Okay, this is a tough episode to judge. I like Dallas, but, objectively, the show was not art. It is fun, and that’s all it ever needed to be. Cue some angry PMs.
The main focus of the show was the Ewing family. They’re an oil money family based in, you guessed it, Dallas. The one in Texas, not the one in Georgia. The loving matriarch of the family was Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes), wife of Jock Ewing (Jim Davis), a very driven businessman who built up an oil business from nothing. They had 3 children: Bobby (Patrick Duffy), the altruistic, favorite, youngest child; Gary (Ted Shacklelford), who spent most of his time on the spin-off Knots Landing; and J.R. (Larry Hagman), the ruthless oil baron who bribed, blackmailed, or broke anyone who got in his way. J.R. is married to Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), an alcoholic who he bullies constantly and cheats on with her sister, Kristin (Mary Cosby). While the plot of the series usually relies on the rivalry between the Ewing family and the Barnes family, the build up to this episode came from all sides.
For several seasons, J.R. has mistreated almost everyone he has come in contact with, and somehow managed to get away mostly unscathed. In fact, he was originally only supposed to be a supporting role, but, because America loves a scoundrel, he not only got progressively worse, but became the breakout star of the show. Still, watching him get away with everything short of outright murder made anyone with a shred of decency want to put a bullet in his smug, smiling face. Sadly, he only got shot in the gut.
Yes, this is the famous “Who shot J.R.?” episode. After escalating his behavior for several years, someone finally decides to remove J.R. from the Earth… but the show didn’t tell you which of the 5 likely candidates it was going to be. Well, I should say which of the 5 people who had established that they either wanted or intended to kill him. By this point, almost anyone in the cast would have been completely justified in wanting him dead, if only on principle.
Why is this episode on here? Well, partially because even within the episode, J.R. getting shot was a shock. It’s literally the last scene of the season, J.R. hears a noise, steps out into the corridor, and is shot twice. That’s it. The episode closes on him groaning. We don’t know who shot him, we don’t know if he’s dead, we just know that no one was going to tell us until the next season.
Over the Summer of 1980, people lost their damned minds on this. “Who Shot J.R.?” and “I Shot J.R.” shirts were popping up everywhere, both in the US and beyond. One of the shirts even showed up in the pilot for “Father Ted,” an Irish sitcom, years later. After President Jimmy Carter remarked that he would have no trouble financing his campaign if he knew who shot J.R., the Republican Party started manufacturing pins that said “A Democrat Shot J.R.” (This would later prove false). People were making bets on it around the world. There were official international odds (the favorite was Dusty Farlow, J.R.’s Wife’s lover, at 6 to 4). The Queen of England, Elizabeth herself, went on record of saying she was greatly intrigued by the mystery, which is the closest she gets to being Honey Boo-boo’s Mama June.
And it’s not like it was easy to figure out. In addition to the number of people shown wanting to kill J.R. in the episodes leading up to it, the writers locked the script in a vault and refused to tell anyone. They filmed multiple fake versions of the scene with every actor on the betting list, plus a few more, killing J.R., and told no one which version was real. Hell, it wasn’t sure if J.R. was going to survive, not just because of the ambiguity, but because Larry Hagman was holding out for more money. He flat-out refused to show up to film the next season until they renegotiated his contract. He ended up getting 3 times his previous salary and a percentage of the merchandising, because it’s not like they could write around it at this point. Apparently, Hagman was method.
The conclusion to this episode, which was called “Who Done It” had a 76% share of the market. To put that in perspective, more people watched the episode than voted in the presidential election that year. Restaurants brought in televisions and advertised that people could eat and not miss the show. Heck, the Turkish Parliament shut down to watch the broadcast. Part of the hype was that a writers’ strike had delayed the debut by an additional two months. Much like Hagman, the writers knew they had the upper hand, with the fans clamoring for the reveal. Even still, the reveal wasn’t given in the first episode of the next season, it was held until the fourth.
It was so successful, other shows started doing more drastic cliffhanger season finales. Whether that’s a good thing or not is another matter, but this is what really began the trend, and, like most such things that can be abused as gimmicks, the first one was the best one. Years later, the Simpsons would parody this with “Who Shot Mr. Burns,” and that too, was successful (although, according to the producers, no one guessed the right answer to theirs, unlike Dallas). This episode was original, it was intense, it was surprising, and, since there wasn’t as much in the way of film and tv news back then, there really wasn’t a way to be sure who shot J.R., or even if J.R. would return. At the very least, this episode managed to hold the world in suspense for 8 months, and I have to respect that with a spot on this list.
PREVIOUS – 96: Frasier
NEXT – 94: Bonanza
If you want to check out some more by the Joker, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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The Scene of Who Shot JR Here: