It’s been 21 years since “Dallas” was last on the air, and in the interim, not much has changed.
TNT’s new iteration of the prime-time soap, which debuts Wednesday with a two-hour series premiere, picks up years after the original left off, and it retains many of its familiar elements: a hodgepodge of intersecting subplots; fractured family squabbles; relentless focus on sex and money, riches and power, family and loyalty. Even a few of the original’s stars are back.
To be sure, there are differences: The ties are skinner, the hair is slicker, the close-ups are closer. Like its predecessor, the show is a record and product of its times.
And also like its predecessor, it’s a show that wants to have it both ways: offering a reductive view of upper-class life that robs the show of its dramatic potential even as it attempts to lure viewers in with the spectacle of wealth and success.
The original “Dallas” was the story of the Ewings, a powerful Texas oil family split apart by power struggles between rival brothers J.R. (Larry Hagman) and Bobby (Patrick Duffy), both of whom return in the new series.
Like most soaps, the show’s appeal was part propulsive plotting, part glitzy lifestyle-trend catalog, with characters who drove big, expensive cars, lived in big, expensive houses, and wore big, expensive clothes. Scenes were short, twists and reversals were plentiful, and scripts leaned heavily on convoluted nonsense for narrative movement and intrigue - one entire season was famously revealed to be a dream. But it was the sort of soapy, convoluted nonsense that kept people hooked for more than a decade: The first episode ran in 1978, and the show didn’t leave the air until 1991.
At this point, early episodes serve mostly as historical curiosities - unintentionally amusing guides to the frivolous fashions of a recent age. But in context with this year’s update, the show exists as a record of the progress, power, wealth and success that oil money has brought to the state of Texas.
In the old “Dallas,” you can still catch a glimpse of the backdrop for so many Westerns: the Lone Star State’s roads are barren, the cities are humble beginnings, and the town storefronts still have a creaky, wooden fragility that makes it easy to wonder when the next horse and buggy will arrive.
In the new “Dallas,” things have changed. It’s not just the Ewings who have money - it’s the whole state. In the opening-credits montage, modeled after the old one, everything has the sheen of newness to it. Skyscrapers watch imposingly over downtown Dallas while shiny streetcars zip through the streets. It’s a monument to the transformational prosperity created by the state’s decades-long oil and energy boom.
Yet aside from a few cosmetic updates - sleeker sports cars, more luxurious homes - the Ewings haven’t changed all that much. J.R. and Bobby are still around, and while they remain rivals, the battle’s locus has shifted to their sons, J.R.’s scheming oilman son John Ross (Josh Henderson) and Bobby’s earnest alternative energy entrepreneur Christopher (Jesse Metcalf). Both are young, rich, startlingly handsome, and dull beyond words.
It’s the bland and the beautiful, and their love interests are equally vapid: At one point, Christopher asks John Ross’ girl, Elena (a sad, lost looking Jordana Brewster), about a thesis she wrote on - no, really - petroleum and waterflooding. Actual academic papers on petroleum recovery and waterflooding discuss things like procedures for “solving the transport-dominated diusion process generated by two-phase, incompressible, immiscible displacement in heterogeneous porous media.” Elena barely seems capable of pronouncing multisyllable words.
It doesn’t help that none of the star performers could act his or her way out of an automatic car wash: When John Ross declares portentously that “the fun is just beginning,” a line that is meant to suggest the devilishly amusing times ahead comes across more like one of those gunpoint videos in which a bloodied hostage attests to the virtues of his captors.
Like their patriarchs, the two sons are locked in perpetual struggle - but over nothing of consequence or meaning. There’s the familiar uninterrupted stream of incident and event, family traumas and hidden agendas: The subplots are as vast as the Texas deserts, and just as empty. The largest and smallest events are treated with the same petty urgency. Ultimately, the show’s plot contrivances exist to put the characters through endless traumas and social stresses. The characters exist to suffer for audience amusement, their wealth to excuse our pleasure.
“Dallas” offers a parade of fictional characters made for pain, like horror movie victims made more irritating so that audiences can take guilt-free pleasure in their deaths. The idea is to enjoy watching these rich, perfect-looking dolts have their lives go awry because they are rich and perfect looking.
But “Dallas” paints a deeply unimaginative picture of what it’s like to be rich - not just petty, but surprisingly lacking in fun. Shouldn’t it be more interesting, more entertaining, more exciting to be so rich and gorgeous? “Dallas” tries to let viewers live vicariously through the privileged lives of its characters, while at the same time reassuring them that they’d never truly want those lives as their own.
Where’s the drama in that? Where’s the suspense? If the wealthy are so uninteresting, then why care about their fate at all? And if wealth is its own punishment, then what is there for the audience to root for? Forget whether it’s fair to the rich: It’s unfair to ordinary viewers.
WHAT: “Dallas” series premiere
WHEN: June 13 at 9 p.m. on TNT