In November fans of Dallas, the family and business TV drama centered on the flashy double-dealings and boozy bedroom antics of the Ewing clan, will mark the show’s 30th anniversary in flashy and boozy style. Diehards will trek to the set of the fictional Southfork Ranch in Texas and pay up to $1,000 each for music, fireworks, and a chance to hear members of the cast reminisce about what it was like to create the show that helped define the 1980s as a glorious “decade of greed.”
Starring the unprincipled J.R. Ewing (played with unapologetic odiousness by Larry Hagman) and female waistlines higher than late-’70s interest rates, Dallas ran from 1978 until 1991. It was either the highest—or second-highest—rated show in the United States for half a decade, showing up in ABBA songs and Ozzy Osbourne videos, spinning off the megahit Knots Landing and inspiring such book-length academic analyses as French scholar Florence Dupont’s Homère et Dallas: Introduction à une Critique Anthropologique.
Dallas wasn’t simply a popular television show. It was a bourbon-and-sex-soaked caricature of free enterprise that proved irresistible and catalytic not just to stagflation-weary Americans but to viewers in France, the Soviet Union, and Romania. No matter how evil various translators tried to make J.R. and his milieu (“Dallas, you merciless universe!” ran the French lyrics added to the wordless U.S. theme song), viewers in nearly 100 countries, including the Warsaw Pact nations, came to believe that they too deserved cars as big as boats and swimming pools the size of small mansions.
“I think we were directly or indirectly responsible for the fall of the [Soviet] empire,” Hagman told the Associated Press a decade ago. “They would see the wealthy Ewings and say, ‘Hey, we don’t have all this stuff.’ I think it was good old-fashioned greed that got them to question their authority.”
In Romania, Dallas was the last Western show allowed during the nightmarish 1980s because President Nicolae Ceausescu was persuaded that it was sufficiently anticapitalistic. In fact, the show provided a luxuriant alternative to a communism that was forcing people to wait more than a decade to buy the most rattletrap Romanian car.
After the dictator and his wife were shot on Christmas Eve 1989, the pilot episode of Dallas—with a previously censored sex scene spliced back in—was one of the first foreign shows broadcast on liberated Romanian TV. During the next few years, Hagman became a ubiquitous pitchman in the country for firms such as the Russian petroleum company Lukoil (“The Choice of a True Texan”). The impact of Dallas on global worldviews reminds us that “vulgar” popular culture is every bit as important as chin-stroking political discourse in fomenting real social change. Throwaway cultural products influence far-flung societies in ways that are impossible for anyone, even (or especially) the creators themselves, to predict or control.
That lesson is more relevant than ever in a world where movies, TV shows, and music cross borders with impunity and the free West engages the semi-free East, whether in China or Iran. If the United States is interested in spreading American values and institutions, TV reruns may go a lot further than armored personnel carriers.
Which is not to forget how Dallas helped shape our own little corner of the world. It would be too much to say that the show made the rise of George W. Bush possible, but it helped shift the center of American culture from the right and left coasts to the great cowboy middle, decentralizing the traditional sources of social and political power. The same accent that marked Lyndon B. Johnson as a hick a generation earlier now signifies vitality and drive, if not couthness. Texas presidents may have proven disastrous for the country, but they symbolize a nation less stuffy and stratified than ever.
Dallas also functioned as an update on Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, giving jes’ plain folks a step-by-step guidebook to how things really worked—and stoking their desire for all the baubles once enjoyed only by the country-club set. In demystifying the production of wealth, the show arguably stimulated our domestic political economy every bit as much as the Reagan-era tax cuts.
Like Mikhail Gorbachev and poodle haircuts, Dallas didn’t long survive the post–Cold War world it helped create, exiting the scene with the Soviets in 1991. But like an uncontainable gusher in the Lone Star State, it has left us far richer than we ever dreamed possible.