Sunday, March 21, 2010

Pop History Moment: Who Shot J.R.?

A remarkable example of the unifying potential of television occurred on this day in 1980; in the finale of the second season of Dallas - an episode ironically entitled A House Divided - J.R. Ewing, the oiliest oilman who ever fueled the lingering death of the planet (played brilliantly by Larry Hagman) was shot. Instantly, the phrase Who Shot JR? was on everybody's lips; a cultural phenomenon (and its attendant merchandising frenzy) was born. A House Divided had unwittingly spawned a world united, mainly with glee at the potentially fatal wounding of a greedy capitalist oligarch.

PhotobucketOwing to an actor's strike it would be nine months to the day before anyone would know who had actually shot the character everybody loved to hate, by which point the revelation was almost a let-down. The episode for which a record-breaking audience of some 83 million had waited and waited was entitled Who Done It?, but could just as easily have been called Who Gives A Crap?

After months of rampant speculation routinely fed by the publicity machine of CBS-Television, almost every fan of the show had their own pet theory, and my bet is that the dullest of them was better than the one cooked up by the show's writers. In the end it was revealed that, even though every character on the show (with the possible exception of Miss Ellie who was, after all, his own mother) would have gladly given him an enema with a rifle, it was J.R.'s humped and dumped sister-in-law Kristin Shepard (played by Mary Crosby) who had done the deed. In order to preserve the secret, many of the show's characters were filmed shooting him, with only the producers knowing for sure which one would be used.

For all that, the episode changed television; suddenly every season ended with a cliffhanger, and by the end of the 1980s, almost every episode was ending with a cliffhanger as well. Which, while it undoubtedly made TV more interesting, also created a very blase audience out of it. In TV terms, Who Shot JR? was little more than a gateway drug, giving viewers the greatest high they'd had to date, and making them hungry for ever higher highs, which pushers - I mean producers - like Aaron Spelling dutifully sought to provide.
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