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Just when you thought it was safe to go back on the ranch...

A reboot of Dallas has defied all expectations to become the summer hit in America. Can it work again in Britain? By Sarah Hughes

It should have been a disaster. When the US cable network TNT announced that it was bringing back everyone's favourite Eighties soap opera, Dallas, last year, most fans' initial reaction was to shudder and ask: "Why?"

We remembered the dreadful late-1990s television movies – J R Returns and War of the Ewings – in which a decade's worth of fond, if slightly kitsch, memories were trampled into the Southfork dust.

Surely there was nothing left to say about the feuding Ewings? Hadn't we seen every possible permutation of the JR double cross? Sympathised enough with the sorrows of Sue Ellen? Quit caring long ago if Pam and Bobby would see their dreams come true one more time?

Early reviews seemed to agree: although the new show was praised by The Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly, it was branded "stodgy" in The New York Times and a vitriolic review in USA Today sniffed: "You can find mummies who look fresher that this mould-encrusted relic."

Yet despite the mixed critical reception – and that television remakes fail more often than they succeed – the new Dallas, which starts on Channel Five this September, became America's biggest television hit this summer, pulling in an average of seven million viewers over the course of a 10-week run.

So what went right? It helps that Dallas 2.0, as the show's new writer Cynthia Cidre joking refers to it, is not a remake but a sequel. "It was very important to me that we had the sort of structure where we could tell stories over a long time," says Cidre, a veteran writer and producer best known for her work on the tough-but-warm family dramas The Mambo Kings and In Country. "And we had this great plot device in that John Ross Jnr and Christopher were kids when the original Dallas aired, so now those characters were just the right age to have grown into testosterone-powered bulls ready to lock horns."

Not, Cidre is keen to emphasise, that the show is simply about the new generation. "It's not about handing the baton over to them; that wouldn't have worked," she says. "It would never have gone ahead if Patrick [Duffy, aka Bobby], Linda [Gray, Sue Ellen] and Larry [Hagman, JR] hadn't agreed to come on board and what works best are the moments when the two generations share the same scenes… when those new allegiances are made or tested."

Thus the new Dallas returns us to Southfork, a place utterly familiar and yet subtly different. The amiable Bobby, always the show's good guy, is now the family patriarch having slowly morphed, as he always threatened to, into his father, Jock. Meanwhile, JR seems out of the game, living in a care home with only his ever-shifty eyes hinting at the calculations within. Sue Ellen is sober and successful, although still capable of summoning the fire-breathing fury of old while the younger generation squabbles over that most modern of causes – the now grown-up John Ross Jnr wants to drill, baby, drill, while his cousin and rival, Christopher, ever his father's child, would prefer the Ewings to go green.

There are some great cameos from Dallas stars past (including the ever hang-dog Cliff Barnes, hurrah), with hints of more to come – although sadly for purists, no sign of Victoria Principal's pouty Pam. When asked about her absence, Cidre says simply: "I watched over 100 episodes and read all the synopses of the original and I just felt there was nothing left to bring to the relationship [between Bobby and Pam]."

Most importantly, the new Dallas is still the same crazy mix of arguments about land, schemes, betrayals and fancy functions (in the second episode the Ewings head off to the Cattle Barons' Ball; Cidre admits she didn't realise the error until Duffy gently remarked after filming, "When did it change? It always used to be the Oil Barons' Ball") and is still as entertaining (and ridiculous) as it was the first time around.

It's not then the sort of show you hail as great television, but like the first season of Desperate Housewives or the more recent Revenge, its combination of glossy lives and escapist plot lines make it perfect for whiling away an hour in front of the TV with your brain half switched off.

Yet for all that it is a guilty sort of pleasure, it's not a knowing one. It would have been easy for Cidre and her writers to go down the route of heightened camp, playing every line with a wink to the audience back home. Instead the cast delivers every over-the-top line – "You're not a Ewing, Christopher", "Blood may be thicker than water, but oil is thicker than both" – with admirably straight faces, almost as though daring viewers not to take this story of land and oil, deceit and despair, seriously.

"I never wanted it to be camp, that would be entirely the wrong tone," Cidre says. "When I first heard about the project it was as a feature film starring John Travolta and Ben Stiller. I love both of them but casting them makes it a comedy and that's not what Dallas fans want to see. They love this family, they don't mind if the acting is heightened but the direction and setting need to be grounded."

For Cidre, and for those seven million viewers who ensured the new Dallas will return for a second and extended season, the show's real strength lies, as it always has, in the depiction of family.

"Family dramas will always appeal to people," Cidre says. "The great enjoyment about watching Dallas comes from those moments when you see them all fighting each other and then an outside enemy will appear and suddenly they all have to stop their feuding, forget their troubles and band together to beat that enemy. That's the show's heart."