As a boy, I loved the show and the town, but the “Dallas” years took a memorable toll. America fell hard for the Ewings when they reigned on CBS every Friday night in the late 1970s and early ’80s; at the time, it seemed that no one fell harder for the show’s morally shallow mythology than those of us in and around Texas. You didn’t even have to watch “Dallas” to understand. It was just in the air.
The children in my world were raised in the psychic television space between Southfork and the “Knots Landing” cul-de-sac. The Ewing saga was the fictional epitome of an actual oil boom that put money — however briefly, even just peripherally — in the pockets of all our daddies, who started wearing Stetsons and bolo ties unironically and flirted hard with secretaries, stewardesses, cocktail waitresses. There was this sudden mutual need to be on the next Southwest flight to Love Field, to Houston Hobby, to Midland/Odessa, to Tulsa. Everyone’s dad had to see a guy about a deal. The disco radio stations all converted to urban cowboy hits; the Hustle became the two-step; there was a mechanical bull at the church bazaar. The parents all got divorced, one family after another, which is to say that the distance between “Who Shot J.R.?” and the decision to halt the digging of the new swimming pool seemed very short indeed. Then our local banks started to go under. Then it was all over. Pam Ewing was dreaming all along.
But “Dallas” went on and on, beyond even the Reagan years. It lasted until 1991, when surely the only people left watching it were hard-core fans, or the last of the Soviets, or space aliens with excellent antennae. A few years back, Hollywood thought about bringing “Dallas” to the big screen as one of those awful adaptations of old TV reruns. That project somehow drifted back to television development and so here we are.
What I like about TNT’s “Dallas” is its reverence for the deceit and despair that so thoroughly colored the original. “Dallas,” always an epic tragedy, has learned important contemporary tricks from “Desperate Housewives” (from which it also borrows some of its new ensemble), “Revenge” and even some telenovelas, while mostly avoiding the pitfalls of the self-conscious camp displayed in ABC’s fizzled “GCB.”
The new version also has a healthy respect for the general “Dallas” canon, embracing 13 years of convoluted story lines and long-gone characters instead of pretending the whole mess never happened. Not only is Hagman back as J.R. (a miracle of modern medicine), but Patrick Duffy is also back as Bobby and Linda Gray returns as Sue Ellen. True, they’re all a lot older than you’d ever imagined them being, but nobody here pretends to be something they’re not. They’re just a bunch of ornery survivors.