Television often amounts to a test of loyalties. When the writers miss their mark and the stories fail to inspire, it’s the characters that keep us tuning in, and we’re happy to call in a favor for them by watching against our better judgment. Calling in favors, of course, is what the oil-rich Ewing family is all about; that much hasn’t changed since Dallas first premiered some 32 years ago. Yet those loyal to the original series may find that viewing TNT’s new incarnation feels more like an act of betrayal than devotion.
The new series certainly has its merits, but in many ways it bears little resemblance to its predecessor. At its best, the original’s most compelling aspect was that enemies and rivals were forced to live together in Southfork, the family ranch, under the same roof. That sense of enforced, barely sustained civility gave the series its tension and subtext, as the vast majority of the relationships were rooted in ambivalence. Pamela Ewing was prone to lash out at the scheming J. R. in private before a family dinner in which the two of them smiled and played nice; J. R. was the son of her father’s nemesis, but he was also her brother-in-law. Jock Ewing, for his part, viewed Pamela with equal parts suspicion and empathy; she was the daughter of his rival, but the wife of his son. Such intricate webs of conflicting family ties may be a bit contrived, but insofar as they pushed each character to constantly revise old loyalties, they added a layer of complexity that’s missing in the reboot.
These days, the crises are more relentless and the sides more clearly drawn. Christopher Ewing (Jesse Metcalfe) is pitted against his cousin, John Ross (Josh Henderson), as they battle for ownership of the oil-rich Southfork property. They continue the feud that originated all the way back in the original show’s second season, when J. R.‘s infamous “red file” was revealed to be a forgery of his mother’s will, essentially reversing her wish that the family land be preserved. Three decades later, Bobby (Patrick Duffy) is still intent on honoring his mother’s wishes, and his list of loyal allies unsurprisingly includes his wife, son, and daughter-in-law, while everyone else essentially constitutes an unscrupulous opponent. There’s plenty of double-dealing, but no one has much trouble picking sides.
Even more problematic is that, at times, the characters hardly seem like family. In the previous show, the Ewings managed to set aside their busy itinerary of blackmail and backstabbing and found the time to drink whiskey in the pool, play paddleball at elite sports clubs, and ride on horseback across the ranch. We understood why Southfork was worth fighting for because we saw what there was to enjoy. Moreover, the writers were able to balance the high-stakes business deals by revealing some of the more quotidian aspects of family life. If nothing else, the Ewings could always be counted on to bicker over whether teenaged Lucy should get her own car, eat a healthy breakfast, or marry a homosexual.
The new series shirks its family-drama origins in favor of a more severe tone that aspires toward something like a political thriller. One catastrophe at a time might not meet the expectations of a multitasking generation, and so each episode hurls a slew of frantic twists overlaid with the drone of soapy strings. The emotional stakes are frequently lost in the clutter, and there are so many generic pawns that it can be hard to keep track of their motives.
Of course, viewers will be happy to see that longtime Dallas residents Bobby Ewing and Sue-Ellen (Linda Grey) retain all of their original charm. Bobby acquires a more discerning sensitivity than he displayed as a younger man, while Sue Ellen’s twitchy pout has been replaced with a glint in her eye that she might have learned from her husband. J. R. (Larry Hagman), for his part, has lost none of his devilish humor, and the writers never neglect to punctuate his most bone-chilling moments with a quip.
Those who require a dose of irony to get through their soaps may want to bring their own supply; the new Dallas admirably refuses to wink at its audience. But in ostensibly eschewing camp for a more “grounded” approach, show-runner Cynthia Cidre has left the younger Ewings strangely lacking in wit as they concoct their bullheaded schemes. The newer additions to the cast don’t have much of a presence beyond their plot roles, yet somehow manage to occupy a majority of the screen time. As a result, the new Dallas acquires the brashness of an impostor laying claim to a vast family fortune. And if the Ewings have taught us anything, it’s to be wary of newcomers.