Dallas was an American prime-time soap opera that aired on television from 1978 to 1991. It initially started out as just a miniseries in five parts, but soon blew up to huge proportions due to its popularity. Probably no one on its production team even hoped that the show would continue beyond five episodes. As it would turn out, Dallas ran for around 13 years and had 357 episodes.
The show itself started out as focusing on the Ewing couple who had married despite the great differences between their families. However, the breakout character and the most popular one in this series was actually the villain; the evil, scheming oil tycoon J.R Ewing. At the close of the series, J.R was the only character to have an appearance in every single episode.
With J.R slogan-like lines and the excessive lifestyle of the Ewings, the vision of Texas was rapidly changing for those living outside of it. The days when everyone thought of Texans as cattle herders and cowboys were firmly in the past. On the Dallas show, Texans were seen as orchestrating coups on South Asian Communist regimes, wearing Valentino dresses, and doing whatever it took to protect their oil interests.
Interestingly, the interior scenes of Dallas were recorded in Los Angeles. The name could have been anything, even that of a fictional city, but the name ‘Dallas’ made everyone see the urbanized face of the area in 1978.
Why Was Dallas So Impactful?
Dallas was set in Texas, and many people are of the opinion that the show changed the perception of this state for good. Naturally, any show that lasted on primetime television for that long will have a lasting effect on the generations who watched it. 13 years is a very long time in the world of television (or even outside of it). The massive hit sitcom ‘Friends’ had ten years on the air and affected everything from fashion to language and even social norms in several countries. Many might ask what happened to the cast of Friends now, but the sitcom is still a very popular one.
Coming back to Dallas, though–there are many reasons behind its popularity and influential status. Basically, this series was a master of cliffhangers, something that many other shows have been inspired by. However, the ultimate cliffhanger of them all–who shot J.R?–would eventually become the stunt that cemented Dallas’ in television history.
About the ‘Who Shot J.R?’ Stunt
‘Who shot J.R.?’ was the question on every Dallas viewer’s mind starting from March 1980. This was when the show’s third-season finale aired, with the villain J.R Ewing (played by Larry Hagman) getting shot by a mysterious person. While J.R survived, the cliffhanger was not resolved for viewers until eight months after the finale.
The delay here was partly due to a writer’s strike and partly to Lagman’s negotiations for a pay raise with the show’s producers. When the answer was finally revealed in the 4th episode of the 4th season (titled “Who Done It”), the mystery had reached the level of a global phenomenon. Around 83 million viewers are estimated to have tuned in to this episode, which was more than the Super Bowl that year. To date, the only episode that beat this one for viewings is the M*A*S*H finale in 1983. There’s no telling when these statistics might change, but the achievement is still a very impressive one.
The Impact on Pop Culture
The phrase ‘Who Shot J.R?’ eventually became an advertising slogan that was used to promote the TV series itself. There were a lot of people setting odds and making bets on who the culprit might be. Along with the other cliffhangers and twists in ‘Dallas’, this one was influential in popularizing the cliffhanger trope for many other TV series.
Another major impact on pop culture was the creation of the new news channel CNN. This channel started in June 1980, and was greatly helped along by the scintillating updates of Dallas and the much-awaited episode.
The popular skit show ‘Saturday Night Live’ also spoofed the storyline of ‘Who shot J.R?’ in 1981. Another spoof was in the show ‘The Jeffersons’, when the character Florence pens a soap opera script. Yet another spoof was in the Simpson episode ‘Who shot Mr. Burns?’. Mr. Burns, like J.R, was a very wealthy but villainous character who had a lot of enemies. This episode also ended with a cliffhanger. While this particular episode aired in 1995, another Simpsons episode in 1991 had Homer Simpson wearing a shirt with the phrase ‘I shot J.R.’.
Other references to the series and the famous phrase include the season finale of season 4 in ‘Jane the Virgin’. This show was also a very popular one with a self-aware, almost spoof-like soap opera format. Here, the character Jane Ramos (J.R) shot someone, with ‘#JRShotWho?’ appearing on the screen after the deed. The trope was somewhat reversed, with the victim being the mystery instead of the shooter.
An Irish TV comedy series titled ‘Father Ted’ also has a character Tom, who is often seen donning a T-shirt with the words “I shot J.R”. These are just a few of the many ways in which Dallas and this particular phrase shaped the world of television on a global level.
Gaining Traction in the 80s
Today, we have the internet and social media at our fingertips. Something–a funny incident on television, a certain TikTok video, or a sensational news story–can go viral every other day. It’s quite easy for any kind of entertainment to reach a global audience and influence them. The series ‘Game of Thrones’ is a prime example; people all over the world were holding public screenings and viewing parties for the finale of this show. However, keep in mind that the show Dallas ended in the early ‘90s and had most of its run in the 1980s. At this point in time, it’s quite extraordinary that a soap opera managed to capture the attention of global audiences and have a catchphrase that spanned several industries. Even Ronald Reasons and Jimmy Carter mentioned this phrase during their presidential campaigns.
A lot of popular TV shows have affected politics at certain points in history, both within the United States and all over the world. Dallas was one of these, with some speculating that it might even have helped to overthrow a dictator.
During the time of the Dallas fervour, communist Romania was caught in Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime. The show was very popular there and regularly discussed among the people. The soap opera might not even have gotten past the Romanian censor board, but the portrayal of J.R Ewing as an evil oil baron made the government think that the show was against capitalism.
Eventually, Dallas became a great hit in Romania starting from 1979. This series showed wealthy and attractive people (whether they were good or not), which inspired the poor masses in Romania. While there were definitely other factors in place, the inspiration was probably part of the eventual uprising against the dictatorship. The show was deemed to be a bad Western influence by the government and removed from Romanian screen in 1981. However, the show had already made its mark on the mind and heart of its viewers in that country.
Before the series finale of ‘Dallas’, Ceausescu’s reign came to an end in 1989. Larry Hagman, who portrayed J.R’s character, paid a visit to Romania a few years after that and was given the hero treatment. In a later interview, Hagman would reveal how people in Bucharest would come up to him and tearfully tell him how J.R played a part in saving their country.
The Final Episode
The last episode of Dallas was also among the most memorable pop culture moments of the 90s. It showed another shooting of J.R, presumably one that finally brings him down. While his ultimate fate was revealed in a movie at a later date, this also set the tone for ending TV series and especially for finishing off popular characters on screen.
Even more than four decades after the series finale of ‘Dallas’, we can see its influence in many places. It’s not just about the actual length of the show or the massive number of episodes, but also the successful marketing and breakout characters in this series. Dallas fully embraced it’s ridiculous, shameless, and sometimes trashy melodrama without apology. There weren’t a lot of moral stories in this show, nor were there many learning moments or much subtlety. Even then, it created several iconic pop culture moments of the 80s as well as the 70s.