'Blood may be thicker than water, but oil is thicker than both."
For TV viewers of a certain grayed-at-the-temples vintage, this Texas-drawled declaration can only mean one thing: J.R. is back, and he’s just as corrupt, conniving and cantankerous as ever.
It’s true. The Ewings of Southfork — once television’s most-watched fictional family — have returned to prime time, in a made-for-U.S.-cable reboot of Dallas that will likely be embraced by the reduced-bus-fare crowd but largely ignored by anyone born later than the dawn of the ’80s.
It’s a new show, but this Dallas is definitely a throwback — to an era, an attitude and a narrative approach that have long since faded from the collective memory of the TV-watching world.
Its storylines are of the straight-ahead-soapy sort that hasn’t existed since the original Dallas and such prime-time serial contemporaries as Dynasty and Falcon Crest disappeared more than 20 years ago, but its most compelling stars are the holdovers from the original feuding-Ewings saga who have been brought back to anchor the story and show the young cast how this timewarped campy drama thing is done.
The new version of Dallas is supposedly focused on the new generation of Ewings — John Ross (Josh Henderson), the sneaky son of dastardly J.R., and Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe), the squeaky-clean stepson of ever-angelic Bobby.
But in the early going, at least, it’s Bobby (Patrick Duffy) and J.R. (Larry Hagman) who dominate, more by force of personality and reputation than by the share of script material they’re given. Hagman and, to a slightly lesser extent, Duffy remain larger-than-life characters who own every scene they’re in, while the younger actors deliver decidedly more life-sized and less impressive performances.
The storyline is straightforwardly pure Dallas, but in a 21st-century context — as tonight’s premiere opens, John Ross is heading up an oil-drilling crew that has just struck crude on a remote corner of the Ewings’ massive Southfork estate.
He and girlfriend Elena (Jordana Brewster) are giddy with excitement, but the fun won’t last, because Uncle Bobby’s going to be Texas-sized angry when he finds out that his vow to sainted mother Miss Ellie — that oil drilling would never happen on Southfork — has been broken.
Meanwhile, good-guy Christopher has just returned from China, where he has been researching eco-friendly ways to lead the Ewing empire into alternative-energy production.
At a family gathering, he learns two troubling truths about cousin John Ross — that he’s deep into the dirty-oil biz, and that he may have had a hand in Christopher’s painful parting from former fiancée Elena.
Bobby, who’s just received some alarming medical news that prompts an effort to restore family ties, goes to visit J.R. at an institution where he’s being treated for the deep clinical depression he’s been in since losing control of the Ewing empire. He tries to connect with his older brother, but J.R. remains motionlessly mute.
That changes, however, when John Ross drops by to complain about Bobby’s furious demand that the South Fork gusher be capped. When J.R. smells an opportunity to rekindle the mischief that tormented his sibling for so many years, he snaps out of his trance and springs (well, in as sproing-y a fashion as 80-year-old Hagman can muster) back into action.
By the first episode’s end, John Ross and Christopher are locked in an altercation that this new show’s producers clearly hope will grow to J.R./Bobby proportions. Unfortunately, neither Henderson nor Metcalfe carries the dramatic heft necessary to make this feud feel BIG.
Hagman, on the other hand, oozes pure, delightful evil — from the sneer on his lips right up to his bushy white eyebrows, which have somehow been trained to turn upward like a pair of devil horns. He’s clearly loving this opportunity to take J.R. once more around the track, and whether it’s in the new Dallas game plan or not, the success or failure of this series will depend more on the appeal of Hagman, Duffy and original castmate Linda Gray (as J.R.’s ex, Sue Ellen, who’s now running for state governor) than it will on the actors in the same age range as Dallas’s new target demographic.
The next-gen Ewing yarn is simply, silly, soapy fun. But unlike oil, which is as thick as J.R. describes, the chances of this series coming anywhere close to replicating the success of the original Dallas are really quite thin.