Is J.R. Shot?
When the world first tuned in to Dallas, oil and Texas were riding high. Now they're down, and so are the ratings. After ten years of guilty pleasure, dare we ask ... Is J.R. Shot?
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Can it be? Dallas, our Dallas, is ten years old this month. That makes it the longest-running prime-time entertainment series currently on television. For a while we were so engrossed we didn’t dare imagine that it could end. In the 1980-81 and 1981-82 seasons Dallas was the top-rated series in the country. It finished second the following season, then regained the number one position in 1983-84 and was second in 1984-85. The “Who Shot J.R.?” episode, broadcast on November 21, 1980, became the highest-rated TV episode of all time. In the history of series television, only the final episode of M*A*S*H, in 1983, has drawn more viewers.
Three hundred million people in ninety coutries couldn’t get enough of Dallas, and eventually no fewer than half a dozen new programs imitated it. A syndicated comic strip was based on it. Mad magazine parodied it. Dallas‘ most popular character, the forever-scheming J.R. Ewing, inspired a beer, called J.R.’s Private Stock, and a brand of blue jeans, which featured gold-bullion thread. Inevitably, there were J.R. buttons, T-shirts, and presidential bumper stickers, not to mention a record by an English rock group that featured “I Love J.R.” on one side and “I Hate J.R.” on the other. Dallas, the series if not the city, became the center of a whole new universe.
But Dallas has begun to show signs of TV age. Though it remains the most popular of the nighttime serials, it no longer finishes among the top ten shows in the overall weekly ratings derby. Many weeks this season, in fact, Dallas has finished behind the top twenty. Reports of Texas’ high office-vacancy rate, its troubled banks, and its tycoons going down the tubes have taken the place of Dallas-as-Dallas stories in the national press. Who remembers who shot J.R. or Cliff Barnes’s political campaigns or those Dallas versus Dynasty and J.R. versus Alexis stories? Cosby and kids, not the Ewings, are the reigning family of prime time, and Moonlighting‘s monkeyshines have surpassed the shenanigans at Southfork Ranch.
Dallas will in all likelihood be back for another round next fall, but in a dramatically different form. For the eleventh season, the show’s producers are considering the television equivalent of Chapter 11—they are reorganizing the show. Gone will be the serial format. Gone too will be a number of the show’s actors. Victoria Principal, who portrayed Pam Ewing, left last year; Priscilla Presley, who portrays Jenna Wade, won’t be back next season. “After ten years and two hundred eighty shows, we have done most of what we can do in this vein,” Leonard Katzman, Dallas‘ executive producer, says from his office in Southern California. Restructuring the show, he explains, “gives us the opportunity to work with a smaller cast, as we had in the beginning, and to create shows for guest stars, which we think we would like to do now.” By concentrating on fewer characters, Dallas will be downsizing, going back to basics, trying to live within its means. Does that sound familiar, a case of Dallas art imitating Dallas life? Well, it happens.
Think of Charlie’s Angels, which ran for five years, Hill Street Blues for six, Laugh-In for five and a half. Tastes and interests change. Although a show about money—how to get it, how to wallow in it—seemed so right for the go-for-it early eighties, the national mood has changed. These are the Now What? years, and J.R. just doesn’t seem the sort (we wouldn’t want him to be the sort) to contemplate the meaning of it all.
But before envisioning a television landscape with Dallas as we’ve come to know it, we should use this tenth anniversary as a time to consider what the show has meant to television and, not to put too grandiose a spin on it, to us. Because after a decade of J.R.’s dastardly behavior and brother Bobby’s bottomless decency and competitor Cliff’s chronic conniptions, it is sometimes difficult to remember that Dallas has been in many ways a television trendsetter, a prime-time pioneer.
