J.R. in Hell: Sin and Salvation on the Small Screen


This article originally appeared in Issue# 40-41

Academic television critics have been discussing the content of dramatic television recently as "text," not recognizing the religious connotations implied by the word. Western fiction has always had a didactic as well as an entertainment function. The question is: What are the values or basic ideology being transmitted through television? Another question is: Whose values are being transmitted?

An estimated 350 million people in 85 countries tuned into the opening episode of Dallas in the fall of 1980 to find out who had shot JR. and whether he had "died." Although candidates for the role of avenger of his many sins and misdemeanors were plentiful, his assailant turned out to be the sister-in-law with whom he had been having an adulterous affair.

Although JR was, in effect, punished for breaking the Seventh Commandment (which forbids adultery), the success of the cliffhanger in attracting viewers presented night-time soap producers with an Eleventh Commandment: "Thou shalt end the season with a cliffhanger.' An unrepentant JR. continued his nefarious lifestyle, and the end of a later season found him trapped in a burning Southfork Ranch — a modern metaphor for a sinner in the flames of hell.

Presumably the show's writers and producers weren't deliberately in search of Faustian symbolism — nor were the creators of The Search for Tomorrow thinking of Noah when they staged a flood to get rid of outmoded sets and some characters (although they certainly were hoping to establish a new fictional world).

Other biblical stories find their parallels in the multifaceted images evoked by Bobby's death and resurrection. By dying, he re-enacts the story of Cain and Abel, the ancient rivalry in which the good brother dies. His impossible return sparks reminders of Lazarus (although the dream explanation squelches any supernatural/religious element).

In fact, Dallas writers may not be religious, but they can't help being influenced by the stories and myths of human culture. All religions have sacred dramas, myths, rituals or morality plays that depict the war between good and evil for human souls.

Each culture and society has its own stories to tell that explain and justify the ways it functions, and to affirm the values and beliefs it wishes to prevail. In all countries, daytime and night-time drama and comedy variety shows, derived from their own culture and experience, consistently outdraw and have higher ratings than imported programs.

Dallas writers may not be religious, but they can't help being influenced by the stories and myths of human culture.

To be successful in their own countries, the producers and distributors of local and imported television entertainment must make decisions in conformity with the constraints and rules of their cultures; to do otherwise would be to risk alienating and antagonizing the audience, and worse, incurring censure. For example, Egypt refused to broadcast Dallas because its emphasis on wealth, promiscuity and drinking were offensive to Muslim morality.

The show also failed in Japan. It was imported by TV Asahi in 1981 and was pulled off the air in six months when its ratings plunged. Its failure was so unusual that cultural explanations had to be considered. For example, did it puzzle the audience that the oil-rich Ewings lived in the country (where peasants live) instead of in a city as wealthy Japanese do?

Lest we forget, J.R. may break all the other commandments, but he does honor his mother and father.

Further analysis indicated, however, that Dallas had alienated its Japanese viewers at a far deeper level. The popularity of a serial drama called Oshin provides a clue. Its average audience share is 57 percent and it tells the story of a woman who overcame extreme hardship in growing up and still triumphs over adversity through hard work and sacrifice. In contrast, the plots in Dallas are typically centered on greed, selfishness, lies, hatred and disloyalty. The Japanese culture holds up to ridicule and shame those who disrupt family harmony and do not honor obligations. The feud between Bobby and JR. might have provided escapist entertainment to viewers in other cultures, but to the Japanese, it was repugnant.

However, the fact that so many viewers worldwide, from such diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, tune in weekly to see what J.R. was up to suggests that the "text" involving him was more universal than Western and Judaeo-Christian. Also, in choosing a possible fiery death for him, the writers of Dallas had chosen a text involving punishment buried so deep in shared belief-systems that as a substratum, it could bypass religious, cultural and national boundaries.

The data about the long-term effects of television are still to be found, but assuming that it is as powerful as its critics contend, it should also be seen as a medium that affirms and reaffirms the core-culture of society, its basic concerns and values. Although it might stretch their similarity, Dallas and The Cosby Show are essentially family sagas that demonstrate the frailties and strengths of traditional family ties in an individualistic and fragmented society. Regardless of whether all the Ten Commandments still apply to life as it is lived in the late 20th century, prime-time television can still be relied on to present the worth of those family ties as a predominant value. Lest we forget, JR. may break all other commandments but he does honor his mother and father. Even the Japanese would approve.

Author Bio: 

Joel M. Cantor, a psychologist and anthropologist, studied communication issues. Muriel G. Cantor was professor of sociology at American University in Washington, D.C., and author of Prime Time Television and The Soap Opera. Both are now deceased.