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Wed June 13, 2012
The Absolute Unvarnished Truth About The New And Rebooted 'Dallas'
There is a certain honesty with which I believe critics must exist — a willingness to look yourself in the eye. A willingness to say, "This is the absolute truth as I experienced it."
I could speak to you of the rebooted version of Dallas in the analytical voice with which I approach serious matters such as, for instance, bacon sundaes. We could discuss the way Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing is still, at 81, the twinkliest villain in twinkly villain history, or the way Patrick Duffy can still play stricken nobility like he walked off Southfork Ranch yesterday. I could take a few shots at the younger cast members playing Bobby and J.R.'s sons, who, particularly in the pilot, seem to have spent too much time taking classes in Very Intense Acting For Promo Spots.
But here's the thing: I watched six of them in a row. Seriously. They sent me the first seven (the first two of which air back-to-back tonight on TNT), and I sat down with them and watched six in a row, and the only reasons I didn't watch the seventh are that it was getting late and, quite frankly, I think I might be saving it as you would save the last cookie in the batch.
This is the absolute truth as I experienced it.
There are shows for which addictiveness would be an entirely inadequate metric. Shows that aspire to beauty, like Mad Men, or to meaning, like The Wire, or even to stylish panache, like Burn Notice – with all those shows, there's more to whether they have done what they intended to do than whether you wanted to keep watching.
But compulsive watchability is all Dallas is going for. If the people who created this show had sat down and spoken honestly about the aims of the series as they formulated it, if they had searched their creative guts as I searched my critical one, this is all that would have been there: "We dearly hope you can't help watching six of these suckers in a row."
The caveat, of course, is that they're not going to show them to you six in a row. They're going to show them to you by starting with two this week, then dribbling out another one each week for the following eight Wednesdays, and perhaps that will move too slowly. Perhaps it won't be the same experience it was for me.
One of the charms of this doofy (sorry, it's not a real word, but it's the right word) production is that even though there are a preposterous number of switcheroos (double-cross! Triple-cross! QUADRUPLE-CROSS!), when you've seen the first two or three hours, you've seen a lot of things happen. And when you've seen the first six, you've seen many of the major soap-opera elements known to humanity – illness! Secret identities! Weddings! Multiple lurking, ominous weirdos!
I love great television that can slave over a single plot development for an entire hour. I love the richness and deliberateness with which shows like Breaking Bad consider individual moments in people's lives.
But I do believe there is a place in the world for things that move a little faster. There is a place for the bonkers plotting inherent in the world of soaps, where confrontations are constant, every motivation is clear-cut, and the plot that hatches today may blow up by tomorrow. It doesn't replace things of quality and serious thought, any more than Cheetos replace rice, even though they're both sort of starches.
But if you were a reviewer who somehow was supposed to review snack foods and you sat down and said, "After consuming this entire bag of Cheetos in one sitting despite the fact that it says it contains 19 servings, I can only say: B-minus!" you would be a little bit of a phony.
There is nothing here you don't expect. Larry Hagman's J.R. Ewing is still diabolical, it's still all about who loves the family and the ranch more (even though now there's a plotline about alternative fuels!), it's still preposterous, and it's still dishy and indulgent.
I don't disagree with Salon's Willa Paskin, who notes today how old-fashioned this show is, but for me, that was mostly a plus. Not if every show were this way, but with just this one. Unlike the nighttime soaps we have now, it's not arch, it's not ironic, and it's not self-consciously campy. It's just straightforwardly soapy and a little bit dopey, and either that's your thing or it's not, but I can't say they're not executing.
It's true that the young segment of the cast is still figuring out what makes for good soapy acting – Jesse Metcalfe, as Bobby's son Christopher, hasn't quite figured out what to do besides yell indignantly. Josh Henderson, as J.R.'s son John Ross, starts out impossibly hammy in the pilot and gets 15 percent less hammy over the next five hours until he's downright watchable. Jordana Brewster, as the woman they both love, is actually not bad, but she's a little bit stuck in the wasteland of being ... well, The Woman They Both Love! And not a whole lot more.
But I watched it. I got sucked into the broken deals and the scheming and the star-crossed romances and the people listening at each other's doors. And on a summer evening with an iced tea in my hand and the fan on, I watched it.
And that's the truth.