COMMENTARY : The ‘Dallas’ Shot That Was Heard Round the World : Television: Three hundred million viewers found out ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ 10 years ago this week on the soap opera that embodied the ‘80s.
Two bullets blazed out of the darkness and into a man’s chest. An unknown pistol-packer had just pumped a couple of slugs into the well-tailored body of a Texas oil magnate. No big deal, perhaps. The man was a conniving cur, and besides, it was only TV. Who would care?
The entire world, as it happened. That night in April, 1980, when J.R. Ewing crumpled to the floor in his suite atop the Ewing Office Building, “Dallas” was already television’s most popular dramatic series. Throughout the summer, when Americans should have been paying attention to the presidential conventions, the most hotly debated question was: Who shot J.R.?
At a Texas fund-raiser, President Jimmy Carter smiled and said, “I came to Dallas to find out confidentially who shot J.R. If any of you could let me know that, I could finance the whole campaign this fall.”
By Nov. 21--10 years ago this week--when America finally found out whodunit, Carter was history, but “Dallas” was making it. More Americans--more than 80 million--tuned in that night than had ever before watched a single TV program. That episode now ranks as the second-highest rated broadcast in television history, just behind 1983’s final episode of “MASH.”
Nor, in 1980, was “Dallas"-mania strictly a U.S. virus. The show had become an international obsession, enthralling 300 million viewers in 57 countries. It struck a nerve in Singapore, stoked passions in Australia and diverted the war-ravaged residents of Lebanon. More than half of all Britons stayed home to watch the episode in which J.R. got perforated. A British newspaper offered 100,000 to Larry Hagman, the actor who plays J.R., if he would reveal whodunit. Politicians made news by praising the program or denouncing it. In Turkey, a Muslim fundamentalist party demanded “the elimination of ‘Dallas’ ” because it “aims at destroying Turkish family life.”
Family life--Texas, Not Turkish--was “Dallas’ ” theme and the source of its success. Three generations of Ewings lived under one roof at Southfork Ranch, and new characters would often prove to be long-lost relatives with age-old grudges. The family never knew when another Ewing heir (most recently it was J.R.'s wayward son James) would show up for a season’s worth of mischief.
As the series progressed, it kept tangling bloodlines and storylines in a complex but coherent skein. The show gave the impression that, in the span of recorded history, there were about a hundred people in the world, and every one of them had been to bed with, done a dirty deal with, or given birth to the other 99. Even an aging gentleman rancher like Clayton Farlow (Howard Keel) had dated both Pam’s mother and J.R.'s wife in the months before he married the newly widowed Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes). Most of “Dallas’ ” vamps have set their sights on both J.R. and Bobby (Patrick Duffy), and some of them detour into the affections of pathetic Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval), half-brother of Bobby’s first wife Pam (Victoria Principal) and Ewing Oil’s most dogged enemy.
By the end of its second full season, “Dallas” had introduced about 40 main characters. And just about all of them had a good reason for wanting to shoot J.R. In the episode that climaxed with his shooting, six characters had threatened J.R.'s life: J.R.'s wife, Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), whom J.R. was about to commit to a sanitarium; Sue Ellen’s sister, Kristin Shepard (Mary Crosby), who had bedded and blackmailed J.R.; brother Bobby, exiled from Southfork by J.R.'s machinations; Cliff Barnes, who swore on his father’s grave that he would “stop J.R. for good”; and two business associates, ruined by J.R.
Finally, the Friday before Thanksgiving, “Dallas” unmasked the assailant. It was Kristin, twisted to start with and triggered to violence by her ex-lover’s renunciation. In the showdown scene, she dared J.R. to put her in jail. After all, she announced boldly, she was carrying his child.
The whodunit hoohah shortly abated, but “Dallas” kept sailing on the wave of its amazing popularity. It was the top-rated series of 1980-81, 1981-82 and 1983-84. It inspired a couple of hit copycat shows (“Dynasty,” “Knots Landing”) and several more quickie clones.
But “Dallas’ ” influence was farther-reaching still; it helped make possible the decade’s most innovative shows. “Hill Street Blues,” with its family of cops and its crazy-quilt of narrative threads, might not have existed if “Dallas” hadn’t paved the way for storylines that stretched clear across the TV season like Interstate 20 across the state of Texas. And if not for the success of “Hill Street Blues,” would the networks have sponsored those yuppie touchstones “L.A. Law” and “thirtysomething,” let alone “Twin Peaks”?
No soap opera had “Dallas’ ” breadth of vision, juggling the conflicting demands and responsibilities of money, power, sex and family. No series had dared to make its lead character such a seductive snake, and then let the viewer pass judgment on him. As Hagman played him--with a soft-spoken belligerence and a rogue’s good cheer--J.R. was no simple villain. He was too much fun to hate, too attentive to his family to deserve easy condemnation, too crucial to the show to be written out of it. He could be punished but never banished.
The program was unique in another way: It made work sexy. Many a TV series had been set in the workplace, but only “Dallas” told viewers of its aphrodisiac power. In this sense, J.R. was the modern American corporate male, defined by his job. Sue Ellen might be driven to drink or distraction over her husband’s many affairs, but she knew that the man’s most dominating mistress was Ewing Oil.
So “Dallas” set the standard--or, rather, located the crumbling of standards--in the anything-for-a-buck ‘80s. Its men were boardroom sharks, its women coiffed to kill. Ten years ago, the Ewings might have seemed a clever Hollywood fiction, but as the decade wore on they started to look like archetypes. In their big dreams and base motives one could find hints of Donald Trump, Ted Turner, Gary Hart, Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, Charles Keating, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and the Marcoses, as well as all those tabloid vixens--the Donnas and Marlas and Jessicas--whose brief notoriety heralded the imminent fall of powerful men.
On the front pages and on TV, the message of the ‘80s was the same: Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy prettier misery. The difference, of course, was that J.R. couldn’t be caught. He could only be canceled.
It is the curse of a phenomenon to become familiar. This is particularly true with TV series; one year’s smash is the next year’s smash-up. (Remember “Mork & Mindy”? “Miami Vice”? “Twin Peaks”?) The long-term challenge facing “Dallas’ ” producers, then, was to keep the show from becoming tedious without making it preposterous.
They didn’t always succeed. At the beginning of the 1986-87 season, Pam woke up to discover that she had dreamed the previous year’s worth of episodes. Over the next few years, ratings fell dramatically, as if “Dallas” were a Ewing stock certificate after the Texas oil boom went bust.
Now “Dallas” has a third surprise ending. After 13 years and more episodes than any dramatic series except “Gunsmoke,” the series is getting good again.
Maybe it’s just that a TV watcher, worn out by the facetiousness of David Letterman, Bart Simpson and “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” is happy to see a show that takes the small screen seriously. The program’s pace has picked up; the writing has regained its sweat-free cleverness. With a new blend of veteran scoundrels and young vamps, “Dallas” is mixing old-fashioned elements with the tang of J.R.'s bourbon and branch water.
So, remember, “Twin Peaks” fans: Laura Palmer had nothing on J.R. Ewing. And if she had had something on him, he would have paid her handsomely for it. Or handed her over to Bobby. Or bedded her and then broken her. John Ross Ewing Jr., like “Dallas,” knows how to roll with the punches. It’s what has kept both the man and the show in big business for a decade after everyone has forgotten who shot J.R.