HORSEMAN, PASS BY
For one thing, Dallas was the first series about postwar Texas. The original television Texas was all tumbleweeds and trail drives, Rawhide style. The opening sequence of Dallas zooms past all that. Pump jacks and cattle give way to the crowded expressways and gleaming office towers of modern, urbanized Texas. Dallas had become a city of the future, the capital of the Sunbelt—clean, bright, moneyed, crazy for commerce and competition. This was the Dallas of lavish charity balls and entrepreneurs with national ambitions. This also was the Dallas of the Super Bowl champion Cowboys, known then as “America’s team,” the football franchise that Pete Gent’s popular novel North Dallas Forty told us was run with the efficiency of a computer. It was also the home of the well-coiffed, well-calibrated, and well-choreographed Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. These cheerleaders were the subject of a popular ABC television movie in 1979 called, in television’s great creative tradition, The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. They also inspired (if that’s the word) a popular X-rated film of the era, the still somewhat infamous Debbie Does Dallas.
“Texas has always had kind of a mythic quality about it,” said producer Katzman. “Dallas was the place that everybody knew. It just seemed like that was a grabber by itself initially, just the name.”
David Jacobs, who created Dallas without ever having set foot in the state (he now works on Knots Landing), says that Texas is “just one of those trigger words that, to me, suggests big scale, big spaces.”
“I mean it really is accidental,” says Jacobs. “I wanted it to be a big city, I wanted it to be cattle-related, old money. I thought of Dallas as being a real Western town. I thought of Houston as being like Atlanta. Although I knew Dallas was a modern city, I liked the idea it still connoted—it had those connotations of the Old West. Would it have been the hit that it became if it had been called Houston?”
THE FAMILY PLOT
And would it have been a hit if it didn’t have characters called J.R., Jock, Bobby, Sue Ellen, Miss Ellie, or Digger? Or if it wasn’t about family feuds and business deals?
Dallas centers on two families: the Ewings, featuring father Jock, mother Miss Ellie, and sons J.R., Bobby, Gary, and Ray, and the Barneses, with father Digger, son Cliff, and daughter Pamela. Digger and Jock were once rivals for Miss Ellie and for wealth and power. Their families have continued to fight (with Pam’s marriage to Bobby complicating matters.) The competition between J.R. and Bobby Ewing is basically Cain and Abel in cowboy hats, and the feud between the Ewings and the Barneses is the Dallas version of the Montagues and Capulets.
J.R. is the heavy, full of ambition, cunning, and zeal. Bobby is the mild-mannered brother, compassionate and soft-spoken, though not incapable of anger. Gary lives in California. Ray, comfortable on the ranch but not in an office building, is the odd brother out; he is Jock’s son, but not Miss Ellie’s. In family matters Ray usually sides with Bobby. Sue Ellen, J.R.’s wife, can be counted on to side with anyone but her husband (J.R.’s nastiness having led her to a drinking problem that was a major plot element in past seasons.) Pam, who was Bobby’s wife until she wandered off earlier this season (after an automobile accident so changed her appearance and life that she could no longer face her family), is a Barnes by birth, a Ewing by marriage. Ulcer territory. Ray is married to Jenna Wade, an ex-girlfriend of Bobby’s and the mother of his child. More ulcer territory.
Smiling, wringing her hands, with the occasional tears in her eyes, is Miss Ellie. She is a saint, but on Dallas godliness is next to boringness. Her husband, Jock, died after the third season, but in his time he could be counted on to be a gruff, intimidating, yet ultimately-reassuring presence, the patriarch of the Dallas Ponderosa. When he was around, his sons competed to please him. In his absence, the sons compete to do what they imagine he would have wanted.
The Barnes family is represented by Cliff, the tilter at the Ewing windmill. He bellows, connives, and plots; though he scores the occasional victory, it is never long-lived. The setbacks don’t seem to deter him. He presses on, waving the Barnes pennant and throwing himself against the Ewing battlements time and time again.
Other characters have moved in and out and back into this universe: J.R.’s doughy, flirtatious niece, Lucy; Sue Ellen’s slinky sister, Kristin; and April Stevens, the mysterious ex-wife of Jock Ewing’s mysterious nephew Jack. (Jack disappeared after a couple of seasons, but April is still around.)
