Larry Hagman’s eyebrows are a character unto themselves in TNT’s new “Dallas” series. They are beautiful and terrifying, white and expansive and at once a sign of the frailty of old age and the endurance of one of the biggest television stars of all time.
In many scenes, Hagman’s eyebrows on their own outact any of Hagman’s young new co-stars. As he stares at them from underneath those towering, manicured white streaks of hair, you have expect the eyebrows to start talking, and telling the likes of Josh Henderson or Jesse Metcalfe, “Now listen here, sonny Jim. You may have the youth and the sex scenes, but how many people are actually going to tune in to see your abs. Back in my day, young fella, I was so darned popular that seventy-six percent of everyone in America watching television one night tuned in to find out who shot J.R. So go do some crunches and leave the dramatics to the old pros.”
Hagman and his eyebrows are simultaneously the best and the worst thing about this “Dallas” sequel, which debuts tomorrow night at 9.
On the one hand, even at the age of 80 and moving much slower and speaking in a raspier voice than he did in his 1980s peak, Hagman effortlessly commands the screen. It’s a pleasure to watch him slip on J.R. Ewing’s old Stetson and sneer at the thought of his good but naïve younger brother Bobby, or once again wrap ex-wife Sue Ellen around his wrinkled fingers.
On the other, Hagman – and to a lesser extent fellow returning stars Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray – are so much more fun to watch than their four new, young co-stars that the new “Dallas” plays less like a passing of the torch than a suggestion that torches were better back in the ’80s.
Hagman, Duffy and Gray are on hand, along with Brenda Strong playing Bobby’s new wife Ann. (Victoria Principal quit acting a decade ago after NBC’s heinous, short-lived soap “Titans,” so Pam is alluded to from time to time but never seen.) The three returning stars aren’t marginalized by any means, but the focus is on the next generation of Ewings, and how Bobby’s son Christopher (Metcalfe) and J.R.’s son John Ross (Henderson) are re-enacting their fathers’ old good vs. evil dynamic. There are also two new young women: Elena (Jordana Brewster), the former love of Christopher’s life who is now dating John Ross, and Rebecca (Julie Gonzalo), Christopher’s fiancée, who seems too sweet and innocent for all the usual drama in and around Southfork.
The new actresses are passable, and Henderson makes a good preening bad boy up until the moment in any episode where John Ross goes to visit his daddy and you’re reminded what a real soap villain looks and acts like. Metcalfe, the former “Desperate Housewives” lawn jockey, is more problematic, particularly since the new writing team (led by Cynthia Cidre) decided it would be a great idea to have Christopher constantly talking about methane hydrate mining.
It’s a very traditional, unapologetic soap opera. Whatever winking is done comes as allusions to the original series – when a woman points a gun at J.R., he quips, “Bullets don’t seem to have much of an effect on me, darling.” – and not to the idea of doing a classic primetime soap in 2012. And that’s fine. “Dallas” is being “Dallas” -it also features periodic cameos from other ’80s alums and (like CBS’ “Hawaii Five-0” remake) an untouched version of the classic theme song – and not a post-modern take on itself. There are acknowledgments of the passing years – J.R. is living in a nursing home and sometimes uses a walker as a prop to gain sympathy, and many of Bobby’s actions in trying to protect the family estate comes out of an age-appropriate health crisis – but there are still sincere battles over oil and money and women and the right to be the biggest, toughest Ewing on the block.
I’ll be curious to see what kind of an audience there is for this show, though. I once did a guest lecture at a Rutgers class on television, and in answering a question about the evolving relationship between TV critics and the people they cover, I noted that things were once so chummy that CBS’ annual press tour parties took place at Larry Hagman’s house. The professor noticed a number of puzzled looks from his students and stopped me to poll the class on how many of them knew who Hagman was. One hand went up – two or three more after I mentioned “I Dream of Jeannie.”
That was 10 years ago. Those college seniors who had never heard of J.R. Ewing are now pushing towards the outer edge of the adults 18-34 demographic, and I wonder if the “Dallas” brand has any equity with them or people younger. I’m sure there will be plenty of old-school “Dallas” viewers who will tune in, eager to see Hagman and friends again, and the original players get enough to do that their fans won’t feel cheated. But will they care about which son of empire will win control of Southfork, or the love of Elena? And will the younger characters pull in any young viewers with them, or is this next generation of “Dallas” ultimately only for the original generation?
I’m not a soap guy in general, but Hagman is one of those actors whose skill and charisma transcends my lack of interest in the genre. I don’t imagine I’ll be watching a ton of the new “Dallas” going forward, but I’m glad that it exists, and that Hagman and his eyebrows are working again.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org