The show can be summed up in three words: “Who shot J.R.?”
“Dallas” started out quietly, with a five-episode audition in the spring of 1978 on CBS. It was the saga of the Ewings, a rich Texas oil family, with elements of a modern-day “Romeo & Juliet” (Bobby Ewing, played by Patrick Duffy, marrying Pam Barnes, played by Victoria Principal) and the biblical Cain and Abel (good brother Bobby and bad brother J.R., played by Larry Hagman).
By the 1980-81 season, the nighttime soap was the most popular series on the air, and Hagman’s J.R. was the villain everyone loved to hate. When he was gunned down in a 1980 cliffhanger, the story made the cover of Time magazine and the resolution (Nov. 21, 1980; Kristin did it) was TV’s most watched episode at that time.
Says “Dallas” creator David Jacobs: “It came at a time when we were on the eve of Reagan’s America, so there was a change in attitude that made the rich a little more interesting. There was still something satisfying about seeing people that rich that miserable.”
The show ultimately lasted 14 seasons, in part because of J.R. Ewing’s ahead-of-his-time attitude toward business (later embraced by the public in the greed-is-good notion of “Wall Street,” despised in today’s Enron-Adelphia era of corporate shenanigans).
Jacobs says that while J.R.’s antics were scripted, Hagman’s outrageous, larger-than-life portrayal was key to the show’s success. “That lust, that pure enjoyment out of being the guy that got there first, that screwed you out of it, that left you standing with your fly open. He just loved it.”