'Dallas': Back in the saddle again on TNT
As the world gets ever more complex, maybe it's time for TV to take us back to the basics of American life -- to a time when family members ate together, worked together, played together, stayed together.
We're not thinking of TV families like the Waltons or the Huxtables. We're thinking of the tube's most iconic clan -- the kin that dreamed together, schemed together, backstabbed, blackmailed and betrayed each other.
Yes, the Ewings are back -- bigger, bolder, badder than ever. TNT launches a fresh season of "Dallas" Wednesday (9-11 p.m.), with a new generation of dreamer-schemers joining some familiar faces back at Southfork Ranch.
Just don't call TNT's new "Dallas" a remake of CBS' 1978-91 smash.
"It's a continuation," drawls Larry Hagman, now 81 and back playing J.R. Ewing, the cowboy-hatted oil baron and all-around skunk America loves to hate. "It's not a remake," insists Hagman by phone. "Patrick Duffy calls it the 14th season."
"It's as if you didn't watch it for 20 years, and then discovered all of a sudden that we'd been doing 'Dallas' all that time," says Duffy, 63, returning as J.R.'s do-good brother, Bobby -- the one killed off the show when Duffy left in 1985, only to return at Hagman's urging a year later (stepping out of the shower one morning to turn the entire season in between into wife Pam's "dream").
Josh Henderson plays J.R.'s son, John Ross, a character seen on CBS' series as a child and teen, but now an adult wildcatter himself, eager to match daddy's exploits. Like TV father Hagman, who grew up in nearby Fort Worth, Henderson is a native Texan, raised in Dallas. He's too young to remember much of the CBS run, but "my memaw," he says, "that was her favorite show. I knew how big of an impact the show 'Dallas' had on the city and the state of Texas, and the world, really. And television history."
Indeed, people who know little of "Dallas" know "Who shot J.R.?" -- a pop-culture phenomenon with its own Wikipedia page. Hagman's devious character took bullets in the third-season finale, establishing the concept of the season-ending cliffhanger. By the time the culprit was revealed eight months later, viewers around the world had worked themselves into a frenzy of speculation.
Can TNT's new "Dallas" top that? "Pretty much every episode ends with somewhat of a cliffhanger," says Henderson (the WB's "Pop Stars," FX's Iraq War drama "Over There"). Wednesday's premiere hour climaxes with Henderson smooching somebody smack-dab on the 50-yard line of Cowboys Stadium.
'Fun to watch' and funny, too
"Dallas" showrunner Cynthia Cidre couldn't resist the improbable shot. "We're trying to keep it as a grounded family drama," says the veteran writer-producer ("The Mambo Kings"), "but with some pumped-up events, so it's fun to watch. It has to be written, directed, acted understated, because some of the events are so big."
And so funny. TNT's "Dallas" has a wittier sense of humor, giving Hagman many chances to chomp the scenery. "We have four comedy writers in the room," Cidre says. "People who write comedy know it derives from human behavior. If you're good at that, you actually know people, which is what I'm looking for."
Cidre's "Dallas" gets deeper into its characters, especially the women. Back when J.R. and Bobby clashed on CBS, wives Sue Ellen and Pam served mostly as depressed doormats.
Not this time, says Jordana Brewster ("The Fast and the Furious"), who plays John Ross' girlfriend, Elena. She's a sci-tech whiz and former flame of his cousin-rival, Bobby's son, Christopher, who's developing clean-energy sources. Watching old episodes, Brewster noticed "one plotline was whether Pam should work, and Bobby didn't want her to. You could never do that today. These women are very layered and very complex. Ann definitely wears the pants in her relationship with Bobby sometimes."
She's no desperate housewife
Bobby's new wife, Ann, is played by Brenda Strong, who's just thrilled to be alive in this show, after being the dead mom on "Everwood" and the dead neighbor on "Desperate Housewives." But her surname is certainly apt, too. "The producers wanted a certain quality of strength and dynamism that would match Bobby Ewing," says Strong, who grew up in the country in Oregon. "They were looking for someone who could look good on a horse and in boots."
Expect more nuance in TNT's update. "There's a lot more gray area in the new series," says Jesse Metcalfe ("Desperate Housewives," "Passions"), who plays Christopher. "He's the good guy, yeah, but not as good as his father. He's ambitious, and ambition can lead you down some dark roads."
"There's a maturing of the audience now," says on-screen dad Duffy, "and we're not quite as bound by knee-jerk restrictions. We get a freedom of expression you couldn't even approach in the '70s and '80s." Expression extends to the visuals, too. TNT filmed the entire first season on location. CBS did only brief Texas exteriors before returning to Hollywood for the bulk of filming.
Could Hagman and "Dallas" be appreciated again the way they were back when? CBS' series ran 13 seasons (after a miniseries sometimes called a 14th season). It was Nielsen's No. 1 for three years (1981, 1982, 1984), spending 10 years in TV's top 30. Imagine if Hagman's J.R. gets another 13 seasons.
"Honey, I'll be 94 years old," Hagman drawls. "I can't wait."
Deep in the heart of Texas drama on the new 'Dallas'
BY DIANE WERTS, Special to Newsday
What drew record TV audiences to "Dallas" during its original CBS run from 1978 to '91?
Only backstabbings, blackmail, cheating, lying, drunkenness, double-dealings, nervous breakdowns, shootings and scheming relatives.
Here's a short-form primer on the plot that picks up Wednesday at 9 p.m. in TNT's current-day continuation.
Southfork Ranch, outside Dallas, was the nexus of conflict in the wealthy Ewing family. Daddy Jock, who'd discovered oil with old friend Digger Barnes, was turning over Ewing Oil to 40-ish oldest son, J.R., and 30-ish youngest son, Bobby. (Middle son, Gary, was off in California, in CBS' "Knots Landing" spinoff.)
All the Ewings lived at Southfork together, clashing constantly. J.R. would do anything for power and money, while Bobby, who'd married Digger's daughter, Pam, always tried to take the high road. J.R.'s corporate ruthlessness made him many enemies, and his constant affairs angered his long-suffering wife, Sue Ellen, now caring for baby John Ross Ewing III.
"Who Shot J.R.?" became a worldwide sensation after 1980's third-season finale, when an unseen attacker fired bullets into J.R. late one night in his Dallas office. (It turned out to be Kristin, Sue Ellen's younger sister and onetime J.R. plaything.) But he was soon back to his business rivalry with Pam's brother, Cliff Barnes. Then daddy Jock died (when actor Jim Davis did). Widowed mom, Miss Ellie, married wealthy Clayton Farlow. Bobby and Pam broke up, got back together and adopted Christopher before Bobby was killed in a car wreck! (Patrick Duffy left the show.)
But not for long. Bobby was resurrected a year later (1986), when the entire previous season was declared nothing but Pam's dream (after Larry Hagman talked Duffy into coming back to the show). But again the reunion wasn't for long. Pam left town (when Victoria Principal left the show). J.R. would lose control of Ewing Oil as Sue Ellen planned various acts of vengeance, and Bobby got sick of the whole business.
Bobby did, however, end up owning Southfork, while rival Cliff Barnes held Ewing Oil. In 1991's series finale, a morose J.R. was drinking and playing with a pistol when a shot rang out -- and the show was over!
No wonder J.R. quips to Bobby's new wife, Ann, in TNT's June 20 episode, "Bullets don't seem to have much of an effect on me, darlin'."