NEW YORK — "I hate to hit a man below the belt, but you know I will," says J.R. Ewing. "No hard feelings."
No hard feelings at all, J.R. We're just feeling thrilled to have you back.
And as he resumes his special grade of sweet-crude villainy, TNT's resurrection of "Dallas" does the near-impossible. It reclaims the soapy and sinister charm that made this saga a hit for 14 seasons until relinquishing its hold on CBS' Friday lineup in 1991. And it ushers in a new generation of at-odds characters to supplement such timeless personalities as J.R. (Larry Hagman), his former wife Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) and his ever-upright brother Bobby (Patrick Duffy), while folding in contemporary plot lines, notably the push by Bobby's son Christopher to profit big from renewable energy – which, of course, is heresy to J.R. and his own son John Ross, whose veins flow with oil.
All this awaits viewers on the back-to-business "Dallas" (with a two-hour premiere Wednesday at 9 p.m. EDT).
But wait! There's even more to look forward to: J.R., undiminished by the passing years, is meaner and more diabolical than ever.
"In my wildest imagination," Bobby's wife Ann (played by Brenda Strong) wails at him, "I never dreamed you would stoop to this," to which J.R. advises, "Well, you're just gonna have to work on your imagination."
As the series begins, Bobby is preparing to sell Southfork to a conservancy that would guarantee the ranch's vast, pristine acreage can never be despoiled by oil rigs. Little does Bobby suspect that his nephew, John Ross, is already drilling Southfork land on the sly.
Across town, J.R., who since we last saw him lost Ewing Oil and much of his fortune, resides in near-catatonic gloom at a retirement facility.
But never fear: News that Southfork is about to be sold jolts J.R. back to gleeful, vengeful life. His cold hawk eyes glisten. His tufted eyebrows rise like devil's horns. His wicked grin gleams.
"It feels like coming home," says Larry Hagman.
He's talking about the new "Dallas" and the opportunity to play J.R. again in the company of his "Dallas" pals.
The only thing bothering the 80-year-old TV legend right now: the salsa before him needs a little kick. "You got any hotter stuff?" he asks the waiter.
Hagman, his Stetson parked on the table by his plate, has joined Linda Gray and Josh Henderson, who plays their son, at a barbecue restaurant in midtown Manhattan to talk with a reporter about the show.
"It moves so quick," says Hagman with a chuckle, referring to the brisk pace and twisted narrative. "The old shows just drug along: long, long pauses; come in for a close-up where the actor's doing nothing. On THIS show, they don't waste any time!"
"The attention to detail, that's what impresses me," says Gray, still beautiful at 71. She speaks of a meeting early on with one of the producers, "and he said, `What do you think Sue Ellen should wear?' Most executive producers don't ask that. They leave it to the wardrobe people."
"Ohhhh, my God!" gasps Hagman, who has just sampled the revved-up salsa. "I need an Arnold Palmer to put that fire out!"
While Hagman douses his flaming tonsils, Gray needs minimal prompting to describe the day she met him some 35 years ago.
"It was at Warner Bros. in Burbank," she says, "with the `Dallas' cast in this little room sitting around a table for our first meeting. And he walks in, this man with a cowboy hat, and I thought, `What's this?' To me, he was still the astronaut from `I Dream of Jeannie.' Then he looked at me and he went, `Hello, darlin'.' And that was it: I thought, Oh, darn, this is gonna be fun."
"She THREW herself at me!" Hagman breaks in. "She'd had a couple of glasses of champagne already, and she put her arms around me and said, `I'm your WIFE!'"
"Where do you come up with these stories?" Gray says.
"My way is better," he replies.
"We had the best time, we were all such tight friends!" Gray recalls. "So we were wondering what would it be like with the new cast members: Would they fit in?"
They include Jordana Brewster, Julie Gonzalo and Jesse Metcalfe (who plays Christopher), as well as Henderson.
"They're not just pretty people," Gray says she swiftly concluded. "They're pretty AND they're talented, and lovely human beings."
Henderson confesses to his own concerns on joining the ensemble.
