“Dallas” looking to ride high in the saddle again

The new – and some of the old – cast of TNT

Look who’s riding back into town after 21 years… and look who’s he brought back from the gutter with him…

J.R. Ewing – whose seedy antics made even superhero villains look good by comparison, is coming back to television this Wednesday night in a revival of the popular 1978-91 CBS primetime serial Dallas for TNT, which features the dealings of the Ewings and their lucrative, profitable oil business. Just like in the original series, there’s a lot of wealth, sex, and betrayal…. yeah, plenty of portrayal.

In addition to Larry Hagman reprising his role as J.R., Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray are also reprising their roles as the next generation of Ewings wreck havoc on… well, just about everybody in North Texas – and each other.

Cast in the continuation of the series are Jordana Brewster, Jesse Metcalfe, Josh Henderson (no relation to yours truly), Brenda Strong, and Julie Gonazo. And judging by the early buzz for the show, this new Dallas proves to be just as wild as the original. The cast discussed the new show at The Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour back in January.

So, what was the best thing about returning to work on Dallas on a regular basis after 21 years? “Work at 80 years old!” said Hagman, who attended the panel along with Duffy, Gray, and the rest of the cast. Hagman said was able to film his scenes and stay in good spirits despite battling cancer. Hagman joked that the cast of Friends “owes me at least ten percent”, in reference to the precedent-setting hardline stance he took with producers of the original series during contract negotiations.

Unlike recent revivals such as Hawaii Five-O (which received mixed reviews) and Scooby-Doo, Mystery Incorporated (where the kids seem to be more interested in humping each other than solving mysteries), TNT programming head Michael Wright said this new version of Dallas is not a remake or a reboot, but a continuation of the series with a next generation of Ewings. And unlike the recent Scooby-Doo abomination, the producers of the new Dallas never pretended the series’ past never existed and respected its legacy. Executive producer Cynthia Cidre (who wrote the pilot script), said at the panel that all the original script elements in the series – family conflict, betrayal, and other things – are present in the new show, just with a different generation of individuals.

The original 1978 cast of “Dallas”.

Originally slated as a five-part miniseries in April 1978, Dallas made the 1978-79 season schedule as a regular series, with J.R. Ewing refocused as the center of the show. In March 1980, Dallas concluded its third season with a “cliffhanger” in which J.R. was shot and had the nation talking for months. It wasn’t until November 21, 1980 (the season was delayed due to an actor’s strike) that viewers found out it was Kristen who pulled the trigger. More than 90 million viewers tuned in and became television’s most watched event at the time, until the final episode of M*A*S*H surpassed it in 1983.

Dallas was also an international phenomenon, with the show airing in more than one hundred countries, including Canada’s CBC and UK’s BBC. Who Shot J.R. is still the most-watched episode of a television show globally. with 360 million viewers tuned in around the globe to see who did it.

In the series’ seventh season, Patrick Duffy decided to leave Dallas, so the producers killed his character off in the season finale in a car crash. However, Duffy had departures’ remorse and decided to return to Dallas full time in 1986, leaving the writers’ in a lurch on how to integrate him back in the cast. And so, in the season eight finale, Pam Ewing (Victoria Principal) wakes up to find her husband – in the shower, suggesting the entire 1985-86 season was nothing but a dream. As a result, many viewers accused the show of “jumping the shark” (this phrase doesn’t really need any more explanation.)

Ratings declined through much of the late ’80’s, and Dallas ended on May 3, 1991 after fourteen seasons with a rather limp series finale: a It’s A Wonderful Life ripoff with Joel Grey miscast as an “angel” (a little more on this in the trivia section below.) Though the series finished 63rd in the ratings during the 1990-91 season, Dallas‘ finale was the top rated show of the week.

Knowing how to outwit and outplay his enemies – and not annoying the audience in the process (unlike Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation), J.R. Ewing is perhaps the best antagonist ever in pop culture lore – a title The Joker, Riddler, and not even Darth Vader can hold a candle to. (and yes, good ol’ J.R. can wipe out any reality TV show villain – sorry Omarosa, Nene, and Colton, you don’t match up.) While the audience naturally hated J.R., they respected him – because he played his cards so damn well.

