Magoosh English Lesson: Dallas

Welcome to the next lesson in this series of Magoosh’s free English classes

In this lesson, we’ll look at a renowned TV show that captured audiences worldwide in the 1980s. Get your cowboy hats and boots out because we’re off to Dallas!


  • Learn terms related to the world of television
  • Explore one of the most famous TV shows in American TV history
  • Grammar Review


Difficulty Level: Advanced

Time: Approximately 15 minutes



The soap opera is a classic form of entertainment that dates back to the radio era in the 1930s.

The term comes from the fact that the original dramatic radio broadcasts were sponsored by soap manufacturers.

Typical American soap operas are melodramas that center around the day-to-day lives of wealthy families (though there have been many variations over the years). In this lesson, we’re going to look at one of the most famous primetime soap operas to ever air on American television: Dallas.

Dallas aired from 1978 to 1991 and dominated primetime tv ratings from 1980 – 1985. The show was full of sensational drama and was known for its cliffhanger endings. It was so popular it even had an influence on international politics as we’ll see a little later in the passage.

Dallas’ story centered around the feuds of the wealthy Ewing family who owned a successful independent oil company and cattle ranching operations in Texas. Bobby, the son of the Ewing family patriarch, had married the daughter of a rival business family and the show evolved from that storyline.

The breakout character of Dallas, however, was Bobby’s brother J.R. who became notorious for his dirty business dealings and schemes. In essence, it was the show’s trademark. J.R. was such a popular character the network used him in a cliffhanger episode that created the famous  advertising campaign titled “Who shot J.R.?”.

The ad campaign and related episodes were a national and international sensation that we’ll explore in the next lesson!

Dallas was so popular it allegedly sped up the downfall of the Eastern Bloc of Romania in the 1980s. It’s said that Romanian president aired episodes of Dallas on public TV to show the corruption of capitalism. However, the people saw the luxurious lifestyle of the Ewing family and desired that instead. The first episode of Dallas was one of the first Western TV shows to air on the liberated Romanian TV in 1989.

The show did eventually decline, but its popularity resulted in a number of TV movies, reunions, and a famous spin-off series.


Word Focus

  • Soap Opera – (noun) – A dramatic show where the story features the daily life of a set group of characters.

General Hospital is the longest running soap opera in the history of American television.

  • Melodrama – (noun) – Sensationalized dramatic story with characters who are exaggerated and continuous over-exciting events occurring.

Melodrama focuses mainly on dialogue but can have some strong action scenes.

  • Prime Time – (noun) – The time where most viewers are expected to be watching TV. Usually 8-11 p.m.

Networks air the most popular shows during primetime to get the highest number of viewers.

  • TV Ratings – (noun) – A measurement that helps networks and advertisers quantify the number of viewers and percentage of viewers of a tv show.

Some shows have ended their run when they had their highest TV ratings.

  • Cliffhanger – (noun) – An episode that ends with a character in a difficult situation or dilemma causing the viewer or reader to wait in suspense until the release of the next episode. The term came from a publication from the 19th century where a serialized episode left the main character hanging off of a cliff.

Charles Dickens is credited as popularizing the cliffhanger ending.

  • Patriarch – (noun) – The male leader or head of a family.

My father became the patriarch of our family when my grandfather passed away.

  • Breakout Character – (noun) – A character who becomes more popular than intended or expected.

Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig are two breakout characters who surpassed the characters they used to support.

  • Trademark – (noun) – A symbol, word, or words that people identify something by.

McDonalds is recognized worldwide by its trademark golden arches.

  • Spin-off – (noun) – A separate story or storyline that continues based on a previous story. This can happen in any medium.

Frasier is a famous spin-off show with characters that originated on the TV show Cheers.


Grammar Center

Read the sentence from the passage below:

Bobby, the son of the Ewing family patriarch, had married the daughter of a rival business family, and the show evolved from that storyline.

This use of had married in this sentence is an example of one of the lesser used verb tenses in English: the past perfect tense.

This tense is formed by using had plus the past participle of a verb.

We use this tense when talking about something in the past that happened before another event. Meaning, the action referenced in the past perfect is something that has been completed (though it could happen in duration) before the next event from the past.

In this sentence, we see that Bobby married the daughter of the rival business owner. The act or ceremony of becoming married is over and done (though their marriage as a covenant may or may not still be true). And then, the show evolved from that action or premise.

Both actions happened in the past, and one happened before the other.

The key item to remember about the past perfect is that the action from the past must be completed. Otherwise, you would use the past perfect continuous tense.

Also, remember that using the past perfect tense implies that something else happened. The ‘something else’ doesn’t necessarily have to be explicitly stated, but it must be clear from the context that something else happened. Otherwise, it makes no sense.

For example:

She had returned the keys to her neighbor. 

If nothing else happened, then you would just say:

She returned her keys to her neighbor.

Using the past perfect implies that something else happened after she returned the keys.

For more information on the past perfect tense and all of the other verb tenses be sure to visit our blog series on the 12 English Verb Tenses!



1. Based on your reading of the passage, which statement best states the central idea of the passage?

A. Dallas was a popular show in its time and made a lasting impression on popular culture and TV history.
B. J.R. Ewing was a breakout character and known as a notoriously dirty businessman.
C. Soap operas are classic American entertainment named after their original soap manufacturing sponsors.
D. Dallas was the first primetime soap opera to go down in pop culture history.


2. In which of these time periods was Dallas most popular?

A. 1978 to 1991
B. 1980 to 1989
C. 1980 to 1985
D. 1978 to 1985


3. Which of the following words would be the best example of a synonym for melodrama?

A. Magnification
B. Idealization
C. Honest
D. Legendary


4. A cliffhanger happens at the _______ of an episode.

A. Beginning
B. Middle
C. End
D. Climax


5. The past perfect tense is used when talking about something that:

A. Were started but not finished
B. Began and then nothing else happened
C. Were started and continued into the future
D. Were completed in the past before another event from the past.


6. Form the past perfect tense by using had plus _____?

A. A gerund
B. The past participle
C. A preposition
D. A noun



  1. A
  2. C
  3. B
  4. C
  5. D
  6. B
Jake Pool

Jake Pool

Jake Pool worked in the restaurant industry for over a decade and left to pursue his career as a writer and ESL teacher. In his time at Magoosh, he's worked with hundreds of students and has created content that's informed—and hopefully inspired!—ESL students all across the globe. Jake records audio for his articles to help students with pronunciation and comprehension as he also works as a voice-over artist who has been featured in commercials and on audiobooks. You can read his posts on the Magoosh blog and see his other work on his portfolio page at You can follow him on LinkedIn!
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