LOS ANGELES - J.R. Ewing makes Tony Soprano look like a pussycat -- and we're not just referring to ruthless behavior.
In TNT's new revival of "Dallas," a series that picks up 21 years after the iconic CBS drama ended, we find the oil tycoon in a funk that requires more than weekly visits to a psychiatrist. In fact, he's so depressed that he can only stare silently out the window of a nursing center, dreaming, no doubt, about the days he could ruin lives with that grin of a cat who just ate the canary, along with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
Ewing snaps out of it when his estranged son, John Ross, informs him that J.R.'s brother, Bobby, plans to sell Southfork Ranch to a conservatory.
J.R's first words in months: "Bobby was always a fool."
Yes, television's nastiest Cat in the Hat has come back -- but will audiences want to revisit a family awash in luxury cars, country club memberships and fancy duds in such hard economic times?
Larry Hagman is willing to bet the ranch on it.
"You've got to remember that when 'Dallas' got going, we were in a major recession and people couldn't get a baby sitter and go out. They couldn't afford it," said Hagman, who first played the character in 1978. "They had to stay home on Friday nights and watch something, and we were it. Well, here we go again."
New faces, old feuds
The sequel has some mighty big boots to fill. In its heyday, "Dallas," which ran for 14 seasons, was a pop-culture phenomenon. The November 1980 episode that revealed who shot J.R. was devoured by 83 million viewers. (By comparison, the 2003 season finale of "American Idol," the most watched in the show's history, drew 38 million.)
Even a generation that was in diapers in the early 1980s has some memory of the original series.
"I knew of it," said Dallas-born Josh Henderson, 30, who plays John Ross. "I literally would run around the TV and be told to shut up while they [his family] were watching it."
To ensure that younger viewers won't think the new "Dallas" is solely for their parents, producers have brought in fresh faces such as former "Desperate Housewives" supporting players Henderson and Jesse Metcalfe, and Jordana Brewster ("The Fast and the Furious").
Yes, Bobby and J.R. are still fighting for both the deed and the soul of Southfork, but the feud has been passed on to their only sons, who also inherited their fathers' white and black hats.
There may be a crop of new faces, but the overall theme remains the same: Don't. Trust. Anyone. Every bedroom can have a hidden camera. Every e-mail account can be hacked. Every romance can be based on seedy intentions. Every handshake deal can be undone by someone crossing their fingers behind his or her back.
"While we've freshened it with all these new faces, you'll still be watching this fight within a family," said co-producer Michael M. Robin. "Those are things that people expect from 'Dallas' and we're not here to take this in some whole other place. We honor the past."
Giving the devil his due
Part of this nod to history is providing juicy roles for Hagman, Patrick Duffy as Bobby and Linda Gray as J.R.'s former trophy wife, Sue Ellen, with cameos early on by Charlene Tilton (Lucy) and Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes).
Notably missing is Victoria Principal, who played Bobby's wife, Pamela. (Bobby has remarried, with "Desperate Housewives" narrator Brenda Strong stepping in as his new wife, Ann.) But producers haven't killed off Pam, leaving the door open for Principal to join in the fun after the first 10-episode run is done.
She'd be wise to consider it.
The old guard isn't merely there to trigger nostalgia. These roles are as rich as a Texas oil field. Hagman looks even more devious this time around, thanks in part to the 80-year-old actor's decision to let his eyebrows grow into wild, white bushes that point up like Lucifer's ears.
Hagman's sly delivery hasn't aged one bit, especially when he evokes past misadventures. When Ann Ewing, thinking there's a prowler in the stables, aims a gun at J.R., Hagman turns on the creepy charm.
"Bullets don't seem to have an effect on me, darlin'," he oozes.
The mini-reunion came as a surprise to the show's veterans, who have watched past efforts to relaunch the series crumble.
Said Duffy, "Somewhere in my heart I knew that Larry, Linda and I would never work together again in anything different because, in my opinion, we couldn't come into a scene without everybody saying, 'Oh, there's J.R., Sue Ellen and Bobby.' And that hurt me. We'd seen scripts prior to the beginning of this particular incarnation and they were atrocious, because nobody got it. This time they've got it."
But even a successful gambler like J.R. knows that the Ewings face a challenge this time around more daunting than vindictive Cliff Barnes.
"When we originally did 'Dallas,' there were like three networks and now there's 500," Hagman said. "I got home the other night and I was flipping through the channels. I went to sleep before I could finish. There's so much out there to choose from. It'll be amazing if we can make a hit out of this again."
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