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'Dallas' premiere recap: The Ewings are comic gold

Larry Hagman as J.R Ewing and Josh Henderson

Larry Hagman as J.R Ewing and Josh Henderson as John Ross Jr. in “Venomous Creatures." Credit: TNT

On the prime-time soaps episode of PBS' “Pioneers of Television” series, Larry Hagman notes that he approached “Dallas” as a cartoon. The man did — and does, in the current season — play his J.R. as much for laughs as to move the plot. Hagman never takes himself too seriously, which allows the show to reflect societal flaws without being preachy. I find this more truthful than the more melancholic soaps out there (looking at you, “Girls"), as fun house mirrors reveal flaws in unexpected places.

Of course you do have to take the so-bad-it's-good with the just plain bad, as when Elena (Jordana Brewster) utters the cross-stitched favorite “Life is what happens when you're making other plans.” But all that is surely whisked away by the many J.R. nuggets. Lamenting the employment of male secretaries at Ewing Energies he observes, “Now where's the sport in that?”

The bittersweetness of Monday's double-episode premiere -- "Battle Lines” and “Venomous Creatures" -- is that Hagman is dead. (The actor shot several episodes before his Nov. 23 death, and the show, reportedly, will air a J.R. funeral episode March 11.) "Dallas” has other strong villains in John Ross Ewing and Ryland Harris, but at J.R.'s core was an unmatched understanding of the inherent selfishness of the humans around him. He exploits this again and again, notably in “Venomous Creatures” when he blackmails the state attorney to drop charges against Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) thanks to photos of the attorney with women other than his wife.

The younger characters (and, in some cases, the actors) are still generally the weakest in town, but “Dallas” expands its elder cast with the addition of Judith Light ("Who's the Boss?") as Harris' mother. The tradition of trolling TV's files for talent just ads to the fun, and Light, dressed in a billowy shirt built for two and an updo two stories high, holds promise as an ice-queen grandmother. Every serial should have one.

“Dallas” mines another favorite — the Ewing boys wrestling for control of the company — as John Ross works with Rebecca Sutter (nee Pamela Rebecca Barnes). John Ross succeeds in aligning himself with Christopher's ex to nullify the potential for an annulment and promises Rebecca shares of Ewing Energies. Henderson and his John Ross remain the strongest of the next generation of Ewings: Jesse Metcalfe plays Christopher far too straight, and Brewster's Elena constantly looks in need of a good neck massage. Julie Gonzalo's Rebecca is somewhere in the middle.

“Dallas” smartly continues to balance the kids' issues with the adults', and Bobby (Patrick Duffy) remains an astute white hat-wearing investigator as he uncovers what exactly happened to his wife Ann's (Brenda Strong) child. All Ann knows is that the girl was taken at 18 months; Emma, Bobby discovers while Ann is bedridden with the help of injectable sleeping aids, was raised by Ma Ryland. Ann, who has spent decades pining for her beloved daughter, will surely need something stronger when she gets the news.

But, as John Ross tells us early in the season premiere, “Love is for [wimps].” Not the most clever line, true, but pretty funny.


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