The Ewing brothers and their wives, past and present: from left, Larry Hagman, Linda Gray, Patrick Duffy, and Barbara Strong. More Photos »
LINDA GRAY will slap you across the face if you ask nicely.
We’re sitting at the expansive table in the Southfork dining room — actually a soundstage 30 miles south of the renowned ranch — and she grabs its edge for leverage. Then she swings, her tiny hand approaching impact until she suddenly swivels her wrist and her exquisitely manicured nails pass harmlessly before my eyes.
She’s demonstrating the phantom blow I’d just watched her, as Sue Ellen Ewing, deliver a few dozen times to her former and current co-star Larry Hagman during filming of “Dallas,” which has its debut Wednesday on TNT. Each take brought another silent slap — the audible “smack” will be added later — and Mr. Hagman’s icy blue eyes flashed in surprise beneath his silver batwing brows. But each time he quickly recovered.
“I’m back now, honey,” J. R. Ewing said, his grin puckered by the years but still the Platonic ideal of devilish glee. “And I’m gonna be bigger than ever.”
For once J. R. speaks the truth: “Dallas” is back. Not reimagined or rebooted, in the Hollywood jargon du jour. It has returned in what passes for real time in the prime-time soap universe, as if the Ewings decided to throw open the doors of Southfork Ranch after more than 20 years in hiding.
The original “Dallas,” broadcast from 1978 to 1991, redefined the boundaries of television melodrama as its characters ran through a wringer of wrecked cars, affairs, booze benders, double-crosses and murder. But its secret weapon was its heart: the Ewings stayed together and even managed some affection as they battered one another week after week.
“Dallas” spent much of its early-’80s heyday as the top-rated series, sparking a golden age of nighttime soaps and creating bits of television lore that still boggle. The 1980 “Who Shot J. R.?” episode drew an amazing 76 percent of that night’s TV audience, which is almost as astounding as the show’s once writing off an entire season as a dream.
This version will introduce a new generation of the battling clan, though they’re mostly battling over the same things their elders did. Land. Oil. Birthrights and the fate of that hallowed chunk of earth called Southfork.
This time it’s J. R.’s son John Ross (played by Josh Henderson) and Bobby’s adopted son, Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe), doing much of the clashing, but a few of the elder Ewings are back to show them how it’s done. In addition to Ms. Gray and Mr. Hagman, Patrick Duffy reprises Bobby Ewing, and others will make cameos.
The returning Ewings — known as the Big 3 on the set — serve as both candy for fans and cheat sheets for the show’s writers. Their participation allows the series to dispense with laborious back story and jump forward with the younger actors, who include Jordana Brewster as the third part of a love triangle with the Ewing scions.
“Our history is our ace in the hole,” Mr. Duffy said.
The show also stands to benefit from an apparent renewed appetite for nighttime soaps, based on the success of shows like ABC’s “Revenge” (which happens to feature a South Fork Inn, even if it’s probably a reference to its Long Island setting). But it remains to be seen whether viewers want to revisit “Dallas” or its history.
“Many people around the world have seen it, but there’s a whole generation or two that have not,” Mr. Hagman said.
“Dallas” is also at least the third recent reprise of a beloved pulpy series, following “Hawaii Five-0” and the quickly canceled “Charlie’s Angels,” which initially concerned some of the younger cast members.
As Mr. Metcalfe said, “Remaking a series like ‘Dallas’ that’s so iconic, there’s always that elephant in the room: Is this a good idea?”
But they were lured by a concept that preserved the romance and juicy deceit of the original while modernizing its occasionally over-the-top melodrama. Will there be betrayals, brawls and maybe even sex-tape blackmail? Count on it. But don’t expect a character to, say, bottom out in a gutter and drink hooch with skid-row rummies, as Ms. Gray’s Sue Ellen did in the original.
“We wanted to keep the deliciousness of the twists but keep them grounded,” Cynthia Cidre, the executive producer, said.
The notion for a new “Dallas” originated with Warner Horizon Television, which owned the title and hired Ms. Cidre to develop it. She pitched it to TNT, which had been looking to add a family drama, said Michael Wright, the channel’s president. “Our viewers have something of a popcorn mind-set,” he said. “So ‘Dallas’ was a great fit.”
Unlike the first production, which spent the bulk of filming “avoiding palm trees” in Los Angeles, Mr. Duffy said, joking, the new “Dallas” was shot in and around the actual Dallas.
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