Damn, it’s good to have J.R. Ewing back. As the ruthless oil baron of Dallas, he was the original dashing scumbag arch-villain, on the original prime-time soap. Played by the great Larry Hagman, J.R. was Tony Soprano in a Stetson, Tyrrion Lannister in a Mercedes, Don Draper with more notches on his oil well – those guys couldn’t exist without J.R. to show them the way. As Hagman says, with his Texas cackle, “My favorite J.R. line was, ‘Once you get rid of integrity, the rest is a piece of cake.’ And lemme tell ya, it’s true.”
Dallas originally ran from 1978 to 1991, not exactly a golden age for network TV. But somehow, the Ewing sex-and-blood-and-oil-and-bourbon saga still resonates. The TNT version isn’t a reboot, fortunately – it picks up the story with characters both old and new, back-stabbing and bed-hopping through the Lone Star State. All three key Ewings are on hand: Patrick Duffy as idealistic brother Bobby, Linda Gray as J.R.’s ex-wife Sue Ellen, and Hagman as J.R.
The fashion may have changed, but the Ewings, like the rest of us, keep fighting over the same old shit. J.R.’s son John Ross (Josh Henderson) is a shark who wants to drill for oil on the family homestead of Southfork; Bobby’s son Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe) wants to explore alternative energy sources. Elena (Jordana), the daughter of Southfork’s cook, is conniving with John Ross in the boardroom and the bedroom. Sue Ellen has become a tycoon, while J.R. is a recluse plotting vengeance against Bobby over a bowl of red Jello. Have they learned a damn thing? Maybe not. But maybe the rest of the country hasn’t either.
Television has gotten much more sophisticated since the Dallas days, so it may seem heretical, contrarian, or just plain insane to hail it as the most innovative and influential show of modern times. But if we’re living in a golden age of TV, it’s the Ewings’ fault, because they invented the game everyone plays now. They proved you could stretch out the story week to week, throwing in preposterous cliffhangers and plot twists and power struggles. And they proved you could sum up the country’s sickest dreams and flaws all in one expensively fucked-up family.
That’s why you can see the Ewings in clans from the Sopranos to the Kardashians. J.R.’s approach to any problem was to “spread some B’s” – booze, bucks, broads – and over 14 seasons they spread so many B’s around that television would never be the same. As Duffy says, “The Ewings are all about oil the way Mad Men is all about advertising. They come from this particular business world, but what matters is the relationships.”
“I haven’t seen Mad Men,” Hagman says. “I don’t watch a lot of television, but The Sopranos – now that show I did watch, and it was brilliantly done. By God, that was great. It was definitely along the same lines of Dallas. Except the people were not particularly attractive. That wasn’t a problem for us.”
To put it bluntly, Dallas was the first attempt to remake the Godfather movies as a TV show, which is what everybody tries to do now, especially in our era of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Dallas was a prime-time serial, at a time when that just wasn’t done. It came on every Friday night at 10, right after The Dukes of Hazzard, and – especially in its third and fourth seasons – achieved a shameless pulp splendor.
At first, there was nothing subtle about the Godfather homage. Although family foe Cliff Barnes denounces J.R. as “Texas’ answer to Michael Corleone,” he was obviously Sonny Corleone, the hothead older son desperate to impress the old man. Jock Ewing was Don Vito, the hard-ass patriarch. Bobby was Michael, the kid brother who doesn’t want to get mixed up in the family business, only to get corrupted by his first taste of power. Gary was Fredo, the weak middle brother exiled out west. (At least Fredo made it to Vegas; Gary got stuck in Knots Landing.) And ranch foreman Ray Krebbs was the Tom Hagen consigliere – he was raised as one of the brothers, and everybody calls him part of the family, but when push comes to shove, he knows he’s hired help.
So what did Dallas have The Godfather didn’t? Women, women, women. The most brilliant innovation of Dallas wasn’t shifting to the deep South – it was stacking the action with the the loudest, stormiest, plushest, cattiest, weepiest, most lavishly upholstered female characters TV had ever seen. Miss Ellie was the fearsome matriarch Mama Corleone never was – even Jock was scared of her, ever since she took a horsewhip to him. And she was just the beginning, as Dallas became a pageant of side-eye and stillettos.
None of these ladies raised as much hell as Sue Ellen, J.R.’s long-suffering consort. “There was nobody like her, except maybe in the old Bette Davis movies,” as Linda Gray says proudly. “This lovely creature, dysfunctional to her core. I finally told the producers it was time for Sue Ellen to quit drinking. They said, ‘But you do it so well!'” There had been lots of disastrous TV marriages before, but no other couple made it look like this much fun. (Sample dialogue: “Tell me, J.R, which slut are you gonna stay with tonight?” “Whoever she is, she’s gotta be more interesting than the slut I’m looking at right now.”)
While J.R. and Sue Ellen catted around, Bobby Ewing was the romantic hero. No matter how hard the ladies threw themselves at him, he only had eyes for his wife Pam. Although it probably helped that his wife was played by the calamitously foxy Victoria Principal. “Bobby never dabbled the way J.R. did,” says Duffy. “Just as a lech, I was sorry I never got to cross that line. But it wouldn’t have fit the story. Bobby and Pam were two young people in love – we were Romeo and Juliet. And I knew 99% of the men in the country would kill to be in my shoes.”
While Duffy compares the Ewing saga to Greek tragedy, Hagman sees it in less lofty terms. “I always considered it a cartoon,” Hagman says. “And a damn funny one. I mean, here’s this rich old family, but they all live crammed together in the same house. And they have to run home early every night, because they get in trouble if they miss dinner with the parents.” Needless to say, the family would also sit around together before dinner drinking bourbon. “Well, when you consider what goes on in that house, you better drink a lot before dinner.”
The TNT Dallas is still an old-school melodrama at heart, yet it reflects how times have changed, especially for its heroines. “Sue Ellen was the original desperate housewife,” Linda Gray says proudly. “But this time around, Sue Ellen’s got more money than J.R., and I love it.”
But even in his golden years, J.R. is still a sick bastard. (Indeed, he was probably the first guy on TV ever addressed as “you bastard” – by Cliff Barnes, in 1981 – as well as the first to call his sister-in-law “bitch” after she shot him.) And a sick bastard is what J.R. should always be. As Hagman recalls, “There was a bar that used to show Dallas every Friday night, and of course every episode used to end with a closeup of my shit-eating grin. The bar had a lottery, and the winner got the prize of throwing a beer bottle at the screen, right through my face. I thought that was an honor.”
This story is from the June 21st, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.