J.R. and 'Dallas' conclude a 13-year wonderful life

May 03, 1991|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Evening Sun Staff

AFTER 13 years as everything from a hype machine to a cultural touchstone, CBS' "Dallas" ends its run tonight with a two-hour episode -- the show's 356th -- on Channel 11 at 9 o'clock.

The finale is a takeoff on the classic Frank Capra film "It's a Wonderful Life," the Jimmy Stewart vehicle that's now a Christmastime staple.

In tonight's "Dallas," Joel Grey plays an angel who takes J.R. Ewing around and shows him what life would have been like had he never lived.

Though J.R. was one of the most dastardly villains ever to stalk prime time, his life was not without its redemption. He discovers tonight that some things would have been better, some things would have been worse if he hadn't stopped by every Friday night for the last 13 years.

You can make virtually the same judgment about "Dallas'" impact on prime-time television. Almost single-handedly, it created the genre of the prime-time soap, and its meteoric success cluttered the development of all three networks for the next several years with attempts to duplicate the hold its labyrinthian plot held on the American consciousness.

Only two shows -- the still-popular "Dallas" spinoff "Knots Landing" and ABC's "Dynasty" -- succeeded, and both were worthy, interesting contributions to the medium.

But, beyond that direct impact, the fact that "Dallas'" proved that the viewing public would not only put up with continuing story lines, but was fascinated by them, opened up a whole new world to prime-time programs.

"I don't think 'Dallas' gets enough credit for that," David Jacobs, the Baltimore native who created the show, said over the phone from Los Angeles.

"Before 'Dallas,' in almost every show -- 'Barnaby Jones,' 'Kojak,' 'McCloud,' whatever -- the idea was to have the hero stay the same from week to week.

"After 'Dallas,' even in shows that were not soaps, there almost had to be an acknowledgment in this week's episode of whatever happened last week," Jacobs said.

The result of being freed from the restraints of a static weekly formula was to allow for much more complex storytelling, to let characters grow and develop more naturally, to make the medium more responsive and immediate.

Certainly some shows continue to find success with the old formula -- "Murder, She Wrote," "Matlock," "Hunter" -- but many more ran through the opening that "Dallas" created to a higher plane of prime-time television.

It can be argued that if "Dallas" didn't exist, then neither would "Hill Street Blues," "St. Elsewhere," "L.A. Law" or "thirtysomething;" that even shows like "Cheers" would look different. Clearly television would be a more barren place.

Jacobs admits that he didn't realize he was changing the face of television when he wrote "Dallas." He always intended it to be a soap -- though the first five episodes were all self-contained -- but he didn't really envision the show that "Dallas" became.

"If you read the pilot, you can say it's all in there, but that's just because you picture Larry Hagman and everybody in those roles," he said.

"I give all the credit to Hagman. He saw the possibilities in J.R. and he went for them. The result was a show in which the villain was the protagonist. That's not unheard of, but it was certainly unusual for television.

"In my original conception, the characters were much more gray. But once J.R. was in place, you needed something to balance him out, so Bobby turned into what he became [the good guy, the brother with scruples]. I'm certainly not complaining about the way it worked out."

Hagman's J.R., with his ability to get what he wanted unfettered by conventional constraints, struck a responsive chord in an America that in 1979 felt frustrated by its inability to get things done. You could say that J.R. was the first public figure to shake off the Vietnam syndrome. J.R.'s smart bombs never missed.

"I think 'Dallas' was the show for the first Reagan administration as it was about the acquisition of money," Jacobs said. "'Dynasty' was the show for the second Reagan administration as it was about the things money could buy."

Jacobs hasn't had much to do with "Dallas" since its first year, when he went with the spinoff "Knots Landing," a show that was much closer to the one he originally tried to sell to CBS. When the network executives wanted something a little broader, he came up with the vast canvas that contained "Dallas."

As "Dallas" fades, "Knots Landing" is still going strong. Its 300th episode was broadcast last week, and Jacobs thinks it may well have a longer run than its ancestor, in part because its appeal doesn't depend on being on the leading edge of trend. Instead, it can have its much more life-size characters react to such changes in the culture.

"'Knots Landing' is a very flexible show," Jacobs said. "The show is filled with the kind of people who watch 'Dallas,' nice people."

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