As April rolled around and the reality of many, many more weeks of quarantine set in, I was looking on television for something other than reality.
Usually a marathon of “The Real Housewives of New York City,” “Vanderpump Rules,” or “Teen Mom” is a digital cure for anything that aches me, but this strange and intense year has been a challenge to oint even the most trusted stress.
The search for something to get lost in was well underway, and I found the answer on the free IMDB TV streaming service: “Dallas,” the groundbreaking prime-time soap opera that aired on CBS from 1978-1991.
I started with a remake of the season three finale, A House Divided, the Who shot JR? the signature obsession of the summer of 1980.
Of course, I had to go straight to season 4 of Who Done It ?, which drew 83.6 million viewers when it aired, the second largest non-Super Bowl audience of all time. By the end of the week – OK, by the end of the next day – I’d skipped over a dozen episodes and committed myself to a full-blown 14-season binge.
The number of seasons does not tell the full “Dallas” story. Even at a time when most series aired at least 22 episodes per season – compared to the 10-13 that are standard on modern cable and streaming shows – Dallas felt that everything is bigger Texas “to heart. Multiple seasons comprised 30 episodes and season 9 had 31, which is half of the entire “Breaking Bad” series.
Here are reasons this relapse caught my attention during a 357 episode rewatch.
Larry Hagman became the defining “Dallas” star as the power-robbing, blackmailing, philandering JR, the eldest son of Jock (Jim Davis) and Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes).
It’s not just that JR engages in these activities so relentlessly, but that he does it with undisguised joy which makes it so fun to see him. Every episode of “Dallas” ends with a trademark, and many of them are close-ups of a grinning JR shortly after double-crossing a business partner or driving his long-suffering alcoholic wife Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) another stint at the sanatorium.
JR has some redeeming properties. The charm Hagman brings out of a “Darlin” is worth both Emmys for which he was nominated. And he really loves his dad, mom, brother Bobby (Patrick Duffy) and son John Ross (Omri Katz), though they often take a backseat to his obsession with Ewing Oil. While re-watching the Bobby funeral episode that ends with a still image of a heartbroken JR looking up at the sky, I realized that the slick but soulful Oil Man was my goal antihero Suburban Russian spies later have my heart wired conquered, but it all started with a Stetson-wearing Conniver on CBS every Friday night.
“Who shot JR?” is television’s most earth-shattering cliffhanger, one that made fans around the world say “Who shot JR?” T-shirts and buttons and JR beer in memory of the Whodunit.
But the writers of “Dallas” dumped viewers at the end of each season, from the paternity of Sue Ellen’s baby (is JR or his enemy Cliff Barnes the father?) To the series finale, a two-part “It’s a Wonderful Life” investigation into everyone JR styles that ends with a shot that leaves the audience wondering if the guilty oil man killed himself. (The answer came in a later TV movie, “Dallas: JR Returns”.)
And then there’s the season nine finale when Pam Ewing (Victoria Principal) wakes up to a surprise: her dead ex-husband Bobby takes a shower in her bathroom. Duffy had left the show at the end of season eight, but when ratings slipped, Hagman asked his best friend to come back. Duffy agreed and triggered “The Dream Season,” the television’s most famous do-over. Season 10 begins with the confirmation that Bobby is alive and squeaky clean and that everything that happened in season 9 was Pam’s dream.
When the Ewings aren’t fighting each other for control of Ewing Oil, they love and fight, fight and love like it’s a sport. Keeping the middle of a 31 episode season moving is no small feat. Sometimes these dizzyingly frequent separation cycles of Bobby-Pam and JR-Sue Ellen only happen in a few episodes.
In one infamous case, a family matter turns out to be too literal. Jock and Ellie’s rebellious granddaughter Lucy (Charlene Tilton) regularly romps with a ranch hand, Ray (Steve Kanaly), only for Ray to find out later that he is Jock’s illegitimate son. Yes, Lucy is his biological niece. (Couldn’t we have got a do-over here?) From then on, Lucy and Ray’s early story is ignored and he becomes an avuncular presence in their lives.
A less disruptive plot in the soap opera stems from the cross-series Barnes-Ewing feud that was introduced in the Pilot when Bobby Pam, the daughter of Jock’s enemy Digger Barnes, marries. The next generation is fueling the fight, with JR and Pam’s brother Cliff (Ken Kercheval) vowing to destroy each other almost weekly.
JR is far more successful on this front, of course, and Cliff’s Misfortune offers regular moments of ease in the form of his undeserved valor and obsession with bringing Chinese food to the go. That weird counterbalance to all of these traumatic moments, all of the lives destroyed by JR’s machinations, is part of an underlying cheek that runs through the entire series. Again: “Dallas” put an entire season out with a seven-second shower. But when we near the end of a challenging year of almost as much drama, who doesn’t wish we all had the chance to mulligan this season of our lives?