Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Who Shot J.R.?, March 21, 1980

The spring of 1980 was a tumultuous time. The Iran-Hostage Crisis was on every one's mind and there seemed to be no end in sight. President Carter was sinking lower in the polls and the fall election was escalating into high gear. Perhaps to ease troubled minds over increased global tensions, the villain J.R. Ewing soared in popularity. In fact, the 1979-1980 season pushed Dallas to unbelievable heights as it was broadcast in 53 countries around the world!

J.R. Ewing was the very definition of a "snake in the grass." An habitual two-timing scamp, J.R. - played by Larry Hagman - stopped at nothing to get his way with wealth, women, and work. By the end of the season, the entire world loved to hate this character, and indeed, most were waiting for one of his victims to take him down.

As the shows popularity soared, CBS requested that Lorimar and producer Philip Capice add two additional episodes to the season's order. A last minute plot device was created to have J.R. Ewing shot, and, just importantly, implementing a cliff hanger device like the ones used in the old movie serials. The season would end with the "devil" getting his comeuppance. At least a half-dozen characters had a genuine motive to kill him, leaving the audience wondering just "who shot J.R.?"

The ploy was a sensation, as headlines asked the question all summer long! Bets were placed in casinos, polls were taking all over the world. It seemed there was nothing else to talk about but JR Ewing and the serial's cliff hanger. Pushing the tension to even greater heights was the delay of the new fall season due to a Hollywood writers strike.

There has never been anything like it in television before or since. For 8 long months, the singular topic captured international headlines alongside the election of Ronald Reagan, the continuing saga of the hostage crisis in Iran, and the beginning of the Iraq/Iran War. When the new season finally premiered in November, the audience grew until the answer was revealed a few episodes later on November 21, 1980. As his wife Sue Ellen is arrested, jailed, and bailed out, the audience discovers it wasn't his wife, after all, who shot J.R., it was her sister. Yes, the dog J.R. had been sleeping with his wife's sister, and she was the culprit.

The episode drew a record 76% share of the audience. The success of this cliff hanger activated this plot device into heavy usage on television, particularly at the end of the season. It should be noted that the TV sitcom Soap had great success when it used the cliff hanger device at the end of the 1978 season, and undoubtedly influenced the Dallas producers two years later. It was Dallas, however, that made the device a TV mainstay. It would be used frequently henceforth, and with shows as varied as the sitcom Cheers, the cartoon South Park, and dramas like Dynasty, The West Wing, and The X-files. Ultimately, some TV shows incorporated the cliff hanger for every episode, not just the season's end, most notably Prison Break, 24, and Quantum Leap.

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