“Dallas” is back and staking its claim on a landscape littered with failed remakes and lackluster reboots.
For every successful “Hawaii Five-O,” there is a handful of forgettable comebacks like “Charlie Angels,” "Knight Rider” and “The Bionic Woman.” There's also reboots of "The Munsters" (NBC's "Mockingbird Lane" ) and "The Flintstones" from "Family Guy's" Seth MacFarlane in the pipeline.
So how can “Dallas” – which was tent-pole television in its 1980’s heyday – hope to strike it rich once again? There’s no surefire formula, but producers behind the 2.0 version are betting on what works for “Hawaii Five-O” – respect the source material, celebrate the iconic theme and update with a sexy cast and modern pacing.
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“My first reaction was to say no,” says “Dallas” executive producer Cynthia Cidre of being approached to develop a modern-day version of the show for TNT. But the more Cidre thought about the series – which ran on CBS from 1978 to 1991, appeared in more than 90 countries and attracted 83 million viewers for the “who shot J.R.?” episode – the more she realized audiences would still respond to the original show’s heady mix of family intrigue and melodrama. The way to do it, she reasoned, was to make it a continuation and not a remake.
“That would have been stupid,” said Cidre. “That was never part of my intent. I never once thought, ‘Oh let’s cast J.R. with a different actor and start the whole thing over again.”
A smart move according to author and television writer Lee Goldberg: “It looks like they are doing ‘Dallas’ absolutely right. Not only do the have the theme song, not only do they have the iconic house, they even have J.R. and Bobby and Sue Ellen!”
Yes, Larry Hagman is back as J.R. Ewing, returning to his villainous best following a stint in a nursing home, no less. Also along for the ride are Linda Gray, as J.R.’s scheming ex-wife Sue Ellen (now running for Texas governor), and Patrick Duffy as Bobby Ewing (still feuding with brother J.R. and now intent on selling SouthFork rather than see it drilled for oil by J.R.’s son).
Broader audience appeal and the necessary dose of sex (it is a soapy nighttime drama, after all) comes in the camera-friendly forms of Josh Henderson as John Ross, the duplicitous son of J.R. and Sue Ellen; Jesse Metcalfe as Christopher, the do-gooder adopted son of Bobby and his wife Ann (Brenda Strong) who is engaged to orphaned Rebecca (Julie Gonzalo), and Jordana Brewster as Elena, the daughter to the Ewing’s cook the girl who previously broke Christopher’s heart but is now romantically involved with John Ross.
The two young bucks are at odds from the first episode (like fathers like sons!) as a determined John Ross attempts to claim his birthright (oil!) and drill SouthFork while Christopher favors a move toward alternative energy. Mix in health concerns for Bobby, a family wedding, numerous conspiratorial glances from Sue Ellen, a mysterious stranger in a Ferrari and a near catatonic J.R. biding his time in controlled silence, and presto: it’s just like 1984 all over again. Except this time the drama is paced like an episode of “24,” and filming actually occurs in Texas – the original was filmed in Los Angeles with shots tight to character’s faces in an effort to avoid palm trees.
As important as the fresh blood and fast-pacing will be in holding the crucial 18-49 audience demographic, getting the “big three,” as Cidre calls Hagman, Gray and Duffy, was crucial when resurrecting the franchise. “I wanted those actors back,” she says. “And three seemed the right number. I mean how many are you going to have? You can’t write to ten people in the pilot. We have eight and that is a lot to do back story for in 41 and a half minutes. And I really did want a balance between the original and the new.”
Just as present and noteworthy is the theme music, immediately transporting audiences south to a locale of big drama, big characters and big land. The iconic tune plays over the opening credits which are faithful to the original's split-screen visuals.
“You have to have the theme song,” says Goldberg. “Audiences have a very strong emotional attachment to it. When you hear the theme to say ‘The Addams Family’ or ‘Hawaii Five-O’ or ‘Star Trek’ you are immediately into it. They are iconic for a reason. They evoke an emotional response. It’s almost Pavlovian – you buy enormous goodwill with the theme.”
Something executive producer Peter Lenkov bet on when reanimating “Hawaii Five-O.” “It's probably the most recognized theme song on the planet, so not using it was never an option,” he said of the iconic drums and horn arrangement. “I used to play it on the way to meetings and when I was writing. It got me in the mood and I think the same goes for the audience. When you hear it you know you're in for a fun ride.”
For Cidre, who admits to rarely tuning in to the original “Dallas,” becoming a fan meant immersing herself in what came before in an effort to chart what she hopes is a successful future.
“I watched 80 episodes,” she admits. “I read the synopsis for every season, every episode and I made this huge chart on my wall of the story and who was related to whom and I didn’t want to do anything stupid like putting brother and sister in bed together unless I wanted to put brother and sister in bed together. I didn’t want to do anything like that accidentally. So I became a ‘Dallas’ nerd and by the time I got around to breaking down the story for the pilot I was as involved in ‘Dallas’ as the biggest Trekkie – or Forkies as we call them.”
Only ratings will prove if the new “Dallas” can match the original’s 14-year reign. But in true soap fashion, the last word should belong to J.R., a character never prone to understatement: “I’m back now, honey,” he says with devilish glee to a stunned Sue Ellen in an early episode of the new series. “And I’m gonna be bigger than ever.”
"Dallas" premieres Wednesday June 13 at 9 pm eastern on TNT.