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Column: Unlike Tony Soprano, J.R. Ewing Didn’t Need a Psychiatrist

Before Tony Soprano, there was J.R. Ewing.

With one caveat — J.R. didn’t have a psychotherapist; instead, he sent his victims to psychotherapists.

When Sopranos alter-ego James Gandolfini died unexpectedly at 51 on June 19, a natural question arose.

Who was the bigger television villain/cult hero among these two notorious peas in a pod: Soprano the high-stakes gangster, or Ewing the high-stakes shyster? Let’s save the suspense now: The Sopranos was a vastly overrated show. It was overflowing with Italian mobster stereotypes: angry temper tantrums, silly X-rated profanity and gratuitous violence. Will someone please explain what is so revolutionary about that? Was the show considered to be nouveau/avant-garde because Soprano went to counseling sessions. Puh-leese. The hype is not ripe.

Ewing, Stetson cowboy hat and all, appeared on the Dallas series from 1978 to 1991. We’re not talking about the lame re-creation of the show with the same title that airs on cable’s TNT.

Ewing was known for spinning shady deals in the oil business, backstabbing his friends and family and grinning like a fox while destroying lives at any cost to accomplish his goals. Soprano was the Mafia capo trying to balance a life of hardcore, bloodthirsty crime with the dynamics of a dysfunctional family life.

For the pre-cable Baby Boomers, Dallas was the “it” show just as the The Sopranos was “it” for the post-cable millennials. How big was Dallas ? When J.R. was shot in the last episode of the 1979-1980 season, the topic became an international and cultural phenomenon.

“Who Shot J.R.?” headlines blared in newspapers and magazines worldwide. “Who Shot J.R.?” debates were held. J.R. had swindled and bamboozled so many friends and enemies alike that there was a litany of possibilities of happy trigger-fingers. CBS went to great lengths to keep the would-be assassin’s name secret as a curious nation spent a restless summer awaiting the first episode of the fall series.

According to Reuters, Larry Hagman, who played J.R.’s character, said an international publisher during that anxious summer of 1980 offered him $250,000 to reveal who had shot J.R. and he considered giving the wrong information and taking the money, but in the end, “I decided not to be so like J.R. in real life.” Hagman died Nov. 23, 2012, at age 81.

The high-stakes drama of Dallas also provided a much-needed diversion for a suffering nation in the early 1980s. Remember, the United States then was in the throes of one of the worst-ever recessions — worse than the most recent in the 2000s. A struggling country needed Dallas, and Dallas needed a vigilant viewership.

High drama featuring television icons didn’t begin — and end — with Tony Soprano, as many seem to think. Many young viewers seem to believe The Sopranos invented the genre of “the bad guy as the star of the show.”

Case in point: The Dallas episode revealing J.R.’s shooter was watched by an estimated 350 million people globally as CBS garnered an unprecedented 76 share of the television market that Nov. 21, 1980, night. Furthermore, similar to the case of Tony Soprano, did anyone really want J.R. Ewing to die?

As you might imagine, the final episode of The Sopranos created a frenzy of anticipation. It was June 10, 2007. The Tony Awards were held that night. So was Game 2 of the NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers. Even superstar LeBron James, then playing with the Cavaliers, weighed in on The Big Finale of The Big Boss during his off-day news conference.

LeBron found relief from the intensity of the Finals by eagerly discussing his expectations the day before The Sopranos finale: “Me and my guys have definitely sat down and thought about it. My friends think that either the feds are going to come and get him, or he’s going to make friends with the feds and maybe snitch on a lot of people, or he’s going to be whacked, which I don’t think is going to happen. I hope that he’s just able to get away and not worry about nothing.

“I’m serious. I’m a big Sopranos fan, and this is the first time I finally got a question which is not the same question I’ve been hearing all year. I appreciate that. I’m pretty tired of answering the same questions.”

In the end, Game 2 and the Tony Awards were dwarfed in the ratings game: 11.9 million domestic viewers for The Sopranos, 8.6 million for the NBA Finals and 6.2 million for the Tonys.

OK, here’s the bottom line: All this incessant chatter from media critics and TV bloggers about how The Sopranos was groundbreaking television is ridiculous. There was nothing pioneering about the show. This mythic ambiance attached to the show was simply apocryphal in nature. We’ve seen this scene before. As Dr. Phil would say, “Get real.” Perhaps Soprano should have visited Dr. Phil instead of Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Then maybe his situation would have turned out better.

Which generation ultimately wins this game of villain/cult hero one-upmanship? The Baby Boomers, for sure, with Dallas.

The millennials with The Sopranos just don’t know what they missed.

Gregory Clay is assistant sports editor for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.