Ellen Gray's guide to the summer TV season

Jordana Brewster (left) and Josh Henderson get drenched in oil in the first scene of "Dallas."
Jordana Brewster (left) and Josh Henderson get drenched in oil in the first scene of "Dallas."
Posted: June 14, 2012

COULD JUNE be the new September?

It might be hard to take summer TV seriously when CBS and ABC have lawyers arguing about shows in which people live in the human equivalent of ant farms. But with Larry Hagman's J.R. Ewing, Aaron Sorkin and Charlie Sheen all headed back to television this month, the fall, at least, no longer seems so far away. Here, a look at the biggest shows of the season:

DALLAS. 9 p.m. Wednesday, TNT.

Imagine if CBS' "Dallas," instead of disappearing from television in 1991, had simply moved to TNT.

There it's been ever since, chugging along like Britain's "EastEnders" with cowboy hats, through the booms and the busts, with J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) and his brother Bobby (Patrick Duffy) feuding over the oil business and the ranch at Southfork and their sons, John Ross and Christopher, following in their footsteps.

It's easier to imagine that "Dallas" never went away than it is to explain why it's back now — and as one of the higher-profile projects in a summer not exactly short of drama. After the prime- time soap's 21-year absence, even its youngest fans must be nearing the age at which advertisers begin to consider them as good as dead.

Will their children, reared on the cynical shenanigans of "Jersey Shore" and "Real Housewives of Greater Poughkeepsie," really be willing to trudge down memory lane and wade through thousands of acres of backstory just to catch the occasional glimpse of Jesse Metcalfe's Christopher without his shirt?

This, by the way, takes longer than it probably should for a show I'd expect to target women. Josh Henderson, who plays John Ross, and Jordana Brewster, who plays Elena, his business partner and sometime girlfriend, get promisingly oil-drenched in the very first scene, but it's Julie Gonzalo, as Christopher's fiancée, who's the first to strip down to her undies. Dueling man-chest scenes occur before the end of the episode, but not until Hagman's eyebrows have made their first appearance.

Rising like twin forests on the plains to form a landmark visible from space, those eyebrows have had their own Facebook page for nearly two years, making them the most contemporary thing about the "new" "Dallas," which otherwise looks and feels like a chunk of the '80s trapped in amber.

The 80-year-old Hagman, who's lately been battling throat cancer, is still a delightful screen presence, his eyes having grown only more twinkly, his smile more reptilian. Along with Duffy, who slips back into Bobby as if he'd just emerged from an extremely long shower, he's almost reason enough to revisit "Dallas."

Too bad that in the seven episodes I saw — I hope that qualifies as due diligence — the Ewing brothers proved consistently more interesting than the Ewing cousins, shirtless or not.

As for the Ewing women, Linda Gray pops up here and there as a politically savvy Sue Ellen, but Victoria Principal's still missing, her one-time place at Bobby's side now taken by Bobby's so- far-less-histrionic new wife, Ann ("Desperate Housewives" narrator Brenda Strong). TNT would probably prefer I not explain too much about Brewster and Gonzalo's roles, so let's just say that nothing on "Dallas" is ever quite as it seems.

And that nothing every really changes, either.

Fortunately for those of us who think there should be more to summer TV than singing contests and weird dating shows, "Dallas" isn't the only event on the horizon.

We also have:

"Falling Skies." 9 p.m. Sunday, TNT.

Last summer's sci-fi hit returns, along with Noah Wyle as the college professor-turned-resistance leader who was last seen entering one of the alien ships as a willing visitor. Sunday's two-hour premiere takes up three months later, kicking off a season in which the insurgents discover they're even less alone than they thought.

"The Newsroom." 10 p.m. June 24, HBO.

Fans of writer Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing") have been counting down the days until the premiere of his new drama, in which Jeff Daniels plays a cable news anchor, a supposed Republican who undergoes a Kafkaesque transformation, awaking, by the third episode, not as a gigantic insect but as Keith Olbermann.

This won't, I hope, be read as disrespect to either Olbermann or gigantic insects. Or, for that matter, to Sorkin, whose penchant for creating conservatives only liberals could love doesn't take away from how entertaining he is as a writer. Especially when he's not writing, as he did in "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," about entertainment.

An incorrigible romantic, Sorkin isn't just crushing on the people who work in TV news (although they're all pretty cute, from Emily Mortimer, Alison Pill, Dev Patel and Olivia Munn all the way to the mildly deranged news exec played by Sam Waterson). He's in love with the idea of news itself.

"Anger Management." 9 p.m. June 28, FX.

"Charlie Sheen died. And went to FX," says a promo for the former "Two and a Half Men" star's new comedy, in which Sheen's playing an anger-management specialist who (surprise!) may have a few issues himself. I haven't seen any more than that yet, but I'll admit I'm curious about the show, which Sheen's making with producer Bruce Helford ("The Drew Carey Show").

"Twenty Twelve." 9 p.m. June 28, BBC America, moving to midnight Saturdays on June 30.

Turns out we won't need to wait until Season 3 of "Downton Abbey" to see Hugh Bonneville again. PBS' Lord Grantham is riding a folding bike and trying to ride herd on the people planning London's summer Olympics in this mockumentary that's the perfect prelude to the games, at least if you care more about the spectacle — and the Brits' perspective on it — than you do about, well, the actual games.

"Masterpiece Mystery! Endeavour." 9 p.m. July 1, WHYY 12. This prequel to the beloved "Inspector Morse" series stars Shaun Evans as the rookie constable who grew up to become the Colin Dexter character played by the late John Thaw. As for the title, it's the character's first name, which wasn't revealed until late in the series.

Some other dates to remember:

July 1: Showtime's "Episodes" and "Weeds" return.

July 9: TNT's "The Closer" begins its final six-episode run and its new drama "Perception" premieres, with Eric McCormack ("Will & Grace") playing a schizophrenic professor who fights crime.

July 10: ABC News' "NY Med," the latest summer documentary series from the producer of "Hopkins" and "Boston Med," takes viewers inside the New York hospital where the surgeons include the already pretty famous Dr. Mehmet Oz. USA's "White Collar" also returns.

July 15: AMC's "Breaking Bad" returns, with triple Emmy winner Bryan Cranston beginning his final run as schoolteacher-turned-meth dealer Walter White. Prolonging the withdrawal for as long as possible, the first eight of 16 episodes air this summer, the final eight in 2013. n

Contact Ellen Gray at 215-854-5950 or graye@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @elgray. Read her blog at EllenGray.tv.

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