Comparing Dallas: Then and Now

We all know about the impact Dallas has had on American television. We know that its 1980 episode revealing the answer to “who shot J.R.?” was the most-watched in history for over a decade (and remains the second most-watched of all time, behind the M*A*S*H series finale).  And we know that in 2012 the series was revived, this time not on CBS but on TNT, with main characters J.R., Bobby, and Sue Ellen, played by Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy, and Linda Gray – all inseparable best friends in real life – making a triumphant return to prime time television.

So how does the new version of Dallas stack up to the original one? Is it as good, or even better?
Let’s not get crazy. The new Dallas is a good show – a very, very good show. But let’s not pretend that it usurps its classic progenitor.
That said, however, the TNT version is second, but a close second. It may not be the best Dallas ever, but it can more than hold its own.

If the two Dallases were sports teams, we can say Dallas CBS had a better starting lineup, but Dallas TNT has a better bench. Let’s take a closer look and compare the two shows:

Main Character: John Ross Ewing (TNT) v. J.R. Ewing (CBS)

Josh Henderson is an abundantly-talented actor. He plays John Ross brilliantly. And that’s not an easy thing to do. Bringing back a legendary television show 21 years later and parading some young actor on the set as the “modern-day J.R.” is a tall order. But we buy it – thanks to Henderson. To the extent that the show has a main character, Henderson ‘s John Ross continues to step into those shoes – well, boots. But they are big boots, and impossible to fill. Because as great as John Ross is, he is still no J.R. Ewing. No one is. There’s no character on either version of the show – old or new – who can stack up to ol’ J.R. It’s no reflection on Henderson, but this matchup goes to Larry Hagman.  Edge:  J.R.

The Hero: Christopher Ewing (TNT) vs. Bobby Ewing (CBS)

At the end of TNT Dallas’ Season 3, we learned that Jesse Metcalfe, who plays Christopher, wanted to leave the show, and so near the end of the dramatic season finale, we see a character who appears to be Christopher enter his car – and seconds later, it blows up. And we’ll miss Christopher because, like his father, Bobby, he is strong (physically and emotionally), noble, and gallant. He is the show’s knight in shining armor. He was solid in that role, but a young Bobby in the original series was a few notches better. The character, played by Duffy then and now, has deepened and becomes more and more interesting. But Duffy’s bursts of intensity even back then, when he was rawer, overshadow Metcalfe’s. Edge: Bobby

Patriarch: Bobby Ewing (TNT) vs. Jock Ewing (CBS)

Bobby Ewing is becoming more and more like his daddy, Jock (played on the CBS version by Jim Davis), and not just because he’s getting grayer. Like the show’s original patriarch, Bobby is stepping in to the role of head of the family quite nicely. No longer the baby of the family – with parents (and J.R.) dead and older brothers Ray (Steve Kanaly) and Gary (Ted Shackelford) living elsewhere, little Bobby is now the oldest living person on the ranch. His character continues to grow, and he makes an excellent patriarch. But again, not quite like the original. Davis played Jock in such a wonderful way that when Davis died after the fourth season, the writers never recast that very compelling role. Though most of the original Dallas endured without Jock, the show never quite recaptured its original depth. He was a great character whose absence was sorely missed. As good a head of the family as Bobby has turned out to be, Jock was even better. Edge: Jock

Matriarch: Anne Ewing (TNT) vs. Miss Ellie Ewing (CBS)

Brenda Strong plays Bobby’s new wife, Anne. As the matriarch of the Ewings, she is everything a mother figure ought to be: kind, strong, and loving. She is not perfect, and neither was the family’s first matriarch, Miss Ellie, played by Barbara Bel Geddes.  But a clue as to how great a job Bel Geddes did in her role is that when she left the show for health reasons and recast her with veteran actress Donna Reed, the fans wanted the original Miss Ellie back. In response to the clamor, Bel Geddes was coaxed out of retirement. The main difference between Anne and Ellie is, while Anne was mousy (off-screen) as a young woman and grew strong, Ellie was a spitfire from the get-go. It’s close, but Miss Ellie gets the nod.  Edge: Miss Ellie

At this point, it looks as if the original Dallas is giving the new show and old-fashioned Texas whoopin’.  But hold on, we’re not done yet…

Strong Beauty: Pamela Barnes Ewing (TNT) vs. Pamela Barnes Ewing (CBS)

The young, beautiful and strong female on the show, usually to some extent a nemesis to the main character, on both versions of Dallas, is named Pamela Barnes Ewing. The new Pam, played by Julie Gonzalo, is the niece of the first one, Victoria Principal. The original Dallas was designed to be a modern-day Texas version of Romeo and Juliette. Bobby married Pam, which ignited more explosives in the decades-old Ewing-Barnes family feud. But then, J.R. stole the show, and the rest is history. Principal did a great job portraying Pam for many years, and she did her best to stand up to J.R., who more than once tried to run her out of town. But the new Pam is lethal. She is not only strong, but she can be just as ruthless as anyone daring to stand in her way. Gonzalo has done a superb job in the role. Edge: The new Pam.