Dallas‘ stories have revolved around shifting family divisions and alliances—J.R. against Sue Ellen, Bobby and Pam against J.R., Cliff and Pam against J.R.—and how they affect business. Sometimes Cliff has needed Pam’s help to prosper; sometimes he has received it. Sometimes J.R. and Bobby have collaborated for the good of Ewing Oil; other times they have battled each other for control of the company. Even death doesn’t settle things. Bobby seemed to be dead after the eighth season but was smiling in the shower the next fall. All is fair in nighttime soap opera, the genre that Dallas practically invented.
If I Love Lucy was the show of the fifties, Gunsmoke and Bonanza the shows of the sixties, and All in the Family the show of the seventies, then Dallas was the preeminent show of the early eighties. And as soon as Dallas‘ ratings went through the roof, similarly soapy shows began popping up all over prime time: Dynasty, Knot’s Landing, Falcon Crest, Flamingo Road, Secrets of Midland Heights, The Colbys, The Yellow Rose, and Berrenger’s.
Suddenly, television husbands were sleeping with their rivals’ secretaries, television wives were sleeping with their husbands’ rivals, divorce was a constant plot element and deal-making an inherent part of just about every one of these shows. It was peignoirs on parade, bare backs à go go, and strings of scenes in which someone had to sign on the dotted line—or else. Prime-time television began to look a lot like daytime television.
In truth, Dallas was not television’s first prime-time soap opera. That was Peyton Place, which was adapted from Grace Metalious’ best-selling novel and broadcast in the mid-sixties. Like many other sensational ideas, Peyton Place was ahead of its time. Not until Dallas grabbed hold of the old soap opera formula and juiced it up did the genre explode.
And actually, when Dallas made its debut on CBS on April 2, 1978, it wasn’t a soap opera (or serial, as the studios prefer to call them). The episodes were self-contained, meaning stories weren’t carried over from week to week. The five episodes that appeared in the spring of 1978 were more or less a trial run; the soap format wasn’t introduced until a third of the way into the series’ first full season, 1978-79.
Producer Katzman says the soap opera format just sort of happened. “Somewhere in the middle of the first year we did an episode where Sue Ellen got pregnant and she didn’t know whether the father was Cliff Barnes or J.R., and that wasn’t something we could just say one week and leave behind,” he says. “So the next week we continued that, and as we continued those kinds of stories the audience really seemed to get interested. Little by little we became more and more a continuing-story show.”
All Dallas did was take the familiar plot mechanics of the daytime soap operas, speed them up, and dress them up (fancy cars, fancy clothes, and fancy houses were all supporting players). It was shrewd programming. Daytime soaps had been enormously profitable for the networks because of their large and devoted, mostly female, audience. Dallas brought the formula and attendant loyal viewership to prime time.
Dallas‘ premises and plots were familiar to anyone who had spent much time following As the World Turns:
• Kidnapping. Bobby was kidnapped. Miss Ellie was kidnapped. The infant son of J.R. and Sue Ellen also was kidnapped. The plucky but unlucky Lucy Ewing was kidnapped twice.
•Questionable Paternity. Was Bobby the father of Jenna Wade’s daughter? Was Cliff the father of Sue Ellen’s son? Was Digger Barnes really Pam’s father?
•Murder Charges Aplenty. Sue Ellen was accused of shooting J.R.; J.R. was accused of killing Sue Ellen’s sister. Cliff Barnes was arrested three times, once for the murder of a former lover, another time for shooting J.R., then again for shooting Bobby.
•Strange Fatal Diseases. Pam and Cliff both have a genetic disorder that convinced Pam she shouldn’t have children, and Pam’s lover Mark Graison discovered that he had (violins, please) only months to live.
•Memory Lapses and Suspensions of Disbelief. Sue Ellen was at a loss to account for her whereabouts the night J.R. was shot. When the producers and writers needed Bobby to come back from the dead because actor Patrick Duffy had decided to return to the show, how did they explain the preceding season, during which the characters had spent considerable time mourning his death? By claiming the whole thing was just a dream—standard soap operating procedure.
