People have been using a lot of forward-looking words -- update, reboot, continuation -- to describe TNT's Dallas, but those words are all inaccurate. The long-awaited series is really a throwback, a show that, apart from a few swear words that the original Dallas couldn't have gotten away with, acts as if the past 20 years of TV never happened.
This is a virtue and a flaw. On the one hand, after the ironies of Melrose Place and Desperate Housewives, and the pop-culture-savvy hipness of a number of the WB/CW and cable soaps, it's refreshing to run into a prime-time soap that settles for straightforward drama, getting its comic relief from the occasional snippy but folksy sarcastic remark.
Despite numerous twists and turns, Dallas never gets too complicated, never so heavy with meaning that online recappers will dissect practically every line of dialogue, the way they do with Mad Men. It's an easy-going series that never pretends to be more or less than the trash wallow that it is.
That old-fashioned approach has worked for a lot of cable series, especially on TNT but on USA and other cable networks as well.
However, Dallas suffers from uneven pacing, weighed down by expository dialogue in the first half of each episode before the juicy stuff really starts in the second half (this is never more noticeable than in Wednesday's two-hour premiere, in which the characters spend the first 15 minutes of the second hour talking about things that happened in the first hour, just in case viewers have forgotten).
And the multigenerational approach -- this series belongs as much to younger schemers and backstabbers as it does to Dallas, the first generation -- provides work for a quartet of pretty young actors, most of whom are saddled with characters that are far less interesting than the originals.
Josh Henderson scores some points as John Ross Ewing, who is as duplicitous but not as crafty as his father, J.R. -- but when Larry Hagman comes onscreen as J.R., hamming it up as if he can't believe someone is paying him to do something this fun again, he upstages Henderson's more serious approach to his role (well, Hagman upstages the whole cast, but that's as it should be).
If you never watched the original Dallas, don't worry -- it doesn't take long to get up to speed. J.R. Ewing and Southfork Ranch became such pop-culture figures that a primer about either is unnecessary, and J.R.'s good-guy brother, Bobby (an attractively graying Patrick Duffy), wasn't far behind. J.R. and Bobby are still struggling for control over Southfork and Ewing oil money, and their sons (Henderson as John Ross and fellow Desperate Housewives alum Jesse Metcalfe as Bobby's adopted son, Christopher) are very much like their fathers. Christopher, who in the premiere is preparing to marry Rebecca (Eli Stone's Julie Gonzalo), has a history with Elena (Jordana Brewster), who is dating John Ross, adding to the bad blood between John Ross and Christopher. (Speaking of Desperate Housewives, Brenda Strong, the long-running voice of Mary Alice Young, has a visible role here as Bobby Ewing's handy-with-a-rifle wife.)
Other characters enter the mix, and not everyone is whom they seem to be, and the series is sporadic fun, but not all the actors rise above the earnestness of it all to look like they are enjoying themselves. Considering that this is a series that largely takes place on a ranch and features people in cowboy hats, it deals less in Texas stereotypes than have GCB, Top Chef: Texas and several other Dallas-filmed shows. It shows off North Texas landmarks by having characters stage secret meetings at several of them (including an absurd, first-hour-closing meeting on the 50-yard-line star at Cowboys Stadium).
Given the hefty promotional push TNT is giving this series, and its producers' decision to revere rather than mock the original, Dallas is likely to be a huge hit. And so far, it's avoiding the excesses of the original's later seasons. But you may find your mind wandering during several subplots, while you wait for the better ones to come back around. Dallas is better than a lot of people expected it to be, but it's still not quite as good as it could be.
Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872