Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Dallas Reboot: Can It Work?

The Ewings and I, we go way, way back.
Right back to the first press conference for CBS's new series Dallas which was held on the L.A. TV Tour in January, 1976.
TV Critics were not initially impressed by the scraggly plot and soap opera histrionics.
I remember the intrepid TV critic for the Houston Chronicle, Anne Hodges, standing up and stating "Thank you for not calling this series Houston."
The creator of all this entertaining nonsense was David Jacobs who later created a sort of spinoff in Knots Landing and then created a Canadian counterpart in Loving Friends And Perfect Couples which ran briefly on cable(it was chock full of nudity).
In fact as Jacobs told me when he was in Toronto working on LFAPC he  had thought up Knots Landing first but CBS wanted something glitzier.
IJust a year before  Dallas CBS had jump started the prime time soap genre with Executive Suite which executives cancelled because they considered it too sexy.
Jacobs originally envisaged a Romeo and Juliet theme with Patrick Duffy as Bobby and Victoria Principal as Pam (chosen after Linda Evans dropped out) the bride bought to Southfork.
Larry Hagman would play the decidedly secondary part of older brother J.R. and Linda Gray would be his increasingly alcoholic wife Sue Ellen.
The parents were played by Barbara Bel Geddes and Jim Davis.
As Jacobs told me the part of J.R. just grew until he dominated every plot twist and turn.
On March 21, 1980, the finale of the third season, CBS inaugurated the "TV cliffhanger" --Who Shot J.R. not for plot considerations but out of sheer survivability.
Hagman was demanding $75,000 per episode for another season and threatened not to return until his demand was met.
At the TV critic's launch that June I saw Robert Culp in the hall of the Century Plaza hotel and asked him if the question was true --the bandages would be moved from J.R.'s face and Culp would be reborn as the new J.R.?
"Who told you that?" Culp said, obviously unnerved. In the end Hagman and CBS settled their differences and Dallas continued on its merry way.
There was another controversial cliffhanger in May, 1986, when Pamela woke up to find the supposedly dead Bobby romping in the shower. He'd been killed off in the last season or had he? Turns out the entire season was dismissed as a dream and with that Dallas's ratings started falling apart.
When Barbara Bel Geddes left the show in 1984 for health reasons I was at the CBS press conference held in Phoenix that announced Donna Reed would be the new Miss Ellie.
When Bel Geddes was re-hired a year later Reed found out she'd been dropped watching the TV news --an act co-star Howard Keel told me was "despicable".
It was Dallas that contributed to the rise and fall of one of TV's mammoth production companies: Lorimar. Its key executive, Lee Rich, started off making TV movies but hit the jack pot with the 1972 TV flick The Homecoming which CBS used as the pilot for its 1972 series The Waltons.
I was on the set of The Waltons in July 1972 before it went on the air chatting up series creator Earl Hamner Jr.The series had been plopped against the number one hit on American TV, Flip Wilson on NBC. ABC's The Mod Squad was right up there, too.
But at the end of the first season The Waltons had triumphed and Wilson was gone after one more season. And Rich had powered his tiny company into a giant making TV hit after hit: Eight Is Enough, Knots Landing. Falcon Crest, Perfect Strangers, Valerie, Full House.
Lorimar became so big it bought the entire MGM lot. But in 1993 Rich sold everything to Warner Bros and Lorimar faded into reruns.
It all started with Dallas whose mores perfectly mirrored the Reagan Revolution in Washington and the conservative dream of unbridled acquisition. There even was a close competitor in ABC's Dynasty.
But this Dallas reboot isn't happening on CBS but on TNT (Bravo in Canada) and David Jacobs isn't involved at all which I think a mistake. He always insisted that this was a family saga above all whereas Dynasty was a tale of glitter and wealth accumulation.
Bravo sent over the first 54 minutes and a very aged Larry Hagman is back along with Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray. Here are three iconic performers still strutting their stuff and that puts pressure on the next generation played by Josh Henderson as John Ross, Jesse Metcalfe as Chris Ewing, Jordana Brewster as Elena, daughter of the family cook and Julie Gonzalo as seemingly sweet Rebecca.
Can Dallas work in these very different economic times? Rebooting Charlie's Angels failed. Even Lucy Ball found that on TV there are no second acts.
But Dallas is Dallas and this 10-hour limited series is beautiful to look at, as melodramatic as expected and fun of its kind. Good luck!

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