So, Dallas is back.
I’ll cheerfully confess, I watched most of the first seven years or so of the original series back at the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s. In its heyday, it was something genuinely new and refreshing, a glossy soap with enough action drama to appeal across gender and even age lines largely thanks to the appeal of the iconic character of JR Ewing. Of course, it went into a nosedive after the infamous Shower Scene and the whole genre was dragged down into pastiche and self-parody by the likes of Dynasty that never even tried playing it straight, and so I can’t say I was really pining for its return any time soon. But return it has, and we have to deal with it. So what’s the 21st century version like?
First things first, it’s emphatically not a remake or a reboot: it’s a continuation but also a thorough update for modern times. No retro shoulder pads in evidence, this is as slick as anything else in the current schedules like Gossip Girl or Revenge. The show knows it needs to play the nostalgia card, but it also knows that can’t be all it has to offer: it has to compare well with the show’s great, great, great televisual offspring on its own merits.
So the good news is that it largely manages to successfully do just that. It looks really good, with extensive location shooting (the end of episode one is staged in the middle of the playing field at the Dallas Cowboy’s impressive NFL stadium) and impressive interior sets. There are some lovely shots of the huge Southfork estate and the return of the iconic ranch house (which together with the theme tune are perhaps the two much-have hold-overs from the old series to make a relaunch remotely credible.)
It’s chosen the three characters to retain from the original series (Patrick Duffy’s Bobby, Linda Gray’s Sue Ellen, and of course Larry Hagman’s JR) because they best fit within the dramatic set-up that follows, not just because old time viewers need to be placated – Ray Krebbs (Steve Kanaly) and Lucy Ewing (Charlene Tilton) by contrast get a two-scene cameo only, thank goodness. But the focus is really on the new, younger generation and in particular the show works by cannily centring on a “history repeating itself” feud between the sons of Bobby and JR, Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe) and John Ross (Josh Henderson) respectively. There’s even a battle over a woman, Elena (Fast and Furious star Jordana Brewster) that has a set-up reminiscent of the “Romeo and Juliet” Bobby-and-Pam mythic basis of Dallas’ original series premise back in 1978.
It’s slightly unfortunate that the two young male leads look rather too similar for comfort. Interestingly, both Metcalfe and Henderson are both alumni of Desperate Housewives, probably the closest recent show in tone and spirit to this new version of Dallas. If you liked that series then you’ll be able to transfer seamlessly to this. There’s even a third shared member of the cast in the form of Brenda Strong, here playing Bobby’s latest wife Ann.
Of the new cast, it’s Henderson who unexpectedly really impresses, managing to come across as staggeringly evil and manipulative with a youthful careless swagger and arrogant lack of underhandedness, while also displaying enough self-doubt and vulnerability to keep the character on the right side of believability without becoming a pantomime villain. That’s something that at the series’ height was a similar achievement by Larry Hagman: the two even share enough similar behaviour traits to make the father/son dynamic perfectly credible.
However, as good as Henderson (and also series veterans Duffy and the astonishingly well-preserved Linda Gray) are, they’re no match to the force of nature that is Larry Hagman. He’s kept inert and comatose in the early scenes – a nicely subtle, slow way of reintroducing the character – but once he’s reactivated by the prospect of more family feuding and backstabbing it’s like watching Frankenstein’s monster be galvanised by electricity and twitch into life to steal the rest of the film. With his well-known health issues over the years, Hagman’s undoubtedly aged: but the minute he turns on that devious sparkle in the eyes, it’s like watching the life force flood back in and swell him back up to twice the size of life, a remainder of what made Hagman and his dramatic creation such a phenomenon of its age.
So it’s a pretty decent start. But the pilot episode does have one big weakness – the script. Not the basic storylines or plots, or even characterisations – those were all fine enough, if understandably rudimentary at this stage. But if you’ve seen the promos and trailers for the show and noticed the way that they cut at random between key scenes and extract lines out of context for maximum promotional effect, then you have a sense of how choppy and fragmented the programme itself ends up being. There’s no flow to it, just artless cut-cut-cut between characters and plots at random with no build or time to allow impact. The show is so desperate to introduce its characters and lay out its wares at the first possible opportunity that it’s like a demented two year old in an ADHD spasm after consuming a pound of sugar.
Just look at the way the script throws away Sue Ellen’s entrance into the show; or how the wedding of Christopher and Rebecca is thrown away in three montage shots as an after thought to the episode, Weddings and barbeques used to the be the focus points of whole episodes if not entire seasons of the old show, milking each one for maximum dramatic effect and emotional angst. Here you’re left blinking wondering if it really happened or whether you just dreamed the whole thing; it totally lacks impact as a result.
There are signs that the show will succeed in calming down after this opening instalment. Even in the pilot, the episode found time for a couple of effective quiet moments such as Bobby’s airborne surveying of the rolling lands around Southfork, which really brought home his emotions at the decision to sell the ranch. Given time and a little more confidence of its own survival, the scripts will likely improve and find their own rhythm and pace in the coming weeks, in which case there’s enough in place with the rest of the treatment of this revival to think that this may well become a very solid series with a decent future.
Whether it will be anything more than an afterthought to the original in the annals of television history remains to be seen. But for now, the one thing that can be said is that it didn’t screw it up completely and dance on the grave of its forebear. And that in itself is no mean feat.
The ten-part first series of the Dallas revival airs on Wednesday evenings at 9pm on Channel 5. The DVD will be released in the UK on November 12 2012.