Before J.R. Ewing took to the airwaves, network television was a place for people you’d be happy to leave your kids with: The Waltons, the Ingalls of Little House, the Bradford family of Eight Is Enough, Captain Stubing, and a galaxy of hard-nosed detectives. Good folk just trying to do right by the people they cared for and do an honest job in a sometimes crooked world. Shows were led by good guys, while those with hearts of coal played the villains, or at worst, the cranky but ultimately lovable boss.
A slight cloud appeared over the primetime skies in the form of Archie Bunker’s race-baiting tirades, but even he, the show’s creators found, had to let his lovable inner core show at least once a week. And after hours, the Not Ready For Prime Time Players were toying with forms of comedy less tied to likeability.
And then there was J.R. on Dallas. Under the guiding hand of Larry Hagman, who died yesterday at age 81, the Ewing’s bad brother radiated malevolence and evil with a smile as wide as Texas. Not since Manet’s Olympia has the public been so shocked by a character’s complete shamelessness amidst a brazen display of sin.
The series creators may have intended the show’s true star to be the hapless good son Bobby Ewing, played by Patrick Duffy. But after years of anodyne leading men — from Mike Brady to Eddie’s father to Uncle Bill — the public was ready for TV to bare some fanged teeth. No one, not Bobby nor network censors, would put J.R. in the corner and he instantly became the show’s core. And as Dallas became a giant hit, the idea that the public wouldn’t tolerate a “bad guy” triumphant was buried forever.
From there, primetime was never the same. In sitcomland, by the end of the 80’s, traditional loving families had given away to a cast of the self-centered, craven, satires of traditional families seen on Roseanne, Married With Children and The Simpsons. Earnest struggling families all but disappeared from dramas on the primetime airwaves, replaced by other campy, evil, rich broods (Dynasty) and eventually with the rise of HBO and the novel-like format came families of Mafiosa, undertakers, philandering advertising executives, vampires, and crystal meth dealers.
Today, television is littered with J.R.’s heirs. You’ll find more zombies there than honest, hard working, salt of the earth families. A show like The Mindy Project, which gleefully revels in the shallowness and self-absorption of its heroine, would never have been possible without Larry Hagman blazing a trail. Across America’s cultural landscape, we are all J.R.’s children.