Dallas: The oil barons are back

Dallas was bold and brash, the ultimate Eighties soap. But will anyone tune in to the 21st century remake? By Sarah Hughes
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The Independent Culture

It was the show that taught us that oil is good, big hats are better and there's no social event that can't be improved without hurling something (a drink, a big hat, Cliff Barnes) into a swimming pool. Now the American cable channel TNT is set to bring us a new series of Dallas, 21 years after the original ended with a down-on-his-luck JR Ewing seemingly considering suicide.

Since that cliffhanger (a not entirely successful attempt to conjure up the soap's infamous "Who Shot JR?" heyday), there have been two (rather dull) mini-series (JR Returns and The War of the Ewings) and much talk of a film version, the cast of which has been rumoured to include everyone from John Travolta, Luke Wilson and J-Lo to Meg Ryan and Matthew McConaughey. That project collapsed ignominiously with the makers seemingly unable to decide whether it should be a drama, a comedy or some sort of uncomfortable hybrid of the two.

So what can audiences expect from the new television version, which will air for 10 episodes next summer? For starters, the return of many of the key original cast members: Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray will reprise their roles as dastardly JR, good guy Bobby and drunken Sue Ellen, while Charlene Tilton and Steve Kanaly aka Lucy "the poison dwarf" Ewing and nice-but-dim Ray Krebbs will turn up in the pilot.

Most of the action, though, will focus on the next generation as a now grown-up John Ross Jnr (Desperate Housewives' Josh Henderson) battles his cousin Christopher (Jesse Metcalf, also of Desperate Housewives) over everything from the future of oil in today's fraught climate to who will ultimately win the hand of the beautiful Elena (Jordana Brewster, best-known for The Fast and The Furious, in the Victoria Principal role).

So far so standard but the real question surrounding the new series is will anyone tune in? After all we're a long way from the heyday of primetime soaps, those heady Eighties nights when no TV programme was complete without a big-haired woman in a wide-shouldered dress tossing off a pithy retort to a lantern-jawed man. The nearest thing we have to an evening soap opera these days is the increasingly flaccid Desperate Housewives, a show which started life as an entertaining, campy attempt to both satirise the night-time soap and drag it into the modern era but which has increasingly fallen victim to nonsensical plotlines and inconsistent characterisation. At this point the more cynical might note that plot and characterisation are hardly soap staples but even the sudsiest drama has to have some grounding in reality. Despite the choreographed catfights, over-embellished gowns and bitchy one-liners, the appeal of Eighties soaps was that they played it magnificently straight.

Dallas's rococo plots – the ludicrous rivalries, double and triple crosses, multiple marriages and miraculous returns from the dead – only worked because those playing their parts did so seriously, selling us the enjoyable fantasy of life in a large, squabbling Texan family long before the Bushes brought us the rather more depressing reality.

Indeed, the main problem with the infamous "the whole of season nine was simply a dream" plotline, which saw critics mock, fans rage and ratings plunge (although the show would limp on for another five seasons) was that it committed the cardinal soap sin of being not ludicrous but lazy. Prior to that misstep, Dallas and its flamboyant competitor Dynasty had ruled the airwaves: the solution to the former's "Who Shot JR?" storyline remains America's second most-watched television episode of all time, viewed by 41 million people in the US alone, while a whopping 60 million viewers worldwide tuned in to watch the aftermath of Dynasty's now infamous Moldavian massacre.

These days, our viewing habits are far more diffuse, filtered through terrestrial and cable channels, downloaded, DVR'd or watched online. Add to that the fact that daytime soaps have been taking a hammering of late with fans tuning out and turning on lifestyle and reality television shows instead.

"Viewers are looking for different types of programming these days," said ABC Daytime president Brian Frons of the decision to axe two of the most famous soaps, All My Children and One Life To Live amid falling ratings. "They are telling us there is room for informative, authentic and fun shows that are relatable, offer a wide variety of opinions and focus on 'real life'. A perfect example would be [the hugely popular morning talk show] The View."