Always there was speechifying that was, by turns, arch and platitudinous. “You want it all,” J.R. would tell Sue Ellen. “You want the Ewing name, the privileges, the freedom to act like a tramp, and that’s all you ever did want.” Miss Ellie would tell Jock, “You’re a good man and a good husband and my best friend. I haven’t always liked you, but I’ve always loved you and trusted you.”
In the afternoon-soap tradition, Dallas had dialogue designed to keep a viewer hanging on. “It’s not over yet,” Cliff would vow to J.R. “Not by a long shot. I’m still going to get you.”
But unlike afternoon soap operas, which run all year, Dallas ended its season in the spring, like all regular prime-time series. To keep its viewers thinking about the show over a summer of reruns and replacement series, Dallas producers needed to end the season with a bang, blast, or floating body. Cliff-hangers were a comic-book and movie-serial staple, like the imperiled Pauline tied tightly to the railroad tracks. Before Dallas, television series never ended the season with major question marks about which characters would live or die. Once Dallas was successful with the cliff-hanger, every other prime-time soap scrambled to keep pace.
“It actually happened the first year of the show,” Katzman explains. “It wasn’t the shooting of J.R. The first year, the show ended with Sue Ellen having been in a car crash and the baby was born and we didn’t know whether the baby would live or Sue Ellen would live and we ended the year that way. People tend to forget that. We just thought that since the show was really starting to climb and doing much better in the ratings we’d give the audience something to think about over the summer, and hopefully they’d be interested enough to really tune in in numbers for the first show next year. That’s what happened.”
Eighty-three million people watched the “Who Shot J.R.?” show, and cliff-hangers became a constant. At the end of the 1981 season of Dallas, a body was floating face down in the Southfork swimming pool. In 1984 Bobby was shot while sitting in J.R.’s office chair. The following season, it was Bobby again, killed by a car after he pushed Pam to safety. But in the 1986 cliff-hanger, Pam, awakened by the sound of running water, walked into the bathroom to find . . . Bobby! In the shower! Soapy! “Good morning,” he said. Freeze-frame till the next fall.
“It became kind of pro forma; if you were doing a serial you had to do that,” Katzman says of cliff-hangers. “But it’s made the whole thing kind of bizarre.”
Bizarre? Why, yes. In the final episode of The Colbys, one of the lead characters was taken away in a spaceship. The cliff-hanger fad became so crazy that ABC’s silly comedy Sledge Hammer! came up with the ultimate ending last spring—a nuclear war.
Soap opera stunts aside, it is hard to imagine that Dallas could keep one’s attention for more than ten minutes if the show did not have J.R. at center stage. There had always been villains on television, but they had been of the guest-star variety—tormenting Mannix or Marshal Dillon for an hour, then getting killed. Case closed. The one-armed man was a continuing character in The Fugitive, but he was rarely seen.
J.R. Ewing (played with vim by Larry Hagman) was the first villain who not only appeared in every episode but was also the principal character. J.R.’s competitive sense is so well developed, his ambition so pronounced, his determination so upfront, that you can’t help but be interested in what he’s going to do next. He’s Sammy Glick in a Stetson; we are transfixed by his audacity.
“I think a lot of viewers admire him,” Katzman says. “For different reasons. For the way people tend to—not that they would want to be him—but tend to admire people who are ruthless in their objectves, who get away with the things he’s gotten away with. It’s half every man’s dream to be able to do all the things that J.R. has done and get away with all that stuff.
“Other shows tried to do their version of J.R., and they’ve always misunderstood. They just had people doing bad things for the sake of doing them. When J.R. does something, it’s always for a positive goal; it’s not necessarily to hurt anyone. But he has drives and ambitions, and he sets out to get what he needs. If everything goes well, no one gets hurt. If people get in his way, they have to pay the consequences.”
