When you’re watching a show in which a character says, “Blood may be thicker than water, but oil is thicker than both” and then minutes later adds, “I hate to hit a man below the belt, but you know I will,” it can mean only one thing: J.R. Ewing and Dallas are back.
Yes, the fighting, fussing, fornicating, finagling first family of Texas has returned to steal, murder or ravish everything it missed during the show’s original 1978-1991 run — the longest of any nighttime soap opera in TV history except its own spinoff, Knot’s Landing.
Executive producer Cynthia Cidre is billing the show as a reboot rather than a remake, and that’s an apt description. Several of the original cast members — notably Larry Hagman as bad-brother J.R., Patrick Duffy as sort-of-good-brother Bobby and Linda Grey as J.R.’s nice-to-meet-you-wanna-sleep-with-me? ex-wife Sue Ellen — are present.
But so are a collection of younger stars playing the next generation of Ewings, including Josh Henderson (Desperate Housewives) as J.R.’s son John Ross, Jesse Metcalfe ( John Tucker Must Die) as Bobby’s adopted son Christopher and Jordana Brewster ( The Fast and the Furious) as the ex-girlfriend of both of them.
As this Dallas opens about 20 years down the road from the original, mortality is very much on everybody’s mind. Bobby is suffering from intestinal cancer, J.R. from a clinical depression so severe he’s nearly catatonic. And Bobby, worried that their deaths will set off a family feud for control of the family ranching empire like the one that he fought with J.R. for many decades, has decided to sell it to a nature conservancy.
Too late! John Ross, secretly drilling for oil on the ranch in defiance of the terms of his grandmother’s will, has just had a major strike that will be lost if the land is turned into a park. But Christopher, who thinks he found a way to meet the world’s energy needs by extracting it from the ocean floor, could use the money from a sale to finance the necessary new technology.
So the battle is on. The possibility of fraudulently screwing the rest of the family out of a fortune wakes J.R. right up. (“Courts are for amateurs and the faint of heart,” he advises his son.) Conspiracies, counter-conspiracies and counter-courter-conspiracies are launched from all sides — practically everybody in this Dallas is a liar or a con man. The script is short on laughs, but I certainly got a big one from the little note that TNT put in with my review-copy DVDs, asking me not to reveal any spoilers. I couldn’t possibly spoil more than about 15 seconds of this show, because that’s how long it takes for the plot to turn 180 degrees.
You don’t need a lot of background from the original show to understand or enjoy — using the word loosely — this Dallas. In fact, ignorance may be bliss: You won’t be troubled by rips in the space-time continuum like Bobby Ewing’s death in the eighth season and return to life in the 10th. (It was all a dream. Really. I’m not making that up.) Or how Sue Ellen is running for governor in this version, after 14 seasons as a homicidal, drunken, promiscuous psychopath in the first one. (Depending on party affiliation, insert your own George Bush and/or Lyndon Johnson joke here.)
Cidre, the Havana-born and Miami-bred executive producer, has written some intelligent soap operas during her time, including the Cuban family dramas Mambo Kings and Cane. This isn’t one of them. Like its ancestor, the new Dallas is self-consciously a trashfest, an endless cycle of betrayals, confrontations, reconciliations and re-betrayals.
Some of the show’s conceits — particularly the main one, that rich people make most of their money by stealing it — may play well in today’s it’s-all-the-1-percent’s fault political climate. Others — including the preference of oil oligarchs to have sex with their clothes on, which I had always assumed was a concession to the network censors of the 1980s, but which gets elevated to anthropological status here — seem more dubious.
The sex-in-my-Armanis business is symptomatic of what may prove a larger problem for Dallas. Cheating on a spouse was scandalous stuff in the 1980s; now, unless there’s a barnyard animal or two involved, it may seem pretty tame to audiences jaded by decades of teenage three-ways, transgender hookers and self-circumcisions that have become the common currency of nighttime soaps. And who cares about fictional betrayals when you can see a Real Housewives cast slapping one another around at any time of the day or night on cable? Poor J.R.: In his old age, he’s in danger of becoming respectable.