Thursday, November 14th 1996, 2:01AM

SOMETIMES, you hope television will surprise you with ingenious stories, knockout performances or stunning visuals. Sometimes, though, television's job is to deliver exactly what you're expecting.

Put "Dallas: J.R. Returns" in the second category. The much-anticipated made-for-TV reunion of the dysfunctional "Dallas" family (tomorrow night at 9 on CBS) succeeds precisely because it offers no surprises. Instead, it manages to recreate the original show's daffy parallel universe of petty bickering, global scheming, casual consumption and celebrated amorality.

As its title indicates, the character of J.R. Ewing and his alter ego, actor Larry Hagman, are at the heart of this film, and had it been any other way the movie would not even have been worth discussing.

In the opening scene, J.R. returns to Dallas after a five-year sojourn in Europe. He immediately shifts into high gear. "Let's not waste any time," he tells the limo driver who meets him at the airport. "I got a town to take back."

J.R.'s objective and I'm sure fans of "Dallas" will be shocked, shocked, to hear this is power, and he plans to acquire it by regaining control of Ewing Oil, the independent oil company founded by his late daddy and now owned by the hated Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval).

"At least that moron hasn't done any permanent damage," J.R. says of Barnes, just before he oozes into Barnes' office and tells him, "You're lookin' at a kindlier, gentler J.R. Ewing." Fortunately, this is a lie.

Indeed, in the brisk two-hour romp that follows written by Arthur Bernard Lewis and directed by the late Leonard Katzman J.R. manages to commit multiple frauds and forgeries, bribe public officials and law enforcement personnel, destroy evidence, file false police reports, plant evidence, subject members of his family to intense emotional stress and bed at least two women.

I'm delighted to report that Larry Hagman's new liver has in no way diminished his capacity for jumping into the sleazy skin of J.R. Ewing and having a blast. When it comes to talking the talk and walking the walk of this beloved TV villian with the heart of . . . petroleum distillates, Hagman is positively irrepressible, the twinkle in his eye constant.

Actually, the entire show is pretty much of a twinkle, although it stops well short of farce or parody. But you get the distinct feeling that nobody, thank heaven, is taking things too seriously.

It should be noted that other stars from the series are aboard for this ride. Patrick Duffy, who shares a co-executive-producer credit with Hagman, is back as Bobby Ewing and is as annoying as ever. Kercheval returns as Barnes (one character accurately refers to him as "an odd, little man"). Linda Gray, like a good doctor, does no harm as Sue Ellen, while Tracy Scoggins contributes several underwear and cleavage shots.

Put the likes of Deborah Rennard, George O. Petrie, Audrey Landers, George Kennedy and Omri Katz in the fun-just-to-see-them category.

In its phenomenal 13-season run (1978-91), "Dallas" embodied the gimme-greedy spirit of a decade that now seems like something of a socio-political-cultural embarrassment. Tomorrow's movie offers a risk-free way to reexperience the era.

Let's just hope it ends here. The last thing the legacy of "Dallas" needs is a half-baked attempt at a sequel series.

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