Trivia

All right, here comes the fun part. Here are some facts you may know about Dallas – and some you may not:

Dallas finished on top of the Nielsens as TV’s top show from 1980-82 and again during the 1983-84 season. Dallas finished second twice: in 1982-83 behind 60 Minutes and in 1984-85 behind Dynasty and ahead of The Cosby Show, which would take over the top spot the following season.

Coincidence? The 1982-83 season finale of Dallas featured several of the main series’ characters trapped in a fire at the Southfork Ranch. During the exact same season on Dynasty – another primetime soap about the dealings of a rich family in the oil business, Krystle (Linda Evans) and Alexis (Joan Collins) were trapped in a fire in a cabin in a similar cliffhanger.

In the 1991 series finale, a cliffhanger (even in a series finale, there’s a cliffhanger) hinted J.R. Ewing committed suicide by shooting himself. In the 1996 TV movie J.R. Returns, it was revealed J.R. only shot a reflection of himself in a mirror.

Who shot J.R. was parodied by several series, including The Jeffersons, Saturday Night Live, and The Simpsons, which concluded its sixth season with a similar premise, with Montgomery Burns the one being shot (in the seventh-season premiere, it was revealed Maggie Simpson shot Mr. Burns.)

During the infamous “dream season” of 1985-86, Pamela Ewing slept though the Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl season, the Challenger space shuttle disaster, Chernobyl, and Mary Tyler Moore’s disastrous return to television in the short-lived sitcom Mary – not to mention the sale of CBS to the Tisch family.

  Despite Dallas‘ ranking 6th during the 1985-86 “dream season”, it was more of a nightmare for CBS. Even though the network finished second overall behind NBC, almost all of its freshman series were canceled, while the rest of its primetime slate skewed increasingly older. Black Rock also laid off employees while barely fending off a takeover attempt from Ted Turner. As this was going on, CBS-owned WBBM-TV plummeted in the ratings, despite airing Chicago Bears games and its local newscasts fell to third place by the end of 1986. Ratings for signature show Donahue declined significantly opposite WLS-TV’s Oprah Winfrey Show, and WBBM’s performance wasn’t helped much by airing ratings losers like early-fringe talk show America, which lasted just seventeen weeks.

The dream season was parodied by a 1999 episode Family Guy (in which Patrick Duffy and Victoria Principal made cameo appearances), and a 1991 episode of Married.. With Children, where in a multi-story arc, Al dreamed his wife Peg was expecting another baby. The storyline was scrapped when Katey Sagal miscarried in real life.

Barbara Eden, who played Jeannie opposite Larry Hagman in I Dream of Jeannie, joined the cast of Dallas in its final season, but only for five episodes.

CBS was the top-rated network during Dallas‘ reign as most-watched show. By the time Dallas left the airwaves, CBS finished a distant third in primetime, behind NBC and ABC.

Talk about a personality change: Sasha Mitchell, who played hunk James Richard Beaumont – J.R. illegitimate son on the final few seasons of Dallas, somehow wound up playing dim-witted Cody on ABC (and later CBS) sitcom Step By Step, where Patrick Duffy landed after Dallas ended.

While Dallas was a huge success during its network run, its off-network run starting in 1984 was a disaster as stations who bought the show found out quick that serialized programs repeat poorly (and still do to this day, if rating returns for Heroes, Lost, and Desperate Housewives were any indication.) Locally, WFBN-TV (now WGBO) aired Dallas reruns in prime access, but only managed to attract just a 2 share during its short run.

TNT, which is airing new episodes on Wednesday, actually aired the original in reruns in the early 1990’s.

If J.R. Ewing is the most creative antagonist on television, then South Park’s (and L.A. Kings fan) Eric Cartman is a close second. Yours truly wrote this brief post from April 11, 2008 regarding an NPR article on Cartman and how he became the center of South Park, similar to J.R.’s ascension to star status on Dallas And yes, the NPR link still works.

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