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JR Ewing is a hard man to kill
Actor Larry Hagman. Picture: AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez.

JR Ewing makes Tony Soprano look like a pussycat - and we're not just referring to ruthless behaviour.

In the new revival of Dallas, a series that picks up 21 years after the iconic drama ended, we find the oil tycoon in a funk that requires more than weekly visits to a psychiatrist. In fact, he's so depressed that he can only stare silently out the window of a nursing centre, dreaming, no doubt, about the days he could ruin lives with that grin of a cat who just ate the canary, along with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Ewing snaps out of it when his estranged son, John Ross, informs him that JR's brother, Bobby, plans to sell Southfork Ranch to a conservatory.

JR's first words in months: "Bobby was always a fool."

Yes, television's nastiest Cat in the Hat has come back - but will audiences want to revisit a family awash in luxury cars, country club memberships and fancy duds in such hard economic times?

Larry Hagman is willing to bet the ranch on it.

"You've got to remember that when Dallas got going, we were in a major recession and people couldn't get a babysitter and go out. They couldn't afford it," said Hagman, who first played the character in 1978. "They had to stay home on Friday nights and watch something, and we were it. Well, here we go again."

The sequel has some mighty big boots to fill. In its heyday, Dallas, which ran for 14 seasons, was a pop-culture phenomenon. The November 1980 episode that revealed who shot JR was devoured by 83 million viewers. (By comparison, the 2003 season finale of American Idol, the most watched in the show's history, drew 38 million.)

Even a generation that was in nappies in the early 1980s has some memory of the original series.

"I knew of it," said Dallas-born Josh Henderson, 30, who plays John Ross. "I literally would run around the TV and be told to shut up while they (his family) were watching it."

To ensure that younger viewers won't think the new Dallas is solely for their parents, producers have brought in fresh faces such as former Desperate Housewives supporting players Henderson and Jesse Metcalfe, and Jordana Brewster (The Fast and the Furious).

Yes, Bobby and JR are still fighting for both the deed and the soul of Southfork, but the feud has been passed on to their only sons, who also inherited their fathers' white and black hats.

There may be a crop of new faces, but the overall theme remains the same: Don't. Trust. Anyone. Every bedroom can have a hidden camera. Every email account can be hacked. Every romance can be based on seedy intentions. Every handshake deal can be undone by someone crossing their fingers behind his or her back.

"While we've freshened it with all these new faces, you'll still be watching this fight within a family," said co-producer Michael M Robin. "Those are things that people expect from Dallas and we're not here to take this in some whole other place. We honour the past."

Part of this nod to history is providing juicy roles for Hagman, Patrick Duffy as Bobby and Linda Gray as JR's former trophy wife, Sue Ellen, with cameos early on by Charlene Tilton (Lucy) and Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes).

Notably missing is Victoria Principal, who played Bobby's wife, Pamela. (Bobby has remarried, with Desperate Housewives narrator Brenda Strong stepping in as his new wife, Ann.) But producers haven't killed off Pam, leaving the door open for Principal to join in the fun after the first 10-episode run is done.

She'd be wise to consider it.