The return of “Dallas” earlier this year seemed to defy TV logic.
Television is, after all, an unforgiving medium. One season, you’re a hit; the next, a fickle public has moved on to the next must-see TV moment.
But TNT did something rarely seen — it found a hit in the remake of “Dallas.” The original series aired for 14 years, from 1978 until 1991, and then 21 years later, millions tuned in to see what the oil-rich Ewings were still up to.
I tuned in religiously to both, and I anticipated the revamped series’ debut like a kid awaits Santa Claus. I wasn’t disappointed.
Marketers would have had viewers believe the show was about the next generation of Ewings, but as soon as Larry Hagman came on the screen in the show’s debut episode, it was clear, the new “Dallas” was just as much about the original cast as it was its beautiful and sexy new stars.
Larry Hagman’s death Friday at age 81 brings a sad question mark to the show, which was set to begin airing its second season within the next few weeks. How will the show continue without Hagman and his bigger-than-life alter-ego, J.R. Ewing?
For season one, Hagman stole every scene he was in, but, then again, didn’t he always?
As the new cast and Hagman’s fellow veterans — Linda Gray, Patrick Dufy and Ken Kercheval — delivered rich performances for season one’s 10-episode run, it was the return of J.R. Ewing that captivated old and new fans alike.
Maybe it was his out-of-control eyebrows or maybe it was J.R.’s grasp on pop culture, but whatever it was, Hagman gobbled up his scenes with abandon.
For all its drama, “Dallas” always had a touch of sly humor at its core, and Hagman provided much of it.
As the new series began, J.R., the once invincible oil tycoon, is shown languishing away in a nursing home. He spends his first scenes with his eyes closed and not speaking (those eyebrows did their own acting, though). But when the real J.R. emerges once again, his one liners were worth attention.
When Bobby Ewing’s third wife, Ann (played by “Desperate Housewives” alum Brenda Strong), pulled a gun on ol’ J.R., the man who made “Who shot J.R.?” a worldwide phenomenon didn’t even blink. “Bullets,” he said, “don’t seem to have much of an effect on me, darlin’.”
It was a laugh-out-loud moment, and it was those types of scenes that made the new “Dallas” a worthy — albeit amazingly dysfunctional — family reunion.
Reports indicate Hagman had filmed part of season two before his untimely death, so it remains to be seen how TNT will handle the death of its iconic star and how the series will continue without the man who defined the show for generations of TV viewers.
Years ago, the original series, in 1981, dealt with the death of Jim Davis, who played J.R.’s father, Jock. The death of Davis was written into the show and made for years of drama as the family struggled with life without a patriarch. Unintended, of course, but the death of Davis — and, by extension, Jock Ewing — gave the series a punch of reality. After all, at its heart, “Dallas” was about family, and losing members of our families is part of our existence. It made the show richer and more complex. In particular, J.R. Ewing’s character evolved most dramatically without the shadow — and restraint — of his father to keep him in check.
Perhaps the same can be said about the new series. Maybe the death of a patriarch will, as art imitates life and death again, bring a greater depth to a promising new TV drama.
Earlier this year, I interviewed Josh Henderson, the 30-year-old Texas native who plays J.R. Ewing’s son, John Ross, on the new “Dallas.”
“It’s a big deal and an amazing privilege to get this role and get to play the son of such an iconic TV character,” Henderson told me as the show was ready for its debut. “I’m with all these people who made the show the hit it was originally, so I’ve got to show up and play ball and be just as good. You’ve got to be on your toes.”
Hagman made it easy, Henderson said.
“I play off Larry’s energy,” he said. “He’s got these dancing eyes. It’s deep within. I enjoy it so much, and I get to play a part with one of the most infamous villains in TV history.”
It remains to be seen if Henderson and his fellow cast members, both young and old, can go on without Hagman. If the show can, it will be a testament to what Hagman (and, yes, J.R. Ewing) built — a powerhouse TV drama that often defied logic but never lacked heart.
(Mark A. Stevens is publisher of the Elizabethton Star. He interviewed Henderson while serving as an editor with The Daily Advertiser and The Times of Acadiana, newspapers based in Lafayette, La.)