Thirty-seven years ago today, a shot rang out on televisions across America. When the third season of the popular primetime soap opera Dallas ended with an attack on the loathsome character of J.R. Ewing, it gave rise to an eight-month national conversation, framed by CBS with the tagline, “Who Shot J.R.?”
The episode was long credited with the rise of TV cliffhangers: suspenseful season-enders that lure audiences back to their screens many months later. In recent years, however, media critics have been quick to proclaim the death of the cliffhanger. Who killed the cliffhanger, you ask? We are told—as we are so often these days—that it’s all the fault of the internet.
You already know what the internet did to cliffhangers—or to plain old plot twists—if you’ve been alive, watching TV and using social media in the past decade. That’s because social media has made it even easier to stumble across spoilers that give away the next major turn in your favorite show…particularly if you’re several episodes (or seasons) behind the latest broadcast.
You may have encountered that problem if you were a Downton Abbey fan with British friends who referenced a season-ending shocker on Twitter, months before it aired in the U.S. (Yes, that link is a spoiler, as are the rest of the links in this paragraph.) Or if you’re a West Coaster who made the mistake of looking at The Walking Dead’s Facebook page before watching its 2014 mid-season finale. Or if you made the mistake of looking anywhere on the internet on the evening of March 23, 2014 — without first watching the latest episode of The Good Wife.
As recently as 2014, AdAge argued that TV spoilers were more likely to come from face-to-face conversation than from social media, but times have changed. At the beginning of the 2016 fall season, Refinery29 published an impassioned plea for TV watchers to stop posting cliffhanger spoilers on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. A 2015 story in the Atlantic blamed the diminishing role of cliffhangers both on the end of the traditional TV season, and the rise of on-demand streaming. And in Digital Trends Eric Buchman wrote that “the Internet totally ruined” multiple aspects of the TV experience, including “water-cooler moments”, casual viewing and predictable schedules.
Almost all of these stories cite “Who Shot J.R.?” as the kind of TV moment that won’t come our way again: that’s how central it is to our collective narrative about how TV used to be, and how technology has changed the TV experience. Indeed, references to the phenomenon pop up in the most improbable places.
Noel Carroll ties J.R. to the Aristotelian notion of “completeness” (yes, really) in his analysis of the craving for narrative closure:
Throughout the summer months, an anxious nation asked—”Who shot J.R.?” What was the cause of that fateful effect? As argued earlier, the evocation of such questions is the result of a natural thought process. Moreover, the very insufficiency of the stated causal connections in most narratives—as noted above—incites our curiosity.
Fawaz Turki invokes it in his memories of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon:
Where do you begin, if you want to explain to eighty-six million Americans who were preoccupied for three months with the issue of ‘Who shot J.R.?’ why Dallai Moughrabi, and thousands of other young Palestinians like her, would die for a cause when they knew they were not going to be around to enjoy the rewards of its ultimate victory?
Ralph Begetter, Darin Kingston, and Caroline Novogrod make a similar case for the episode’s centrality to America’s international image: “If you travel to the Middle East, speak to non-elite Arabs, those who have never visited the United States, and you ask them about the United States, they will talk about TV shows like ‘Baywatch’ or ask who shot J.R. on ‘Dallas.’”
This may not be an inaccurate perception of American priorities, judging from Barbara Kretinger Grady’s article on American TV representation, in which she observes that,
since more people tuned in to learn who shot J.R. on the popular night-time “soap” Dallas than tuned in to watch both the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions together, one could surmise that the majority of TV viewers are more curious about the unreal world of TV than they are with the real world and the next leader of our country.
Philip Green casts “Dallas“ the episode in a similar light when he presents it as the epitome of Americans’ fetishization of television over politics:
Television critics have described the intensity of popular participation in such events as the competition to decide who shot J.R. after the 1980 “Dallas” season; the story that a Dallas sheriff offered to trade in his badge for a chance to be a sheriff the show seems to[o] emblematic to be true, but of course it is true.
If the preoccupation with J.R.’s shooter is somehow symptomatic of American superficiality and democratic malaise, why are we so quick to heap scorn on the internet for destroying our ability to become preoccupied with such mysteries? It’s a question that becomes all the more puzzling when we take a closer look at how, exactly, the internet is culpable for destroying our shared experience of narrative suspense. By allowing us to consume at our own pace, and to share our reactions and thoughts online, the internet has created a modern monster: the spoiler.
When psychologists Jonathan D. Leavitt and Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld conducted an experimental investigation to assess the impact of spoilers on the enjoyment of short stories, they found that readers actually enjoyed stories more when they knew how the story was going to end. They speculate that,
spoilers enhance enjoyment by actually increasing tension. Knowing the ending of Oedipus Rex may heighten the pleasurable tension caused by the disparity in knowledge between the omniscient reader and the character marching to his doom.
The same appears to be true of many TV viewers, as media scholar Jason Mittell observes in an extensive discussion of spoilers in his 2015 book, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. Drawing on survey responses from Lost viewers who specifically seek out spoilers, Mittell notes that,
many respondents highlighted that knowing where the plot is going heightens their attention to other modes of engagement, as they focus on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the storytelling as well as the operational aesthetic of how the story is being told, mirroring the experience of rewatching a program. Spoiler fans effectively dictate the terms of their own narrative experience, transforming anticipation about uncertain narrative futures as designed by producers into anticipatory curiosity as to how the series will connect the dots to the spoiled event, with the spoiled information almost serving as flash-forwarded story information.
We love to tell stories about how the internet has ruined the good ol’ days, and the death of the Dallas-style cliffhanger sure makes a fine one. But you don’t have to dig too far to discover that what the internet has ruined was not, perhaps, worth saving: internet-enabled spoilers are more likely to enhance our enjoyment than to diminish it, and if the rise of streaming and on-demand viewing means we no longer have “water-cooler moments” that leave the whole country preoccupied with a plot twist, well, maybe that creates space for us to think and talk about something else.
And here’s what I’d like to nominate as that “something else”: a serious conversation about what we want to cherish and nurture about the emergent culture of the internet, rather than focusing eternally on what is changing and what we have to mourn. For while there’s no doubt that the internet has and will kill off various aspects of our culture, maybe some of those—like J.R. himself—aren’t worth missing.