The soft sins of suburbia are hardened into a Christian cosmology of heaven and earth and hell.

Over the long summer, everyone anticipating the fall television season longed to know “Who shot J. R.?” Although our curiosity was not immediately appeased, we might think about why J. R., the eldest Ewing brother on the TV show Dallas, has become, as they say, “a legend in his own time.” For once, this cliché has been applied to a figure who actually participates in the original meaning of “legend.”

His legendary forebears go back at least to the Middle Ages where “J. R.” appeared as the figure of Vice in morality plays. In these allegories, Vice stood for the essence of evil and behaved strictly in accordance with his nature; he tried to cause as much havoc and destruction as possible. In the plays of Shakespeare, Vice took on a more naturalistic appearance; nevertheless, he stood behind such characters as the eponym of Richard III, Goneril and Regan in Lear, and most especially Iago in Othello (see Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil by Bernard Spivack, Columbia Univ. Press, 1958). In Restoration theater he became the cad or seducer—a character who played a major role in the Victorian novel as well.

J. R., like his literary ancestors, is evil: unmitigated, unabashed, pure evil. He, as they, often wears the disguise of virtue, but the audience can always count on the dramatic irony of his corrupt intentions; we know he’s out to pervert and destroy everybody. The more his villainy suggests the diabolical, the more mysterious he becomes. And mystery is in short supply on television—real mystery, not merely suspense.

He is so very attractive because he makes the fictional cosmos of Dallas multidimensional; by his presence he lends the show the structure of Christian cosmology: heaven and earth and hell. And this is what makes the show so unusual (at least before its offspring were born) and so likeable. The cosmology of most television shows consists of a humanist suburb where the characters have been abandoned by heaven and hell to their psychotherapists. In these cramped dwellings of the human spirit Good and Evil have been replaced by Self-esteem and Desire; the language of holiness and damnation has been vanquished by psychological catch phrases.

Think about the old show, Family. Reviewers praised it for its sensitive character portrayals. But the show was not popular because it was well acted, although it was at times, or because the scripts sometimes broached problems common to family life. It was popular because the dedicated viewer of Family could rely on one or more of the TV family’s members stumbling into a discreditable love affair each week. The plots became increasingly uniform after the show had been on the air for a time, until the writers had to figure out only two things: (1) Who beds whom this week? and (2) How do we get the lovebirds out of each other’s arms so that the principal character can go on to other nests?

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This formula reached its apotheosis when Willy, the son, found himself in a hotel room with another man’s wife: he took an extravagant amount of time to unloosen his shoestrings, and she, a much less self-conscious girl, sat on the bed in her slip. But there could be no direct appeal to morality: Willy could not simply say, “This is wrong. I’ll drive you home.” After all, in their humanistic world these people were just two organisms with the natural chemicals of Desire racing through their bloodstreams; they had no recourse to words like “sanctity” and “honor,” for those words most definitely belong to the old cosmology. Still, the viewer knew Willy would not go through with this affair, for Family generally backed traditional values. No, Willy’s problem, the writers’ problem, was to find a humanistic way out of this dilemma. Willy resorted to the other pole of humanism, Self-esteem. He said something like, “Honey, this is all we could ever have, just these brief encounters. It’s too sad.” The young woman’s chemicals were racing and she was not convinced. Neither, in terms of the story’s logic, was I.

Indeed, in terms of the cosmology of television, why shouldn’t they have gone to bed together? Perhaps the young woman’s self-esteem was shattered by Willy getting cold feet—what about her self-esteem?

There are two possible answers, neither of them encouraging. The first is merely the matter of censorship, in which case the show becomes an elaborate striptease, a seduction with the “saving grace” of a G-string ending. More likely, however, the producers and the writers of Family had a kind of nostalgia for the old values and sought ways of establishing links between the catchwords of psychology and what the ancients said; they wanted demythologized ethical standards.

It is true that cop and detective shows still operate in part in fictional worlds that depend on the old cosmology: the forces of good versus those of evil. But the tone of these shows generally reflects the prevailing ethos of skepticism. No show typified this more than Baretta. Tony Baretta worked to arrest those responsible for the trade in heavy drugs, the power brokers of organized crime who lived in opulent surroundings even as their patrons overdosed in back alleys. He also worked contrary to the wishes of his fractious boss who stood for a law enforcement system nearly as corrupt as the criminals. Baretta adopted an existentialist stance: he made his own rules. He was an archetypal modern hero forever unsuccessfully harrowing an inescapable hell.

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But, see: the presence of J. R. in Dallas makes that show work as it never would without him. Bobby and Pam, the younger brother and his wife, are typical members of a TV family; they are nicer than nice, diabetically sweet—junk food characters. But as foils to J. R.’s malevolent machinations they miraculously become not nice but good. Virtuous. They are no longer “organisms with needs and desires” but human beings struggling to defeat the forces of evil and maintain a kind of Mercedes SL 450 rightousness. Even so, given the limits of television’s usual humanist cosmology, this battle of good and evil is a treat.

At the end of Othello the Moor realizes how his whole life has been subverted by his ancient. He determines to kill Iago and says: “I look down toward his feet—but that’s a fable. If that thou be’st a devil, I cannot kill thee.” (V, ii, 286–87) Well, Othello can’t spot a cloven hoof, but he can’t kill the blackguard either. And while Iago is dragged off at the end to be tortured, he does escape alive from a stage littered with corpses.

Iago’s torture has involved long periods of internment in hell, but he has been resurrected often on many stages, and now he has surfaced once again on TV. In Dallas, in the character of J. R., Iago wears a Stetson and disguises his cloven feet with spurs. He is as fascinating as ever.

The old cosmology brings with it those images that have nourished the imagination of Western civilization. Even television, the electronic warlord of the barbarian, has begun to learn that old lesson.

Harold Fickett, author of Mrs. Sunday’s Problem and Other Stories (Revell, 1979), teaches at Wheaton College, Illinois.

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