30 Years Later, ‘Dallas’s’ Shower Scene Still Makes a Splash

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Patrick Duffy

Mr. Clean

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.

What’s your opinion of “Dallas’s” dream resolution? Share your comments below and read more opinions from Dallas Decoder.

Comments

  1. Fantastic writing!

  2. Stephan says:

    I remember being VERY annoyed by the dream resolution for all those reasons that you point out – and being embarrassed on behalf of the show. Did I defend it to others? Of course I did! So what you say about fans and loyalty then and now really touches a nerve. Obviously the new DALLAS was not perfect, but I would never have considered giving up on my favourite show. And by sticking around I got to enjoy the hell out of what was actually there. That goes for 1986 as well as 2012…
    By the way, I miss your critiques, Chris.

    • Thank you, Stephan! Like you, I recognize the new “Dallas” was far from perfect, but man, I sure did love having the Ewings back. I feel bad more fans couldn’t find a way to enjoy the show’s revival.

      I miss the critiques too. I hope to bring them back someday soon.

      Thanks again.

  3. “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”

    Very nicely put. In fairness, I don’t this applies only to Dallas. Almost any TV fan forum I have ever visited contains a strong sense of resentment, or at least negativity, towards the show (and its makers) the posters purportedly love. I’ve done it myself! No TV or film series is beyond criticism of course, but perhaps fans on the internet find it easier or more interesting to focus on what they didn’t like and, as in the way on the internet, other people glom onto that and it creates a kind of snowball effect.

    Someone made a very eloquent point in a discussion about Doctor Who recently:

    “Ardent Doctor Who fans, who increasingly greet each episode with a grim accountability ledger, complete with encyclopaedic memory of every episode ever aired, standards suited to vetting a candidate for high office and critical scrutiny more suitable for Biblical scholars, might take a cue from this author. If Doctor Who is wonderful, and I think it is, it’s because it’s a terrific story with all of the humanely entertaining and enchanting elements that good stories possess. To treat it as if it were an object primarily for crude critical dissection has always seemed illiterate to me, and quite joy-killing.”

    • Yes, I agree. This applies to fans of all stripes, and not just TV. Despite the success of the most recent “Star Wars” film, a lot of fans griped about the movie. You’re right that our Internet culture exacerbates the problem.

      Thanks for commenting, James!

  4. A great column about a great episode. Thirty years ago, I’d skipped a party to stay home and watch it and friends called to tell me about the party. I told them something like, “Sue Ellen and Jamie got blown up and Bobby was in the shower!” Nothing, television-wise, has ever lived up to that episode.

    • Thank you, Chris. I recorded this episode on the living room Betamax and watched it over and over that summer.

      I appreciate your feedback and hearing your memories. How sad that this was Miss Nero’s swan song. (“It’s too late, J.R. It’s too late!”)

  5. I remember how controversial the infamous “dream” explanation was 30 years ago and arguably Dallas never truly recovered from it but from today’s perspective it’s all a bit ‘meh’.
    In the UK our main prime time soap – Eastenders – had a character return from the dead and they didn’t even bother to come up with an explanation – they just needed the character to come back so he did!
    Also I’m still a bit torn on the whole Dallas ratings decline when Bobby died issue – wasn’t it the case that the prime time soap bubble burst anyway in 1986 for reasons other than Bobby’s demise and that the producers of Dallas drew the wrong conclusions?

    • Yes, I think that’s a good point, Paul. “Dallas’s” ratings were already fading by the time Patrick Duffy left. Here in the United States, the era of the prime-time soap opera was giving way to resurgent sitcoms like “The Cosby Show” and “Family Ties.”

  6. I thought it was cool to bring Bobby back. If fans like it or do not like it, just as long as we keep talking about the show “Dallas”, its great. In reality, there are as many different opinions about the show as there are fans of the show. I think Dallas on TNT changed so much from what it was the first season to what it was by season 3. It is not just the relation to the original series, I think part of the TNT run had some very ambitious storylines that sort of disappeared or ended bizarre. The show should never have been cancled and it was clear, no matter what, that there was an audience for the show every new episode, no matter if the schedule was changed, the season was split in two, or ifit was up against the most viewed program that month. As a business move, TNT failed.

  7. Elizabete says:

    Ir was cool to bring Bobby to the show again.Great comments, Chris.

  8. Your observations are so interesting and they are what keep me visiting your site time and time again. I was happy to have Bobby back but remember the dismay when the following season began. I waited for something, some nod toward the dream details… but it was a clean slate. I just think it would have made better sense if the dream had been Bobby’s (coma from the accident rather than death). But maybe that would not be as clean as the producers wanted.

  9. Mary Ann says:

    I was very happy Bobby was back because the show was not complete to me without him. Yes the show lost credibility because a whole season was deemed as non-existent but there was no other way to bring him back. I personally hated the season because some storylines were just horrible, new characters were uninteresting and the return of one (Mark) who was uninteresting, not that important and who really didn’t need to be brought back. I was disappointed and dissatisfied after the first 5 episodes and couldn’t watch every episode after without disgust, the only decent story was Ray and Donna’s. Having Bobby back just to have Pam and Bobby back together was worth it but of course the writers and producers ruined the reunion by not making them truly happy with the stupid decision to make Jenna pregnant.
    They knew VP was leaving they could have written a happy reunion storyline for them by just making them happy and in love without conflict knowing they were going to kill off Pam. Then off course after they botched up her death the following Seasons truly sucked and Dallas became even more of a joke!!! They didn’t really care about the fans.

  10. Mr. Duffy knows the owner of Prinicipal’s Secret so he can get creams to help with his wrinkly skin from the hours of shower scene filming.

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