How Dallas Turned The TV Cliff-Hanger Into A Pop Culture Phenomenon
Remember when Jon Snow was “killed” at the at the end of Season 5 of Game of Thrones? Remember those months of speculation? Would he be brought back to life? Or will he remain dead?
If you think that left audiences sweating, then you’ve probably never heard of the daddy of all television cliff-hangers.
“Who Shot JR?” is a phrase that has gone down in television, pop culture and marketing history thanks to legendary television show Dallas, which aired its very first episode on this day in 1978.
Years before Walter White, Tony Soprano, Cersei Lannister and even Mr Burns, JR Ewing was the quentissential TV villain.
Played deliciously by Larry Hagman, the ruthless president of Ewing Oil drove his wife to drink, his family to despair and his many, many enemies out of business. All with a smirk unrivalled on screen before or since.
Audiences despised him as much as they loved his boy next door brother Bobby.
On March 21, 1980, Dallas’s season three finale, “A House Divided”, ended with JR, working late at his office, being shot twice by an unknown would-be killer.
And so the legend of “Who Shot JR?” was born.
Time and People magazines ran cover stories asking “Whodunit?” and “Who Shot Jr?”. The slogan sold T-shirts, mugs and other memorabilia. Just as well there was no social media in those days.
CBS used “Who Shot JR?” as a tagline to promote the show, and when Dallas returned for season 4 it was more popular than ever.
And JR was hanging on to his life.
It took four episodes of the new season, eight months after the cliff-hanger, for the identity of the shooter to be revealed.
An astounding audience of 83 million tuned in to “Who Done It” to find out that it was Kirstin Shepard, JR’s sister-in-law and jilted mistress, who had pulled the trigger.
Since then, the cliff-hanger formula has delivered some of television’s most memorable moments.
There was that Season 5 Game of Thrones finale that saw Jon Snow butchered by the quite frankly reckless members of the Night's Watch. The next board meeting was awkward to say the least.
Before that came Breaking Bad’s season 5 mid-season finale “Gliding Over All”, in which Hank finally, and to his horror, pieces together that his close friend Walter White is the notorious drug dealer Heisenberg which he has been pursuing.
Lost, meanwhile, was just a series of cliff-hangers stitched together over six nonsensical seasons with not a worthwhile pay-off in sight.
And The Sopranos managed to pull off the cliff-hanger to end all cliff-hangers with the famous diner scene to enigmatically close out the show forever.
Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Dallas was paid the biggest compliment of all when the Simpsons ended season 6 with Mr Burns being gunned down mysteriously in “Who Shot Mr Burns Part 1”.
“Who Shot Mr Burns?” became almost as famous as “Who Shot Jr?”.
In season 7’s premiere, “Who Shot Mr Burns Part 2”, it was revealed that the perpetrator was none other than the silent assassin Maggie Simpson.
Incredibly, “Who Shot Jr?” would end being only Dallas’s second most notorious moment.
Early in season 9 (1985-96), the show killed off the character of Bobby Ewing - played by a Patrick Duffy who presumably thought he could do better – in a car crash. Then, in the season’s finale, his widow Pamela, wakes up expecting to see her new husband Mark, only to be greeted by Bobby nonchalantly stepping out of the shower. Now that’s what we call a cliff-hanger.
In a deus ex machina outcome of shameless proportions, season 10’s premiere revealed that poor, confused Pamela had simply dreamed the events of the previous season of Dallas.
And you thought flame-breathing dragons, White Walkers and red-headed priestesses resurrecting the dead were a stretch.