The New Dallas: Ten Gallons of (Welcome) Straight-Up Soap

Dallas S01E01 and S01E02: "Changing of the Guard" and "Hedging Your Bets"

Growing up on the dusty plains of Nebraska, my siblings and I always spent weekends at my dad’s house. My parents had split in 1978 and my dad remarried soon after. My mom never watched soap operas—she hated them, thought they were silly. But for my stepmother, Friday nights meant one thing: Dallas. In 1978, Dallas started a revolution in nighttime suds. With its giant success, more shows followed suit: Knots Landing (a Dallas spin-off), Dynasty, and Falcon Crest to name a few of the more prolific ones. But their reigns came to an end in the 1990s, making way for a new wave of dramas on network television. And when soap came back big in the 2000s with Desperate Housewives and Brothers & Sisters, and Mad Men, it was a whole new beast: self-knowing, super-stylized, and heavily disguised. I am sure that Matthew Weiner would bristle at Mad Men being called a “soap.” But without J.R. Ewing would there even be a Don Draper? I am thankful to my stepmother for being passionate about her devotion to Dallas. It was my first introduction to serialized television... and I was hooked.

Dallas, the city, will now forever bring to mind Dallas, the show. But for a whole new generation that has grown up since the original left the air in 1991, they might not be so familiar with the mythology. The new incarnation, which TNT calls a “continuation,” steps quickly into its daddy’s boots; a tad wobbly at first, but gaining footing as the episodes progress (I’ve seen the first four and it keeps getting better). We find Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) tending to South Fork, the land his mama, Miss Ellie, passed on to him after her death. The land has been in the family for 150 years, and acts as a sprawling, bucolic backdrop for the “good” that is to be preserved, with Bobby its modern-day John Muir. By contrast, when we meet Bobby’s brother, the venerable J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman), he is in the city, a place that only brings greed and evil, with its towering glass buildings. Happily, Cynthia Cidre, who developed the return of the series, kept this central brotherly rivalry in place. And it is still fun to watch, especially Hagman, who when he comes out of his state of catatonic-ness, rips through his scenes with a veracity fitting of his legend.

Compare this photo to the one above... see any similarities?

But this Dallas—and the pilot in particular, with its title “Changing of the Guard”—is about handing the mantle from one generation to the next. And in a wonderful bit of casting, the show has achieved this with aplomb. Josh Henderson goes teeth first into his role as John Ross Ewing, J.R. and Sue Ellen’s son and the heir to the devilish desire to be the biggest oilman in Texas. Henderson possesses a James Dean (a la Giant) quality that is mesmerizing to watch. He looks great in a Stetson, and is more than a chip off of old J.R.’s shoulder. John Ross's rival and cousin Christopher—Bobby’s adopted son, played with all earnestness by Jesse Metcalfe—is the sweet to John Ross’s salty. This is our seed for the future; the survival of Dallas 2.0 relies on this rivalry, and happily, they do fire and ice pretty well. And to make it au courant, the fuel that feeds their feude is emblematic of a bigger picture in America today, with Christopher fighting to find a “green energy” alternative to oil while John Ross only wants to drill, baby, drill... most notably under South Fork, our show’s stand-in for ANWR.

As for the women of Dallas, Linda Gray returns as the formidable Sue Ellen Ewing, former wife of J.R. and mother to John Ross. No longer under J.R.’s thumb, Sue Ellen is all business, a mogul and a magnate, with money and power, and she gets to say such pot-stirring lines as, “consider me an ally.” This, uttered to her own son—who as much as he is his own man, is still a pawn to be played by his parents. Jordana Brewster, of Fast and Furious franchise fame, dives in, eyes blazing, as Elena Ramos, the third point of the love triangle between cousins Christopher and John Ross. In a nice bit of modernizing, and an Upstairs, Downstairs nod, Elena is the daughter of the Ewing’s long-time housekeeper, and was raised on South Fork. She too has the drive of a Ewing, and seems to be up for the fight to get a piece of the pie. Lastly is Julie Gonzalo, playing Christopher’s fiancéd Rebecca Sutter. Although she may come off as the naïve good girl, we soon see she has an agenda of her own.

Dallas has always been a play on the Hatfields and McCoys feud, with the Ewings and Barnes (who will finally show up in Episode 3) fighting for land and oil. But the internal family turmoil of Ewings was always the meat and potatoes of this show. And that is fully intact. At first, I wanted more camp and maybe even a wink or two, but I soon realized that this is drama, through and through, played with a very straight face, and copious amounts of exposition. Don’t expect Mad Men-like subtext or Desperate Housewives-esque comic tomfoolery here, this is straight-up soap. If you were a fan of the original, or a newcomer to South Fork, I think you will find a lot to like in this “continuation.” It is a saga, in my opinion, worth continuing...

Did you watch tonight's two-hour premiere? What do you think of Dallas 2.0 so far?

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