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matt zoller seitz

TV Review: Old Faces Outshine the New on TNT’s Dallas Reboot

The split-screened, wealth-drunk opening credits of TNT’s Dallas reboot got my blood pumping, and not just because I grew up in the title town and still feel a perverse pride in the spell that the show cast over America during my youth. The new show’s appeal is nostalgic in more ways than one. The daytime soap is almost extinct nowadays. Its DNA has been absorbed into pretty much every serialized drama on TV, including Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and other critical faves. But the ancestral version of the form still has a low charge; the buzz surrounding ABC’s Revenge and Scandal — poker-faced nighttime soaps that revel in sex, money, power, and stoooopid plot twists — prove it. There’s a place for cunning TV that aims only to entertain. Sometimes when you’re hungry you don’t want frog-leg risotto or farm-raised steamed halibut in beet sauce; you want barbecued beef on a paper plate, pink in the middle, with fries so greasy that their scent makes your heart shudder.

That was Dallas during its heyday: raw-meat melodrama, as bad for you as it was irresistible. The Ewings of Southfork were like a lusty cartoon version of the Texas oil clan in George Stevens’s Giant. The main bad guy, J.R. (Larry Hagman), even had the same initials as James Dean’s bad boy character Jett Rink and was one step up on the capitalist evolutionary ladder; he was less interested in drawing crude oil out of the ground than in processing and shipping it all over the world, and building Ewing Oil into a megacorporation to rival Exxon or Mobil. Well, that and getting laid with every big-haired vixen in North Texas. His moral counterweight, Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy), was as decent and compassionate as J.R. was ruthless, though he had his moments of weakness.  

Thankfully, both Hagman and Duffy are still around and alert, and their presence holds this new, mostly disappointing Dallas together. The Saltine cracker handsomeness that made Duffy a heartthrob in the Carter and Reagan eras has thickened and grayed and weathered, and the effects of age have made him much more appealing to watch. There’s a doleful heaviness to Bobby as he struggles to be a good husband to new wife Ann (Brenda Strong of Desperate Housewives) and protect the family legacy without doing bad things. He’s become the George Bailey of Southfork: the guy who stuck around and took responsibility for the crap jobs that everyone else was too pampered, selfish, or scattered to take on.

And J.R. is still formidable. Don’t be put off the opening minutes of tonight’s premiere, which delay J.R.’s reintroduction as if he were the Kurtz of the Lone Star state, then reveal him as a nearly immobile old man in an assisted living facility, so depressed by the loss of Ewing Oil that he can’t even speak. The promise of fresh intrigue awakens him soon enough, though, and he comes out of his torpor like a Lovecraftian monster rising from the ooze, his heat-miser eyebrows dancing.  

Hagman was always a terrific actor — the very idea that the same man could be both this show’s cowboy-hatted Richard III and I Dream of Jeannie’s affable Maj. Tony Nelson is staggering when you think about it; he pulled a Bryan Cranston before anyone had heard of Bryan Cranston — and he’s at the peak of his power here.  Bowing to the realities of age, the octogenarian J.R. seems to have channeled the remnants of his lust into business; he still surrounds himself with beautiful young women, but for the most part he regards them as art objects or warm-blooded signifiers of power, not too different from the handsome offices he inhabits and the shiny cars that chauffeur him around. But profit and domination still get J.R. hot and bothered. Whenever he has a chance to outwit or outplay a rival — especially a young one — his face lights up and the color returns to his cheeks. As was the case 30-some years ago, J.R. gets all the best lines on the new Dallas — Texas Machiavelli-isms such as, “Courts are for amateurs and the faint of heart,” and “Never pass up a good chance to shut up.” And he still radiates menace. There’s a moment in an upcoming episode when he shaves a much younger man with a straight razor while giving him advice; even though the kid in the barber chair is a regular cast member who can’t possibly die, every time J.R. flicked that blade, I squirmed in my seat.

If the rest of the show were as ferocious as Hagman or as endearing as Duffy, I’d be tempted to make a case for the new Dallas as some kind of low masterpiece. No such luck. Several original cast members return alongside Hagman and Duffy, including ranch manager Steve Kanaly as Ray Krebbs, Charlene Tilton as Lucy Ewing, and Linda Gray as Sue Ellen, but for the most part they’re relegated to the sidelines while the show focuses on the next generation of Ewings. That would be fine and dandy if these new, young characters weren’t written as glorified ingenues and played by TV-attractive but distressingly uncharismatic actors. 

Josh Henderson, who plays J.R.’s boy John Ross, is a white-bread hunk with faddish facial hair. He looks great with his shirt off, but where’s the animal magnetism that should verify his bloodline? This part needed a randy, feral stud, like Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise. Henderson is dull, dull, dull — nearly as stupefying as Jesse Metcalfe, who plays Bobby’s alternative-energy-activist son Christopher, but minus the compensatory trait of playing the Good One, which at least gives Metcalfe permission to present as a bit of a dishrag. There’s a promising hint of a love triangle involving John Ross, Christopher, and John Ross’s girlfriend Elena (Jordana Brewster), who was engaged to Christopher a few years earlier. Unfortunately, Brewster is just as pretty-but-bland as her male co-leads, snarling and fretting as a substitute for real intensity. And while the show makes a big deal out of Elena being the daughter of Southfork’s Mexican-American cook, it seems terrified of actually doing anything with this tidbit. Mexico is a more significant player here than it was on the original Dallas, a change befitting recent political developments, but there’s so little cultural specificity that the Ewings might as well be dealing with seventies OPEC types or sneering Frenchmen in berets.

The first few episodes of TNT’s reboot revolve around squabbles over the ownership of Southfork, Christopher’s embrace of an alternative-energy source that has serious safety downsides, and J.R.’s schemes to grab every dollar and acre for himself, but I can’t for the life of me remember specifics. I’d entertain arguments that this was true of the first Dallas’s plotting as well, if it weren’t for the fact that the original went off the air in 1988 1991 and I can still remember certain lurid moments as if they happened last week. As it happens, last week I watched the first few episodes of the new Dallas, and as I sit here writing I’ll be damned if I can recall anything that doesn’t involve Bobby’s pained smile or J.R.’s wicked grin. TNT needs to step up its game; prime time’s first family of dysfunction deserves better than this.

Photo: Martin Schoeller/TNT