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October 2, 2014

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J.R. Ewing: A real villain for a bigger time

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As a New Orleans-based reporter in the 1990s, I sometimes found myself driving along backroads of west Louisiana, chasing some story near the Texas border. I’d always make a point of driving into Texas, if only for a mile and back. To an East Coast kid like me, Texas felt like a mythical place, full of 10-gallon hats and 50-gallon personalities, and I think that had a lot to do with “Dallas.”

I was a kid when the CBS soap first aired — in a pre-cable era when one prime-time TV show could capture the attention of the world — and despite the booze and the adultery, it was always a family event. (This is a paradox of modern entertainment: Today, we let kids stew in cartoon violence, but we shield them from the everyday havoc that grownups can wreak.) In 1980, everyone I knew was obsessed with “Who Shot J.R.” — so much so that the day after the answer was revealed, a girl named Kristen walked into our elementary school with a sign that said, “I didn’t do it!”

J.R. Ewing was a powerful force, which is why so many people were so saddened when Larry Hagman died last week. He was 81 and hadn’t yet finished filming the second season of TNT’s “Dallas” reboot, his return to the perfect marriage of actor and character. Hagman wouldn’t have been such an icon if his career had peaked with “I Dream of Jeannie.” And if anyone else had played J.R., “Dallas” might have shriveled. According to the Dallas Morning News, J.R. was first conceived as a side character. Hagman’s performance, informed by his Texas upbringing, consumed the show.

The TNT series reminds us why: No one else is nearly as watchable. The good guys are handsome but wimpy and dull (especially poor Bobby, still getting steamrolled by the meanies who are always three steps ahead). The young villain, J.R.’s son, needs a moustache to signify his sleaziness.

And then there’s Hagman, with eyebrows that seem to spread from Lubbock to San Antonio, and a glint in his eye that conveys the sheer joy of a nice guy playing bad. The TNT series has made some adjustments for modern times — acknowledging the 21st-century tension between oil and renewable energy — but wisely doesn’t try to change the character. When he’s first introduced, J.R. is catatonic in a nursing home, possibly gone soft. By episode two, he’s up and about and scheming against his own son.

A big television trend, in recent years, has been the rise of the antihero: complex, damaged characters who invite us to explore the world of gray. Tony Soprano did dastardly things, but he lived by a code and went to therapy. Vic Mackey, of “The Shield,” walked both sides of the law, largely for his family’s sake. Showtime’s Dexter is a serial killer who’s meant to be understood.

No one ever was supposed to understand J.R; he’s an unambiguous, all-American fantasy villain. Yet, as destructive as he was, he never seemed to pose a threat to the world outside of Southfork, to spill over the border and wreak havoc outside his overprivileged circle. This was where the myth of Texas came in. The ’80s-era “Dallas” was a show about a grab for resources, with the knowledge that there would always be more — more oil, more money, more power, more land. Texas looms large on the map — Massachusetts is a thimble in its ocean — but it has to be inconceivably big to spawn a villain as safe as J.R.

That’s why it was always a little disappointing, in my brief East Texas sojourns, to find that the trees and roads looked the same as they did across the border. Reality never quite lives up to memory, especially when memory is filtered through TV. So it is with the new “Dallas”; it’s good for a nostalgia fix, and especially a Hagman fix, but it never will be what it was.

Last season, it averaged 5.3 million viewers — terrific for a cable TV drama, but nothing compared to the 300 million worldwide who watched the show in its heyday. Especially now that J.R. is gone, Texas doesn’t seem quite so grand.

Joanna Weiss writes for the Boston Globe.

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