BBC News

Dallas comeback - will JR and the Ewings be a hit?

By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News, Washington

image captionDallas is one of the most popular television shows of all time

The hit show Dallas is making a return to our screens, with many members of the original cast including Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy. At its height - in the 1980s - it was one of the most watched programmes on television, but will it be a success this time?

It was the show of stetsons, shoulder pads and plenty of sex and scandal.

Dallas, which was set in the Texas oil industry, mixed decadence, deceit and drama, and made for compulsive viewing.

Millions around the world tuned in every week as the split-screen opening credits and the unforgettable theme tune transported them into the lives of the Ewing family.

The show ran for 13 seasons, from 1978 to 1991. Twenty years on it is being brought back to life by the TNT network with a pilot.

Huge audiences

It's a comeback in every sense, with the show's biggest stars Larry Hagman (JR Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing) and Linda Gray (Sue Ellen), all returning.

image captionThe saga of Who Shot JR gripped viewers around the world

At its peak it drew in huge audiences. The famous Who Shot JR? plot line in March 1980 attracted some of the largest viewing figures in television history.

More than 350 million people, in 57 countries watched to see who had taken a gun to JR Ewing. In America, more than half of those watching television that night were tuned into Dallas.

In Britain, around 21.5 million viewers followed events on BBC 1. Speculation over who had pulled the trigger to one of TV's most celebrated villains led to some faintly ridiculous newspaper reports.

Britain's Daily Mirror in 1980 even speculated that television presenter Terry Wogan might have had a hand in it.

"Smooth-talking DJ Terry Wogan was almost speechless yesterday after being named a suspect in the JR shooting," the paper reported.

The newspaper's super sleuths believed they had a motive: "Terry, as every radio listener knows, simply hates the Mr Nasty of BBC TV's Dallas series."

'Sad old folk'

Other plot lines kept viewers equally gripped. Millions of hearts were broken when Bobby Ewing was killed. They all breathed a sigh of relief a series later when actor Patrick Duffy walked out of the shower - alive and extremely clean. It turned out the whole thing had been a dream, imagined by his wife Pamela.

media captionThe stars of Dallas gather for a reunion on set in 2008

Bringing back the show, and its slightly outlandish plot lines, is a "tremendous gamble", says Chris Brown, a media consultant and former network television producer in the US.

"It's been a long time since it's been on air," he says. "The actors are certainly icons of television. When they were in their prime they were young, attractive people, now it's a bunch of sad old folk," he says.

Mr Brown says that while a whole generation of Americans have fond memories of Dallas, the challenge is reaching a new audience with the show.

A large chunk of the key viewing demographic of the US - the 18-49 year olds - would more likely remember the "Who Shot Mr Burns" parody on The Simpsons, than the original Dallas plot line, he says.

"If they are to relaunch it successfully then it needs to stand on its own - it can't rely on its former success," adds Mr Brown.

Nostalgia factor

This isn't the first time a Dallas comeback has been mooted. In 2005 a film version of the show directed by Gurinder Chadha was announced. Reports suggested John Travolta and Jennifer Lopez would take the starring roles, but the film has yet to start production.

image captionHow will the original cast members fare in the new pilot?

In 2008 the cast got back together for a Dallas reunion, to celebrate 30 years of the show. The original actors gathered before hundreds of journalists at the show's filming location - the Southfork Ranch - on the outskirts of Dallas.

"It's a guilty pleasure," says Hollywood correspondent Gayl Murphy, who believes that the show might surprise everyone in its return.

"People will watch it because it's nostalgia," she says.

"At the end of the day the show is about money and power. It's about using that to manipulate.

"These people were so deliciously bad and so horrifyingly good, that you never know how well the show could do."

The new show will chronicle the lives of the next generation of the Ewing family - John Ross and Christopher - and their rivalries.

Desperate Housewives star Josh Henderson, who appeared in the original series, will play John Ross.

Ms Murphy believes there will be a loyal audience who will tune in because of the memories it evokes, but that the show's future success depends on the scriptwriting and plot fitting into the present day.

"It harks back to a simpler time," says Ms Murphy, "back then they weren't texting and going on Facebook."

For Chris Brown, the show might need to update in other ways too. "It's been a long time since it was last aired, and the oil business is very different now. Perhaps it should be set on a wind farm this time," he says.

More on this story

  • Hagman to return for new Dallas