Stetsons at the ready – the Ewings are back

After 20 years away, 'Dallas' is returning to TV

Los Angeles

The shoulder pads have disappeared, but those Stetson hats, big cigars, and oversized egos remain. Twenty years after they disappeared from the airwaves, JR Ewing and his oil-rich Texan cronies are once more invading America's living rooms. A shiny new version of the 1980s soap opera Dallas will be unveiled this week, in an unapologetic effort to recapture the magic that, for a few, highly lucrative years, put Southfork Ranch at the centre of the most-watched drama in television history.

Now, as ever, it stars Larry Hagman as the oil magnate JR, Linda Gray as his on-off wife Sue Ellen, and Patrick Duffy, who plays JR's brother and occasional bitter rival, Bobby Ewing. Also mounting a glorious comeback will be the show's famously brash theme tune.

Critics have yet to pass judgement on the show, which launches on Wednesday night in the US, and is scheduled to run for 10 episodes. But in interviews this week, Hagman and his co-stars said the reboot remained true to the sex-driven, scandal-laden spirit of the original, which last aired in 1991.

"It's like coming home, honey," Hagman said. "It's been 20 years, and it's just gone by like that. It's unbelievable. It's like nothing happened in between."

Duffy, for his part, said of the new programme's plot premise: "The script is as if Dallas had continued to shoot the entire time and people just didn't tune in on the right channel. Now they tune in, and there's Dallas continuing on as if it never stopped."

The decision to reboot Dallas marks the continuation of a trend that has, in recent years, seen a slew of once-loved shows of the 1970s and 1980s – including Hawaii Five-0, Charlie's Angels, and Knight Rider – return to television, with varying degrees of success.

In its original incarnation, Dallas successfully tapped into the "greed is good" zeitgeist of the Reagan years. The famous 1980 cliff-hanger episode "Who Shot JR?" was watched live in 41 million American households, making it the second most watched scripted show in US history, after the finale of the Korean War sitcom M*A*S*H.

Numbers like that are out of the question today, given the fragmentation of modern TV audiences. Unlike the network TV original, the new series will be aired on TNT, a cable channel where programmes are able to survive with smaller ratings, and producers can get away with edgier language and sexual content.

A show celebrating conspicuous consumption might seem out of kilter with today's spirit of austerity. But Hagman, now 80, has told reporters that there are uncanny parallels between 2012 and 1979, when the show first aired. When Dallas was in its prime, he pointed out, "we were in a major recession. Here we go again!"

There have, in any case, been some major concessions to modernity in the rebooted Dallas. Bobby Ewing's son, Christopher, who is played by Jesse Metcalfe, is understood to be heavily involved in the clean energy business – a career path that puts him into conflict with many of his oil-rich peers. Two of the new show's most decorative females – Julie Gonzalo and Jordana Brewster – hail from South America, a casting move that reflects both the huge number of Texans who these days have latino backgrounds, and the demographic's growing importance to TV producers.

The original show was filmed largely in Los Angeles. But partly because of generous Texan tax breaks, the new version was made on location at Southfork Ranch, which these days is a tourist attraction.

In an interview with USA Today, the show's executive producer, Cynthia Cidre, said she hopes to keep things as shamelessly melodramatic as they were in the original: "There are signs hanging in the writers' room with words on them like 'betraying', 'scheming' and 'backstabbing'," she revealed. British viewers will have to wait until September, when the new Dallas crosses the Atlantic, to find out whether she succeeds.

Dallas airs on Channel 5 this autumn

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