In so many ways, “Dallas” is the show that invented modern television. It’s not just that J.R. Ewing gave rise to Tony Soprano, Frank Underwood and the myriad antiheroes who now dominate dramatic TV storytelling. “Dallas” also changed how we watch TV. Before the series debuted in 1978, prime time was marked by episodic fare — stories told in weekly, self-contained chapters that had limited bearing on what happened before or after. “Dallas” was different. Its storylines continued from week to week, culminating in splashy season-ending cliffhangers designed to keep the audience hooked for months at a time. By demanding — and receiving — such devotion, “Dallas” became one of the first shows that didn’t have mere viewers. It had fans.
Today brings another reminder of how “Dallas” helped shape our contemporary television culture. On this date in 1986, during the closing moments of “Dallas’s” ninth season, Bobby Ewing was shown cheerfully lathering up in the shower of his ex-wife and true love Pam — despite the fact that Patrick Duffy’s character had been killed off one year earlier when the actor chose to leave the show. Although CBS had announced Duffy’s return a few weeks before the shower scene, no one knew how he’d come back or whom he’d be playing. (Would he be an evil Bobby imposter? A long-lost twin?) It wasn’t until the September season premiere that we got our answer: “Dallas” had decided to write off Bobby’s demise and the 31 episodes that followed as Pam’s season-long dream.
Fans were miffed. “Dallas” without Duffy was uneven, but Bobby’s death also produced some of the show’s greatest material, beginning with “Swan Song,” the exquisite episode in which the character sacrificed his life to save Pam’s. Just as notably, this was the year that gave us Linda Gray’s most riveting performance as Sue Ellen triumphantly confronted her alcoholism after hitting rock bottom and winding up in a gutter. Nevertheless, “Dallas” producer Leonard Katzman made no apologies for his decision to hit the reset button. If fans wanted Duffy back as the character they knew and loved — and the show’s declining ratings suggested the audience missed Bobby dearly — the dream scenario offered the cleanest, quickest solution.
The it-was-all-a-dream resolution soon became one of television’s most reliable tropes, lampooned most memorably by the series finale of “Newhart” but also by “Dallas” itself, which embraced its instantly notorious cop-out with gusto. (The otherwise lamentable “War of the Ewings” reunion movie begins with Larry Hagman’s J.R. dreaming of Bobby and Sue Ellen steaming up a shower.) I’m not sure this is the dream resolution’s greatest legacy, though. From today’s vantage point, Bobby’s return stands out as an early example of something that people who make television now grapple with all the time: the tension between satisfying their own creative aspirations and satisfying loyal fanbases. We witnessed this last week when producers of “The Good Wife” ended that show’s seven-season run with an ambiguous finale that left devotees wanting more. Of course, we don’t need to venture far outside the “Dallas” realm to see how the producers-versus-fans conflict plays out in the current environment. TNT’s “Dallas” revival lost more than a few viewers because they felt the people behind the scenes didn’t hew closely enough to the original show’s formula.
I agree the TNT series could have done a better job honoring classic “Dallas’s” continuity and tried-and-true themes, but I never got too hung up on that. I’m glad I wasn’t alone, although those of us who defended the new “Dallas” often seemed out of step in a climate where many fans seem to enjoy picking apart shows they supposedly love and every stumble is treated as a jump-the-shark moment. This is why I believe Bobby’s resurrection-by-shower has something to teach today’s audiences. Even though many of us didn’t love the dream resolution 30 years ago, few stopped watching “Dallas” altogether. In fact, the series lasted another five years after Bobby toweled off in 1986. You can argue that the TV landscape was a lot less crowded at the time — even if we got mad at “Dallas” for throwing away a season we all invested in, it’s not like there were a lot of other choices across the dial — but I also think our loyalty speaks to a willingness to not take our obsessions quite so seriously back then.
It’s the most important lesson of all from “Dallas’s” famous shower scene: Sometimes you have to go with the flow.
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