing Oil pays handsome, Exxon-like dividends under Cliff Barnes’s executive control; Bobby and his new wife, Ann (“Desperate Housewives’” Brenda Strong), are planning to turn Southfork over to a nature conservancy, honoring Miss Ellie’s dying wish that the land never be developed.
Bobby’s conniving nephew, John Ross (Josh Henderson) has other plans, having made the ludicrous discovery that Southfork sits atop a couple billion barrels of sweet crude. (This finding comes replete with a “There Will Be Blood”-esque gusher.)
Bobby’s son Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe) returns, convinced that the future lies in alternative energy; he’s developing a way to extract methane from undersea ice. Both men are in love with Elena Ramos (Jordana Brewster), the daughter of the Ewings’ longtime housekeeper, who has gone on to become quite the savvy petroleum geologist. Christopher won her heart, but she rejected him after a mysterious revelation; now he’s engaged to Rebecca (Julie Gonzalo), who reminds everyone of Pam, but isn’t to be trusted.
John Ross’s attempts to drill, baby, drill on Southfork brings J.R. out of his mute decline. Soon enough, thanks to John Ross’s inept scheme, everyone is double-crossing everyone else — fist-fighting at wedding receptions, hiring private investigators, and blackmailing one another with the latest available phone apps, thumb drives and spycams. The bed hopping isn’t quite as prevalent as it used to be, and although cable TV affords the Ewings a chance at saltier vocabularies, the show seems quaintly chaste when it comes to sin.
Metcalfe, who briefly held the world on a string as the shirtless lawn boy on “Desperate Housewives,” is a surprisingly apt fit as Christopher, who struggles to balance Bobby’s lessons of morality with the rest of the family’s penchant for betrayal. The show’s real weakness is John Ross — Henderson gives a lunky, forgettable performance, coming nowhere near anyone’s idea of a stronger, meaner version of J.R. Thanks to the rest of its ensemble, however, the new “Dallas” gains some traction and kicks up a little dust.
Dallas itself has, of course, changed considerably since 1978, which we see in glimpses — J.R. and John Ross take in a Cowboys game at Jerry Jones’s monstrous new stadium; the opening theme now soars over the Trinity River bridge and an altered skyline. “Dallas,” the Rosetta stone of the city’s stereotypes, is now somewhat circumspect when it comes to transacting in caricatures. Though it’s sprinkled with the usual colloquialisms, there’s very little talk here of big hair and boob jobs.
Southfork, which is still a popular tourist attraction in real life, is portrayed even now as a bucolic ideal far outside the bustle of glitzy Big D. In fact, it’s Plano-adjacent, in a county that has quintupled in population since Kristin Shepard shot J.R., an endless unfurling of metroburbs approaching one million residents. The Ewings certainly would have long since moved another 30 miles north, into a custom mansion many times larger. Yet they remain in little old Southfork, forever resolute in their shared pride and scorn.
There’s a sweet succor in this Lone Star sense of tradition, spite and retribution. And since the GOP presidential primaries showed the rest of the country what Texas will settle for in a governor, the real takeaway from “Dallas” is quite clear: Vote for Sue Ellen!
More on summer TV:
Summer TV: Anticipatory treats, with a little extra Snooki on top
Summer TV’s returning series
What else is new? More shows, docs arriving this summer
(two hours) premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on TNT.