It Was The Year Where All We Wanted To Know Was: Who Shot J.R.?
By Matt Roush, ReMIND Magazine
What a difference a decade makes.
As 1980 heralded the dawn of a new era, sweeping transformations loomed for anyone glued to the tube. CNN began broadcasting 24-hour news in June, ESPN televised the NFL Draft for the first time, and MTV was just a year away from becoming a youth obsession, with myriad cable programmers soon to follow, upending the industry.
But already, TV viewers could sense that times were changing.
Many of our favorite shows that carried us through the 1970s were in a tumultuous state of transition in 1980. On Little House on the Prairie, Laura (Melissa Gilbert) was no longer a “half-pint” and got married to Almanzo (Dean Butler). The Waltons was beginning its final season, after matriarch Olivia (Michael Learned) moved to Washington, D.C., with the Red Cross — the actress was ready to move on — and John-Boy was being played by a new actor (Richard Thomas had previously left the show).
Even more disorienting, All in the Family had become Archie Bunker’s Place, and in November, laid the beloved Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton) to rest as widower Archie grieved, in a performance that would earn Carroll O’Connor a prestigious Peabody Award.
Happy Days said goodbye to Richie Cunningham as Ron Howard left the regular cast to pursue his dream of directing. (Richie would eventually head to Hollywood to be a screenwriter.) M*A*S*H was somehow operating without Radar (Gary Burghoff), who went through the revolving door in 1979. And in a more contentious departure over salary, Suzanne Somers of the top-rated sitcom Three’s Company made her last full-time appearance as Chrissy, only to appear in future episodes on the other side of a 60-second telephone call to her former roomies.
Still, what most will remember about the year of 1980 in television was a shot heard round the world, as the nation focused on an all-consuming question: Who shot J.R.?
The wait for an answer was excruciating for millions of Dallas fans because it didn’t come quickly. On the evening of March 21 on CBS, an unknown assailant gave that double-crossing, cheating scoundrel J.R. Ewing (the devilishly charismatic Larry Hagman) his just deserts, plugging him twice and leaving him fighting for life.
But the ugly business of show business, in the form of a disruptive actors strike launched in July, would delay the start of the traditional fall season for months, keeping everybody on edge in the ultimate cliffhanger. The furor even upstaged the presidential contest that year, as Republicans reportedly distributed campaign buttons declaring “A Democrat shot J.R.” Not until late November, long after Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in a landslide, would viewers learn that J.R.’s mistress and sister-in-law Kristin Shepard (Mary Crosby) was the culprit.
The actors strike also contributed to a memorable Emmy Awards in September, when all but one nominated actor boycotted the ceremony in support of the union. Powers Boothe showed up to accept the Emmy for his role as cult leader Jim Jones in the CBS miniseries Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, noting in his speech, “This is either the most courageous moment of my career or the stupidest.”
Hagman, who was nominated, stayed home. So did Barbara Bel Geddes, who won for Best Actress in a Drama Series as Miss Ellie, one of the more improbable suspects in her son’s shooting.
The resounding success of Dallas led to a boom in outrageous serialized drama, turning the ’80s into the golden age of the primetime soap opera. Right before the 1980 New Year, CBS launched the Dallas spinoff Knots Landing, a suburban potboiler set on a California cul-de-sac where Ewing black sheep Gary (Ted Shackelford) and wife Valene (Joan Van Ark) moved alongside neighbors including nurturing Karen (Michele Lee) and eventually the scene-stealing vixen Abby (Donna Mills). More relatable to many than the antics of the Texas oil barons, Knots Landing would outlast Dallas and also run 14 memorable seasons.
Within a year, ABC would take on the Ewings with its own Dynasty, epitomizing a period of Reagan-era wealth and glamour in the lurid and opulent shenanigans of Denver’s Carrington and Colby clans. As Blake and Krystle Carrington, John Forsythe and Linda Evans were constantly bedeviled by his vengeful ex, Alexis, played to the diva hilt by Joan Collins. Whenever Krystle and Alexis went after each other in epic catfights, whether in lily ponds or mud puddles, it was front-page news.
There Was More Than Soaps
Critics may have dismissed the soaps as guilty pleasures, but they took notice of a revolutionary series that premiered to initial low ratings and immediate high prestige on NBC in the 1980-81 season. Hill Street Blues, from Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, was hailed for its gritty realism and dark humor in the depiction of an urban police station. The adult situations, pungent dialogue and boldly tragicomic twists elevated the cop genre, setting a tone that would influence high-end TV drama for years to come, including another MTM Enterprises standout of the 1980s, St. Elsewhere.
Other higher-brow premieres that kept 1980 television from seeming like a so-called “vast wasteland” included two enduring PBS standouts: Carl Sagan’s dazzling Cosmos, which over 13 weeks opened our minds to imagining our place in the universe; and Masterpiece Theatre spinoff Mystery!, an anthology of classic British whodunits that had an early success with the droll Rumpole of the Bailey and would become a home for dramatizations of the best of Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and P.D. James.
There’s always a place for exotic escapism on TV, and while the original Hawaii Five-O wrapped its 12-season run in 1980, within months CBS would be back in the Aloha state with Magnum, P.I., making an international star of Tom Selleck as the rakish, mustachioed Vietnam vet. Another star was born when Tom Hanks dressed in drag, alongside Peter Scolari, in the campy ABC sitcom Bosom Buddies. It aired for only two seasons, but was a launchpad for Hanks’ legendary Hollywood career.
Creating much less of a splash from June to October of 1980, an edgy comic was trying out wacky ideas like “Stupid Pet Tricks” on NBC’s short-lived The David Letterman Show. His time would come, two years later, and late night in the 1980s would never be the same.
Matt Roush, “TV Guide Magazine’s” senior critic, is a nationally respected television journalist. He has served on the jury for the American Film Institute’s annual AFI Awards, selecting the best TV shows of the year. He has also served on the nominating committee for the Broadcast Television Journalists Association’s Critics’ Choice Awards.
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