Why we still care who shot J.R.

‘Dallas,’ at 30, is now a classic, all because of a villain who never stops being interesting

Why we still care who shot J.R.

“The entire event was HORRIBLY orchestrated with many, many, many failed promises,” wrote a commenter at the official message board for Dallas, the hit prime-time soap opera that celebrated its 30th anniversary with a cast reunion gathering on Nov. 8. Another commenter raged against the promoters who organized the event, noting that he and his wife had paid $5,000 to travel from Australia to Texas, only to get no food, no drinks, and no opportunity to meet the cast. A promised fireworks show didn’t happen until almost everyone had gone home. The original Dallas got 14 years’ worth of storylines out of the attempts of evil oil baron J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) to screw over his goody-two-shoes brother Bobby (Patrick Duffy) and sozzled wife, Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), and so it’s only fitting that the reunion—a barbecue at Southfork Ranch, an estate on the outskirts of the real Dallas—also involved broken promises and threats of revenge. That’s the kind of melodrama that makes a show hold up. Most hour-long drama shows have their day and are then forgotten, a victim of changing tastes and styles; even recent hits like NYPD Blue have bombed on DVD and reruns, and most older dramas are forgotten by all except their hard-core fans. But Dallas is as much a part of popular culture now as it was in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

In its time, Dallas was a huge hit, one of the last broadcast TV shows that appealed to every age group and demographic. (An editor for People magazine once said that he knew the audience had fragmented when, for the first time, a Dallas cover didn’t bring in a wide range of readers.) But it wasn’t seen as any kind of future classic. And yet, a classic, with the continued cultural resonance that that word implies, is exactly what it’s become. Larry Hagman’s J.R., a man who called his wife a slut, had her committed to a sanatorium and tried to steal her child away from its real father—all in the course of a few episodes—is still one of the best-known characters in pop culture. Everybody knows about the third-season cliffhanger in which J.R. got shot by an unseen assailant. The storyline of season nine, where the writers killed off Bobby and then brought him back to life by making the whole season a dream, has become as infamous as Happy Days’ Jumping the Shark; it was parodied on Family Guy, where Dallas stars Victoria Principal and Patrick Duffy reprised their roles.

The show doesn’t just live on in the memories of people who grew up with it; the episodes are still being widely viewed all over the world. The U.S. channel ABC Soapnet has made Dallas reruns a centrepiece of its lineup. It’s so popular overseas the BBC sent a camera crew to cover the reunion gathering. And DVDs of the series have done so well for Warner Brothers that the company has already released 10 of its 14 seasons, while similar shows like Knots Landing (a spinoff of Dallas that was almost as popular as the parent show) haven’t performed nearly as well. Dallas, especially in its later seasons, has all the things we expect of ’80s soapfests: actresses in heavy makeup, shoulder pads, miscarriages, frequent kidnappings. But so did Dynasty (a hugely popular Dallas clone masterminded by Aaron Spelling), and it’s hard to imagine thousands of fans paying big money to attend a Dynasty reunion. Dallas’s fame isn’t matched by any of the soaps that followed or preceded it; no one except Mia Farrow’s fan club is clamouring to see the first prime-time soap opera, Peyton Place. So what have the Ewings got that all those other trashy families haven’t?

It helps that the show has become a cultural symbol for Texas—even though it wasn’t really about Texas, any more than Cheers was about Massachusetts. All but the first few episodes were shot on the MGM backlot in Hollywood (with the real Southfork ranch used only for exterior shots). David Jacobs, the creator of the series, even told the New York Times in 1980 that he wasn’t familiar with Dallas or any other part of Texas when he wrote the script: “I was writing for the image and not really about the place.” Dallas has a lot less to do with the actual Texas than it does with ’50s movies about passionate rich Texans, like Giant and Written on the Wind. But compared to Dynasty, which took place in the smaller state of Colorado, or Knots Landing, which shares its California setting with dozens of other shows, Dallas gets a popularity boost simply by the fact that it’s been unofficially adopted by the largest state in the U.S.; the show is so associated with the popular image of Texas that King of the Hill, a more recent show set in that state, did an early episode in which a visitor kept calling the lead character “J.R.”

