“Dallas” returns to television this week on TNT, another reminder of the passing of the power of the Big 3 networks. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, the story of the Ewing clan dominated primetime as millions of people turned in to CBS every week to find what happened to J.R., Sue Ellen, Bobby, and a bunch of other characters I can’t remember. In an era before VCRs, DVDs, and DVRs, viewers had to watch every episode in real time.
After the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, gas prices skyrocketed and lines at the pump became one of the iconic images of the Me Decade. As a result, domestic drilling increased and money flowed into Texas, particularly to Houston and Dallas. Debuting in 1978, the soap opera about the fictional Ewings and their oil company became the most popular program on television. Airing on Fridays, a night the networks have long since abandoned, “Dallas” became the #1 show in the ratings by the early 1980s.
The show achieved its greatest prominence in 1980, when “Dallas” featured the most talked about cliffhanger in the history of television. In the season finale, an unknown assailant shot J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman), the program’s iconic lead (and villain) and the nation debated “Who shot J.R.?” all summer. Before cable, this question consumed the country in a way no television mystery has since, including ”Who killed Laura Palmer?” (“Twin Peaks”) or “Will Picard remain a Borg?”(“Star Trek: The Next Generation”) or any one of the season finales of “Lost.” The fourth episode of the next season, where everyone discovered that J.R.’s secretary was the culprit, became the most watched program in television history at the time, as 76 percent of televisions in use tuned in (record was later surpassed by the final episode of “M.A.S.H.”)
The show spawned a series of prime-time soaps that dotted the TV landscape, including its spinoff “Knots Landing” and “Falcon Crest.” “Dynasty” emerged as the most successful of the imitators, battling “Dallas” for the #1 Nielsen spot during the mid-1980s. Like its rival, “Dynasty” focused on a family in the oil business, the Carringtons, based in Denver.
Ironically, “Dallas” began to show its age at the same time oil prices collapsed in the mid-80s. When Patrick Duffy, who played J.R’s good guy brother Bobby, wanted to leave the show in season seven, his character was killed off in a car crash. Unhappy with the direction of the show during the next season, Hagman wanted to bring Duffy back. To accomplish this end, the show runners decided to make the previous season a dream, with Bobby’s wife Pam waking up to see Bobby emerge from the shower in the season eight finale. Depending on your perspective, it was either a classic or infamous television moment and I dare say an audience would not accept such a scenario today. (one of the print ads for the revived “Dallas,” which includes some of the old cast, pays homage to the twist)
Gradually, the other soaps aged as well. “Dynasty” was never the same after a spectacular season finale where terrorists attacked a wedding, riddling the Carringtons and their guests with bullets, only to have virtually everyone survive unharmed the next fall. Meanwhile, the broadcast networks revived the sitcom, which had been proclaimed dead in the early 1980s, with “The Cosby Show,” “Cheers,” and other shows leading the Nielsen standings. “Dallas” and “Dynasty” limped on, remaining on the air until the early 1990s, albeit with lower ratings than during their respective primes.
While the prime-time soaps disappeared, they left a significant legacy. With their multiple plots within episodes and across seasons, they laid the groundwork for the serialized shows that have dominated the landscape in recent years, such as “ER,” “24,” and “Mad Men.” Though several of the original actors, including Hagman and Duffy, are returning in significant roles, the revived “Dallas” will never match the success of the original network version; audiences simply have too many entertainment options today. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that J.R. Ewing is still alive and kicking three decades after his shooting gripped the nation.