Utah writer helps bring 'Dallas' back to life
Aaron Allen is one of the people who put the words in J.R. Ewing's mouth, but he's not exactly old enough to remember the biggest moment in "Dallas" history and one of the biggest moments in television history.
"My mom was pregnant with me back when J.R. got shot [in March 1981]," said Allen, 30, a staff writer on TNT's revival of the iconic 1978-91 series. "But 'Dallas' is such a pop-culture phenomenon. I've always been aware of the show and of the big cliffhangers. Even 'The Simpsons' did a parody of 'Who Shot J.R.?' "
The new "Dallas" is no parody.
"We are not going for something campy," said Allen. "We're not making fun of the source material, we're totally respecting it. We're treating these characters like real human beings who are very grounded emotionally."
The new series is neither a remake nor a reboot. "It's a continuation of the story of the Ewings," said TNT/TBS president Michael Wright. "Imagine the cameras left Southfork about 21 years ago, but the Ewings went on with their lives. Now the cameras have returned."
Veterans J.R. (Larry Hagman), Bobby (Patrick Duffy) and Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) are all back as series regulars, not just window dressing.
"It was never the intent to use the 'big three,' as we call Larry, Linda and Patrick, as bait for the new show," said executive producer Cynthia Cidre. "It was really to integrate them fully with the new cast."
The plotlines now include the younger generation; the intra-Ewing fussin' and fightin' continue with J.R.'s son, John Ross (Josh Henderson), and Bobby's boy, Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe). John Ross' girlfriend, Elena Ramos (Jordana Brewster), used to be Christopher's fiancÃ©e. And Christopher's current fiancÃ©e, Rebecca Sutter (Julie Gonzolo), isn't happy that Elena is still around.
Metcalfe was 2 when Kristin Shepard (Mary Crosby) shot J.R. And, like Allen, Henderson was gestating at the time.
But Dallas born-and-raised Henderson remembers the show, which was his "memaw's favorite show" and a family staple. "I literally would run around the TV and be told to shut up while they were watching it," he said.
For Allen, a Bountiful High grad who earned a degree in film studies from the University of Utah and an MFA from USC, working on "Dallas" is "a dream come true." It's also his second stint as a staff writer on a TV series a few months out of grad school, he landed a gig on "Big Love" for that show's fifth and final season.
He may have been "the low man on the totem pole" in terms of seniority in that writers room, but the staff looked to him "because I have this understanding of Utah Mormons."
"They really wanted that insiders' look at how Mormons are in Utah," Allen said. "And I was able to kind of give them that first-hand look at it."
"Big Love" prepared him for "Dallas." "I went from one big family drama to another big family drama," Allen said. "It was kind of an ideal transition to make because both shows just have such a twisted family tree and drama. And 'Dallas' is the granddaddy that all the other big nighttime soaps and character-driven dramas grew out of."
His Utah ties also helped land him the job on "Dallas" because Cidre, who was hired to revive the series, also has ties to the state.
"Cynthia and I hit it off right away when I told her I was from Utah," Allen said. "She's got a place up in Park City, so she spends most of her holidays in Utah. So as soon as I told her I was from Utah, we just clicked."
It was more than just his Utah history that got him the job. Cidre read his MFA project and was impressed; she's been even more impressed with his work on the series. "He's a fantastic young writer," Cidre said. "He's going places. He's going to be a big deal."
Reviving any show two decades after it left the air wouldn't be easy. Reviving a show that was a worldwide phenomenon is an even more formidable task.
"You know there are people who are going to be scrutinizing every move that we make," Allen said. "We don't want to insult their knowledge of the show."
He admits he would have "gone crazy if I tried to watch all  episodes" of the original series. But the writing staff has "seen enough of the old show to know the convoluted, twisted, crazy history of the Ewings."
According to actor Patrick Duffy, Cidre and her staff have recaptured that old "Dallas" magic. There have been other attempts to revive the show, but those scripts were "atrocious," he said. "They were awful because nobody got it. And Cynthia got it."
The show was filmed in Dallas, including scenes at the Southfork ranch. Allen spent time there "babysitting" his episode he wrote No. 7, titled "Collateral Damage."
"You get to interact with the actors," he said. "And especially with the first season of a show, you're kind of seeing what the actors' strengths are." And that helps the writers know what strengths to exploit in any possible future seasons.
The entire 10-episode season hasn't premiered yet, but hopes are high for Season 2 and beyond.
"It's been my dream come true," Allen said. "I've been really fortunate to work with a bunch of really talented, collaborative writers. It's been a pleasure, and I hope I do it until I'm dead."
Return to 'Dallas'
It's back to Southfork when the new version of "Dallas" debuts on Wednesday, June 13, at 7 and 9 p.m. on TNT. The original "Dallas" premiered in 1978 and, after 357 episodes, signed off in 1991. There was a prequel TV movie ("Dallas: The Early Years") in 1986, as well as two sequels ("Dallas: J.R. Returns" in 1996 and "Dallas: War of the Ewings" in 1998).