Take, for example, J.R.’s stand on Cliff: “When I’m finished with you, there will be no more Cliff Barnes in Dallas, Texas, or in any place. You will cease to exist—and that’s a promise.” Or his competition with Bobby: “Your assets are frozen in the middle of Canada, Bob. You took the high road and I took the low road, but I got the company before you.”
J.R.’s control of Ewing Oil was threatened by Pam, a Barnes, so he always worked hard to keep her and Bobby from staying together. J.R. was always being threatened by rival Cliff, so when the latter ran for elective office, J.R. discredited him by publicizing the fact that Cliff’s old girlfriend died from an illegal abortion. And when J.R. was threatened by Clayton Farlow, who later married Miss Ellie, he hired a private detective, who came up with the rumor that Clayton had killed his first wife.
Not surprisingly, J.R.’s own father distrusted him. “I get the feeling sometimes that your brother’s not telling me everything,” Jock once told Bobby. Yet other characters expressed admiration for J.R.’s drive. “Mr. Ewing’s ruthless,” one impartial observer noted in an episode this season. “Totally unpredictable. You can go far with a man like that.”
That ruthlessness seemed so true to the times. American television is not good at setting an agenda—programs rarely inspire us—but television is adept at telling us what we’re about at any given moment. The early sixties were about suburbs, station wagons, and supper at six, and we saw that on television shows like My Three Sons and The Dick Van Dyke Show. The seventies were about tumult, rebellion, and generational clashes, and we saw that on television too, with All in the Family, Maude, and One Day at a Time.
The early eighties were about greed, money lust, and conspicuous consumption, or at least that was the popular perception. Is was the era of Where’s Mine? The Reagan victory told people it was okay to be greedy. “Supply side was cowboy economics,” Garry Wills wrote in Reagan’s America. “You get your free lunch by roping and throwing meat on the hoof, lassoing it with the Laffer curve. Any cowboy can do that on his own, so long as he is not obstructed by timid city folk in green eyeshades.”
“Who says you can’t have it all?” went a well-known beer jingle. Yeah? Who says? Certainly not Lee Iacocca, whose how-I-made-my-pile autobiography qualified as the manifesto of the era. Certainly not Ivan Boesky or his ilk of inside traders.
We got a lot of business-school graduates driving leased BMWs, charging their credit cards to the limit, reading Inc., Money, and Fortune, and talking endlessly about real estate. In Dallas rich people spent weekend afternoons watching polo in 100-degree heat, and both of that city’s newspapers had weekly sections devoted to breathless coverage of goofy Grand Prix races, ostentatious parties, and meals at the Mansion.
Dallas captured the mood. It was the first TV show that was really about money and that had a money man—J.R.—as its central character. Dialogue was rich with business and legal lingo. Viewers were offered a crash course in the oil industry, and J.R. was the guy who cheated on all the tests. Anthropologist Ashley Montagu once wrote that J.R. “represents the covert character of America . . . that he makes a mockery of the adage ‘crime doesn’t pay.’ “
J.R. was often cartoonish, but he was emblematic of an age in which business was cool. Did anyone know how much Marcus Welby made in a year or what Ozzie Nelson did for a living? In the Where’s Mine? era J.R. seemed to tell us what we wanted to hear. He told us what the CEO autobiographies told us—that you had to be tough, hardworking, determined, and wary, one step ahead of the competition. J.R. also could be read to carry the message that the end—that is, wealth and power—justified the means, that if a big ranch and an expensive Mercedes were what you wanted, unusual steps were required.
When J.R. heard that a revolution was brewing in an Asian country in which he had sizable investments, he sold his shares and in so doing wiped out his partners and made a nice profit for himself. Later, to get back in the good graces of a cartel he had been working with, J.R. financed a coup in the same country. And when the price of domestic oil fell, J.R. hired a mercenary to blow up fields in the Middle East to send the price back up.