Arch-Rival: Harris Ryland (TNT) v. Cliff Barnes (CBS)

On Dallas, your arch enemy is someone you could talk to at the Oil Barons’ Ball one minute, find yourself brawling with in the swimming pool at the Ewing barbecue the next, make plans to destroy shortly thereafter, and then repeat steps one, two, and three in perpetuity. Such is the case for Harris Ryland (Mitch Pileggi) vis-à-vis the Ewings nowadays, and the show’s original nemesis, Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval).  Could there ever be a better arch-rival than Cliff Barnes? Actually, yes. Cliff was the classic putz. A “born loser,” as J.R. often called him. Sure, the storyline was richer (it was the Barneses with whom the Ewings feuded, after all, not the Rylands), but the character was not. Harris is a more complex character than Cliff. You can root for him to rot in jail one minute, and cheer him on the next. The torch he carries for ex-wife Anne seems real, and his love for daughter Emma is without question. He never would have put Emma in harm’s way and risked killing her unborn children (as Cliff did vis-à-vis his daughter, young Pam).

Kercheval and Pileggi have both played their roles well, but as a character, Harris gives us more.  Edge: Harris

Scorned Woman: Elena Ramos (TNT) vs. Sue Ellen Ewing (CBS)

We first met Elena Ramos (Jordana Brewster) in the new Dallas’ premiere episode. The daughter of Southfork cook Carmen, Elena and Christopher had been romantically involved, but a misunderstanding led to a breakup, and Christopher became an item with Pamela, while Elena discovered new love with John Ross.  But Elena soon realized that John Ross could be every bit the scoundrel his father was, and when he lied to her, she broke it off with him. She, in turn, returned to Christopher (he and Pamela had broken up by then), and then proceeded to lie to him, and so she found herself without a romance yet again. And this season, love struck her once again in the form of childhood friend Joaquin (aka Nicolas), who turned out to be another liar. Though Elena has been through a lot, there’s no comparison to the brilliance with which Linda Gray projected the years of pain Sue Ellen suffered.  We could feel Sue Ellen’s pain when jilted, battling alcoholism, and locked away in a sanitarium. She loved J.R., but for a long while hated him, too. Elena has touched our hearts, but not quite like Sue Ellen. Edge: Sue Ellen.

Rebellious Young Blonde: Emma Ryland (TNT) vs. Lucy Ewing (CBS)

Aahh, bratty little Lucy (Charlene Tilton). The teenage vixen daughter of milquetoast middle brother Gary and his upstart wife, Valeen, both of whom J.R. proceeded to run off Southfork. Rebellious little Lucy rolled around in the hay with ranch hand Ray Krebbs, years before it was discovered that he was Jock’s illegitimate son, and therefore her uncle! But her 21st century version, Harris’ and Anne’s daughter, Emma Ryland (Emma Bell), has more dimension. She’s just as much a vivacious and promiscuous troublemaker, but is more explosive, more mysterious, and therefore more dangerous. Edge: Emma.

Grande Dame: Judith Ryland (TNT) vs. Rebecca Wentworth (CBS)
Rebecca (Priscilla Pointer) was the wife of Jock’s nemesis (and Cliff’s and Pamela’s father) Digger Barnes (David Wayne/Keenan Wynn). But she later married an oil tycoon and was worth millions. Pamela found her mother as an adult, and when Rebecca reunited with her and Cliff, she provided the money needed to help Cliff perpetuate the feud with J.R. And she was a formidable opponent, but not like Judith Ryland (Judith Light). Judith has a wonderful psychotic element to her, and you never really know what she’s going to do next. Those Rylands – Judith, Harris, and Emma – have all added gravitas to the new show. Edge: Judith.

Henchman: Steve “Bum” Jones (TNT) vs. Harry McSween (CBS)

The easiest comparison is saved for last. The reason “Bum” (Kevin Page) beats out Harry (James Brown) is because most fans of the original Dallas probably wouldn’t even remember the name Harry McSween, and when given the hint of Harry having been the detective on J.R.’s payroll, who would give him inside information, they might say: “oh yeah, that guy.” Not the case with Bum, though. In his final letter, to Bobby, J.R. referred to Bum as “the best friend I never deserved to have,” and Bum has been a dirt-digger/somewhat-father figure to John Ross since J.R.’s death. Page has played Bum with such passion that, like his own mentor, Larry Hagman, stole enough scenes to turn the character into a more compelling one than originally anticipated. Edge: Bum.

OVERALL EDGE: Dallas CBS

So, there it is. A 5-5 tie in terms of characters, but an overall edge to the original version of the show for the most compelling ones. The old Dallas wins, but it’s hardly a blowout. And all of this without even mentioning that for a season and a half, the new Dallas had the pleasure of featuring J.R. Ewing. Granted, the frail and ailing Hagman appeared in a more limited capacity, but even a little bit of a legend yields a big reward.

Hardly anyone would disagree that the original Dallas remains unparalleled. But, even as the new version may not quite fill the old one’s cowboy boots, it has done more than enough to leave its own impressive footprints.  And it has one advantage, it is still going – and so, has every right to claim: “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”