TNT’s “Dallas” is a good show on the verge of becoming a great one. It has the potential to surpass the original “Dallas” in overall quality, much like “Star Trek: The Next Generation” is now more highly regarded than its 1960s precursor. Of course, it took Captain Picard and his crew awhile to hit their stride, and this new brood of Ewings is going to need time to find their bearings, too.
TNT has produced 10 one-hour “Dallas” episodes and will show them on Wednesday nights, beginning June 13. I’ve seen the first seven entries and was impressed with all of them, especially the pilot, “Changing of the Guard,” which beautifully captures the old “Dallas” spirit.
The episodes that follow are more of a mixed bag. Each one is solidly entertaining, with good performances and gorgeous cinematography (Rodney Charters, get your Emmy submission ready), but the pacing is a bit frenetic. The new show moves at the speed of Twitter, offering a torrent of plot twists that are genuinely surprising but leave the audience little time to get to know the characters.
Hagman Still Has It
Hands down, the best thing about the new show is the man who was the best thing about the old one: Larry Hagman, whose return as J.R. Ewing is everything I hoped it would be. The actor is now in his 80s and looks every bit of it, but as viewers will discover, Hagman still has it. Yes, the hair is thinner, the voice is raspier and the eyebrows are out of control, but the twinkle in Hagman’s eye hasn’t dimmed a bit.
To its credit, TNT doesn’t try to conceal Hagman’s age. In fact, the show seems to embrace it. In one scene in “Changing of the Guard,” director Michael M. Robin allows the camera to linger for a moment on J.R.’s wrinkled hands. It’s a small gesture, but at a time when television seems more obsessed with youth than ever, it’s downright bold.
In later episodes, the show deals with J.R.’s age rather playfully. At one point, the character begins using a walker – not because he needs it, but because he wants to make Bobby feel sorry for him. In another scene, we see J.R. shuffling around the Southfork kitchen in a cardigan sweater, making breakfast for Bobby and Ann, Bobby’s new wife. It seems like a warm moment, until you stop and realize the cuddly old man dishing up scrambled eggs is secretly plotting against everyone at the table.
Patrick Duffy, who returns as Bobby, uses his more “mature” appearance to his advantage, too. Duffy’s silver hair imbues Bobby with instant authority, allowing the actor to command every scene he’s in. Duffy has always been “Dallas’s” unsung hero, but now his gravitas is readily apparent. He makes a worthy heir to Jim Davis’s spot at the head of the Ewing dinner table.
The real revelation, though, is Linda Gray, who once again plays Sue Ellen. She doesn’t have nearly enough to do in TNT’s first seven episodes, but when Gray appears, she lights up the screen. The show has cast Sue Ellen in the role of elder stateswoman, but the truth is, Gray is still “Dallas’s” leading lady, even if the producers haven’t realized it yet.
Mr. Henderson, Presented
Among the new cast, no actor will be watched more closely than Josh Henderson, who portrays John Ross, J.R. and Sue Ellen’s son. I’m not going to make the inevitable comparisons to Hagman because, hey, there’s only one of him. Instead, I prefer to ponder Henderson’s similarities to another young actor who got his start at Southfork: Brad Pitt, who played a long-forgotten teenage character on “Dallas” a quarter century ago.
Henderson reminds me a lot of Pitt, not during his “Dallas” days but a little later, when he was making movies like “Thelma & Louise.” Like Pitt in that film, Henderson has an effortless, seductive charm. He is boyish and dangerous at once, and even when he’s up to no good, you can’t help but find him alluring. Maybe comparisons to Hagman aren’t so unfair after all.
I’m also impressed with the other members of TNT’s ensemble: Jesse Metcalfe, who delivers several moving performances as Christopher, Bobby’s strong-but-sensitive son; Brenda Strong, who is casually elegant as Ann; and Julie Gonzalo, who does a nice job keeping the audience on its toes in her role as Rebecca, Christopher’s mysterious fiancée.
My favorite newcomer, though, is Jordana Brewster, who plays Elena, the young geologist torn between John Ross and Christopher. Brewster carries herself with the same kind of confidence and youthful wisdom Victoria Principal did during the original “Dallas’s” earliest episodes. Brewster makes me care about Elena, even when the role is underwritten. This show is lucky to have her.
People Before Plots
While “Dallas’s” new actors are good, their characters need a little work. For example, I’m not sure why John Ross is so antagonistic, aside from the fact that’s what the narrative demands.
This is the classic trap soap operas fall into: The writers allow the plots to dictate the characters’ behavior, something the original “Dallas” skillfully avoided. Think about it: Unless you’re a “Dallas” diehard, you probably don’t remember the specifics of J.R.’s schemes, but chances are you haven’t forgotten about his relationships with his family.
The new show hasn’t quite figured out viewers care more people than plots. The twist-a-minute storytelling style doesn’t give the new characters time to become knowable, relatable people. It also leaves little room for warmth, which was such an important part of the fabric of the original series.
Bobby always forgave J.R. for stabbing him in the back because, well, they were brothers, and that’s what brothers do (on TV, at least). The new show emphasizes the rivalry between cousins John Ross and Christopher, but I never get the impression they feel anything for each other but animosity.
Honoring the Past
Cynthia Cidre, the creative force behind TNT’s “Dallas, has pledged to honor the original show’s history, and she mostly follows through. Cidre seems to understand the “Dallas” mythology, with its emphasis on the conflicts between conservation and capitalism and its depiction of modern people defending old values like land and family.
Cidre also upholds many of the longtime “Dallas” traditions. During the first few episodes, for example, we see a Southfork wedding, a Ewing barbecue and a black-tie ball. I’m also pleased to hear so many references to Principal’s character Pam, “Dallas’s” original heroine, as well as Jock and Miss Ellie (although I’m no fan of the cheap-looking portrait of Jim Davis and Barbara Bel Geddes that now hangs in the Southfork living room).
At other times, I wonder how closely this show’s writers watched the old “Dallas” episodes before they began cranking out their scripts. The TNT show’s major storyline revolves around John Ross’s fight to drill on Southfork’s Section 18, which we learn in the pilot is brimming with oil. Fine, but why not make it a battle over oil-soaked Section 40, which has been rooted in “Dallas” lore since the original show’s second season?
Mostly, the small stuff trips up the writers. Duffy’s character is referred to as “Robert James Ewing,” not “Bobby James Ewing,” as he was known throughout the original series. I’m the first to admit the overwhelming majority of viewers won’t notice or care, but details like this matter to me – especially when you consider the character’s name is the first line of the first episode of the first “Dallas” series. (Pam: “Bobby James Ewing, I don’t believe you!”).
And yes, I know the original “Dallas” didn’t always honor its own continuity, either. This is the show that infamously wrote off an entire season as Pam’s dream, after all. But this is also why TNT’s “Dallas” should work harder to avoid flubs. The new series shouldn’t be content to be as good as the old one. It should strive to be better.
My gut tells me that’ll happen, and I’m sure I’ll one day remember TNT’s “Dallas” as fondly as I recall the show that spawned it. But first, the writers need to slow things down and pay a little more attention to their characters – and for goodness sakes, learn their names!