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No new life in this old TV dog

The old Dallas didn't do sex, at least not properly.

The closest it ever got, as far as I can recall, was the occasional post-coital female shoulder, glimpsed peeking out from behind a strategically placed satin sheet, as JR Ewing knotted his tie in the mirror and plotted his next dastardly move against his sister-in-law's half-brother, Cliff Barnes.

The reason for that, I think, apart from the restrictions on what mainstream American television could show in the 1980s, was the credibility gap.

Dallas, which hit its popularity peak when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher ruled the world, was all about sex, greed, money and more sex -- yet it was never remotely sexy.

I've never encountered a woman, young, old or in between, in real life who ever wanted to sleep with JR -- although they were queuing up to do it on screen -- or his saintly good-guy brother Bobby (Patrick Duffy).

But then television could get away with all sorts of nonsense in the 80s, as witnessed by the success of 21 Jump Street, The Cosby Show, Knight Rider, The A-Team, Highway to Heaven, MacGyver, Miami Vice, Murder, She Wrote and dozens of others.

You wouldn't want to resurrect any of those from TV Hell (although Hollywood has tried with ill-advised movie rejigs of a few of them), yet somebody has decided the time is ripe to reanimate Dallas.

The new version isn't a reboot or a remake but a continuation of the story that reached its logical end in 1991, when American television had finally grown up a bit.

This time there IS sex.

Kind of.

The most startling image in last night's opening episode was a pair of panties sliding to the floor, something that wouldn't have been permissible way back when. For some reason, it didn't seem quite right.

The panties may have been a perfect fit for the woman wearing them, but the sex certainly wasn't.

It was too much like real life, which the original series never was.

The appeal of Dallas, even as it was pulling in some 350 million viewers worldwide, resided in its kitsch value.

The Ewings were supposed to be filthy rich on oil, yet the whole thing always looked hilariously cheap.

It looks like quite a bit of money has been spent on this update, which, unlike the old one, is shot mostly in the title city, but it hasn't been spent in the right places.

JR and Bobby are back, of course, but largely as set decoration. This time out the focus is chiefly on JR and Bobby's warring sons, John Ross and Christopher.

One of them is devoted to renewable energy sources while the other (and I'll leave you to guess which one it is) wants to drill for oil on the Ewings' sacred Southfork ranch.

"I didn't want them to be like us," Bobby tells JR.

Well, Bobby got his wish: the new boys are nothing like their old men.

They're bland and colourless, a couple of buffed, boring beefcakes who could be one another's reflections.

Bobby has a new wife (the pneumatic Victoria Principal has chosen not to return to the fray as Pam), a plan to sell Southfork and a case of stomach cancer.

JR, we're asked to believe, has spent the years since 1991 stuck in a catatonic depression in a nursing home -- although he snapped out of it miraculously quickly at the first whiff of family intrigue.

JR's ex-wife, Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), is also back -- she's clean and sober now and, improbably, running for political office -- and there were fleeting appearances by old hands Lucy (Charlene Tilton) and Ray (Steve Kanaly).

If you're going to resurrect Dallas, probably the only way to do it is as a spoof, but this is dismayingly po-faced.

It's also a bit sad and pathetic to see seasoned warhorses like Hagman and Duffy going through the motions.

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