TNT’s “Dallas” update is hotter than a Texas summer!

It is late in the afternoon on the final day of the two-week schmooze-a-palooza that is the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour. Half of the assembled critics are nursing a nagging cold that has spread through the frigid, windowless conference rooms; no one has had enough sleep. And everyone — even those of us who would watch way too much TV even if we weren’t paid to do so — has had just about enough of talking about television.

Then onto the stage walks Larry Hagman in a dashing white cowboy hat, followed by Patrick Duffy, Linda Gray and the rest of the cast of Dallas, TNTs ambitious continuation of the iconic nighttime soap that picks up some 20 years after a demonic Joel Grey torments Hagman’s defeated J.R. to supposed suicide in “Conundrum,” the 1991 finale of the original series. And the room goes wild.

For good reason. Because the two things you should know about “Dallas 2012” are that, one, the premiere episode alone is as richly shot and twisty of plot as a good feature film, and, a Texas-sized two, the returning players are used to full advantage.

“It started with the script,” says Duffy, who returns as J.R.’s younger brother Bobby Ewing, relaxing on a sofa after the Dallas panel with costars Jesse Metcalfe, who plays Bobby’s morally upright adopted son Christopher, and Josh Henderson, devilish as J.R.’s scheming heir John Ross. “We read the script — Larry, Linda and I — and said, ‘Yes, that’s the right thing to do.’ And it was the time to do it — we wanted to work together again. Then we met them [gestures to Henderson and Metcalfe] and they became the final piece of the puzzle. The same way that, in 1978, we walked into a little room about this size at Warner Bros. — it was myself, Jim Davis, Barbara Bel Geddes, Larry, Linda, Steve Kanaly [who returns as Ray Krebbs], Charlene Tilton [back as Lucy Ewing] and Ken Kercheval — and 20 minutes into that reading, we were saying, ‘This is the greatest group of people we’ve ever worked with!’ That same feeling is on the set every single day that we do the show. It’s one of those right moments at the right time with the right people.”

According to Hagman, the timing was not only right for the actors — it came in the midst of an economic climate that mirrors the tough times in which the original series thrived. “You’ve got to realize when Dallas was really hot, when it got going, we were in a major recession, and people couldn’t go out and get a babysitter and have dinner and go to a movie,” he tells reporters during the panel. “They couldn’t afford it. So they had to stay in on Friday nights and watch something.”

To make the new members feel welcome even before shooting began, Hagman gathered the entire cast for a “get to know you” dinner at his home.

“I remember being very, very nervous heading over to that dinner,” says Metcalfe, “because I think first impressions are pretty important when you’re working with a new group of people. I definitely made a conscious effort not to force relationships and to just let them happen organically. And they have. I think that’s why people are really going to respond to what we produce this season.”

“I was like, ‘Gosh, I hope they approve of us!’” agrees Jordana Brewster, who costars as Elena Ramos, John Ross’ ambitious business partner and lover — who was once engaged to her childhood best friend Christopher — munching taffy and fielding questions in a suite adjacent to the one occupied by her manly costars. “Because, in a way, they gave [Dallas coproducer and scribe] Cynthia Cidre their blessing — and I don’t think they’re passing the torch. I think we are all part of something that’s wonderful.”

As the new series debuts, we find J.R. (despite his resurgence in the pair of telefilms that followed the original series finale) silent and sequestered in a posh care facility, while John Ross and Elena are drilling for oil on Southfork — something expressly forbidden by late Ewing matriarch Miss Ellie. Oblivious to their scheme, and in the face of some epically bad personal news, Bobby plans to sell the ranch to a global conservation organization to assure that the land remains untouched by oil drills. When John Ross learns of Bobby’s plan and suspects that he will not only lose the profits from his newly discovered gusher, but that the money from the sale of the ranch will be used to fund Christopher’s burgeoning alternative energies enterprise, he turns to his long-estranged father for help.

Asked how it felt to earn the nod to play a splendidly bad-boy apple (“Do I?” Henderson laughs mischievously. “She’s not saying you PLAY it badly!” cracks Duffy) who didn’t fall far from the tree, Henderson says he went straight to the original source — in a slightly newfangled format.

“I would YouTube as many scenes as I could of these guys and try to get a feeling of what they did,” he explains. “Specifically J.R. — he had such a way about him. He could make a grown man crumble with a smile on his face. And as much as people loved to hate him, they couldn’t get enough of Bobby and J.R.’s relationship — just how real it was.”

Henderson also reveals that it wasn’t much of a stretch for him and his former Desperate Housewives costar (and longtime basketball rival) Metcalfe to play the next generation of feuding Ewing men.

“We’re both competitive people,” Henderson says as Metcalfe grins wryly and nods. “We’re in the same industry, and we’ve gone out for some of the same roles and we’ve been around each other a lot. So the fact that now we get to do this together? It makes for a really cool energy between our characters that kind of parallels Patrick’s and Larry’s journey a little bit. It’s almost like the cosmos kept putting us together, you know? We were both on Desperate Housewives; now we’re both on Dallas. It was like it was meant to be.”

