Return to Southfork

Our favorite feuding oil family is back—and better than ever.

June 2012By Comments

Photograph by Mark Seliger

Watch a few hour-long drama series on television, and you’ll quickly get a sense of the categories that define most shows these days. First, there are the grisly, twitchily edited procedurals, like The Mentalist and the CSI franchise. Then there are the portentous prestige projects, like Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire, which, even when they’re excellent, can make you feel as if you’re being force-fed your vegetables. And then there are the winking soap operas, like Desperate Housewives and GCB, which are so cloyingly clever and self-conscious that they obviate any emotion.

So it comes as a surprise to discover that the resurrection of Dallas—premiering this month on TNT and scheduled to run for ten episodes—is actually none of the above. Right from the opening credits, with that familiar bah-baaa-bah-BAAA theme music and the images of gleaming skyscrapers and verdant ranches once again splitting and multiplying on the screen, it’s evident that the producers of this series are here to praise the original show, not bury it. Settle back on your couch, and that initial surprise gives way to giddy pleasure. The new Dallas strikes a precise balance: knowing but never campy, overheated and over-plotted yet also fundamentally earnest. Which is to say, it strikes exactly the same balance as the old Dallas. Like Bobby Ewing stepping out of the shower and telling us it was all a murky dream, the show disregards the past two decades’ worth of Dallas copycats and borrowers—from Melrose Place to Grey’s Anatomy to Downton Abbey—and pretends the Age of Irony never descended. The result is a throwback whose old-school showmanship sets it apart from everything else on the air.

Conceived by Cynthia Cidre (the originator of the first show, David Jacobs, maintains a “created by” credit), Dallas also avoids the route taken by most TV show remakes—whether Battlestar Galactica, The Bionic Woman, or Hawaii Five-O—which recast actors in parts that are already entrenched in our memory. (A film version of Dallas, which appeared to be on the verge of production in the mid-aughts, would have cast John Travolta as J. R. Ewing and sounded like an exercise in postmodern pop mockery, à la the big-screen reboots of The Stepford Wives and Bewitched. It was never made.) Instead, we find ourselves back on Southfork Ranch twenty years or so after we last dropped in. Christopher Ewing (Jesse Metcalfe), the adopted and now grown son of Bobby, is on the verge of marrying Rebecca Sutter (Julie Gonzalo), having been jilted years earlier by Elena Ramos (Jordana Brewster), the cook’s daughter who is now dating John Ross Ewing III (Josh Henderson), the only child of J.R. and Sue Ellen. Lest this not sound soapsudsy enough for you, the pilot episode also reveals that Bobby (Patrick Duffy) has stomach cancer, that John Ross has discovered what appears to be a billion (!) barrels of oil on the never-
before-drilled Southfork property, and that J.R. (Larry Hagman) has been holed up in a nursing home but is determined to bust out and get back to his dastardly old ways.

Even if the story lines tend toward the cheesy—Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) is back too and apparently about to launch a campaign for Texas governor—Cidre understands that characters this iconic don’t need fussy reinvention; they need to be let loose. It’s as if the Ewings weren’t fictional at all and just kept carrying on after the original show ran its course. Of the veteran actors, Hagman clearly seems to be having the hammiest time—his unruly old-man eyebrows are so perversely theatrical that they deserve their own category at the Emmys—but the actor deftly keeps his performance from turning into a joke. Midway through the third episode, when Ken Kercheval waddles onto the screen as Cliff Barnes, back in Dallas possibly to conspire with Bobby or Sue Ellen against J.R., Hagman’s eyes lock onto his old rival’s, and several generations’ worth of enmity and bitterness pour forth. The phrase “grumpy old men” doesn’t even describe the half of it.

Make no mistake, though: this Dallas isn’t drowning in nostalgia. The show has a wit, a grit, and an imagination that feels entirely modern. Much of this has to do with the decision by the producers to film the entire run of the season in Big D, unlike the mostly Hollywood-shot original (see “Shoot J.R. Here”). Among other recognizable locations, we visit the downtown bar the Cedars Social, AT&T Plaza, and even one of Jerry Jones’s luxury suites at Cowboys Stadium. (Jones turns up for a cameo, introducing J.R. to the crowd on the stadium’s 2,100-inch HD video screen.) A family that always seemed so emblematic of a bigger-shinier-slicker Dallas now looks like it really is a part of the city’s social fabric.

The scripts for the new show, too, have a verisimilitude that I’m not sure the original series ever approached. As John Ross engineers an elaborate scheme to claim Southfork as his own, the characters toss off oil-and-gas industry terms like “fracking” and “renewable energy” and “methane extraction” with unassuming ease. Perhaps most critical to the show’s success is the house-on-fire performance of Henderson, a Dallas-
born actor best known until now for a season-long arc on Desperate Housewives. Combining a peacock strut with an assassin’s cold stare—and just a hint of pretty-boy fragility—the performer tips his cowboy hat to the spirit of J.R. but also defiantly refuses to stand in anyone’s shadow.

I won’t suggest that Dallas is without its disappointments. Metcalfe, for example, is dismayingly weak as Henderson’s rival in love and oil; no matter how tightly he screws up his face in rage or jealousy, he comes off as a vapid youngster who hopes someone might regard him as a man. And at least judging by the first seven episodes sent to reviewers, Sue Ellen’s character doesn’t get nearly enough attention—a particular shame since Gray has cast off the Vicodin-eyed distraction of her last few seasons on the original show and looks like a woman reborn.

Yet considering how many ways an effort like this might have gone wrong, it’s hard not to just ignore the flaws and celebrate such an unexpected triumph. The original ran for 357 episodes, and in its most glorious stretches, such as when the fate of Southfork rested on the “Who shot J.R.?” question, it achieved a kind of purple-prose grandeur; it was as sprawling, enveloping, and unhinged a family saga as Anna Karenina, minus the philosophical longueurs and hard-to-pronounce Russian names. I pay this new Dallas the highest compliment possible when I say that it has the potential to be more of the same. 

Shoot J.R. Here: Let’s keep Dallas in Dallas

Although TNT has yet to announce whether it will renew Dallas for a second season, early buzz suggests it’s going to be a hit. That doesn’t mean filming would return to North Texas, however—especially considering that it’s typically cheaper to shoot on soundstages in California and that L.A.-based TV stars often prefer to work closer to home. (Nor was wooing the first season to town without controversy: the Dallas Observer’s Unfair Park blog reported that the owner of the production studio asked for a city-financed $235,000 upgrade to the space before filming began.) Still, the economic impact of another season would be considerable— according to the Dallas Film Commission, the show spent about $12.5 million locally during its eleven months of preproduction and production—so here’s hoping that the show stays. The value is evident in a series that reflects the character of the city far more exuberantly than any of the recent Dallas-shot misfires, like Chase or The Good Guys.

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