No soap opera had "Dallas' " breadth of vision, juggling the conflicting demands and responsibilities of money, power, sex and family. No series had dared to make its lead character such a seductive snake, and then let the viewer pass judgment on him. As Hagman played him--with a soft-spoken belligerence and a rogue's good cheer--J.R. was no simple villain. He was too much fun to hate, too attentive to his family to deserve easy condemnation, too crucial to the show to be written out of it. He could be punished but never banished.
The program was unique in another way: It made work sexy. Many a TV series had been set in the workplace, but only "Dallas" told viewers of its aphrodisiac power. In this sense, J.R. was the modern American corporate male, defined by his job. Sue Ellen might be driven to drink or distraction over her husband's many affairs, but she knew that the man's most dominating mistress was Ewing Oil.
So "Dallas" set the standard--or, rather, located the crumbling of standards--in the anything-for-a-buck '80s. Its men were boardroom sharks, its women coiffed to kill. Ten years ago, the Ewings might have seemed a clever Hollywood fiction, but as the decade wore on they started to look like archetypes. In their big dreams and base motives one could find hints of Donald Trump, Ted Turner, Gary Hart, Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, Charles Keating, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and the Marcoses, as well as all those tabloid vixens--the Donnas and Marlas and Jessicas--whose brief notoriety heralded the imminent fall of powerful men.
On the front pages and on TV, the message of the '80s was the same: Money can't buy happiness, but it can buy prettier misery. The difference, of course, was that J.R. couldn't be caught. He could only be canceled.
It is the curse of a phenomenon to become familiar. This is particularly true with TV series; one year's smash is the next year's smash-up. (Remember "Mork & Mindy"? "Miami Vice"? "Twin Peaks"?) The long-term challenge facing "Dallas' " producers, then, was to keep the show from becoming tedious without making it preposterous.
They didn't always succeed. At the beginning of the 1986-87 season, Pam woke up to discover that she had dreamed the previous year's worth of episodes. Over the next few years, ratings fell dramatically, as if "Dallas" were a Ewing stock certificate after the Texas oil boom went bust.
Now "Dallas" has a third surprise ending. After 13 years and more episodes than any dramatic series except "Gunsmoke," the series is getting good again.
Maybe it's just that a TV watcher, worn out by the facetiousness of David Letterman, Bart Simpson and "America's Funniest Home Videos," is happy to see a show that takes the small screen seriously. The program's pace has picked up; the writing has regained its sweat-free cleverness. With a new blend of veteran scoundrels and young vamps, "Dallas" is mixing old-fashioned elements with the tang of J.R.'s bourbon and branch water.
So, remember, "Twin Peaks" fans: Laura Palmer had nothing on J.R. Ewing. And if she had had something on him, he would have paid her handsomely for it. Or handed her over to Bobby. Or bedded her and then broken her. John Ross Ewing Jr., like "Dallas," knows how to roll with the punches. It's what has kept both the man and the show in big business for a decade after everyone has forgotten who shot J.R.