Just as it makes sense for Netflix, the home of many kinds of niche fare, to fund a new season of "Arrested Development," it was smart of TNT, a very mainstream cable network, to revisit to the "Dallas" franchise. The network and the show, as evidenced by the pleasingly cheesy reboot that debuts with a two-hour episode 9 p.m. ET Wednesday, are a perfect fit.
TNT is all about satisfying most of the people most of the time, and the channel does a good job of churning out the kind of crowd-pleasing, reliably decent, not-too-challenging fare that the networks used to air two or three decades ago. That's not a dig; it's just a statement of fact to say that when you tune in to a TNT program, you know what you're getting and it'll probably be reasonably competent (which is more than I can say for a fair number of broadcast network shows, especially in the summer).
So for TNT to air a new version of the once-iconic "Dallas" makes a great deal of sense, even if I predict the audience for the 2.0 version of the soap will skew even older than the network's late, lamented "Men of a Certain Age." Let's face it, the demographic most desired by advertisers was probably in pre-school (if that) when J.R. was famously shot.
It'd be kind to say that cast members of the original "Dallas" (which ran from 1978 to 1991) Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy and Linda are "of a certain age," but it's probably more accurate to say they passed that age in the rearview mirror some time back. But Hagman and Duffy possess the kind of spark and on-screen chemistry that many of the show's new cast members don't really have yet, and Hagman in particular appears to be having the time of his life (the show is worth watching just to see the evolution of his magisterial eyebrows, which have more personality than some of the greener cast members).
The bottom line is this: If you want to tune in at least partly out of nostalgia for the old show, Hagman, Duffy and the efficiently soapy antics on "Dallas" will make it worth your while.
Other cast members turn up here and there as well (Linda Gray as Sue Ellen Ewing, most notably), but Hagman and Duffy make the strongest impression, which makes sense, given that the old "Dallas" was often about the battle for Southfork and the eternal struggle between J.R.'s greed and Bobby's attempts to be the better man. The executive producer of the new show, Cynthia Cidre, does a good job of weaving members of a new generation into the old-school struggles that have racked the clan for decades: J.R.'s son John Ross (Josh Henderson) shows signs of being every bit the snake his old man still is, and like his father, Christopher Ewing (Jesse Metcalfe) is a basically nice guy forced into difficult situations by dilemmas at home and work.
The work, as always, involves oil and land, the Ewings' twin obsessions, and the show's writers understand their jobs quite well too: They keep throwing betrayals, double-crosses, deceitful plots, star-crossed lovers, shirtless young men and wide, sweeping shots of the Texas landscape at the audience. Even if some of the younger characters are a little bland and the antics are less than subtle, damned if I didn't say, "More, please" at the end of most episodes.
It's those juicy twists and double crosses that keep things moving, but I tried to envision what the show would be like without the returning actors from the original series, and that hypothetical picture wasn't all that rosy. Jordana Brewster, who plays a next-generation character named Elena, isn't exactly the most expressive actor on screen (some of the sub-plots involving her, Christopher and alternate-energy ventures aren't exactly models of believability). There are some wooden moments from other young cast members as well; the fact that the pacing occasionally flags and the efficient-at-best dialogue sometimes veers into clunkiness doesn't help.
Though the older actors are certainly assets and though things generally perk along at a reasonable clip, this "Dallas" will probably rise and fall on the backs (and abs) of its younger cast members, and it's not at all clear that any of them will ever be able to occupy the screen as boldly as the 80-year-old Hagman does. Of course, nobody could compete with the prime ham that Hagman is serving up, but let's hope the writers keep trying to liven up and add at least a little texture to the Next Generation characters.
Of the two younger Ewing men, Henderson makes a bit more of an impression as John Ross, but then the black hat always gets much more fun things to do. As Christopher, Bobby's son, Metcalfe is competent, but not much more. One actor to watch is Callard Harris from "Sons of Anarchy," who plays a new Ewing relative who is -- dun-DUN-dun -- not necessarily as sweet as he seems.
All things considered, though, this is a show that is pretty firmly fixed on what it does best -- serving up soapy, Texas-sized shenanigans and trying to mix in a little seasoning of real emotion along the way.
But it's summer, it's "Dallas": It's probably best if none of us try to overthink these things and take the show for the 10-gallon good time it is.
Check out my colleague Maggie Furlong's interviews with the "Dallas" cast, and Ryan McGee and I talked about the TNT show (along with "Bunheads," "Falling Skies" and "Mad Men") in this week's Talking TV podcast.
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