But the main reason Dallas endures is that in J.R. it has what any TV show needs to survive past its own time: a character who never stops being interesting. Every prime-time soap has tried to have a larger-than-life villain to match Hagman, and the ones that start out without a villain are usually forced to add one: Melrose Place (soon to be revived on the CW network) wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t added Heather Locklear’s Amanda, sometimes described as J.R. in a low-cut dress. But those characters are mostly campy, cartoonish monsters, following in the footsteps of the queen of camp, Joan Collins on Dynasty. Not J.R.; he’s a plausible kind of monster whose brand of evil is integrated into polite society and corporate America. The other characters can’t bring themselves to hate him outright because he’s part of the family and they have to live with him. By having a villain who was a member in good standing of the good guys’ family, Dallas was able to come up with more interesting stories; it was more fun to watch J.R. plot against his own brother, cousin and sister-in-law than a bunch of strangers. But it also made J.R. a surprisingly realistic bad guy. His parents (Jim Davis and Barbara Bel Geddes) knew what he was but loved him, just as real-life villains are loved by their parents and respected in their community. “Everybody has someone in their profession or family like this dude,” Hagman explained back in 1980.

That’s the other part of what makes Dallas hold up surprisingly well, despite the absurd ’80s hairstyles and the fact that the Ewings are millionaires who have only one phone line in their house. Most prime-time soaps are campy, but Dallas was not, at least in its prime. It was melodrama, a traditional form with all the traditional melodramatic themes like revenge, greed and passion. The show got crazier and less plausible as its run went on; by the time it ended, the writers were so desperate for stories that the series finale was a takeoff of It’s a Wonderful Life with J.R.’s guardian angel showing him that the world would have been much better if he hadn’t been born. But at its best, in its first five or six seasons, Dallas was melodramatic without being stupid; it emphasized simple, primal emotions, and appealed to our sense of moral ambiguity, our mix of shame and delight in rooting for a creep like J.R. It had such a solid story and character foundation that it’s hard to parody; Warner Brothers recently cancelled plans to do a Dallas movie revamping the series as a campy comedy. Unlike Charlie’s Angels, Dallas doesn’t lend itself to that kind of mockery; it’s not great art, but it’s good television.

And it’s been influential in ways that more acclaimed, more Emmy-showered shows can’t possibly match. The style of Dallas, with its emphasis on angry threats, overheated melodrama and corporate chicanery, is making a comeback on TV today. Desperate Housewives and Dirty Sexy Money are homages to the Dallas format, with just a bit of postmodern irony added to the standard soapy hijinks. FX’s Emmy-winning Damages, starring Glenn Close, is a high-class soap that does for lawyers what Dallas once did for oil executives.

The success of Dallas also changed the nature of prime-time TV storytelling, and even shows that aren’t soap operas have learned something from it. Before Dallas, prime-time dramas made every episode self-contained, with no continuity between them (unless it was a two-part episode). But while Dallas started out telling self-contained stories, that gradually started to change during its second season: the writers discovered that it was more effective to spread storylines across months and even years, instead of wrapping up every story in an hour. And suddenly the old way of TV storytelling wasn’t enough, as audiences noticed how much more involving TV shows could be if the characters remembered what happened last week. The “Who Shot J.R.?” storyline was more than a marketing and publicity triumph; it demonstrated how a show could build a story, week by week, to the point that everyone in the world would become emotionally involved with it. Dramas like Lost and 24, in which the viewer is rewarded for sticking with the characters all season, may have Dallas to thank for making them possible.

That’s not much comfort to the people who turned up in the real Texas on Nov. 8, only to find that their VIP tickets (costing up to $1,000) weren’t honoured and that the live band never showed up. But that’s also a tribute to Dallas’s staying power; only a classic show, or at least a very important one, could get fans to endure a poorly organized reunion without turning them against the show. As one fan wrote on the official discussion board: “I have no intention of letting this ruin my love of Dallas, my thoughts on the ranch and staff, or the cast.” These fans didn’t get to eat or drink, didn’t get their photo ops, and many of them had travelled long distances for no good reason. But they’ve learned that sometimes in life, you get a raw deal. They learned it the same place that people are learning that lesson today: on Dallas.

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