Recycling old shows is a common practice in television but the track record of late with revisits to "Charlie's Angels" and "Melrose Place" has not been stellar. However, TNT obviously decided if you're going to open the door to resurrect a series from the past, you might as well go big or go home.
One of the biggest drama series in television history, "Dallas" originally ran on CBS from 1978-1991 and followed the wealthy Ewing family during their lucrative oil business as well as romantic entanglements and the typical blackmail, secrets, murder and manipulation staples of the prime time soap opera. At its core, though, "Dallas" was a family drama that focused primarily on the sibling rivalry between dastardly JR (Larry Hagman) and morally centered Bobby (Patrick Duffy).
Now, over twenty years have passed since that last regular CBS episode and TNT's reboot is still grounded in family, oil and familiar faces like Hagman, Duffy and Linda Gray as JR's ex-wife, Sue Ellen. There is a younger generation in place, too, as JR and Sue Ellen's son, John Ross (Josh Henderson) is now butting heads with cousin Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe), who is the adopted son of Bobby. Obviously, there was much for our Jim Halterman to talk about with Executive Producer Cynthia Cidre, who took on the daunting task of bringing "Dallas" to 2012. During their chat, Cidre laid out how she struck the right tone with the show, the surprising place in the creative process with the original actors were brought into the reboot and how Cidre feels a younger generation will take to "Dallas."
Jim Halterman: So much to talk about but my first question is how did you pick the tone of the show. This is drama 100% when it could've easily fallen into a more campy space.
Cynthia Cidre: Well, first of all, it's not my wheelhouse to go to the campy place so that would have been challenging for me if that's what Warner Brothers was looking for but I had made it really clear that that's not what I wanted to do. There was, I guess, a feature film that somebody was trying to make over the last 10-15 years. I saw that in Wikipedia [and] it said that they were thinking of casting John Travolta or Ben Stiller. I was not a hard-core fan back then but that to me seemed like an affront to the core audience of the show, that they're making fun of a show that was so beloved and that was not was this ever had to be. I mean it really had to be a grounded family drama that was told in a way that was fun for the audience to watch, so you had great cliffhangers, you had great reveals and secrecy and betrayals but all written and acted and directed in a way that was grounded. In many ways more so than the original show because it's 30 years later and the audience has changed.
JH: What were the struggles in knowing you had to satisfy older viewers with a history with the show and new viewers that are going to be coming in?
CC: Well, the first rule was to be respectful of the old show, completely 100 percent. If it happened on the old show then it really happened in history and there was no way we could sit in the room and say 'Well, we don't really care that this happened in 1980. We're just going to change it now because that's what is convenient for us.' That could never be so that was the first rule. The second rule was we had three of our old cast members back who are wonderful, and then I was fortunate that in the show, before it went off the air, there were two young boys. There was Christopher and John Ross who were eight and ten, and if you do the math that puts you right at that leading man age of 28 and 30.
JH: How convenient!
CC: It was very convenient, believe me. Otherwise, I may have had to invent some child coming back from some illegitimate relationship. It was not a struggle. Suddenly I had these two young men who clearly had divergent points of view on the world because their fathers were who they were. It's not like I had to invent that conflict. And then they would have had girlfriends or wives or fiancées or whatever it was and then it seemed properly balanced, three from the old cast, four new casts. It was never meant to be parallel stories of the old Ewing generation and the new Ewing generation. I actually think the show works best when both generations are in scenes together.
JH: When did the original cast - Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray - come on board?
CC: It was very weird. Actually, everything was written and the show got picked up before we approached them. A little crazy but that's how they did it and from the very beginning I kept saying 'Don't we talk to them first and see what's going on?' It was like 'no, you write it, we'll do it later.' I had lunch with Patrick after the agents were approached and he was just lovely and it was clear to me that he had really liked the script and thought finally it's somebody who is being respectful of our show and I knew he was going to do it at that lunch. And this is when fate stepped in, I could have picked any three of the cast and I picked these three who happened to be best friends for the last 30 years.