J.R. also confirmed our suspicions that getting rich carried a hefty price tag. J.R. seemed amoral, ruthless, and mean. When Jock was in the hospital following a heart attack, for example, J.R. was the only family member not at his bedside—he was out making deals on the assumption that his father would die. If that sort of behavior was the price of success, you could tell yourself, it sure didn’t seem worth it.
But since Black Monday, our fascination with money and the process of acquiring huge quantities of it seems to have faded some. Popular entertainment now tells us that happiness isn’t a leased BMW and that a Wall Street job doesn’t guarantee satisfaction. People who flaunt their wealth now seem obnoxious. The recent movie Wall Street, in which Michael Douglas plays an East Coast J.R., served as a coda to the Where’s Mine? era. His character, Gordon Gekko, is dynamic, good-looking, cutthroat, and sort of sad. He wasn’t doing anything of value; his time in the spotlight came and went in the movie’s two hours.
Television programmers likewise have read the changing mood. These days, we have Thirtysomething, in which people sit around trying to figure out what will make them happy, and a comedy called Day by Day, in which a couple have decided what doesn’t make them happy: burning up the career track in pursuit of money.
Dallas hangs on, but it doesn’t fit as well as it once did. Ten years is a long time in television. All in the Family hung on too as Archie Bunker’s Place, a show that was hard to watch; Archie had had his moment, and it was clearly over.
Dallas isn’t over, though it’s not expected to rebound soon, either. In a neat coincidence, the show’s decline in the ratings has paralleled the decline of the Texas economy. When Texas boomed, so did Dallas. When times got tough, they got tough for Dallas. The show has attempted to deal with those economic realities, within limits (no one has had to give up a Mercedes or a stunning new frock.)
“We can’t totally ignore what the audience knows,” Katzman says. “The audience knows that the oil-patch communities were in trouble, that the price of oil has fallen. We couldn’t have the Ewings blithely going through life pretending that they were raking in forty million dollars a day when the audience understands that that’s just not happening anymore. And so we try to use that to our advantage. Witness J.R.’s plot to blow up Saudi Arabian oil fields to get the price of American oil back up. An extreme example, but that was part of the times.”
THE LAST WINK
When times are bad, show-biz theory has it, people go to the movies to escape. And for its season-ending episode this year, Dallas is going to do that too. Reports have it that Dallas will have an affair with the Wrong Woman. Dallas does Fatal Attraction? You hear this stuff and you laugh, but Dallas has always been a hoot. Its ten years have been a fun run. In Mad magazine’s parody of Dallas—called, inevitably, “Dullus”—Jerk Ewing and Miss Nelly are driving out of town in a big automobile and talking about a deal son J.D. has been cooking up. “I think we’ve got to trust J.D. on this,” Jerk says. “Why? Because he’s our son?” asks Miss Nelly. Says Jerk, “No, because in order for his ridiculous, underhanded schemes to work, people have to trust him, even though they end up gettin’ screwed every time!”
Dallas has always asked us to swallow a lot, to go along with the outlandish schemes of its characters and the incredible turns in its story line. In a good-natured way, we’ve played along. On sleepy Friday nights we’re in the mood.
J.R.’s trademark nasty chuckle has been as good as a wink. By playing it straight, Dallas often has been a deadpan delight. Just listen to Larry Hagman talk about one of his favorite episodes: “When I put Sue Ellen away in a sanitarium, she was ragging on me, I was laughing at her, pitying her at the same time. It was fun.” In another episode, J.R. wondered aloud to Sue Ellen about the welfare of niece Lucy, whom he never liked at all. “Somehow the role of social worker doesn’t suit you, J.R.,” Sue Ellen responded through clenched teeth.
And then there was the episode in which a number of angry people were hollering at J.R., who claimed to be baffled by their hostility. “Well, for one thing, my husband committed suicide because of you,” blurted one of the enraged.
J.R.’s reply was classic and character-defining, and in seven words it sums up why the show has had such a hold on us for all this time: “I didn’t ask you here to nitpick.”