Dallas Is Back...And It Still Takes Itself Too Seriously

"With all the fun of a high school reunion with people you're in no rush to meet up with", JR & co returned to our screens last night; was it any good?
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"With all the fun of a high school reunion with people you're in no rush to meet up with", JR & co returned to our screens last night; was it any good?

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When John Carter crashed and burned at the box office this year, the critics were quick to identify the reason for its failure. The books it was based on, had inspired several generations' worth of modern sci-fi adventures. So by the time it made its way onto the big screen, it seemed like a poor imitation of its own concept.

That's the problem currently facing the makers of Dallas 2.0, which made its highly publicised debut on Channel 5 tonight. In the 21 years since the misadventures of the extended Ewing clan last showed up on the schedules, a whole slew of imitators have come along to revise, reinterpret and reinvigorate the genre. In particular, Desperate Housewives has spent the last eight years rewriting the rules of 'prime time soap opera', deftly balancing the labyrinthine plots with a biting humour that was notably absent in Dallas' original run.

After all, I don't remember Pam Ewing ever checking out her new cocktail dress in a cheval mirror and musing: "I look like something Ike Turner would hit." No, Dallas always took itself a little too seriously, despite the inherent preposterousness of its format.

So what should we make of the producers' bold attempt to reboot the franchise for a 21st century audience? Not a whole lot, if the 75-minute pilot is anything to go by. With all the fun of a high school reunion with people you're in no rush to meet up with, the show goes to painful lengths to remind nostalgic audiences of its former glories. In particular, it takes great delight in wheeling out a guest-list of well-loved characters to spout lines of painful exposition and name check the ones who couldn't make it, for reasons of death or dishonour.

No, Dallas always took itself a little too seriously, despite the inherent preposterousness of its format

The focus of this first episode is Bobby Ewing, still played by the appealingly ageless Patrick Duffy, who's now sporting a salt-and-pepper hairdo that makes him resemble a well-groomed porcupine. All is not well with Bobby, as we discover that he's got an incurable gastro-intestinal tumour, but he's planning on keeping it a secret. Because, in spite of all the high-budget gloss, this is still a soap opera and everyone has to have enough secrets to ensure at least 24 cliffhanger revelations per season.

Of course, it wouldn't be Dallas without everyone's favourite villain, so it's not long before Bobby checks in with JR, who appears to be in some kind of high-end assisted living facility. You can tell it's a fancy retirement home, because JR is wearing monogrammed pyjamas and his room is moodily lit using Venetian blinds. Lovers of high-camp drama will also be celebrating the triumphant return of Sue Ellen, with her face pulled so tight that she can lick her own earlobes.

As the episode unfolds, we're quickly reintroduced to Bobby and JR's sons, Christopher and John Ross III, respectively. Whereas John Ross is a venal, oil-obsessed nogoodnik, Christopher is keen to explore more sustainable energy sources. He and his cousin bicker for most of the show's running time, hoping that saying "With all due respect..." at the start of every argumentative statement, will prevent an all-out feud. In reality, it's like watching two athletes in training for the passive-aggressive Olympics.

The other challenge for the show's writers is how to bring new audiences up-to-speed with about fifteen years worth of double-crosses and betrayals. As a consequence, there's an awful lot of laboured dialogue, as the main protagonists make statements like "I promised Momma there would be no drilling on Southfork" and "Everyone knew your Daddy sold you when you were a little baby. You'll never be a Ewing" over pitchers of iced tea. Half the time, I expected John Ross to begin his lines with "Previously on Dallas..." If this all sounds a bit complicated, don't worry. To help you play catch up, most of the characters refer to each other by their familial connection, rather than using any first names: "This ain't over, Uncle" and "Oil is in your blood, Cousin" being two notable examples.

Celebrating the triumphant return of Sue Ellen, with her face pulled so tight that she can lick her own earlobe

The show certainly wastes no time in establishing enough convoluted plot strands to sustain the first ten-episode run. John Ross strikes oil on the ranch, Christopher causes an earthquake trying to extract methane, and JR makes a remarkable comeback from his persistent vegetative state. In fact, five minutes after reconciling with his estranged son, he's wolfing down a bowl of jelly and tying on a fetching cravat. At this rate, he'll be hunting deer with his bare hands by the second episode.

It's not all empire building though – there are plenty of romantic entanglements to keep the audience hooked. In one breathless exchange, we discover that the soon-to-be-wed Christopher was formerly engaged to John Ross' current squeeze, who also happens to be the daughter of the Southfork cook. "I thought you were dead," he tells her, to which she replies; "You sent me an email on our wedding day to say that we were a mistake."

It's like they've ripped a page right out of my own diary. It's clear that Christopher still has feelings for Elena. But since he's the honourable sort, he soldiers on with his wedding to Rebecca. Well, they'd gone to all that trouble, squeezing the seats down the side of the pool area. Plus, they pulled Ray and Lucy out of cryogenic suspension especially for the occasion.

The wedding itself is a triumph of soap opera acting, as the lovelorn Elena runs through so many different facial expressions, it's like watching the morphing sequence from the Black or White video. On reflection, almost half the show's running time was dedicated to complex reaction shots, with one key scene in the Southfork dining room taking on a surreal quality as each character took turns reacting to every single line of dialogue.

After one episode, it's hard to tell whether this is going to recapture the show's former glory, especially since the exploits of a family of petty billionaires have much less appeal in a world gripped by recession and economic stagnation. Still, if Mitt Romney can convince half of America that he's just a regular guy, maybe there's hope for the Ewings yet.

This article originally appeared on Popvulture

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