This morning on Twitter I happened to be talking about bad 80s TV (thanks Gojiramonkey!), and that triggered an idea for a blog post somewhat related to last week’s post about how (and how not) to kill off characters in a story.

Does anybody remember this?

[Fast-forward to 3:35 for the relevant scene]

This, of course, is the 1985-86 season finale of the TV prime-time soap opera Dallas, which, if you remember the 80s, you know was a huge deal. The world ground to a halt on Friday nights when Dallas came on. Then we had this. After this bizarre audience shock moment, the show entered a slow and steady decline, until it was finally terminated at the end of the 1990-91 season.

So what’s the deal with Bobby Ewing in the shower? It was a storytelling gaffe of epic proportions–one of the most epic storytelling fails in popular culture, in my opinion.

Here’s what happened. Bobby Ewing was played by actor Patrick Duffy, who later went on to fame in the 90s sitcom Step by Step. Though he was a crucial part of the show, he decided to leave after the 1984-85 season, hoping to pursue other opportunities. The scriptwriters killed him off in particularly dramatic fashion, having him run down with a car while saving his wife Pam (played by Victoria Principal, who you see in the clip above).

Things evidently didn’t go as well for Mr. Duffy as he hoped. Sometime during the next run of the show he decided to return. But his character death was already an accomplished fact. So, they decided to bring him back–by having it turn out that the entirety of the 1985-86 season was a dream in Pam’s head!

Yes, you read that right. They used “it was all a dream.” The entire season. All 31 episodes. That meant for the 1986-87 season, they had to go back and pick up where they left off, or try to anyway.

Granted, this was 80s television. It’s not Shakespeare. But “it was all a dream”? Really? You just can’t use that in a story, any story, at least not under these circumstances. It worked in The Wizard of Oz movie version (it wasn’t in the book) because the dream was a frame story for Dorothy’s entrance into the fantasy world. And that could only work once. Nowadays, if you use dreams in a story you’d better have a good reason for it, and you’d better tell the audience straight-out that a character is dreaming. (The Christopher Nolan film Inception uses dreaming as a primary plot point, and it’s well done).

Okay, so let’s look at the factors that caused the producers and writers of Dallas to rationalize this egregious crime against the laws of good storytelling. Yes, they wanted Patrick Duffy back on the show. Yes, they probably felt there was a major economic factor–presumably Dallas was a more profitable commodity with Patrick Duffy than without him, or they wouldn’t have agreed to put him back on the show at all. And Dallas, unlike Star Trek–the previous example of a show where a key character is killed off but then brought back into the story–was not science fiction, so you can’t use some exotic means, whether technological, supernatural or spiritual, to bring him back to life.

The writers had also painted themselves into a corner at the end of the 1984-85 season. Bobby Ewing was killed on-screen, without any doubt what happened. They didn’t leave a question open, “Well, is he dead or isn’t he?” He was dead. No question.

Realistically, what were their options? There weren’t many good ones.

  • Twin Brother. Soap operas love to use this trope. A character turns out to have a secret twin nobody knew about; more often than not the twin turns out to be evil. Obviously this is groan-inducing, but honestly, is it worse than “it was all a dream”? Bobby, or pseudo-Bobby, could have been brought back into the story as a different character. Of course, they would have to explain where he’d been for the 30-odd years of his life before then and why none of the other characters in the Ewing family knew about him. Miss Ellie, the matriarch of the Ewing clan (played by Barbara Bel Geddes) would have some ‘splainin to do, for sure. But it might work. This raises the issue, though, of how Twin Bobby would affect the relationships among the other characters. According to the official Dallas website, they evidently filmed a version of this idea.
  • Faked His Death. Another soap opera trope, but hey, it was Dallas! Perhaps Bobby could be given a reason for having faked his death. I certainly don’t recall what the plot threads were at the end of the ’84-’85 season, but maybe he decided he was tired of Pam, tired of the Ewing clan and tired of their melodramatic antics week after week, so he’d gain freedom by shuffling off this mortal coil and running away to Mexico or something. Of course, because Bobby’s death was an accident, certain other characters would have to be in on the deception, and they would have to explain why Bobby, who was generally a positive and “good” character, would do something so surly. But again, it might work.
  • Near Death Experience. Bobby awakened in a mortuary, unsure of what happened or even who he was. Somehow he miraculously survived the car crash, but was left with semi-permanent amnesia. He escaped from Dallas unnoticed (this needs some explanation!), wandered in Mexico, lived the life of a drifter and finally his memory returned. Intent on reclaiming his life, he goes home like nothing ever happened, seeking to erase the whole episode from his memory. This could be interesting because, especially by giving Bobby a mental condition, you could make it so that perhaps he doesn’t even remember what happened, thus giving the characters a mystery to solve early in the season.
  • A Faux Murder? Here’s an idea, one that might have worked and might even have preserved the internal conflict among the characters. The villain of Dallas was J.R., played by Larry Hagman. Why not have J.R. decide to murder Bobby–but, because he’s his brother and his blood, instead of actually killing him, fake his death and force him to leave the country? You’d have to explain why Bobby would go along with this–J.R. had better have something really powerful to hold over his head if he didn’t cooperate–but there could be some interesting story material here.

None of these options are clean. All of them float dangerously close to the line of a story infraction so serious that viewers will never forgive you. But, in my opinion, each and every one of them is superior to “it was all a dream.”

In my book Beowulf is Boring, I included a glossary of terms at the end of the book, both historical/medieval terms and pop culture references that appear in the book (it’s a comedy mashup, in case you haven’t caught on). A character does use the phrase “Bobby Ewing in the shower.” Here’s how I define it, on page 232:

Bobby Ewing in the Shower. Pop culture term describing a resolution of a bad situation wherein one wakes up to find ‘it was only a dream.’ Refers to an infamous season finale cliffhanger resolution of the 1980s prime-time TV soap opera Dallas in which the character (portrayed by Patrick Duffy), having been killed on-screen a year before, appears to his wife in the shower and cheerfully bids her ‘Good morning!’ whereupon she realizes that the entire past season of the show was all a bad dream. The most egregious and improbable example of a deus ex machina.”

So what do you think? Am I too hard on Peter Dunne and Joel Fiegenbanm, the writers credited with writing the season 9 cliffhanger? Leave your comments here!

The image of Bobby Ewing from the 1986 Dallas finale is owned by Lorimar Telelpictures. I believe my inclusion of it here constitutes fair use.