If you have fond memories of the high drama at those annual Ewing barbecues, then you’re likely to agree that the return of “Dallas” on June 13 just might be the most exciting television event of the year.
That may sound like an exaggeration, but consider the context: The original “Dallas,” which ran on CBS from 1978-1991, remains one of the most popular and powerful television series of all time. In terms of overall impact, not to mention audience size, there hasn’t really been a series like it since. Subsequent television sensations such as “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “The West Wing,” “The Sopranos” and “Lost” may have been pop culture phenomena of the highest order, but they didn’t permeate the zeitgeist in the way that “Dallas” did during the ‘80s -- and on Friday nights, no less! Everybody watched this show – or knew someone who did. The resolution of the legendary “Who Shot J.R.?” cliffhanger, on November 21, 1980, remains the second-highest rated episode of a television series in history, topped only by the series finale of “M*A*S*H” on February 28, 1983.
Given the outsized success CBS enjoyed for so long with this formidable franchise, which included two reunion movies in the ‘90s, one might think it would be the natural home for the new “Dallas,” which is not a remake or a reboot but an actual continuation of the original show, picking up the lives of the oil-rich Ewings in the present day. But as much fun as it might have been to once again have it back on Friday on the only broadcast network that currently knows how to attract an audience on that night, “Dallas” will instead be on TNT on Wednesdays as a midweek treat. (How interesting that it could only come back on basic cable. And yet how fitting, given the proud state of basic cable these days.)
I can’t say that I had been pining for the Ewings during the last 20 years, or that I missed the ongoing war for Ewing oil all that much. But five minutes into the first episode I was happily hooked all over again. That has a lot to do with the very smart decision to use Jerrold Immel’s iconic theme song -- one of the most distinctive in television history -- and an opening credit sequence that excitingly evokes the original. (I can’t help but think that the broadcast programming executives who have insisted on compromising TV theme songs and opening credit sequences during the last twenty years have done much to erode the emotional connection network programs used to establish with their viewers.)
The highest compliment I can pay to the new “Dallas” is to say that it comes across very much like the old, with a lot of digital technology in play and the occasional four-letter word and sex scene thrown in for contemporary consumption. (I actually think it could use more sex, or at least sexier sex scenes, but perhaps that’s coming.)
Three of the primary stars from the original are back as series regulars: Larry Hagman as ruthless oil tycoon J.R., Patrick Duffy as his nice guy brother Bobby and Linda Gray as J.R.’s formerly tormented ex-wife Sue Ellen, now a successful businesswoman with political aspirations. They aren’t just dressing up the background; all three have storylines of their own, and the perpetual conflict between J.R. and Bobby is as potent as ever. Ken Kercheval, Charlene Tilton and Steve Kanaly, reprising their roles as Bobby’s brother-in-law Cliff Barnes, J.R. and Bobby’s naughty niece Lucy and their half-brother Ray Krebbs, respectively, also appear in early episodes. There is no sign of Victoria Principal as Bobby’s ex-wife Pamela Barnes Ewing, who left the original series many years before its conclusion, but she is very often mentioned. Nor is there any mention of Ray’s wife, Jenna Wade (played by Priscilla Presley), or the other children J.R. and Bobby fathered along the way.
Despite the many familiar faces and pleasing nostalgia of it all, the “Dallas” of 2012 is largely powered by a new generation of Ewings who were children in the original: John Ross, the son of J.R. and Sue Ellen, and Christopher, the boy that Bobby and Pam adopted. (His birth mother was Sue Ellen’s sister, Kristin, the person who famously shot J.R. She ultimately drowned in the Ewing pool). Happily, the tension and animosity between these cousins runs as deep as the conflict between their fathers. John Ross (Josh Henderson) wants to drill for oil on Ewing land (something his grandmother, the late great Miss Ellie, was determined would never happen) while Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe) is all about developing alternative energy. They are also caught up in a romantic triangle of sorts, both having feelings for the same young woman.
The recent contemptuous continuations of “90210” and “Melrose Place” on The CW have been perfect arguments against reviving cherished franchises from the past. But the new “Dallas” proves that such shows can be highly entertaining if they are done right. What an unexpected pleasure -- and what a welcome reminder of the widespread excitement that a well-made, scripted broadcast series could once create. If “Dallas” works, is it too much to hope that a continuation of its spinoff, “Knots Landing,” might follow?