The TV landscape of recent years is littered with the carcasses of failed remakes, shows that attempted and failed to capture the nostalgia of the Generation X’ers who now make up the center of the coveted adults 18-49 demographic.
Networks have put on everything from “Charlie’s Angels” to “American Gladiators,” and very few of them have worked. “Battlestar Galactica” did work, but it did so by running away from the cheesiness of the original show and embracing the darkness of its premise. “Hawaii Five-0” has done well by acknowledging the old show without being too tethered to it.
TNT’s “Dallas,” though, is openly embracing the past. It’s not so much a remake or reboot as it is a sequel, with three original cast members from the hugely successful CBS soap playing prominent roles in the new one. For a show that is so etched in TV and pop culture — “Who shot J.R.?” is still the greatest cliffhanger of all time — that feels like the right way to go. It would be foolish to start from scratch, and if Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray were just there for cameos, viewers would probably feel cheated.
In terms of keeping fans of the first “Dallas” happy, TNT’s version succeeds — it even uses the same theme song and same design for the opening titles, down to the “Starring (in alphabetical order)” credits. The focus, though, is on a younger generation, and the stories of the younger Ewings aren’t as captivating initially as catching up with J.R. and Bobby.
“Dallas” 2012 focuses on John Ross Ewing (Josh Henderson), who begins Wednesday’s (June 13) series premiere by drilling for oil on Southfork — a Ewing family no-no dating back to the original series. Uncle Bobby (Duffy), who inherited the ranch and has designs on turning it over to a land conservancy, is naturally angry and orders the drilling stopped. A legal battle ensues on the eve of Bobby’s adopted son, Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe), getting married to his fiancee, Rebecca (Julie Gonzalo).
Christopher, like his dad, is an altruist and is looking for a breakthrough in alternative energy (there’s rather too much talk about methane extraction in the premiere). When it goes sideways, though, he’s looking to Southfork for salvation and not too thrilled with his dad’s conservation plans.
There’s also a love triangle: Christopher’s former fiancee, Elena (Jordana Brewster) — the daughter of the Ewings’ cook — is now with John Ross, even though it’s clear there are still unresolved feelings there (which Rebecca is either too dense to see or is willfully ignoring).
Brewster and Gonzalo are both underserved a little in the early going — their characters are there more to react to John Ross and Christopher as much as take any initiative themselves. The other newcomer, Brenda Strong as Bobby’s wife Ann, has a little more agency, digging into a secret her husband is keeping from her and chasing away an intruder with a shotgun.
But “Dallas” is still centered on the Ewing men — John Ross and Christopher are carrying the torches for their respective fathers, and because of that their conflict feels awfully familiar. It feels like a bit of a missed opportunity to have J.R.’s son as the hothead and Chris as the do-gooder; had it been the other way around, it could have added an extra level of familial tension.
Bobby has a pretty sizable role in Christopher’s life, but John Ross and J.R. (Hagman) are estranged. J.R. is now in a nursing home and seemingly pretty frail — but don’t let him fool you. He’s as devious and conniving as ever, and Hagman clearly relishes putting on the metaphorical black hat once again. “Bobby’s not stupid,” he says with a devilish grin late in the premiere, “but I’m a whole lot smarter.”
“Dallas” plays its twists and turns earnestly, which is also in keeping with the old show but a little bit out of step with the current, self-aware model of prime-time soap. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. A post-modern “Dallas” would likely have had a much higher degree of difficulty, and as such stood a much greater chance of both alienating old fans while failing to pull in many new ones. The new “Dallas” isn’t a game-changer, but it’s a solidly built, easy-to-take soap that does right by its predecessor.
“Dallas” premieres at 9 p.m. ET Wednesday on TNT with back-to-back episodes that run till 11:15 p.m.