Nighttime television’s Dallas was never a stranger to over-the-top antics to lure in an audience. The show ended up with astounding ratings bonanza in 1980 just by positing the catchphrase “Who shot J.R.?” Six years later though, with sagging ratings, the soap opera tried to turn up the heat again, this time in a shower scene that left viewers wondering if what they saw was the real thing.
Season nine of Dallas saw those closest to Bobby Ewing, played by Patrick Duffy, mourning the death of the more wholesome son of his oil baron father, Jock. How he ended up in the grave was a twisted tale of sex, debauchery and betrayal. In other words, it was everything that made the show one of the top tier raunch-fests of the ’80s.
Unfortunately, while the program was once battling it for the top spot in the ratings with fellow extreme wealthy-people-done-bad madness Dynasty for the better part of the decade, Dallas slipped from No. 2 to a disastrous No. 6 by 1986. Much of that had to do with the exit of Duffy’s Bobby character, long the moral compass of his conniving brother J.R., played by an always top-shelf Larry Hagman.
Duffy’s contract was up come season number eight, and he was written out of the show. How that went down was via a death scene, leaving no options for return. Without getting too deep into the weeds – because it just might drag us all down into a swamp into the process – Bobby Ewing was hit by a car in an errant attempt by his sister-in-law to run over his wife, Pamela (Victoria Principal).
Ok, let’s get deep.
Bobby had been set in a relationship with Pam, the two got married, but her half-sister – Katherine Wentworth – was obsessed with him. Played by Morgan Brittany, Katherine faked a letter from his lawyer to annul the marriage, and then things got weird. Duffy’s character started to hook up with Jenna – played by Priscilla Presley – while Katherine began to shack up with J.R. She also shot Bobby, then tried to kill him via lethal injection… after she blinded him by gunning him down.
So Bobby died – via the car crash Katherine hoped would take out Pam. Back in real life, Duffy’s contract ran out and he wanted to do other things. However, when the ratings tanked, producers were left scrambling. They already shot J.R.. The other brother was killed in a car crash. How in the world do you top that? You bring Bobby back from the dead, of course.
The entire 1986 season of Dallas was a ratings struggle. J.R. was up to his usual misdeeds, but without his younger brother there to keep him on the straight and narrow – or at least convince him to be there – things got stale. While the show slipped in the Nielsens, producers were intent to woo back Duffy. How to bring back his character, however, that was another story altogether.
Tabloids, magazines and newspapers were alight in the summer of ’86 with hypotheses on how Bobby Ewing would be brought back. Everything from a zombie brother to an un-heretofore twin were options, but the most realistic choice, and some might say lazy, was to provide the most simplistic narrative: It was all a dream.
Watch Babby’s return from ‘Dallas’
At the end of the season finale, Pam wakes up in her bed. She wipes the sleep out from her eyes and – as the prototypical mess of the previous season took place in her mind – becomes puzzled by the sound of the shower running in her place. Pulling open the door, she sees Bobby. “Good morning,” he says effortlessly, and just like that, the entirety of the 1985/1986 season didn’t happen.
The cliffhanger allowed suspense to be carried through the summer as to who really was in the shower – but rest assured, it was the real Bobby. Not a doppelganger, not a robot, not some bizarre creation by J.R. That’s not to say things went smoothly for ever after for him – quite the opposite – but what took place was an epic and outlandish move by an already storied show.
A whole season, just like that? A snap of the fingers? Gone. It kind of became a trope, definitely a joke, but no one has ever been able to replicate the shock since of Patrick Duffy showing up in the shower.