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Double down; Larry Hagman returns as J.R. at 80, patriarch of a new generation of double-crossing, backstabbing Ewings of 'Dallas'

Picture the iconic original cast of "Dallas" all in a row at a big table: Patrick Duffy, Barbara Bel Geddes, Jim Davis, Victoria Principal, Charlene Tilton, Linda Gray and Larry Hagman.

Now imagine that the show hasn't gone on the air yet. No one knew then that it was going to be one of the benchmarks of American television in the 1970s – the first prime-time habitation of a soap opera with a serious hormonal itch and a cast that looked good scratching it.

They've all been trotted out by CBS to meet the press in one of the bi-annual meat markets of "talent" that the networks convene to unveil their seasonal offerings. All are dressed like actors, i.e. ordinary people. All talk like professional actors, too – people with careers of varying duration who have just filmed something a little new for television and aren't yet sure if America will take it to its bosom.

All except Larry Hagman, that is. He's dressed in character: outrageous Texas boots, gold-knobbed cane, full goose Texas outfit, topped off with a white Stetson so big he could probably smuggle poodles over the Mexican border in it.

Conservative members of the press gape a little at Hagman. He laughs and says to us, with a wink, "I thought y'all might need a little copy."

God bless Larry Hagman. Dead on, brother. There is little more boring than the large assembled cast of a new show that hasn't aired yet – all in hyper-wary "after you Alphonse" mode because no one really knows with any certainty if the show itself will click, let alone who the breakout stars might be.

No one this time but Hagman. He had been to this rodeo before – a little show called "I Dream of Jeannie," in which the star was Barbara Eden's censored navel and Hagman was just a piece of furniture with lines. He knows what journalists are hungry for.

Besides, he's pure showbiz, right down to his boots. His mother was Mary Martin, whom most Americans think of as Peter Pan or the star ?of Broadway's "South Pacific" but fellow performers often think of as the woman whose triple-entendres in her version of Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" were as suggestive as any public performance a Broadway legend of her era could ?get away with.

When Mary Martin is your mama, you've learned some things at Mama's knee they don't teach at any school.

Even back then, Larry Hagman knew he had a tiger by the tail. Why not provide a little "copy?" He knew that his turn as J.R. Ewing was a winner. He didn't know it would help transform American television, maybe, but he knew a part dripping with juice when he had one.

And now, Wednesday night at 9 p.m. on the TNT network, something giddily new – Hagman, 80 years old and fresh from a cancer siege, is back as J.R. Ewing in a new, multigenerational "Dallas," full of the same hormonal itch and the same back-stabbings that make it clear that the oil business in Texas is the seat of treachery in American capitalism. Add a new subject – the newfound idiot post-demographic belief of TV's "thinkers" that older and younger generations are, perforce, at war to ?the death.

Capitalism has never looked ?more like an orgy than it did on the old "Dallas."

Well, the new one is in the same castle. And because it already knows all the things that the original series had to learn on the run after 1978, all the young members of the cast are navel-deep in betrayals and double-dealing the first time we lay our skeptical eyes on their dewy, overly cosmetized selves.

When last we left the cast of "Dallas," of course, Victoria Principal had departed with little conspicuous fondness for the enterprise that made her famous. She got into the infomercial and cosmetic racket and became a tycoon of her own. Not exactly "Dallas"-sized, maybe, but in a large and high tax bracket.

Principal was a holdout for "Dallas" Redux. Everyone else who's still above ground is back, making half of the cast just about the oldest I've ever seen on television. (I swear the moment Ken Kercheval shows up in the third episode as J.R.'s nemesis Cliff Barnes is a wallop of mortality as pure as prime-time TV has ever given us.)
Prepare for a lot of humor about people ambulating with walkers. And some not-so-funny stuff about Bobby concealing a tumor in his gut.

Linda Gray is back as Sue Ellen, now being talked about as a possible next governor – never mind that ?Gray herself still can't act. Patrick Duffy is back as Bobby, still virtuous, ?a bit puffier than in days of yore ?and still not wearing a hat nearly as often as his Mephistophelian brother J.R. (Among Ewings, apparently, hats are something like long cigars among old Borscht Belt comedians. You do the math.)

Charlene Tilton shows up for a Ewing wedding to look matronly. Barbara Bel Geddes and Jim Davis (my personal favorite original cast member) have long since passed on to that rambling Southfork in the sky.
The basic joke — er, I mean "story" — here is that the new generation of Ewings is merely following the back-stabbing template of the old.

Jesse Metcalf, as Bobby's adopted son Christopher, is so virtuously in favor of alternative energy and against the "awl" business that he seems to wear as much eyeliner as Victoria Principal used to. Josh Henderson plays John Ross, the wretched scheming son of J.R. whose skill at double-, triple- and quadruple-dealing rivals Daddy's, even if the actor's little mustache doesn't begin to have the TV presence of Hagman's uproariously satanic eyebrows (which, I swear, were combed for the big close-up in Episode 1 to look like protuberances from the skull of longhorn cattle).

By the time you get to the second episode of this new "Dallas," you're into a business quadruple-cross so complex that it's as much a rattling war of all against all as an episode ?of "Big Brother" (among the many unofficial progeny of "Dallas" capitalist follies).

The best moment in the first four shows, by far, is the moment in the first when J.R. — packed off to a nursing home supposedly suffering from catatonic depression and the loathing of his own son — listens to his son's venomous ramblings and plans to take down all the innocent Ewings as if he were a stone-faced catatonic.

And then when his son gets to all the delicious things he plans to do businesswise to slaughter the family innocents, Daddy suddenly perks up, returns to his old self and viewers get the show's first monumental, screen-filling close-up of a human face, in this case Hagman's complete with the Devil's Own longhorn eyebrows, his eyes suddenly wide open and lit up. In his first words, he expounds to his son about how little fear he need to have of the American judicial system.

"Courts," says J.R. "are for amateurs and the faint of heart."

As he says it, Larry looks raffishly right at the camera, as if to confide to all of America that he thought it might all be able to use a little copy.

"Dallas" is back. And so is J.R. Ewing.

His weak-looking son John Ross may never have his daddy's back. ?But John Ross' heart, for sure, belongs to Daddy.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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"Dallas"

9 p.m. Wednesday on TNT

The iconic prime-time television soap opera returns to the small screen with members of the original cast and a new generation of schemers and lovers.