“Dallas,” TNT’s relaunch of the primetime CBS soap that ran from 1978 to 1991, isn’t a reboot of the original series — it is, as the network’s been careful to point out, a continuation. The setting and basic stuff of the show remains the same — it’s about feuding families, wealth, cattle and oil — thugh focus has been shifted to a spry younger generation, played by standard issue attractive actors as carefully manicured as a high society lawn. The leads are now rival cousins, the shifty John Ross (Josh Henderson) and the earnest Christopher Ewing (Jesse Metcalfe), who compete for possession of the family’s sprawling Southfork Ranch and the love of Elena Ramos (Jordana Brewster), but plenty of characters from the original run are still around, including John Ross’ scheming dad J.R. (Larry Hagman) and Christopher’s adoptive father Bobby (Patrick Duffy).
This approach isn’t unprecedented — there have been other shows to present themselves as the “next generation” successor to an established franchise, a means of renewing the familiar and presenting a sequel or spinoff to a popular series once the bulk of the original cast has become either too old or too famous. Some bring back a former castmember or more for continuity, like the CW’s “90210,” which in its first two season featured recurring roles for the likes of Jennie Garth and Shannen Doherty, or “Saved by the Bell: The New Class,” which had Dennis Haskins back as Principal Belding and later brought in Dustin Diamond’s Screech as his assistant or something.
But “Dallas” is different in the way it has picked back up its betrayal-filled fictional universe as if it all has just continued simmering on somewhere off screen for two decades. Time has kept on ticking for the Ewing family — children have grown up, adults have aged, relationships have shifted and power structures with them and, it’s assumed, countless twists and machinations have come and gone when we weren’t watching, including ones involing faked emails and thwarted marriages that still hang over the roiling present.
Remember how “The Sopranos” ended with the audience being booted, the screen cutting abruptly to black as if to suggest that Tony and his family would trudge on, but that we were no longer allowed to watch? “Dallas” attempts to offer the inverse of that idea — the series is happy to have everyone’s eyes back on it, but hasn’t deigned to pause the action while we were off watching crime scene investigators uncover murderers in different regions of the country and falling in love wth reality TV.
In the opening scenes of the first episode of the new “Dallas,” John Ross and Elena strike oil and then wonder how they’re going to tell Bobby, who’s never let anyone drill on the ranch per his mother’s wishes. We then cut to Bobby, who’s in town getting diagnosed with cancer — “It’s a hell of a piece of news to deliver on a man’s birthday,” his doctor notes informatively — and who asks the man to keep it from the rest of the Ewing family for now. The physician does not seem surprised by this request, because in “Dallas” he’s probably asked to keep medical secrets all the time, by every other patient he sees. And only then do we get the credits! So many new developments, and we haven’t even gotten to that gussied-up helicopter shot over the Texas cityscape whie the theme song booms.
The prime time soap has been edged away in favor of procedurals, teen dramas and higher-end hour-long cable series, which may be why that “Dallas” intro, in which we’re immediately introduced to some concentrated intrigue, feels like the staking out of territory. TV as a medium may be much more sophisticated now, but it’s still also ruled by serialized storytelling, and to drop audiences back in with J.R., Bobby and Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) and show them and their offspring continuing to struggle and scheme is to boldly propose that we still want crazy cliffhangers, poisonings, drunk shootings, affairs, backstabbings and cliffhangers — and if the ratings are any indication, we certainly do.