I finally caught the “Dallas” reboot (Wednesdays at 9 on TNT) last night on DVR — busy week — and though thoroughly prepped for disappointment, was delighted to find a tightly paced, deftly edited take on one of my all-time favorite shows that struck a perfect balance between edgy/hip/new and familiar/nostalgic/endearing.
Which is saying a hell of a lot — classic franchise reboots are notoriously hard to pull off. They always sound good on paper but when a show takes on a life of its own and becomes a cultural touchstone, as the ’78-’91 classic installment did, it’s practically impossible to catch lightening in a bottle twice. Who knows if it will last, but this week’s two-hour pilot did everything it needed to do to relaunch the series in a gripping, promising way. It’s light years better than “J.R. Returns” (1996) and “War of the Ewings” (1998), the two TV movies that continued the storyline and thankfully removed the bitter aftertaste left by the show’s bizarre 1991 finale (“Conundrum”) in which Joel Gray appeared in an “It’s a Wonderful Life” takeoff that ended with a shoddily ill-conceived cliffhanger with supernatural overtones.
So it’s thrilling to see the old warhorse, which struggled mightily in both quality and ratings its last few seasons, doing well — 6.9 million viewers tuned in to this week’s launch making it the most-watched scripted cable series so far this year and outranking anything the regular networks had in its time slot.
Twin heartthrobs Josh Henderson and Jesse Metcalfe play Ewing offspring John Ross (J.R. and Sue Ellen’s son) and Christopher (Bobby and Pam’s son) all grown up. One can’t help but wonder, of course, what became of Ormi Katz and Joshua Harris, the two actors who played the characters for years as kids on the original show, but their absence is quickly forgotten as Henderson and Metcalfe are so easy on the eyes and good actors too.
John Ross wants to drill for oil on Southfork Ranch against the wishes of Miss Ellie’s will. Christopher is pursuing an alternative energy venture that has had devastating consequences in Asia. He’s about to get married at the ranch to Rebecca (Julie Gonzalo). His old flame Elena (Jordana Brewster) is now dating John Ross. It’s a clever premise reviving a theme from the original series — early in the show, one of JR.’s deals left the family in a precarious spot financially and Miss Ellie had reluctantly agreed to let them drill on the ranch, something she’d never wanted to do. At the 11th hour, they didn’t have to.
The older generation is still kicking, though barely in some cases. Bobby (Patrick Duffy) is battling a cancer diagnosis (he’s married now to a third wife, Ann, played by Brenda Strong) and J.R. is in a nursing home suffering from depression. Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) is also in the cast. Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval) will be in future episodes. Ray Krebbs (Steve Kanaly) and Lucy Ewing (Charlene Tilton) are sadly reduced to cameos. Let’s hope if the show is a hit, they’re invited back and fleshed out. Tilton, especially, is a fan favorite from years ago. I never had Lucy’s hair but I did appreciate her taste in men — from gay Kit Mainwaring to her hunky doctor husband Mitch (Leigh McCloskey).
“Dallas” 2012 works for several key reasons — one, it’s been long enough now since the original show ended, that it feels fun, not tired, to revisit these characters. Nobody can say how long has to pass for such things to make sense, but pop culture very much unofficially dictates there has to be significant time — decades — before such ideas can float. “J.R. Returns” and “War of the Ewings,” while fun to watch, felt like everyone was beating a dead horse, and few horses were more dead than “Dallas” in its last couple regular seasons when most of the original cast had either long defected or were reduced to glorified cameos or mentions. The reboot, however, manages to revive the long-dormant excitement the show lacked in its final years by casting charismatic young actors in the key roles — Henderson and Brewster especially stand out — but having enough of the original cast around to keep it all grounded in authenticity. Using the original Texas-based exteriors, where several reunions have taken place over the years, is as key as the presence of Hagman, Duffy and Gray.
Sadly, but unsurprisingly, Victoria Principal (whose Pam was the original series’ central character in its early years) is a no show. She hasn’t fully shunned the show that made her famous — she showed up for a classic Vanity Fair photo shoot in the mid-’90s and for the 2004 “Return to Southfork” reunion (which featured cast members in a non-scripted format appearing as themselves), but has eschewed any thoughts of reviving her role. She told Ultimate Dallas (ultimatedallas.com, the amazingly thorough fan site) a few years ago the notion seemed rather absurd this many years later. Even so, she was never as chummy with the rest of the cast (Hagman, Duffy and Gray are close friends in real life and gathered regularly even before the show relaunched).
If Principal seems only vaguely interested — Duffy told TV Guide last week they talked by phone recently and she wished him the best on the new show — she’s still more involved than the late Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie) was in her final years. Not only did she sit out the last season (having left once before but come back), she was a no-show for both the TV movies, the Vanity Fair photo shoot and the 2004 reunion (she may have been ill for the latter — she died of cancer in 2005). She wasn’t, however, entirely reclusive in her later years — she did memorable commentary for a “Vertigo” restoration (she played Midge in the ’58 Hitchcock classic) in ’96. It’s a shame. She and Howard Keel (whose Clayton Farlow was a staple for 10 seasons), now both dead, would have been great additions to the Vanity Fair gathering. People always remember Jock (the late Jim Davis), but Clayton was on the show far longer.
The key to the new show’s success will be the degree to which it manages to maintain this delicate balancing act of old and new. Focus too much on J.R., Sue Ellen and Bobby and it looks like a Motown revival tour. But conversely, if the younger cast gets all the air time, there’s no anchor to the past. The scenes in which the two generations interacted were the best on Wednesday’s premiere — Hagman, who at age 80 has lost none of the lip-smaking relish he brought to what should have been an Emmy-winning role, plays especially well with Henderson, whose John Ross is presented as a manipulative chip off the old block.
A short scene by the Southfork pool with Henderson and Gray was the debut’s best. As Sue Ellen offered her son her support in the never-ending battle over the land (a recurring theme in the original series), Gray’s delivery crackled with tension. She looks amazing. Her icy glares shoot the same daggers they did all those years on the original series.
There were a few shoddy elements — the soundstages that are supposed to be the Southfork interiors lack both the floorplan and dimensions of those of the old show (which themselves did not match the interiors or layout of the real Southfork ranch where the exteriors have always been filmed) — but where it really counts, the new “Dallas” works. Even the opening credits, featuring a savvy twist on the original montage and a deliciously effective re-orchestration of the show’s majestic theme music, work.
It’s off to as solid a start as could possibly be expected.