Why J.R. Ewing Makes the New Dallas

I once chatted with an actress at a wrap party in L.A. who was around 80 years old and had just done a goofy spot in a TV commercial. “I just like to do fun roles,” she said, beaming, clearly enjoying every minute of it.

And that is a huge key to the charm of TNT’s Dallas reboot, which wrapped up its first season with a bang last night. The veteran actors who reprised their roles from the long-running soap — Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing, Patrick Duffy as Bobby Ewing, Linda Gray as Sue Ellen Ewing (who’s now running for Texas governor), Ken Kercheval as Cliff Barnes — are having such a blast doing it that their enthusiasm is infectious. The series has a quick pace, is nicely written with some cheesy lines but good twists and turns, and is perfect guilty-pleasure fare for a Wednesday night.

But the best thing about the show by far is the return of the original J.R. The ten best things about Hagman’s character, then, have been each of the ten episodes of this first season (with new episodes due in January).

I was too young to watch the original run of Dallas. Because it was so culturally ingrained, though, I still felt the palpable suspense about who shot J.R. (though I didn’t know exactly who DID). Still, I wasn’t all that jazzed when TNT announced a reboot of the classic primetime soap. At first, the greatest value was in seeing energy reporters on Twitter criticizing whether the show was accurately portraying drilling and methane harvesting. But I broke down and caught some on-demand episodes — and watched the first three all in a row.

The show has evil Venezuelans, an alternative-energy subplot that isn’t politically pushy (Christopher Ewing, the brains behind that, turns out to be just as devious as the others), and a gentle reminder that if one ever gets a facelift to tell the doc not to pull as tightly as Gray’s doc did.

Put it this way — if it was just the new, young characters (J.R.’s kid John Ross Ewing and Bobby’s kid Christopher Ewing, and their lady loves) who can be on the whiny and annoying side, the only cool part of the show would be how TNT kept the original Dallas theme and similar opening sequence. But it’s the old characters who make the show — a septuagenerian and octogenarian fighting like they didn’t miss a beat.

J.R.’s 81st birthday is next month, and Hagman recently commented that he wants to play the oil baron until he’s 90. And I have every faith that, health cooperating, he could. The writers are giving him great one-liners and he still rules the small screen, not the younger characters. He goes from nursing-home catatonic to the Cattle Barron’s Ball in the blink of a mention of a million-barrel reserve. He doesn’t miss a trick or scheme even in a brief moment of sentimentality. Not only has J.R. not gone to mush, but he now has wicked eyebrows and, in last night’s closer, burst with pride when John Ross asked his dad to show him every dirty trick he knows. “Now that’s my son, tip to tail,” J.R. says before he drinks to it.

J.R.’s all-of-the-above energy strategy includes hitting below the belt. Bobby’s son accidentally married and impregnated Cliff Barnes’ daughter. They’re still fighting over Southfork. The characters tweet now (favorite from J.R.: “Cliff Barnes… you complete me”). And the show sets the most dramatic moments to a Johnny Cash soundtrack. They’ve roped me in for Season Two.