By Ken Tucker
Updated January 28, 2013 at 12:00 PM EST

Dallas came back with back-to-back season premiere episodes that confirmed that this reconfiguration of Dallas Classic is potent stuff — especially for as long as the late Larry Hagman remains on-screen as J.R. Ewing. And Hagman is at his best here when he’s paired with his evil spawn, Josh Henderson’s increasingly skillful, Great Gatsby-reading rat-face-boy, John Ross. Together, they’re the king and prince of nighttime-soap dirtiness. A FEW SPOILERS AHEAD.

On Monday night’s season debut, John Ross chafed at the edge his rival, cousin Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe), Jordana Brewster’s Elena, and Patrick Duffy’s Bobby Ewing have over Ewing Energy (which is now ensconced in sleek new headquarters adorned everywhere with a snazzy E-backwards-E logo). The first season’s tension set-up — Christopher wants to take the Ewing company into the future with methane while John Ross remains a would-be oil baron — is proving more durable than I thought it would. Instead of getting bogged down in debates about the moral choices of both energy-sources and business models, the methane vs. oil argument is fueling the show’s most passionate resentments, connecting the cousins beyond the boardroom, as they continue to vie for the approval of Elena.

John Ross, however, has become bitter from a broken heart. He’s muttering crudities such as “Love is for pussies,” while his father is a tad more artful. In the sort of speech only a TV villain as magisterial and campy as J.R. (and Larry Hagman) could deliver without snickering, the elder Ewing told the younger, “Love, hate, jealousy: They make a mean martini, and when you slake your thirst, we’ll take over Ewing Energy!”

Speaking of liquor, recovering alcoholic Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) nearly had a white-wine slip after her gubernatorial plans were thrown into disarray by scandal. In the night’s best moments, J.R. proved his enduring love for Sue Ellen by using his malign powers to get the local district attorney to drop the bribery case against her. Gray proved poignant when she confessed to Brenda Strong’s Annie that drinking was “an old friend” but that J.R. was “an even older friend,” and one who, in keeping her from getting drunk as a solution to her problems, has become ” for the first time the lesser of two evils” — certainly the first time J.R. has been called that. Seeing Hagman and Gray holding the screen with that mixture of affection and repulsion the pair have perfected over the decades was any historical-minded TV fan’s idea of bliss.

But of course, for this Dallas to remain vital, it has to give the young ‘uns a chance to plot and pucker up. Henderson’s dead-eyed glare goes a long way in establishing his villainy, especially as it contrasts with Metcalfe’s wide-eyed earnestness. These two are playing out the J.R.-Bobby dynamic very well now. This week, each used the reveal that served as last season’s climax — that Julie Gonzalo’s Rebecca is actually Pamela Rebecca Barnes, daughter of eternal J.R. foe Cliff Barnes — to their different advantages. Gonzalo, for her part, is ever-refining her dastardly glare, her stiletto-heel stomp, to settle in as a potent minx no man can either resist or ought to cross.

More problematic is the new season’s significant subplot: The discovery of Annie’s long-lost daughter, Emma. Brenda Strong has been required to do altogether too much weeping over this girl, who with firm hostility has refused to cotton to her newfound mama. But just when the soppiness was threatening to dampen the episodes, Dallas took a nice swerve to reveal yet another villain for the series: Judith Light as Judith Ryland, mother of Mitch Pileggi’s Harris, and the woman who helped kidnap Emma as a child and raised her in secrecy.

Judith Light was superb in her brief moments toward the end of the second hour. Her regal maliciousness reminded me, visually, of the Evil Queen in Walt Disney’s version of Snow White.

All in all, a rootin-tootin’ start to a new season. And fans are going to treasure these final moments with J.R., savoring Hagman’s delivery of lines like, “Son, you got the devil in ya.” Despite J.R.’s perfidy, Hagman’s got the angels on his side.

Twitter: @kentucker