CHUCK BARNEY, Contra Costa Times
Publication: The Day
Everywhere you look these days, things are being downsized and diminished. Even the great J.R. Ewing isn't immune to the trend.
Larry Hagman's iconic character doesn't show up until nearly 15 minutes into the premiere episode of TNT's new update of "Dallas," and he logs precious little camera time in the opener.
Moreover, the conniving Texas oilman who was once larger than life now appears old and feeble. Age, of course, has taken its toll, and apparently, so have three marriages, four shootings and too many sinful shenanigans to count.
But don't go thinking for a moment that ol' J.R. will be nothing but a marginal utility player in this new-look soap that introduces the next generation of Ewings. He may have lost a little zip off his fastball, but he's still got game, and J.R. is still very much capable of taking down others with despicable deeds. So, amen to that.
"Dallas" represents yet another attempt by the idea-starved folks in Hollywood to breathe new life into a formerly popular brand (See: "Melrose Place," "90210," "Bionic Woman," "Hawaii Five-0," "Charlie's Angels," and so on.)
In this case, we're talking ultra-popular. "Dallas" was a global sensation that aired on CBS for 14 seasons (1978-91) and eventually appeared in more than 90 countries. It also struck one of the greatest ratings gushers in American TV history when 83 million viewers tuned in on Nov. 21, 1980, to see "who shot J.R.?" (the first time).
TNT's version rides the coattails of that storied past by weaving in classic characters such as J.R., Bobby (Patrick Duffy) and Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) with the youngsters, and does it better than the CW's "90210," which pretty much relegated the old guard to bit-player status in its first season.
In the "Dallas" reboot - or the extended saga, as producers prefer to pitch it - we have Josh Henderson cast as John Ross, the duplicitous son of J.R. and Sue Ellen. He's determined to drill for oil on Southfork Ranch, despite the strident objections of Bobby, who continually reminds everyone that "Mama" never wanted Ewing land to suffer such desecration.
Then there's Jesse Metcalfe, who plays Christopher, the adopted son of Bobby and his wife, Ann (Brenda Strong). He wants to take the family business in a dramatic new direction via alternative energy sources. Naturally, this puts Christopher at odds with John. Amping up the tension is the fact that these cousins have feelings for the same woman, Elena Ramos (Jordana Brewster).
"Dallas" is teeming with the soapy plots, delectable eye candy and bad blood we crave in our TV guilty pleasures. It also maintains the general tone of the original without devolving into camp. And, at least in the early episodes, it does a good job of keeping viewers guessing as to whom to root for, enticing newcomers with its many gray shades of moral ambiguity.
It certainly helps that the new leading men appear ready and able to carry the show. Henderson, who looks smashing in a Stetson, especially stands out. With fiery eyes and plenty of Southern moxie, he has the ability to smoothly shift from schemer to charmer and give off plenty of heat in the process.
Of course, Henderson has a master mentor on the set in Hagman. Now 80 and locked in a battle with a "treatable" form of cancer, he hasn't lost the ability to project his entertaining brand of malicious glee. And though his camera time may have waned, his reputation and sense of command are such that you feel J.R.'s presence even when he's not on screen.
Let the back-stabbing begin.
"Dallas" premieres on TNT at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, June 13.