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#TBT: Who Shot J.R.? This Classic Dallas Promo Convinced 83 Million Viewers to Find Out

Big reveal became No. 2 TV event in U.S. history

Who shot J.R.? Photo: YouTube

Holy cliffhanger! On March 21, 1980, Dallas fans were stunned as Larry Hagman's villainous J.R. Ewing was gunned down on the CBS drama's Season 3 finale. After eight agonizing months, and a masterful marketing campaign that turned "Who Shot J.R.?" into a worldwide phenomenon, the shooter's identity was finally revealed in Season 4's fourth episode, "Who Done It," which aired Nov. 21, 1980. More than 83 million people tuned in—a whopping 76 share, and an estimated 350 million worldwide—making it the U.S.'s second most-watched non-sports program of all time, after the MASH finale in 1983.

Yet that impressive, ambitious publicity effort seemed to stall right before the finish line of the actual episode, which is the subject of this week's Throwback Thursday. Here's the underwhelming promo for "Who Done It," which ran after the previous week's show, "Nightmare," and makes the upcoming episode seem decidedly average:

First off, the fact that the entire promo focuses on Sue Ellen (J.R.'s wife, played by Linda Gray) makes it clear she won't turn out to be the murderer—and could anyone who looks that sleepy have really pulled the trigger?

Instead, the promos for the upcoming episodes of Alice and The Jeffersons look far more appealing, as both comedies must have received a CBS mandate to hit the road for November sweeps. Alice visited Las Vegas (it's all "fun and games with Robert Goulet" until Linda Lavin ends up in a goatee) while The Jeffersons traveled to Hawaii (there's nothing like a tantalizing John Milton/Paradise Lost reference in the promo to bring in those poetry-loving sweeps audiences).

That wasn't the only curious promo before the big episode. Check out this stilted commercial for People magazine's "Who Shot J.R.?" cover, featuring a chemistry-free couple that seems to to be reading script lines right out of the magazine, while making it clear that the cover story won't spill any real dirt about the murderer's identity:

As for the ravenously anticipated Nov. 21 episode itself, the actual reveal was disappointingly anticlimactic (it was J.R.'s sister-in-law and mistress, Kristin Shepard, played by Mary Crosby). It doesn't hold up 34 years later (why does everyone seem to be moving in slow motion?), except for that last juicy little twist, courtesy of one final bombshell from Kristin:

And to see how it all began—the moment that turned the cliffhanger into an essential season finale staple for almost all subsequent TV dramas—watch J.R. take two slugs in the Season 3 finale:

But let's really go out with a bang—dozens of them, in fact—and close with this lively blooper reel from Season 3, in which pretty much the entire cast, Hagman included, gets a chance to prove it shot J.R. (the fun starts at the 4:55 mark):

While the "Who Shot J.R.?" clips might be showing their age, I still take my Stetson off to Dallas for attracting 83 million viewers to a single episode of television, a feat that is unlikely to ever be repeated by a program without the words "Super Bowl" in the title.

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