The end has come for the greatest villain in television history; instead of relishing his passing, I feel more sadness than joy. I'm guessing that many of those who once sported "I shot J.R." bumper stickers will feel the same way during Monday's airing of J.R. Ewing's funeral on TNT's reboot of "Dallas."

J.R.'s intoxicating blend of ruthless ambition laced with wicked charm made him a villain like none other, one we found revolting yet deliciously irresistible. From the moment J.R. burst onto television screens 35 years ago (the original "Dallas" ran from 1978 to 1991), he put us through a ringer of emotions for an hour each Friday night: We detested, pitied, marveled at, and sometimes even admired his relentless drive to preserve what he considered rightfully his.

If that weren't enough, he had that uncanny knack of bringing a smile to your face at the very moment you wanted to reach through the screen and grab him by the throat. He was Darth Vader in a cowboy hat, slicing and dicing his enemies with dirty deals and finishing them off with good ol' boy one-liners.

However, he was also the antithesis of such modern-day TV villains as Tony Soprano, who claw their way to power through brute force and silence anyone who stands in their way. This villain would never harm a hair on your head. Instead, J.R. got his way by tormenting the souls of his foes, preying on their weaknesses, tempting them ceaselessly to betray their basic goodness and hate him as much as he hated them, all in his never-ending pursuit of more Texas oil and power.


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Like millions of others, I couldn't get enough, and those Friday nights with J.R. soon became a family ritual.

J.R. made "Dallas" a Texas-sized morality play; just like the Ewing clan at Southfork, we could never fully make up our mind about the man. As much as we despised all that he stood for, we never wanted to see him go away. The ambivalence he elicited in us seemed to mirror the ambivalence of the era in which he arrived -- the cynical years after Watergate when the line between good and evil blurred to the point we chose a president based largely on the promise that he would never tell us a lie.

As it turned out, we decided the truth wasn't all it was cracked up to be, so we elected one president after another who seemed to have a little J.R. in them: the fierce but folksy conservative in a cowboy hat who preached the virtues of unfettered capitalism and ushered in a decade that glorified the pursuit of power; the father and son Texas transplants who discovered that their oil pursuits made for better campaign material than their New England pedigree; the slick-talking Southerner whose J.R.-like infidelities we were all too willing to forgive.

Maybe ultimately, our obsession with J.R. boiled down to the fact that he seemed to represent the moral complexities of a society that celebrates virtue but craves power, and enjoys nothing more than a good laugh along the way.

Larry Hagman as the iconic JR Ewing Photo: Skip Bolen / TNT
Larry Hagman as the iconic JR Ewing Photo: Skip Bolen / TNT (TNT)

Or maybe we just wanted a collective guilty pleasure to escape from the collective malaise that the truth-telling president brought to our attention. If there was one thing J.R. never represented, it was malaise.

J.R. seemingly had disappeared from our consciousness long ago, even before the original series went off the air, in 1991. In those final years, he had become a parody of himself, more pathetic than feared, reduced to engaging in imaginary conversations at Ewing Oil with a portrait of the father he could never please. Besides, by the late 1980s, greed was good, and J.R. was just a washed-up Gordon Gekko.

I wonder if that realization influenced Larry Hagman when he resurrected J.R. last year, despite his failing health. Did he want to redeem the character he had loved playing above all others, not by making him good but by making him as deviously yet lovably bad as he was during the "Who shot J. R.?" heyday?

With Hagman's death in November, we knew it would be only a matter of time before we had to bid farewell to J.R., but not before he had mustered the strength to stir all those mixed emotions in us one last time.

"I never learn my lesson," he smiled devilishly into the screen upon his return, announcing to the world that J.R. would exit the stage the same way he had come in.

In his penultimate episode, he again got the better of virtuous brother Bobby, sending him a computer virus as part of his final plot, before vanishing into the sunset. Here was a villain who loved his family so much that he saved his dirtiest tricks just for them.

It was vintage J.R., showing us again why we grew to hate him over all those years. And why we loved every minute of it.

Craig Lazzeretti is deputy metro editor. Contact him at clazzeretti@bayareanewsgroup.com.