Indeed, reality TV provides the biggest barrier to the idea that the glossy primetime soap can recapture its glory days. Where we used to turn to the TV for glamorous, escapist fun, these days our most talked-about shows are not dramas but those depicting the crazy antics of ordinary folk. In a world dominated by the larger-than-life casts of Jersey Shore, The Only Way Is Essex and The Apprentice can we really get excited about an everyday tale of dysfunctional rich people?

TNT isn't the only network betting that we can. ABC might have cancelled its daytime soaps as well as calling time on the sudsy Brothers and Sisters but the network behind Desperate Housewives has also commissioned two soapy sounding new dramas. Good Christian Belles, which stars Kristen Chenoweth and is written by Robert Harling (Steel Magnolias) and produced by Darren Star (creator of Melrose Place and Sex And The City), follows a former high-school mean-girl's return to Dallas while Revenge, starring Emily Van Camp and Madeleine Stowe and directed by Phillip Noyce (Salt), is the tale of a young girl's quest for vengeance based on The Count of Monte Cristo. Both are part of what Paul Lee, ABC's new entertainment president, has described as a network quest for "pure entertainment... a balance between comfort and escapism". Meanwhile, there is continued talk of a Dynasty film written by the original's creators, Esther and Richard Shapiro and focusing on the early years of Blake Carrington and Alexis Morell's relationship.

Not everyone is convinced that the time is ripe for the return of froth and fantasy. In his blog for Time.com, James Poniewozik asked why the channel was bringing back a show that was "so much of its time" adding "if you're making a Dallas for the 2010s, why not pick a city that is to today as Dallas was to the 1980s?" – the inference being that in this post-Bush era we no longer crave an invitation to the Oil Barons Ball.

According to Wright, the answer lies with the script written by Cynthia Cidre, who also wrote the film adaptation of The Mambo Kings and most recently created the shortlived soap Cane for CBS. "We had explored the possibility of an updated version of Dallas for several years but it wasn't until we read Cynthia Cidre's outstanding pilot script that we knew we had the foundation for a great new series", he said earlier this month. "Dallas was always something of an Upstairs, Downstairs paradigm. If it wasn't the rich and poor, it was attitude – entitlement versus a populist point of view. [The new show] covers all that."

Whether or not that proves to be true, early looks at the new show have had US critics gushing. "It looks to be every bit as fun and escapist as its predecessor," raved the Wall St Journal while The Chicago Tribune's Curt Wagner admitted that he was "awfully giddy" about the show's return. Elsewhere Entertainment Weekly described the preview as "purty tantalising" while the Boston Herald simply called it "hawwt".

Risible attempts at a Texan drawl apart, it's true that the sequel comes with a built-in appeal. For a generation of thirtysomethings (myself included) just hearing the der-der-der of the theme music raises a nostalgic smile. Couple that with Larry Hagman at his most Godfather-esque, intriguing glimpses of the still elegant Linda Gray and the rather too preserved Patrick Duffy (who looks as though he might have spent the intervening years pickled in formaldehyde) and wonderfully ripe lines such as: "We laid waste to everything in our path, JR and for what?" and that smile widens to an unstoppable grin. Dynasty might have been higher octane but Dallas has always had a grandiose appeal all of its own.

That's not to say that the sequel looks perfect. The most notable absence is Ken Kerchevel's weaselly Cliff Barnes. I always had a soft spot for Cliff with his hangdog ways and Wily E Coyote-style obsession with bringing down JR, and Kerchevel's scenes with Hagman, usually involving some manner of punch-up at an important social event, were among the original's most memorable.

Meanwhile, the new cast members might be Hollywood-gorgeous, in that their teeth are white, their hair is shiny, their lips are pouty and their bodies hard, but their acting is less impressive than their physiques. The show seems most alive when old hands like Hagman and Gray are chewing the scenery for all they're worth.

Ultimately, however, the appeal of a Dallas sequel has nothing to do with the acting and everything to do with a generation's desire to find out what happened next. The new Dallas is unlikely to be award-winning or even high quality television but does it really have to be? As the juicy trailer filled with lines like "You'll never be a Ewing, Christopher!" and "Oil's the past, John Ross" makes clear, this will be next summer's guilty pleasure bar none.