Published January 24. 2013 4:00AM
The first two episodes of "Dallas" 2.0, the TNT reboot of the classic nighttime soap, have all the fixin's for a juicy second season: Ewings fighting Ewings over money, the apparent return of one character's long-lost child, a surprise development in Sue Ellen's run for governor of Texas and the return of Christopher Ewing's wife, who, naturally, turns out not to be who she said she was.
These plot elements, and more, take up most of the back to back episodes airing Monday night, but what you'll remember are brief appearances of J.R. Ewing: As the scheming patriarch of the Ewing clan, Larry Hagman steals the show as he always has. Even in the first season, whenever he was onscreen, "Dallas" came alive. The rest of the time, we just waited for him to return.
The wait becomes even more meaningful this year, because we know he won't be around later in the season: Hagman completed five episodes of the second season before his Nov. 23 death.
Knowing that inevitably informs the experience of viewing the new season. We can't help noticing how frail he looks and the dry, slightly labored sound of his speaking voice.
Would we have noticed these things anyway? Yes, but knowing that the end is near only sharpens our awareness of his physical state weighed against a witty, powerful and beautifully nuanced performance.
Over the years, writers for film, TV and stage have intentionally used the certainty of a character's death as a dramatic device. "Sunset Boulevard," for example, begins with William Holden's body floating in Gloria Swanson's swimming pool. On stage, Marsha Norman's superb "'Night, Mother," which originally starred a young Kathy Bates, is about a young woman who plans to kill herself that night. The stage set for the 1983 American Repertory Theatre production included a number of clocks, set to real time. As the play progressed, the audience was always aware of those clocks, ticking toward the pre-announced moment when the daughter would take her life.
"Dallas" writer Cynthia Cidre obviously didn't know Hagman would die before filming for the new season was completed, so whatever foreshadowing viewers see in his performance is coincidental, albeit profound and powerful. In short, we miss Hagman already, not just because he was one of the best-known and most enduring stars of television, but also because it's hard to imagine "Dallas" being anywhere near as interesting without J.R. Ewing.
Oh, there are villains aplenty among the characters, especially John Ross (Josh Henderson), son of J.R. and Sue Ellen (Linda Gray). There's no question that John is a scamp, obsessively motivated by a desire to control the Ewing empire, largely because of how much he hates Bobby's (Patrick Duffy) son Christopher (Jesse Metcalf). But bad as John is, he's not yet the villain you love to hate that J.R. Ewing was. He lacks J.R.'s grace and wit, the delicious deviousness of the character. He's just not fun. The secret to Hagman's appeal as J.R. was that he was evil and fun at the same time.
When you try to figure out how much of a character is in an actor's performance and how much is defined by the script, look to Hagman's J.R.: As worthy as the scripts have been, it's what Hagman did with them, how much he savored the dialogue, that made J.R. Ewing one of the most memorable characters in television.
Henderson is a decent actor and not hard on the eyes. But his villainy is cold-blooded, flinty and graceless compared to J.R. The elder Ewing may have found having a conscience to be an inconvenience, but he exuded a steady stream of old-fashioned charm as he went about thwarting anyone who got in his way. If John Ross is to be the new J.R., both Henderson and Cidre need to step up their games.
It's not just comedy that's hard compared to dying: Villainy is tough as well. Consider some of TV's current crop of bad guys and gals: Boyd Crowder in "Justified," Carl Elias in "Person of Interest" and, with much less creativity, Victoria Grayson on "Revenge." Margo Martindale won her Emmy for "Justified" because she made Mags Bennett almost warmly maternal and ruthless at the same time. Kate Burton's guest arc as Sally Langston in "Scandal" fascinates us because she is a consummate politician, barely able to cloak her boundless personal ambition.
To be fair, no other villain needed to be that interesting in "Dallas" as long as J.R. was around. But if the series is to remain viable beyond this season, it needs a character at least somewhat worthy of filling the void that will be left by J.R.'s death. The options include Rebecca Sutter and Ann Ewing's (Brenda Strong) ex-husband, Harris Ryland (Mitch Pileggi), who guest-starred last season but is a series regular this year. Ryland is the stronger candidate, in part because Julie Gonzalo remains the weak link in the cast. We never quite believed her last season and still don't now, no matter who her character reveals herself to be.
Even if the producers develop a new primary villain, we know "Dallas" will never be the same without Hagman. Those cowboy boots he left behind are just too big to fill.
The "Dallas" season two premiere airs at 9 p.m. Monday, Jan. 28, on TNT.