As a man of moral integrity and social responsibility like his adopted father — but without the actual Ewing blood that is as much a source of family pride as the thick black crude that built their empire — Metcalfe’s Christopher is in turmoil. He’s engaged to a fine young woman, but pines for his former fiancée. And the clean energy methods in which he has so much invested may have far more dire consequences than the breaking of a family promise.

“A lot of Christopher’s drive is based on earning his father’s respect and getting out from Bobby’s shadow — as a great man, a man of integrity and also a confident and capable man,” Metcalfe says. “He’s very intelligent and he’s very capable, but he doesn’t quite have that confidence yet. He has that chip on his shoulder, that nagging insecurity that possibly comes with abandonment, that possibly comes with being adopted, and certainly comes to the surface every time John Ross tells him that he’s not really a Ewing. So I think initially that Christopher maybe comes off a little erratic, a little intense. But it means that much to him.”

“I have to stand in between them every once in a while,” Duffy chuckles, throwing out his hands toward his TV kin. “My job is to stop the fighting! Stop the fighting!”

Like her former love, Brewster’s Elena also grew up on Southfork and is poised to become a Ewing by name — but still feels like an outsider. Though she’s set to marry J.R.’s boy, it’s Bobby to whom she feels most aligned.

“I think she is one of the more benevolent characters,” Brewster explains. “John Ross is obviously a bad boy but he’s very charismatic and understands what he wants — and she’s also very ambitious. But really at the core she’s a good person. And Christopher was my first love. So my alliance to John Ross and my ambition and wanting to further myself and my alliance to Southfork and Bobby and the Ewing family — those are always in conflict with each other. And that is really fun.” Especially when, on the eve of Christopher’s wedding, Elena learns the real reason that their own nuptials never happened.

Still, it is Bobby who has the most at stake — something revealed in the premiere’s first moments. But rather than fear for his character’s tenure on the series, Duffy is thrilled to bits with the storyline.

“First of all, I think it is a brilliant piece of creative writing,” he says. “And it shows that Cynthia really understood the dynamic of the show in terms of the undercurrents of all of the characters — she can write characters in her sleep, that’s a given — but why the audience appreciates the layers and the undercurrents of a character. And Bobby is integral. He’s instrumental in a plot that has to have a moral compass. If you can put that moral compass in danger, then the ripple effect throughout the entire storyline is impinged upon. She did that in the very first scene. Now everything that happens is affected by the fact that the moral compass is in jeopardy.”

When I worry aloud that the Bobby/J.R. battle that is the beating, bleeding heart of all things Dallas — including this new incarnation — will come to a close too soon, Duffy beams reassuringly.

“I’ve already spent the money through year three,” he says, putting his hands on the shoulders of a laughing Metcalfe and Henderson, “so I’m going to hang around no matter what!”

Catch the two-hour premiere of Dallas June 13 at 9/8CT on TNT

A Devil Of An Ending
Dallas in its original incarnation ended a 14-season run on May 3, 1991, via an episode called “Conundrum” that could have been called “A Southfork Carol.” Joel Grey made a special guest appearance as an angel — or is he? — named Adam who leads a defeated and ailing J.R. on a little look-see into what his family members’ lives would have been like had he never been born. Pretty much everyone comes out ahead. But instead of deciding that it really is a wonderful life and he has a chance to live it properly, when J.R. wakes up — booze bottle in one hand, pearl-handled revolver in the other — and discovers it’s only a dream, he’s still bereft. Which is when Adam, all demon eyes and a devil-red tux, returns as J.R.’s reflection and encourages the deposed oil baron to do himself in. Actually, he demands it — just as Bobby arrives at the house. As the younger Ewing searches for his bummed big brother, a shot rings out … and the credits roll, bringing an end to the revered nighttime serial, which spawned a legion of spinoffs and imitators.

The Follow-Up Telefilms

Dallas: J.R. Returns (1996) — Turns out J.R. shot the mirror, not himself, and is now a teetotaler residing in Europe. But he’s hardly a changed man. Upon hearing that Bobby and Cliff Barnes are planning to sell the Ewing family homestead and business, J.R. decides to use his evil powers for good (well, kind of) and reclaim his family and their legacy in this well-received reunion.

Dallas: War of the Ewings (1998) — This is the last we’ve seen of Bobby, Sue Ellen and J.R. until now. The trio battles their business nemeses — and each other — for control of Ewing Oil and the rights to the crude on Ray Krebbs’ land. Ends with Bobby heading off to Europe with rival oil company owner Jennifer Jantzen, and Sue Ellen at the reins of the family business, fending off a takeover from Weststar Oil exec J.R.

About Lori Acken

Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.
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