VIDEO: 'Who Shot J.R.?' 35 Years Later – and 9 Other Great TV Mysteries
It was 35 years ago this week that Dallas finally learned who shot J.R. Ewing
Even people who never watched the original run of Dallas probably know that one of the series’ major plotlines can be summed up in three simple words: “Who shot J.R.?” In the final moments of the show’s third season finale, J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman), the show’s scheming villain but also arguably its central character, was seen getting shot by an offscreen assailant.
Fans had to wait until the fourth season premiere to find out if J.R. had even survived. What some might not remember – and what was key to the “Who shot J.R.?” mystery becoming a pop culture phenomenon – is that it took eight months to find out which character had pulled the trigger. In fact, it was 35 years ago this week that the shooter was finally revealed, and we’re using the anniversary as a chance to celebrate some of TV’s other big mysteries.
Read on, but be forewarned: We’re going to spoil these for you.
1. Who shot J.R.? – Dallas
In the Nov. 21, 1980, episode “Who Done It,” viewers finally learned that it was Kristin Shepard (Mary Crosby), J.R.’s mistress and the sister of J.R.’s wife, Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), who shot J.R. and framed Sue Ellen for it. She didn’t go to jail. No, mere moments after Sue Allen outed her as the shooter, Kristin announced that she was pregnant with J.R.’s baby. The character eventually drowned in the Southfork Ranch pool.
The episode ended months of speculation by fans and media over which Dallas cast member had fired the gun. In a PEOPLE article about “Who shot J.R.?” mania, Hagman himself joked that he thought the would-be murderer was his old I Dream of Jeannie co-star, Barbara Eden.
2. Who killed Laura Palmer? – Twin Peaks
At least in the public’s eye, Twin Peaks hinged around the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), whose body was discovered in the first moments of the show’s first episode but who’d nonetheless go on to become one of the show’s most interesting characters. Series creator David Lynch actually never wanted to solve the mystery, as the investigation was supposed to be the MacGuffin that invested fans in the lives of Twin Peaks characters.
Seven episodes into the show’s second season on Nov. 10, 1990, roughly ten years after J.R.’s shooter was finally revealed Laura’s cousin Maddie (also Sheryl Lee) was horrifically murdered by Laura’s father, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise). It’s actually one of the most disturbing things ever to air during prime time on a broadcast network, and even today the scene is hard to watch. Leland, who was possessed by an otherworldly entity during the murders, died in prison the next episode. “Who killed Laura Palmer?” mania was rampant enough that an episode of Donahue grilled the show’s cast about the identity of the killer.
3. Who shot Mr. Burns? – The Simpsons
In an extended homage to the “Who shot J.R.?” story arc, The Simpsons offered a storyline where its own evil rich guy got gunned down. It’s the only two-part episode in the history of the show, with the first part airing on May 21, 1995, and the resolution not coming until September 17, when it was finally revealed that it was the least likely suspect of all, Maggie Simpson, who shot Mr. Burns when his gun fell into her hands and she accidentally pulled the trigger.
Over the summer, 1-800-COLLECT sponsored a contest that promised those who correctly guessed the culprit a chance to be animated onto the show. (The winner declined.) America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh even hosted a half-hour “Springfield’s Most Wanted” special about the search for the shooter.
4. Who is Cartman’s father? – South Park
In what was most likely a nod both to “Who shot J.R.?” and “Who shot Mr. Burns?,” the first season of South Park ended with Cartman’s investigation into who his father might be. The very structure of the two-part episode mocked cliffhangers. The first episode stopped just short of naming Cartman’s dad and instead cut to an announcement that the revelation wouldn’t come until the next episode four weeks later. (This angered even Cartman.)
Four weeks later happened to be April 1, 1998, however, and viewers who tuned in got no answers about Cartman’s parentage and instead got “Not Without My Anus,” an episode that inexplicably focused on the flatulent minor characters, Terrence and Phillip. It took three more weeks for viewers to get part two to the “Who is Cartman’s father?” storyline, which revealed that Cartman’s mother, Liane, was actually Cartman’s father and that some other woman must have given birth to Cartman. At this point, Cartman lost interest in the matter.
