They’ve learned nothing. It’s the 21st century, filmed in rich “Friday Night Lights” hues of dappled sunbeams, and Bobby Ewing still leads with his heart, gullible as ever. Sue Ellen Ewing, the ex-wife triumphant, never stopped looking for the ladder’s next rung, campaigning now to become Texas’ next governor. That snake J.R. Ewing — played by Larry Hagman, who has had seemingly every major organ transplanted and yet remains immortally and devilishly present — sits catatonic in a nursing home, secretly alert to every detail, coyly mounting one last scheme to regain control over the chimerical Southfork Ranch.
The question is, do you even want to go back to “Dallas?”
I wasn’t entirely sure that I did, seeing as how Dallas (with or without quotation marks) is often an alternately dazzling and depressing proposition. The previews for TNT’s “Dallas” reboot (premiering Wednesday night) looked terrible at first, as appealing as an endless layover in DFW, but I lost my will to resist and let myself be seduced once more by the show’s soapy, steamy charms. After eight addictive episodes, I’m here to report that this new “Dallas” is a satisfying roll in the sentimental hay.
As a boy, I loved the show and the town, but the “Dallas” years took a memorable toll. America fell hard for the Ewings when they reigned on CBS every Friday night in the late 1970s and early ’80s; at the time, it seemed that no one fell harder for the show’s morally shallow mythology than those of us in and around Texas. You didn’t even have to watch “Dallas” to understand. It was just in the air.
The children in my world were raised in the psychic television space between Southfork and the “Knots Landing” cul-de-sac. The Ewing saga was the fictional epitome of an actual oil boom that put money — however briefly, even just peripherally — in the pockets of all our daddies, who started wearing Stetsons and bolo ties unironically and flirted hard with secretaries, stewardesses, cocktail waitresses. There was this sudden mutual need to be on the next Southwest flight to Love Field, to Houston Hobby, to Midland/Odessa, to Tulsa. Everyone’s dad had to see a guy about a deal. The disco radio stations all converted to urban cowboy hits; the Hustle became the two-step; there was a mechanical bull at the church bazaar. The parents all got divorced, one family after another, which is to say that the distance between “Who Shot J.R.?” and the decision to halt the digging of the new swimming pool seemed very short indeed. Then our local banks started to go under. Then it was all over. Pam Ewing was dreaming all along.
But “Dallas” went on and on, beyond even the Reagan years. It lasted until 1991, when surely the only people left watching it were hard-core fans, or the last of the Soviets, or space aliens with excellent antennae. A few years back, Hollywood thought about bringing “Dallas” to the big screen as one of those awful adaptations of old TV reruns. That project somehow drifted back to television development and so here we are.
What I like about TNT’s “Dallas” is its reverence for the deceit and despair that so thoroughly colored the original. “Dallas,” always an epic tragedy, has learned important contemporary tricks from “Desperate Housewives” (from which it also borrows some of its new ensemble), “Revenge” and even some telenovelas, while mostly avoiding the pitfalls of the self-conscious camp displayed in ABC’s fizzled “GCB.”
The new version also has a healthy respect for the general “Dallas” canon, embracing 13 years of convoluted story lines and long-gone characters instead of pretending the whole mess never happened. Not only is Hagman back as J.R. (a miracle of modern medicine), but Patrick Duffy is also back as Bobby and Linda Gray returns as Sue Ellen. True, they’re all a lot older than you’d ever imagined them being, but nobody here pretends to be something they’re not. They’re just a bunch of ornery survivors.
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:
(two hours) premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on TNT.