From Dallas to Spoiler Alerts, the Rise and Fall of the Cliffhanger

The world didn’t start in 2010, gang, no matter how much it may seem like it did.

Especially the TV world:

JRby David Sims

35 years ago, the Texas oil baron J.R. Ewing was working late at his office when he was shot twice by a mysterious assailant. J.R. crumpled to the ground with his fate unknown, and every member of the cast a plausible suspect in the shooting. With that, the third season of CBS’s Dallas concluded, but at the same time, it also graduated from hit network show to nationwide phenomenon.

The end-of-season cliffhanger, deployed so effectively in 1980 that “Who Shot J.R.?” became a national catchphrase, is a brilliant and oft-used television device. But in a fractured TV landscape that no longer takes the summer off, it’s a ploy that struggles to punch with the weight it once did. Dallas aired during the golden era of the “big three” TV networks, when there was no way to binge-watch and catch up with the hit of the moment. So its third season finale was an innovative gambit—the cliffhanger was the stuff of serialized soaps and Charles Dickens, not the world of episodic television, where mysteries were tidily solved every week.

“Who Shot J.R.?” was hokey and not particularly compelling from a writing standpoint—almost every character on the show had a reason to shoot the manipulative and unscrupulous patriarch, so it was almost beside the point when Dallas revealed who actually did it eight months later. But it was the kind of water-cooler moment that could drive conversation about the show during the quiet summer months of the network TV schedule. Dallaswas serialized television, but not so much that viewers couldn’t jump right into any given episode and figure it out, and after a few months of hearing co-workers or family members debate their theories about potential suspects, it was hard not to. The show ended its third season as the sixth-most watched show on television, with 19.1 million viewers; its fourth season jumped to number one, with 27.6 million people watching. The reason for that kind of meteoric leap in ratings is indisputable.

The storyline’s success wasn’t thanks to Dallas‘s quality, or America’s fondness for star Larry Hagman, who’d turned a secondary character into the archetypal man-you-love-to-hate, and the breakout star of the show. The third season finale “A House Divided” aired on March 21, 1980, and Dallas didn’t return to screens until November. Over that summer, Ted Turner’s fledging Cable News Network launched, and embarked on the then-daunting concept of reporting the news 24 hours a day—with feverish speculation over J.R.’s assailant becoming a popular and frequent topic.

As with many classic TV cliffhangers, the show’s writers went into things with no particular idea of how to resolve the mystery, arriving at the conclusion just by a logical process of elimination. Another example of that loose approach is “The Best of Both Worlds,” the third-season finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation,which ended with Captain Picard captured by the alien Borg and transformed into a cyborg zombie. The writer and showrunner Michael Piller later admitted he had no concept of how the next episode, which led off the fourth season, would resolve the cliffhanger—he just knew the show needed something to keep audiences on the hook over the summer. The Next Generation was a steady cult hit before the episode, but its ratings jumped by 25 percent between seasons, and the show graduated to mainstream success.

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