“Who shot JR?” This was the question that the whole world was asking in 1980 as the highly addictive primetime soap Dallas ended its third season. What was already an immensely popular weekly drama about the wealthy Ewing family rose to even greater heights, making Dallas one of the world’s most successful television series – ever. Nearly 360 million viewers in over 57 countries worldwide tuned in to the episode which revealed who wanted JR dead. In fact, in 2007 Time magazine included Dallas in their list of 100 Best TV Shows of All Time, attesting to its enduring appeal.
Dallas celebrated its 40th anniversary this month (2 April 2018, to be precise). The official celebration took place over two days, on 30 and 31 March, with legendary and original cast members participating: Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing) and Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs). Events included a tour of Southfork (the Ewing mansion) and a grand party at the iconic Longhorn Ballroom, the filming location for many of the show’s bar scenes.
Better late than never
I was one of the show’s millions of fans but I tuned it quite late. Very late, in fact. I first watched the show in 1984, following the show’s second “shooting whodunnit”, Who shot Bobby Ewing? I had been aware of its popularity because people around me were either talking about it or humming the iconic and powerful theme tune. But I guess I was too young to watch it from the beginning.
The truth is, in my case, Dallas was always the other soap, the clone soap. I got addicted its rival Dynasty first and even that was by accident. I was at a party with the family and my aunt left the main gathering downstairs to watch the latest episode of Dynasty upstairs. I found myself watching it with her and there was no going back after that. I was hooked, so hooked that I wanted more of the same, which was what led me to watch Dallas as well.
The better soap?
There are many sentimental reasons why I will always see myself more as an honorary Carrington than an honorary member of the Ewing clan, but I will at least admit that there were many things that Dallas, the original, did better. The Texan soap was more character driven and the plots were more tightly interwoven. It is well deserving of its reputation for cliffhangers (at least in the first nine seasons) because the episodes were so skilfully crafted that you just had to tune in to the next one, and the one after that.
Many a writer have attributed Dallas’ appeal to the seductive power of evil. Ordinary folks like to see characters do the kinds of terrible things they would never get away with in real life, and in such opulent surroundings too. Its anti-hero JR Ewing became the epitome of evil and was universally refered to as “the man you love to hate”. Here was a man who did everything he wanted to get everything he wanted but because his presence in the show was pivotal – and some would argue he was the show – the character was granted immortality, safe from imprisonment or death. But viewers loved that. They loved to hiss and boo at the man who would have sold even his mother if it would have benefited him.
Alas, as all good things, Dallas came to an end after 14 seasons. Not even JR’s unceasing evil-ness could make the show go on forever. Popular characters left and were replaced by mediocre ones, the plots became ridiculous and the cliffhangers stopped being cliffhangers. By Season 10, the show had become a shadow of its old self as it was revealed that the previous season had all been a dream, a plot device to bring back Bobby Ewing who had died on screen at the end of Season 8. Viewers felt cheated and, as the producers found out, were unforgiving. The show limped on for four more seasons but it was no longer the Dallas that we had loved.
Spin-offs, movies and a revival
Dallas gave birth to a successful spin-off soap, Knotslanding which also ran for 14 season. A prequel movie Dallas: The Early Years was aired in 1986, while two reunion moves were made after the main series had ended: JR Returns (1996) and War of the Ewings (1998).
In 2012, cable network TNT startd to air a continuation series which focused on the next generation of the Ewing family while Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray reprised their original roles. Despite initially strong ratings, the series ran for only three years.
Dallas is a once-in-a-lifetime TV event, perhaps even once in TV history. It made watching soaps trendy. It made TV compulsive and worth staying in for again. It made going to work the following morning more bearable because you couldn’t wait to discuss the latest cliffhanger with your colleagues.
It was TV drama at its best. (And without it, there probably would never have been a Dynasty. But that’s another blog post.)