5. Who killed Lilly Kane? – Veronica Mars
All three seasons of Veronica Mars are solid, but the first season is in particular a great chunk of television that stands on its own as a perfect, standalone story arc. In it, the title character (Kristen Bell) investigates and solves the mystery of who killed her best friend, Lilly (Amanda Seyfried), a Laura Palmer-esque high school princess who died young and took a lot of secrets with her to the grave.
In the first season finale, which aired May 10, 2005, Veronica realizes that Lilly was killed by Aaron Echols (Harry Hamlin), who’s not only a famous actor but the father of Veronica’s new boyfriend.
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6. Why did Mary Alice kill herself? – Desperate Housewives
It’s not so much a case of whodunit, as Mary Alice (Brenda Strong) says explicitly in the show’s opening that she willingly committed suicide. In this case, it’s a matter of determining why she did it and who might have provoked her to end it all.
The matter was explained fully in the first season finale, which aired May 22, 2005. Mary Alice killed herself after nosy neighbor Martha Huber (Christine Estabrook) tried to blackmail her after discovering her dark secret: that she’d purchased her baby from a drug addict. When the drug addict returned wanting her baby back, a fight ensued and Mary Alice killed her, ultimately burying the body beneath the backyard pool. Mary Alice continued to narrate the show long after the circumstances of her death had been revealed.
In an interesting callback to Twin Peaks, the role of Mary Alice was initially to be played by Laura Palmer herself, Sheryl Lee. Strong, who was eventually cast in the role, also appeared on Twin Peaks, as a less central but equally ill-fated character. Strong would also go on to play a Ewing on the Dallas sequel series.
7. Who killed Rosie Larsen? – The Killing
The entire premise of the AMC series The Killing was the search for the killer of Rosie Larsen (Katie Findlay), yet another popular high school girl who met a bad end, and the first season of the show was heavily promoted with the tagline “Who killed Katie Larsen?” So you can imagine how dismayed fans were when the show’s first season ended without actually revealing the identity of the murderer.
It was only in the second season finale on June 17, 2012, that the show’s detectives finally solved the mystery: It was Rosie’s Aunt Terry (Jamie Ann Allman), who pushed a car belonging to a prominent politician into a river, not realizing that her niece was trapped in the trunk at the time.
8. Who is Gossip Girl? – Gossip Girl
A whodunit only if you can consider “it” to be writing a snarky blog about fancy Upper East Side teens, the mystery of Gossip Girl’s identity was teased out for all six seasons of the show until the finale, which aired Dec. 12, 2012. Viewers finally learned that it was Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley), the only writer in the show’s core group of characters and an outsider to the upper-class society about which Gossip Girl seemed so critical. Kind of a no duh, when you think about it.
But why did Gossip Girl, as the show’s narrator, sound like Kristen Bell? That’s another mystery altogether, but one no more easily solvable than why adult Fred Savage sounded like Daniel Stern on The Wonder Years or why slightly older Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother sounded like Bob Saget instead of Josh Radnor.
9. Who killed Lila Stangard? – How to Get Away with Murder
At first, it seemed like the mysterious murder of Lila Standard (Megan West), a college girl whose body is found in a water tank atop her sorority, would be the driving plotline of How to Get Away with Murder. Instead of stretching out the investigation for seasons upon seasons, however, the matter was resolved by the end of the first: Lila was having an affair with Sam, the husband of series protagonist Annalise Keating (Viola Davis). As it turns out, Frank (Charlie Weber), the guy Annalise employs to do dirty work, killed Lila at Sam’s request. Case closed.
That’s not to say that How to Get Away with Murder‘s longterm investigations were over, of course. Shortly after Lila’s killer was revealed, there was a new body: Rebecca, Lila’s confidant and a character who just happens to have been played by Rosie Larsen herself, Katie Findlay.
10. Who shot J.R. (again)? – Dallas
Yes, it happened twice: In Larry Hagman’s final Dallas appearance, a March 4, 2013, episode of the revival series, J.R. was shot once again – and this time he died. Eight episodes later, viewers (and the Ewing family as well) learned whodunit for the second go-around: J.R., if only indirectly. Dying of cancer, J.R. had Steve “Bum” Jones fatally shoot him up so he could frame his longtime nemesis, Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval) for the deed. It works, and Barnes goes to jail. J.R. FTW!