Dallas Cliffhanger: Where Were You When They Told Us Who Shot J.R.?

Did you know that on November 21, 1980, 350 million people worldwide tuned in to T.V.’s popular primetime drama Dallas’ “Who Done It?” Why? To learn who shot J.R. Ewing — the character that fans loved to hate? Americans were responsible for 83 million views of this international event.

At the time, it was the highest-rated show in television history. Moreover, the viewership numbers were more than the number of voters in that year’s presidential election! Needless to say, it was a cultural phenomenon.

The previous season’s finale (March 23) left fans on television’s most famous cliffhanger for eight obsessing months! This was in part due to the season being delayed because of a Screen Actors Guild strike. Fans finally learned in the “Who Done It?” episode that Kristin Shepard (Mary Crosby), his sister-in-law and mistress, shot him in a fit of rage. 

Dallas Ushered in the Cliffhanger on Television

Dallas significantly impacted television by ushering in leaving season finales on cliffhangers to keep you guessing and pull you back in the next season. There are some notable ones.

Everyone tuning into Twin Peaks experienced several cliffhangers on their quest to find out who killed Laura Palmer — notably when an unknown assailant shoots Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). Fans had to wait until midway through the show’s second season to uncover who did it. 

There was a massive cultural hype around The Simpsons “Who Shot Mr. Burns” two-part cliffhanger episode. I remember there being different character suspects on Slurpee cups at 7/11. Maggie Simpson ultimately being the culprit.

Ross from Friends says the wrong name at his wedding. And I’m certain Grey’s Anatomy has many cliffhangers, most mentionable the plane crash episode, “Flight.”

But none of them have matched Dallas’ success. The massive hysteria resulted in people wearing t-shirts asking: “Who Shot J.R.?” And plastering bumper stickers asking the same thing onto their cars. How else did the public respond? I recently stumbled into an online forum discussing the event. Here are their recollections of the impact of “Who Shot J.R.?” in 1980.

It Even Got Political

“During the 1980 United States presidential election, the Republicans distributed campaign buttons that claimed ‘A Democrat shot J.R.’ while Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter joked that he would have no problem financing his campaign if he knew who shot J.R.,” according to Wiki.

Picture It — 1980

One person paints a picture of the phenomenon: “There were only three major networks at the time, so fewer choices of what to watch. Dallas was a unique nighttime soap opera when it started, spawning several copycat shows. It was a major hit even before this plot line. JR was the villain everyone loved to hate. It was a huge pop culture event.”

“You may not quite understand how few ‘big deals’ we had,” a forum member elaborates. “This was before the 24-hour news cycle and the internet, during a Cold War that had seen almost a decade of general peace.

The only thing we had for entertainment and distraction were movies (at the theater or, for the privileged few at the time, a VCR or cable TV) and TV shows provided by three networks.”

Memories From People Who Experienced It as It Happened

“It was insane,” a user confesses, “Mom owned a beauty shop, and it’s all those women talked about.” Another emphasizes that it was — “Right up there with Luke and Laura (General Hospital) getting married.”

“I’ve never seen anything that captured attention like that before or since until Game of Thrones came along, and even that didn’t have the intensity of J.R. getting what was coming to him,” a user writes. “I guess maybe War of the Worlds might have come close.”

“You couldn’t escape it. It saturated the culture. There was even ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ merchandise, and I distinctly remember Larry Hagman’s smiling face grinning at me from every magazine publication at the time.”

It Caused a Brownout in the U.K.

“It was such a massive deal in the U.K. that it caused a brownout (drop in the magnitude of voltage in an electrical power system) on the electrical grid,” a Londoneer states. “Why, you may ask? Because, as is tradition, after the reveal, millions of people got up to make a cup of tea.

Millions of electric kettles turned on in unison pulled 2.2GW from the grid, dimming lights country-wide. Hydroelectric stations now take up the slack when similar huge T.V. events occur again.”

A Lasting Impact

I was a youngin when this episode premiered, and even I remember the hysteria, t-shirts, and bumper stickers. My family was among the viewers discussing it — years later.

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Elizabeth Ervin is the owner of Sober Healing. She is a freelance writer passionate about opioid recovery and has celebrated breaking free since 09-27-2013. She advocates for mental health awareness and encourages others to embrace healing, recovery, and Jesus.