Americans flocked in record numbers to their television sets thirty years ago this week for the answer to a question that had been top of mind for months. I'm referring to the November 21, 1980 episode of Dallas, which resolved the greatest TV cliffhanger ever: Who Shot J.R.? It was a scripted series phenomenon the likes of which people hadn't seen since the birth of Little Ricky on I Love Lucy in January, 1953. That Dallas milestone is the second highest rated episode of a television series in the history of the medium, topped only by the finale of M*A*S*H in February, 1983.
Looking back, it seems to me that scripted broadcast entertainment television peaked on that fateful Friday night when the world learned who tried to murder all-powerful oilman J.R. Ewing -- simply because, in terms of overall impact, there has never been a moment like it during the last three decades. A number of factors contributed to its outsize success. Dallas, which began life as a throwaway Saturday night mini-series in April, 1978, caught fire with its move to Friday in September of that year and was white hot by the 1979-80 season. The sizzling saga about a family of Texas oil tycoons ended its second season on March 21, 1980, two months before the time that most series take their annual rest, and it didn't return until November 7 (due to production delays resulting from the strike that year by members of the Screen Actors Guild). But millions of viewers remained focused on the residents of the Southfork Ranch during the show's prolonged summer break because of its deceptively simple yet hugely dramatic season two cliffhanger: After thoroughly pissing off almost everyone around him, J.R. was gunned down by one of his angered acquaintances.
The nationwide obsession that followed had nothing to do with whether he would survive. (Of course he would survive; Dallas would have died along with J.R. if Larry Hagman had been written off the show.) Rather, it had to do with identifying his assailant. On November 21 viewers learned that it was J.R.'s scheming sister-in-law Kristen (played by Mary Crosby).
The history making drama of it all did more than just bring an even bigger audience to what was already the highest rated show on television. Indeed, it changed series television as it had been known by setting the stage for hundreds (or is it thousands?) of season finale cliffhangers in the decades to follow, first in other primetime serials and eventually in almost every series, comedy or drama, on broadcast or cable. There had been previous end-of-season cliffhangers on other series and two on Dallas itself - one at the end of the 1978 miniseries, the other at the end of its first season, but there hadn't been anything like this one. Before long almost everyone wanted to get in on the act. Season finale cliffhangers remain de rigueur to this day.
All I can say is that Dallas made life a lot more fun that year for those of us who were watching, even during its extended summer break. Television series have delivered countless cliffhangers and explosive season finales since, including the infamous Moldavian massacre on Dynasty in May, 1985, the lunacy of which actually worked against the show, and many more on Dallas, which lamely repeated itself at the end of its tenth season by having Sue Ellen Ewing open fire on J.R. just as her sister had done eight years earlier.
Happily, it has been reported that Larry Hagman, Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy, the actors who portrayed J.R., Sue Ewing and J.R.'s brother Bobby, are in talks to reprise their iconic roles in a new Dallas series on TNT which would focus on the children of their characters. This is great news for anyone who remembers how enjoyable Dallas and other primetime serials used to be. They were part of what made the early Eighties a time of great excitement on broadcast television, even with the nascent threat of all that cable wire snaking across the horizon.
Consider: During the summer of 1980, when Dallas was in reruns and tens of millions of people were waiting with breathless anticipation for its return in the fall, over on ABC Daytime there was similar unprecedented excitement building on General Hospital. That was the summer that Luke and Laura went on the run from the menacing Frank Smith mob, sending that show's ratings skyward and setting it up for the historic stories to come in 1981 (the tale of the infamous weather machine that brought a blizzard to Port Charles in mid-August and, shortly after that, the record-setting wedding of Luke and Laura). GH that year forever changed the daytime drama genre, as most soap operas scrambled to add similar young couples to their canvases and send them off on thrilling adventures for countless summers to come. But, just as no primetime serial would ever deliver the same excitement as Dallas did with its Who Shot J.R.? cliffhanger, going forward no daytime serial would ever have the level of success enjoyed by General Hospital during the same period.
What is your favorite primetime cliffhanger?
Follow Ed Martin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PlanetEd