"I was a little intimidated the first day when Larry came on set. When J.R. came alive it took the whole room by storm. But once we had that first scene together, I was completely excited about what would be unfolding between us. And same with her," he goes on, nodding toward Gray. "Linda was just the sweetest, sweetest woman EVER when I met her. But being in those scenes with Sue Ellen ...." He shakes his head with mock-consternation. "It was scary, meeting J.R. and Sue Ellen!"
Henderson is known for playing the bad-boy nephew of Nicolette Sheridan on "Desperate Housewives" and his starring role on the 2005-06 FX drama series "Over There" as a soldier wounded in the Iraq war.
Born in Dallas 30 years ago and raised in Tulsa, Okla., he was familiar with "Dallas" from his childhood.
"I don't really remember watching it, because I was so young, but I knew it was a big deal. My meemaw watched it every week, and my aunt, who had kids in sports playing on Friday nights, saved up money to buy a VCR, which cost $1,000 in those days, to record `Dallas' while they went to the kids' games. That's how important `Dallas' was to them."
It's almost impossible to explain how important "Dallas" was, especially in its first years, to viewers then.
It was epic, ostentatious, outrageous and addictive. And then, on the final hour of its second season, it threw the audience a curve unlike anything viewers had experienced before or since: J.R., the show's central figure, was shot by an unknown assailant and left for dead on the floor in his office.
All summer and into the fall, a maniacal guessing game seized the nation: Who shot J.R.? Nearly every character on the show had ample reason to want him killed. But which of them had taken the homicidal initiative? On Nov. 21, 1980, some 80 million viewers massed in front of their TVs to learn the truth: It was Kristin, J.R.'s scheming sister-in-law and mistress.
For "Dallas" devotees, J.R.'s history of sins waged on everyone around him remains holy writ. How cool to see him picking up right where he left off!
"The main thing that will draw fans back is the original stars," says Henderson. "You can't be `Dallas' without them. But I think the old audience will be intrigued by the question, Who is John Ross now, as an adult? How has his relationship with his parents affected him?"
The short answer: Thanks to a solid portrayal by Henderson, John Ross is cocky, angry, cagey and relentless, yet somehow appealing.
Sue Ellen, who has come a long way from her rock-bottom days of boozing and madness, is on track to be the governor of Texas, and she wants to atone for past maternal neglect by helping her son. But on "Dallas," any alliance can be fleeting and subject to betrayal by the next commercial break.
J.R., too, makes a grand show of reaching out to his long-estranged son. But as much as John Ross wants to close ranks with J.R. against Christopher and Bobby, he realizes he can't trust his father any more than anyone else does: "He knows he has to stay two or three steps ahead of J.R.," says Henderson, "which is very tough to do."
Thus does "Dallas" lovingly honor its grand heritage, including the proud theme music and opening titles, with their shifting panels of updated Texas imagery. But the new show acknowledges the passage of time. Texas wealth is still flaunted, but Texas swagger has a streak of defensiveness. The modern world this "Dallas" occupies has doubts and limitations.
In short, "Dallas" 2.0 is poised to please old-timers and newcomers alike – and get them stirred up.
"Viewers are gonna talk about it," Gray predicts. "They're gonna tweet! They're gonna Facebook!"
"I try to keep her up on her Twitter," notes Henderson.
"He does," Gray says. "FF! LOL!"
"I won't do it!" Hagman tells her. "You say one thing and a billion people know about it. I'd just rather not, because I'm a little voluble on occasion."
"But in the crazy Twitter world," says Henderson, "people at companies will pay you big dollars to tweet, `Hey, I like this new product, blah blah blah.'"
"You get PAID for twittering?" says Hagman, amazed. "Why didn't somebody tell me this before?!"
"Product endorsements!" Gray says. "They pay you for them! You could go on and say, `I always wear my Stetson!'"
"Oh, my God!" says Hagman, mulling the possibilities. "We'll talk!"
"We made a deal," laughs Henderson, "right here at this table."
"They're my boys!" Gray declares with pride.
EDITOR'S NOTE – Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier