J.R. Ewing wasn’t known to mince a lot of words. Or stay faithful to his wife, exercise even an ounce of morality in his business endeavors, or protect his “loved” ones from harm. With his ten-gallon hat/business suit combo, J.R. was one bad modern-day cowboy, but millions, make that bejillions, of viewers ate it right up.
In the late 1960’s, Peyton Place was a nighttime serial drama success—a novelty at the time. But since then, no p.m. show had caught the soap opera crowd’s attention…until Dallas. The show first went on the air for a five week run in early 1978, and then fell into a Saturday nighttime slot later that year. Ratings were fair, but they were nothing compared to when the show moved to Friday nights, when the ratings well didn’t run dry for a long, long time.
Creator David Jacobs had worked on Family and had always been intrigued by Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage—a Swedish show with drama that was a bit too real and upfront for Americans. But when you take the family dynamics that show portrayed and souse it with some homegrown American outrageousness, you’ve got potential. CBS executives suggested Jacobs take his family drama ideas and put them in a big money context, and in the late 70’s and 80’s, big money was synonymous with the Lone Star state’s oil trade. And so the saga began…
The Ewing family lived at the sprawling South Fork ranch, in hoity-toity Braddock Country just outside Dallas. Like any good power family, there were a matriarch and patriarch, and three sons—this core group, their extensive romantic relations, and the Barnes clan of rival oilers were all Jacobs needed to create a self-contained histrionic world of intrigue, dysfunction and passion.
Borrowing from Romeo and Juliet, the youngest Ewing boy, Bobby, fell for a beautiful Barnes girl. And with a nod to the biblical Cain and Abel, Bobby and older brother J.R. didn’t exactly play nice with each other like you might expect brothers to. Whereas J.R. was nearly a hundred percent scoundrel, Bobby had discernible streaks of honesty and integrity…but that patented Ewing viciousness certainly reared its head once in a while.
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The South Fork ranch housed Jock and Miss Ellie, the king and queen of South Fork, J.R. and long-suffering wife Sue Ellen, and Bobby and Pamela…though why they all lived under one roof demands a little poetic license, because money certainly wasn’t a problem, and it wasn’t like there was a whole lot of binding inter-family harmony.
Here’s just a taste of the drama devices that ensued: insane asylums, car accidents, affairs, illegitimate children, gunfights, fistfights, catfights, lies, drinking problems (both real and imagined), poofy 80’s hairstyles for the ladies and best of all, notorious season finale cliffhangers. The most famous, of course, came at the end of the 1979-80 season, when a mysterious late night intruder shot J.R. in the chest while he was toiling away at the office one night.
The resulting “Who Shot J.R.?” publicity raced around the globe, because by that time, Dallas was an international hit in just about every developed country in the world. Odds on the shooter’s identity were figured, bets were placed, and theories were construed—since there were about fifteen possible candidates, fans and pundits were kept very busy indeed. Don’t read the next part of this sentence if you want to remain one of the few of-age humans who doesn’t know whodunit…it was Kristin, J.R.’s scorned sister-in-law and recent romantic entanglement.
Dallas was conceived as a show that had plenty of sex and romance for the female audiences, and a lot of cowboy posturing and business intrigue for the male viewers. The formula worked, because by the early 1980’s, it was one of the most popular shows in TV history. There were magazine covers galore, a spin-off named Knot’s Landing about Gary, the middle Ewing son who wasn’t seen or heard from much during proceedings at South Fork, and prime time serialization imitators like Dynasty and Falcon Crest.
So for the show that kicked off the night time drama trend that’s status quo today, we tip those ten-gallon hats and breathe a secret sigh of relief that J.R. was just a fictional character who couldn’t manipulate us in real life. Because let’s be honest, that guy could have taken most of us down.
This post originally appeared on the long defunct Yesterdayland website. We archive it here to preserve it.