Dallas, the first of a genre to be named "prime-time soap" by television critics, established the features of serial plots involving feuding families and moral excess that would characterize all other programs of the type. Created by David Jacobs, Dallas's first five-episode pilot season, aired in April 1978 on CBS, met with poor reviews, but earned ratings that put it in the top ten by the end of its limited run. The central premise was a Romeo and Juliet conflict, set in contemporary Texas. Pamela Barnes and Bobby Ewing were the young lovers; their two families perpetuated the feud of their elders, Jock Ewing and Digger Barnes, over the rightful ownership of oil fields claimed by the Ewings.
In the pilot episodes and the twelve full seasons that would follow, the Ewing family remained the focus of Dallas. Indeed, the Ewing brothers, their wives, their offspring and all assorted relatives passing through would continue to live under one roof on Southfork, the family ranch. Bobby's older brother J.R., played with sly wit by Larry Hagman, would become a new kind of villain for television because of his centrality to the program and the depth both actor and writers gave to the character. Abusive to his alcoholic wife Sue Ellen, ruthless and underhanded with his nemesis Cliff Barnes and any other challenger to Ewing Oil, J.R. was nevertheless a loyal son to Miss Ellie and Jock, a devoted father to his son and heir, John Ross. Hagman's J.R. soon became the man viewers loved to hate.
For prime time in the late seventies, Dallas was sensational, featuring numerous acts of adultery by both J.R. and Sue Ellen, the revelation of Jock's illegitimate son, Ray Krebs, who worked as a hired hand on Southfork, and the raunchy exploits of young Lucy, daughter of Gary, the third, largely absent, Ewing brother. It was the complicated stuff of daytime melodrama, done with big-budget glamour--high-fashion wardrobes, richly furnished home and office interiors, exteriors shot on location in the Dallas area.
During the 1978-79 season, writer-producer Leonard Katzman turned the prime-time drama into the first prime-time serial since Peyton Place when Sue Ellen Ewing found she was pregnant, her child's paternity uncertain. The generic formula was complete when that same season concluded with a cliffhanger: Sue Ellen was critically injured in a car accident and both her fate and the fate of her baby remained unresolved until September. Cliffhanger episodes became highly promoted Friday night rituals after the following season, which ended with a freeze-frame of villain-protagonist J.R. lying shot on the floor of his office, his prognosis and his assailant unknown. "Who Shot J.R.?" reverberated throughout popular culture that summer, culminating in an episode the following season which broke ratings records--76% of all American televisions in use tuned to Dallas. Even after 1985, when the program's ratings sagged, cliffhanger episodes in the spring and their resolutions in the fall would boost the aging serial back into the top ten.
In the midst of an ever-expanding cast of Ewings and Barnes, scheming mistresses, high-rolling oil men and white collar henchmen, the primary characters and relationships changed and evolved over the course of the serial. Bobby and Pam's marriage succumbed to J.R.'s plots to pull them apart, and both pursued other romances. After J.R. and Sue Ellen's marriage produced an heir, Sue Ellen stopped drinking and went on the offensive against J.R. Both Pam and Sue Ellen acquired careers. Ray Krebs rose from hired hand to independent rancher, always apart from the Ewing clan, but indispensable to it.
Like its daytime counterparts, Dallas adapted to the comings and goings of several of its star actors. When Jim Davis, who played Jock Ewing, died in 1981, his character was written out of the show, with Jock's plane disappearing somewhere over South America. The character was never recast, though several plotlines alluded to his possible reappearance, and his portrait continued to preside over key scenes in the offices of Ewing Oil. Barbara Bel Geddes, the beloved Miss Ellie, asked to be relieved from her contract for health reasons in 1984, and Donna Reed stepped into the role for one season, only to be removed when Bel Geddes was persuaded to return. During the 1985-86 season, Bobby Ewing was dead, at the request of actor Patrick Duffy, but the character returned when Duffy wanted back on the show. Bobby was resurrected when his death and all the rest of the previous season were redefined as Pam's dream. Linda Gray left the show in 1989, and her character, Sue Ellen, exited as an independent movie mogul whose final act of vengeance was to produce a painfully accurate film about J.R.
In the early 1980s, other serials joined the internationally successful Dallas on the prime-time schedule, each in some way defining itself in relation to the original. Among them, Knots Landing began as a spin-off of Dallas, featuring Gary Ewing and his wife Valene transplanted to a California suburb. ABC's Dynasty both copied the Dallas formula and stretched it to outrageous proportions. On the other hand, hour-long dramas, most notably Hill Street Blues, began grafting Dallas's successful serial strategy onto other genres. Among the eighties generation of prime time soaps, only Knots Landing outlasted Dallas, which concluded in May 1991. In the 1990s, the genre has been revamped in several serials on the Fox network. Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and Models, Inc.--the last featuring Dallas's Linda Gray--have pitched the genre to a younger generation of viewers.
John Ross (J.R.) Ewing, Jr..................... Larry Hagman
Eleanor Southworth (Miss Ellie) Ewing (1978-1984, 1985-1990).................................. Barbara Bel Geddes