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

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn