In 1980, North American culture collectively spent the summer speculating about “Who Shot JR?” This evocative question stemmed from the second-season cliffhanger of TV’s guiltiest pleasure center, Dallas. It was a tipping point nudging the show to the forefront of the zeitgeist, where it remained until 1991. Even though Dallas is now being revived, however, anyone waiting for a retread of its most famous storyline is bound to be disappointed. As it turns out, this reboot isn’t a reboot, it’s simply picking up where the show left off.
"We’re not starting over," clarifies Cynthia Cidre, showrunner on Dallas, which premieres on TNT June 13. “We’re more of a continuation, like we’ve been on hiatus for 20 years, and we’re just coming back to the same old Ewing family.” In other words, instead of showing us how Spider-Man becomes Spider-Man again, we’re going to see what Spider-Man has grown up to become. And what his kids are like too.
It’s been a long, winding path leading up to the new Dallas. In 2006, 20th Century Fox announced plans to resurrect the show as a movie, starring John Travolta, Luke Wilson, and Jennifer Lopez. By the following year, that cast had been dropped, reportedly in favor of a more comedic take on the material starring Ben Stiller, which then failed to materialize. Finally, in 2010, Craig Erwich, executive vice president of Warner-Horizon, reached out to Cidre, the writer and producer who created 2007's Cane, about reviving the property for TV. She decided to steer the show back in its original direction, picking up 20 years later as though it had just been renewed.
"It was clear to me that the fans of the show are as hardcore as the Trekkies, and that this needed to be treated with great respect as landmark television," Cynthia says. "I told the writers when they came in, if it happened in the original show, we consider it written in stone. We are not changing the history of the show." She also adds, though, "I just gave it a little facelift to fit the times."
In the 20 years since the deliriously dysfunctional Ewing family has been off the air, the world has changed. For one thing, the interior of Southfork has undergone a redecoration, to reflect what Bobby’s new wife might have done with the place. While oil is still at the center of the Ewing operation, alternative energies are now part of the resource narrative so Cidre divided the sons of JR and Bobby Ewing (who were 10 and 8 when the show went off the air—don’t do the math) right along those old/new energy lines.
The characters aren’t the only people who’ve gone through changes since the show has been off the air, though. The audience had changed as well, hardened by ongoing exposure to clichés and irony. “The original show began with a more grounded version back in 1978, but then over the 13 years it was on the air, it became slightly more outrageous.” Cidre says. “Given that it’s 20 years later and audiences are more sophisticated, and given that that an outrageous tone is really not in my wheelhouse, what we have is more grounded."
While the show will still have epic family drama in spades, nobody is going to survive getting shot 10 times, and nobody is going to wake up in a shower after being dead for an entire season, as Patrick Duffy’s Bobby once did, cluing the audience in that they’ve just witnessed a season-length dream sequence. The reanimation of Bobby Ewing proved to be the shark-jumping antithesis of the "Who Shot JR?" cliffhanger.
In order to avoid those kinds of pitfalls, Cidre chose the show’s writers carefully. She also did her own research during the long development process, keeping an unofficial survey about the show. She would ask any TV lovers she could find about what they liked about Dallas and what they’d like to see if it were back on the air. Cidre was surprised by how many people mentioned the same things: family conflicts, fun situations, and cliffhangers. Also, the original cast.
The idea from the beginning had been to entice the old fans by bringing back as much of the original cast as possible, and sure enough Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy, and Linda Gray are all on board for the new show. As for younger viewers, they may be more interested in the cast members who weren’t born when Dallas first premiered, including Josh Henderson, Jesse Metcalfe, and Jordana Brewster. Something both sets of viewers will probably enjoy, though, are the cliffhangers.
"We almost worked backward from the cliffhanger endings because they were so much fun," Cynthia says. "Shows don’t have as many cliffhangers anymore. I watched 24 with my son recently, and that was the last one I saw that had them. I kept thinking, 'Oh my God, this is just Dallas, but set in the terrorist world.'" Indeed, as much as most fans of shows like 24 and Lost would hate to admit it, their techniques for sustaining interest through the next episode just may have come from the prime time soap opera playbook.
If new viewers aren’t lured in by the promise of sexy young cast members and old school cliffhangers, though, Cidre is counting on something else to bring them back in. "I think there’s some curiosity around the name Dallas, which is sort of like the Coca-Cola of television," she says. "Only nobody has put out Coke in 20 years, and now we have it back in stores.”