JH: I loved it. Now dipping into other past characters, because I was also a big 'Knot's Landing' fan, Gary (Ted Shackelford) is mentioned but we don't see him yet. However, Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval) shows up, Lucy (Charlene Tilton) pops up. How do you navigate when's the right time to bring somebody from the past in and maybe when it's not?
CC: I don't know exactly. You know anytime there's a big event, like a barbecue or something like that, you want to bring the family members back and so we make the phone calls to see who's available and who wants to come and they've all been so generous and so supportive of the show. We've not run into anybody who was like 'Who wants to go back to that?' They've all really, really been wonderful and when they get there everybody gets misty-eyed because they feel like the show has been on hiatus for 20 years and now it's back.
JH: Talk to me about casting John Ross and Christopher because if you don't buy this new generation then the whole thing...
CC: ...then you don't buy anything.
JH: Yeah, so how'd you find Jesse and Josh?
CC: John Ross was particularly difficult and there was no doubt, when Josh Henderson walked in that that was John Ross and that's exactly what I said. When he finished reading I said, 'Now that's John Ross.' Maybe he was like the thirtieth guy who came in and it never veered for me that was the guy who he hit it out of the ballpark at every read. He tested for the studio and then he tested for the network but there was never a doubt that that was the guy.
In a way we sort of focused a little less on Christopher from the beginning just because it was so difficult to do John Ross. Jesse was out of town, I think he was shooting 'Chase' [the NBC series] in Dallas and so he literally Skyped it in. He videotaped himself and then it was also 'Well, there you go. That's Christopher.'
JH: As for the marriage of Bobby and Ann (Brenda Strong), I'm guessing because there is that ghost of Pam (Victoria Principal in the original) that's always out there in viewer's minds. How did you navigate that to create that relationship and make sure it wasn't just a replica of what Bobby had with Pam?
CC: Well, after I watched so many episodes and read so many synopses of every episode, 257 of them, it seemed as if that had run its course. I don't know, there was so much conflict and angst and it felt old to me. Maybe this is not something I should say but it just felt like to refresh [and] to put a new coat of paint on everything he needed to have moved on. And he was the patriarch of the family and when you meet Patrick - Patrick is 6 feet 5 inches and he has incredible gravitas - and he's smart and funny and not quite who he used to be as Bobby Ewing. But I think who we're making now in the new Bobby Ewing is the head of the family and I just felt he would have moved on and now had finally found peace with this woman.
You know when we met Brenda - Brenda is 6 feet tall, she'll tell you she's 5 feet 12 inches - and she wears four inch heels so she was made for him in a way. They just have wonderful chemistry together and when they met they just get along really great and we were very lucky to find Brenda. I think she puts a spin on him that makes him younger. She makes him more like a sexual being. You know he's very much a man in the show. And I think we're going to need in season two, God please we get one, to explain how they met. I have big plans for Ann in season two so we'll know her back-story and then how they met and why they're together.
JH: I'm guessing one of the benefits of being on cable is that the characters can actually say 'bullshit' and 'son-of-a-bitch' and it's very natural.
CC: Three. There are three per episode.
JH: Oh, that's what you're allowed?
CC: It's complicated, yeah. It's a mathematical formula involved. If you've already said 'ass' then maybe you can't say 'shit.' I'm not sure how it works but we do get daily e-mails about it.
JH: What other freedoms have you come across that maybe you wouldn't have on a broadcast network?
CC: I've only worked in network TV, and I've made five pilots on network TV. I've written eight, I think, and made five and I've had a wonderful time but all at CBS and FOX. The greatest advantage to cable is there are fewer layers so it's not what we can say or do, because it's not pay cable so it's still in many ways broadcast television even though it's cable. So, yes, you can say a few bad words but you don't need the bad words to get the point across. The greatest thing is that there are fewer people micromanaging what you're doing. So if you're delivering an episode that they like week after week after week, we've gotten fewer and fewer and fewer notes. And you have more freedom to do what you think is right without people second guessing what they think the audience is going to want to see and then telling you to change what you've done. That has been for me revelatory, I mean seriously I've never had a better time.
"Dallas" airs Wednesdays at 9:00/8:00c on TNT.