Who Shot J.R.?, March 21 & November 21, 1980

Written By: Greg Howell - May• 11•18


J.R. Ewing was the very definition of a “snake in the grass.” An habitual two-timing scamp, J.R. – played by Larry Hagman – stopped at nothing to get his way. By the end of the third season, the entire world loved to hate this character, and indeed, the 1979-1980 season was broadcast in 53 countries around the world!

As the show’s popularity soared, CBS requested that Lorimar add two additional episodes to the season’s order. A last minute plot device was created to have J.R. Ewing shot, implementing a cliff hanger device like the ones used in the old movie serials. This season would end with the “devil” getting his comeuppance.

At least a half-dozen characters had a genuine motive to kill J.R. Ewing, leaving the audience wondering just “who shot J.R.?” Even the cast and crew didn’t know! Executive Producer Philip Capice had all the major characters filmed shooting J.R., cleverly used to plant red herrings, mystify the media, and generate publicity!

The ploy was a sensation, as headlines asked the question all summer long! Bets were placed in casinos, polls were taking all over the world. It seemed there was nothing else to talk about but JR Ewing and the serial’s cliff hanger. Pushing the tension to even greater heights was the delay of the new fall season due to a Hollywood writers strike.

There has never been anything like it in television before or since. For 8 long months, the singular topic captured international headlines alongside the election of Ronald Reagan, the continuing saga of the hostage crisis in Iran, and the beginning of the Iraq/Iran War. When the new season finally premiered in November, the audience grew until the answer was revealed a few episodes later on November 21, 1980. As his wife Sue Ellen is arrested, jailed, and bailed out, the audience discovers it wasn’t his wife, after all, who shot J.R., it was her sister. Yes, the dog J.R. had been sleeping with his wife’s sister, and she was the culprit.

The episode drew a record 76% share of the audience, and over 90 million viewers. Dallas made the cliff hanger device a primetime TV staple. It would be used frequently henceforth, and with shows as varied as the sitcom Cheers, the cartoon South Park, and dramas like Dynasty, The West Wing, and The X-files. Ultimately, some TV shows incorporated the cliff hanger for every episode, not just the season’s end, most notably Prison Break, 24, and Quantum Leap.

The success of this episode did not just hold American’s captive, but people all over the globe were asking the same question, “Who shot J.R.?” It was the single, biggest TV phenomenon since the birth of Little Ricky on I Love Lucy.

Dallas was a television blockbuster, running from April 2, 1978, to May 3, 1991, and ranking in the top ten from 1979 – 1985, including 3 years as the #1 TV show. The success of Dallas launched an entire era in television of prime time soap operas.

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