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Behind the scenes on the TV show Dallas

CLIFFHANGERS

In traditional drama, the complicating incidents build to a crisis which must then be resolved. In serial television, a small story thread may be resolved on a weekly basis, but greater story lines are only resolved over a whole season—a thirty-week time period—with a potent series of complicating incidents firmly planted into the last ten
weeks to provide the proper backdrop for a cliffhanger.
The cliffhanger is a device borrowed from serials in the days of silent movies, when the heroine was literally left dangling from a cliff. The viewer had to come back next week to see how she was saved. Serialization relies on a suspenseful cliffhanger to bring the original viewers back the next week (or the next season) and to stimulate speculation—
word of mouth—which, it is hoped, will increase the number of viewers for the next episode. A successful cliffhanger is one that everyone has to talk about, one that infects a large segment of the population with the need to know the outcome. Even if the cliffhanger itself does not attract many nonregular viewers, the heightened, much-adver-
tised suspense may bring in hordes of nonregulars for the beginning of the next season.


“I think the original clifihanger goes back to 1001 Arabian Nights,,, says Capice. "Wasn’t it Scheherazade who was sentenced to death but kept telling gripping, suspenseful tales to the sultan, night after night? She was never beheaded because the sultan always wanted to hear the next installment of her story.

Dallas writers proved themselves just as adept with their first offcial cliffhanger, at the end of the first season, in spring 1979. "We made a conscious effort to do what no one had ever done before,,, says Katzman, “to leave an audience hanging in the air for an entire summer. Having run away from the sanitarium, ].R.’s wife, Sue Ellen eight months pregnant—got in an automobile accident and was left in a coma. Her baby, born prematurely, was barely alive. It could go either way. We wanted people to have something to think about over the summer.
“No show had ever gone off and left us wondering about something very important. We got a tremendous number of letters after the first year saying, (How could you let us go on worrying about that baby?)

The reaction to that last show was very strong. The next year we decided to go for something even stronger, and we ended up with the mystery of 'Who Shot JR.?
The most famous cliffhanger, probably in television history, was indeed "Who Shot ].R.?" But it was not what producers had originally planned. The second season was to end with Digger's death, Pam's discovery that Digger was not her real father, and a shot of Cliff—who the audience knows has a gun—standing over Digger)s grave pledging revenge: “I'm going to get him, Daddy, I swear I will!" Look out, ].R. Ewing.

Then CBS requested two more shows in order to extend the season. A new cliffhanger had to be created instantly.
"We were all sitting around and someone said, ‘Let's have ].R. get his' says Katzman.

According to Art Lewis fellow scriptwriter Camille Marchetta was the one responsible for making the suggestion.


"We started with the last scene and built backward. We built two entire scripts backward. We really didn't know who shot him when we created the whole thing. We said, "To hell with it, let's shoot him and figure out who did it later.) Someone had
to do it. Then we started eliminating and eliminating until we found the person we wanted. Kristin did it by process of elimination.

 

“As Dallas was developing, there seemed to be a special audience fascination with ].R. , this guy they hated and loved" recalls Capice. ‘We kept getting letters asking, when is J.R. going to get his? It seemed like a good idea to explore. We never really considered killing him, but we talked about several ways in which near death could occur and make sense."


Capice admits that they considered other possibilities before the shooting was settled on. Someone suggested that Sue Ellen decide to kill herself In this scenario she would dissolve a quantity of sleeping pills in a glass of water and go into the nursery to say good—bye to her baby, leaving the glass on the bedtable. In the meantime, J.R. comes
in and drinks the water. Sue Ellen sees him drink it but doesn't try to stop him; she just retreats to the nursery to rock the baby. The story was rejected because “it wasn't as stylish as establishing five or six suspects" says Capice. "We wanted an opportunity to bring four or five storylines together. The shooting was also a way to tie up plot threads. We established a motive in each ofthe plot lines and the public went wild".


Now Capice and other show executives foundthemselves burdened by the clitfhanger. "‘Who Shot? was the greatest cliffhangerof all time and created a nightmare for us. We don’t try to tcp that time after time because we cant That period of television history will never come again, and timing was as responsible as anything else. We were all more unsophisticated then; the viewer hadn’t been bombarded with all sorts of clitlhangers, many of which have become letdowns. Back then, it was for the fun of it. Now audiences have a '(show me’ attitude, or they’ve totally lost interest because there have been so
many cheats. It’s almost cliffhanger abuse out there in TV land. We’re leaning more and more away from the sensational cliflhanger. You don’t have to have physical drama to have a good cliffhanger. Emotional drama has much more impact”

Since that time clillhangers have not been built backward. Stories are structured in one of three basic strategy sessions, at each of which approximately twelve episodes are discussed. The clifihanger is only begun in earnest in November, as the last group of stories is organized. “It’s ridiculous to think we would have our best idea a full six
months ahead of time and then be locked into it, ” says Katzman

The publicity trail

The concept of the cliffhanger may of been around for a while, Dallas can not be credited for inventing it but they can take the credit for fully utlizing the concept, which consequently changed how TV shows are reported on to this very day.

'Who Shot JR' got people talking - talking in the bars, in schools and in work. The press cottoned onto this and with the help of actors like Larry Hagman the publicity machine went into overdrive. Suddenly people were buying newspapers - not to find out the latest world event but to get the lowdown on the TV show Dallas.

For the first time the press realised that a TV show could sell newspapers and by doing so they created a mass interest in the show.

The bookmakers for onboard running odds on who shot JR.

Both the shooting of JR and the death of Bobby Ewing were main news headlines on BBC News. The death of Bobby was reported as if he was indeed a real person.

Since this time soaps now dominate the tabloid press - spoilers for upcoming storylines, the latest characters to meet their demise and now we have magazines solely devoted to the soap genre.

Ending with a cliffhanger is not always enough, to add further twists and surprises the red herring is another Dallas first. To put create further discussion the Dallas publicity department would put out fake spoilers by filming alternative endings.

Viewers were left at the end of the 1982 season with Cliff discovering a female body floating in the pool. It was already established behind closed doors that Kristin was the victim but to keep the guess work churning Linda Gray and Victoria Principal also filmed scenes as the floating body. These were then released to the press.


Bobby Ewing killed off in 1985 returned in Pamela's shower a year later. The original cliffhanger saw a bomb explode in Ewing Oil and the death of Jamie Barnes played by Jenillee Harrison. Patrick Duffy filmed his shower scene in secret and this was edited onto the end two weeks before broadcast.

Again the publicity machine went into full throttle. Was this Bobby back from the dead or perhaps his evil twin. As with the body in the pool episode fake spoilers were filmed and sent to the press. View the alternative Bobby's back

Spoilers of this nature are now common place in soaps and primetime dramas from Sex in the City to European soaps such as Coronation Street and Eastenders. There is also a tendancy to read in the tabloids"TV script found in skip" - another modern day publicity trick to keep viewers engaged and it all started with Dallas.


JR RECOMMENDS
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