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COMMENTARY : The 'Dallas' Shot That Was Heard Round the World : Television: Three hundred million viewers found out 'Who Shot J.R.?' 10 years ago this week on the soap opera that embodied the '80s.

November 23, 1990|RICHARD CORLISS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Richard Corliss writes about movies, sports and theme parks for Time magazine. and

Two bullets blazed out of the darkness and into a man's chest. An unknown pistol-packer had just pumped a couple of slugs into the well-tailored body of a Texas oil magnate. No big deal, perhaps. The man was a conniving cur, and besides, it was only TV. Who would care?

The entire world, as it happened. That night in April, 1980, when J.R. Ewing crumpled to the floor in his suite atop the Ewing Office Building, "Dallas" was already television's most popular dramatic series. Throughout the summer, when Americans should have been paying attention to the presidential conventions, the most hotly debated question was: Who shot J.R.?

At a Texas fund-raiser, President Jimmy Carter smiled and said, "I came to Dallas to find out confidentially who shot J.R. If any of you could let me know that, I could finance the whole campaign this fall."

By Nov. 21--10 years ago this week--when America finally found out whodunit, Carter was history, but "Dallas" was making it. More Americans--more than 80 million--tuned in that night than had ever before watched a single TV program. That episode now ranks as the second-highest rated broadcast in television history, just behind 1983's final episode of "MASH."

Nor, in 1980, was "Dallas"-mania strictly a U.S. virus. The show had become an international obsession, enthralling 300 million viewers in 57 countries. It struck a nerve in Singapore, stoked passions in Australia and diverted the war-ravaged residents of Lebanon. More than half of all Britons stayed home to watch the episode in which J.R. got perforated. A British newspaper offered 100,000 to Larry Hagman, the actor who plays J.R., if he would reveal whodunit. Politicians made news by praising the program or denouncing it. In Turkey, a Muslim fundamentalist party demanded "the elimination of 'Dallas' " because it "aims at destroying Turkish family life."

Family life--Texas, Not Turkish--was "Dallas' " theme and the source of its success. Three generations of Ewings lived under one roof at Southfork Ranch, and new characters would often prove to be long-lost relatives with age-old grudges. The family never knew when another Ewing heir (most recently it was J.R.'s wayward son James) would show up for a season's worth of mischief.

As the series progressed, it kept tangling bloodlines and storylines in a complex but coherent skein. The show gave the impression that, in the span of recorded history, there were about a hundred people in the world, and every one of them had been to bed with, done a dirty deal with, or given birth to the other 99. Even an aging gentleman rancher like Clayton Farlow (Howard Keel) had dated both Pam's mother and J.R.'s wife in the months before he married the newly widowed Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes). Most of "Dallas' " vamps have set their sights on both J.R. and Bobby (Patrick Duffy), and some of them detour into the affections of pathetic Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval), half-brother of Bobby's first wife Pam (Victoria Principal) and Ewing Oil's most dogged enemy.

By the end of its second full season, "Dallas" had introduced about 40 main characters. And just about all of them had a good reason for wanting to shoot J.R. In the episode that climaxed with his shooting, six characters had threatened J.R.'s life: J.R.'s wife, Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), whom J.R. was about to commit to a sanitarium; Sue Ellen's sister, Kristin Shepard (Mary Crosby), who had bedded and blackmailed J.R.; brother Bobby, exiled from Southfork by J.R.'s machinations; Cliff Barnes, who swore on his father's grave that he would "stop J.R. for good"; and two business associates, ruined by J.R.

Finally, the Friday before Thanksgiving, "Dallas" unmasked the assailant. It was Kristin, twisted to start with and triggered to violence by her ex-lover's renunciation. In the showdown scene, she dared J.R. to put her in jail. After all, she announced boldly, she was carrying his child.

The whodunit hoohah shortly abated, but "Dallas" kept sailing on the wave of its amazing popularity. It was the top-rated series of 1980-81, 1981-82 and 1983-84. It inspired a couple of hit copycat shows ("Dynasty," "Knots Landing") and several more quickie clones.

But "Dallas' " influence was farther-reaching still; it helped make possible the decade's most innovative shows. "Hill Street Blues," with its family of cops and its crazy-quilt of narrative threads, might not have existed if "Dallas" hadn't paved the way for storylines that stretched clear across the TV season like Interstate 20 across the state of Texas. And if not for the success of "Hill Street Blues," would the networks have sponsored those yuppie touchstones "L.A. Law" and "thirtysomething," let alone "Twin Peaks"?

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