By Ken Tucker
Updated June 13, 2012 at 12:00 PM EDT
Zade Rosenthal/TNT

The new TNT version of Dallas that premiered on TNT on Wednesday night is a rare example of an artistically – well, entertainingly, at least — successful TV-classic update. It was all the more impressive for the way it combined members of the original cast with younger-demo-actor draws without quite seeming as cynical as a J.R. Ewing business deal.

Which is not to say that the new Dallas isn’t all about cynicism and business deals. The show is not a “reboot”: It is, instead, a continuation of the 1978-1991 CBS prime-time soap created by David Jacobs, the auteur behind the even greater soap Knots Landing. (Yes, I would make that case for Knots, on the strength of the wackiness of Joan Van Ark’s Val Ewing and Alec Baldwin’s psycho minister alone.) The new Dallas has been reconceived by co-executive producer Cynthia Cidre in a canny manner. Instead of pitting veteran stars Larry Hagman (J.R.) and Patrick Duffy (J.R.’s brother Bobby) against a younger generation, characters form natural, if devious, alliances. Thus, J.R.’s son John Ross (Josh Henderson, having stolen John Waters’ moustache) teams up with J.R. (a Hagman whose eyebrows look like explosions of icicles) against Bobby (Duffy didn’t look a heckuva a lot much older than his Step By Step days, did he?) and Bobby’s adopted son Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe, looking grateful he escaped Desperate Housewives with a job).

The modernization of Dallas has not been without a few bumps. I still can’t get used to the ads that urge me to “follow the Ewings on Twitter!” But I enjoyed the show’s genially hokey set-up of having a doddering J.R. in an assisted living center, ready to toss aside his walker and get back in the game. And while Victoria Principal was missed, you’ll never hear me say an unkind word about Brenda Strong, a good, always appealing actress who deserves a sizable role post-Housewives. She has nice chemistry with Duffy as Bobby’s wife, Ann, and Duffy himself was an energetic Bobby, even as he copes with a cancer diagnosis.

What do they all want? Why, control of Southfork, of course. That grand expanse of Texas property is and always has been the reason Dallas exists. It’s the site of oil rigs and horse riding, of generational hubris played out on a tragic, yet often enjoyably ridiculous scale. In 2012, owning land, even if all you plan to do with it is strip it of its natural grandeur or sell it off to suckers, still works as an object of desire: We poor folks can understand why these people continue to squabble over decades for it.

The two-hour premiere set up John Ross as a would-be rapacious oil baron, and his cousin Christopher as a furrow-browed believer in an “alternative energy project” that will be both profitable and “green” if only he can get it up and running on Southfork. The young men have attractive women to love ’em and betray ’em (as played by Jordana Brewster and Julie Gonzalo, they’re rather wan so far).

But a surprising amount of Dallas dastardliness will be, as the weeks go on, carried out by the older players. Hagman and Duffy are periodically joined by Linda Gray as J.R.’s ex, Sue Ellen (hell-bent on a run at becoming governor — doesn’t anyone in that town remember what an emotional wreck Sue Ellen was?), and Ken Kercheval looms into view as J.R.’s old nemesis Cliff Barnes. There’s even an occasional squeal from Charlene Tilton, as Lucy Ewing.

So far, Henderson displays the best chemistry with Hagman – as son and father, they seem to enjoy scamming others (and, soon enough, each other). And overall, Dallas is a solidly constructed soap opera, with strong wooden dialogue and oily plot twists.

What did you think of the return of Dallas?

Twitter: @kentucker