Who shot J.R.? You may not remember the answer, but I'm sure you remember the question. (OK, trivia fans, the shooter was Kristin Shepard, J.R. Ewing’s sister-in-law and mistress, played by actress Mary Crosby.)
The surprise shooting of the villainous Texas oilman, so memorably acted by Larry Hagman, was the cliffhanger ending to the second season of Dallas in 1980. The popular prime-time soap on CBS began as a five-part miniseries, but it was such a ratings hit that it became a long-running weekly series (1978-91), with J.R. staying healthy enough to connive and conspire throughout its entire run.
The show first aired during the Carter administration, reached its height of popularity during the proudly conspicuous displays of consumption that characterized the Reagan era, and endured through most of the Bush 41 years. It spawned a whole generation of similar prime-time dramas, including Dynasty, Falcon Crest and Knot’s Landing.
Now, Dallas and Hagman are back. A rebooted version of the series, featuring J.R. and other familiar members of the moneybag Ewing clan (plus newly introduced characters), had its premiere this week (Wed., June 13) on TNT, where it’s set for a 10-episode run.
This resurrected Dallas hopes to rope in fans of the original series as well as first-time viewers (the premiere attracted 6.9 million viewers, the biggest draw this year for the first showing of a new cable series). Like its predecessor, nu-Dallas is set in the Texas metropolis for which the show is named and concerns the feuds, business machinations and romantic lives of the Ewings.
Along with Hagman, other major returning veterans include Patrick Duffy as Bobby Ewing, J.R.’s younger, more ethical brother, and Linda Gray as Sue Ellen, J.R.’s long-suffering, now ex-wife. (Missing is Victoria Principal, who played Pamela, Bobby’s wife, on the original; the actress is active these days in environmental causes and promotes a skincare line.)
This time around the primary rivals are the Ewing cousins: John Ross Ewing (Josh Henderson), the hot-headed son of J.R. and Sue Ellen, and Christopher Ewing (Desperate Housewives’ Jesse Metcalfe), who is Bobby’s son. John Ross is an oilman through and through — he, gasp, wants to drill on Southfork, the Ewing family spread — while Christopher is trying to develop alternative energy sources.
Like the original show, the conflicts on TNT’s Dallas revolve around oil, family and money. And, oh yes, women. The younger Ewing boys both lust after Elena Ramos (Jordana Brewster), a geologist who grew up around Southfork as the daughter of the Ewings’ cook.
Will the new Dallas succeed? It may have the same theme music as the original but it arrives in a very different world than its namesake’s. When Dallas made its debut more than 30 years ago there were only three TV networks: CBS, NBC and ABC (with PBS for eggheads). Prime time was prime time and you watched Dallas at 10 p.m. on Friday nights or you didn’t see it at all — the VCR was only just beginning to be sold for home use. As for downloading the show via the Internet — that prospect was decades away.
Now, of course, in addition to the three major networks, there’s Fox and scores of cable channels offering both popular and niche programming. You can DVR, download, use On Demand to watch what you want when you want, day or night, whether on TV, laptop, smart phone or tablet. It’s massively more difficult these days for a show to break through all that clutter — not to mention the competition from DVDs, video games and online offerings.
More to the point, will the feuding and machinations of the fictional Ewing clan be enough to attract viewers who regularly watch people act out in equally, if not more, outrageous ways on the various iterations of The Real Housewives and Jersey Shore? Like Dallas, those so-called reality shows are all about conspicuous consumption, swagger, in-fighting and telling secrets.
Of course, if the new Dallas doesn’t make it, we can collectively dismiss its attempted revival as just a dream. That, fans of the original series will recall, was the apex of ridiculousness reached in the 1986 season finale, when it was revealed that the entire season, including the death of Bobby Ewing and all the subsequent family fallout, was just his wife's horrible nightmare. Bobby was back — and now so is Dallas.