It's one of TV's biggest cliffhangers: Can the soaps survive? In daytime, the outlook is murky at best for what is becoming an ever more endangered species. At night, though, the genre is once again thriving.
On ABC, where daytime soaps as legendary as All My Children have been unceremoniously retired and General Hospital hangs on by a thread, the lurid nighttime potboiler Revenge was last season's breakout guilty pleasure — and has been rewarded the plum Sunday night time period vacated by Desperate Housewives. Taking over Revenge's Wednesday slot is one of the fall's most buzzed-about pilots: the delicious Nashville, a country-fied "All About Eve" pitting veteran diva Connie Britton against scheming crossover upstart Hayden Panettiere.
Call it a Grand Ole Soap Opry.
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And now the granddaddy of all prime-time soaps is back: Dallas, revived by TNT (tonight at 9/8c) as a gusher of nostalgia for a time when the biggest hit on TV could air on Fridays — this was the '80s, remember — and a now-unimaginable mass audience of 80-plus million tuned in to find out "Who Shot J.R."
"Bullets don't seem to have much of an effect on me, darlin'," brags that incorrigible old buzzard J.R. Ewing, still played to the scene-stealing, scenery-chewing hilt by the 80-year-old Larry Hagman and his magnificent wagging eyebrows. Playing possum as the updated series resumes — he never got over losing Ewing Oil to "that idiot" Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval) — J.R. is soon enough up and running. And scheming, forever scheming.
Because that's how they roll on Dallas, even into the next generation, where J.R.'s namesake John Ross (Josh Henderson) proves to be "a chip off the old block," as he blackmails, back-stabs and double-crosses anyone who gets in the way of his ultimate goal: drilling on the sacred ground of Southfork. Just as J.R. endlessly clashed with his noble brother Bobby (Patrick Duffy, as long-suffering as ever), John Ross trades barbs and blows with his cousin Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe), Bobby's adopted son. Christopher's the Al Gore of this piece, into alternative energy sources and vowing to keep Southfork unspoiled. But Chris is also a chip off the old Ewing stud farm, engaged to one girl (Julie Gonzalo), who's not exactly who she seems, while still pining for John Ross' current flame, his ex (Jordana Brewster).
Unfortunately, these young 'uns are not larger than life, paling next to the icons that bore them, buzzing around like gnats in the shadow of legends.
Still, the comfort level in the new/old Dallas is considerable, as we gawk at which of the old-timers is still on their game and who are the worse for wear. (Linda Gray's Sue Ellen seems especially mummified, given no help by the writers turning her into a most improbable politician and professional wet blanket. She was more fun when she drank.) The show's predictably melodramatic rhythms and telegraphed twists will be like nectar to those still pining for this old-school style of skullduggery. (For those who never developed a taste for this brand of guilty pleasure, this exhumation will seem especially puzzling and unwelcome.)
The recent blockbuster success of History's Hatfields & McCoys suggests there's an appetite out there for good old-fashioned family feuds, and the mythical Ewings on their pastoral Valhalla of Southfork are about as pulpy as it gets. Never a show or genre designed for critical acclaim, and unlikely to remotely approach the popularity of the original, Dallas is still a kick in those moments when J.R. lays down the law: "Blood is thicker than water — but oil is thicker than both."
Well played, old scoundrel.