30 Years of Dallas

The TV show that won the Cold War

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.

Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of reason.tv. Matt Welch is editor in chief of reason. A version of this article ran in The Washington Post.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • sage||

    I used to have a "Ewing Oil" t-shirt with a picture of an oil rig and the words "We Drill 'Em Deeper."

    Hey, give me a break. I was in third grade, I lived in Texas, and my dad worked for an exploration and recovery equipment company.

  • Mad Max||

    ". . . inspiring such book-length academic analyses as French scholar Florence Dupont's Homère et Dallas: Introduction à une Critique Anthropologique."

    Ah, yes, a comparison of The Simpsons and Dallas. Maybe French literary scholars are cooler than I thought.

  • Mad Max||

    (Seriously, though, I know that the original Homer wasn't Homer Simpson. Everyone knows that the original Homer was the author The Great Gatsby.

  • I\'m huge in <strike>Japan</st||

    Sweet jesus, another Reason piece on Dallas?

  • Handsome Dan||

    IHIR: Agreed. Seriously, I've been reading REASON for almost 10 years, and it seems like you guys run the same goddamned DALLAS piece every 10 issues or so. Enough already!

  • Barack Obama||

    Capitalism is out.Community organizing is in.

  • BakedPenguin||

    On a kind of related note, many North Koreans get their news from South Korean broadcasts. While the following quote (about the recent protests against importing American beef) is anecdotal, it's interesting:

    "We do not understand what the South Korean people are protesting for. We think that those concerned with the safety of U.S. beef should not buy the beef. And why make such a fuss about it? The issue is simple, and should be left to be handled by each individual. However, people in South Korea made such a big deal out of it. Unfortunately, the South Korean government ended up using coercion to suppress the protesters..."



    It's funny that North Koreans, of all people, would understand personal choice so well, while the South Koreans act collectively.

  • Rationalitate||

    Somehow, the idea that huge cars driven on government-subsidized and enabled roads doesn't seem like such a free market concept to me.

  • ||

    While libertarians would prefer if roads were privately owned and operated, they are not strictly speaking "subsidized," the operating and capital costs are paid for by users through gas and property taxes, etc, or at least could be if governments actually used those funds as intended.

    A subsidy is by definition paid by the majority to a minority, like farmers or public transit users.

  • Orange Line Special||

    Just recently, we learned that some people aren't yet aware that Reason isn't really a libertarian mag.

    Now, we learn that some people haven't yet figured out that Reason has run out of ideas completely.

    Meanwhile:

    *thud*

    Yes, that sound you just heard is yet another victim of BHO's bus. Now we know one of the reasons why Reason supports him.

  • ||

    Waistlines higher than 70's interest rates?

    I'm sure you meant "hemlines", dear. Leave fashion to the fashionistas, ok?

  • Joel||

    Um, yeah. Dallas won the cold war. Right.

    That's actually pretty sad.

  • Craig||

    Fictional Southfork Ranch? It didn't look fictional when I was there a few years ago....

  • ||

    Wait; Texas presidents have made the country less stratified? LBJ and GWB have made the country less stratified? I would argue that these two presidents have made the country more stratified than any other two post-1900 (Sorry Lincoln).

  • bill||

    Never really got into "Dallas". The only reason I'd watch was because of Victoria Principal. Damn she was HOT!

    @TL
    No he meant waistlines. The girls used to hook their pants onto their bras. LOL.

  • Kolohe||

    The girls used to hook their pants onto their bras.

    There seems to be a corollary to Rule 34 that says any english sentence will have a Google Image Search result.

  • ||

    I feel as though I've had something of a Forrest Gump life. Perhaps everybody does who lives long enough. But I happened to be at a Double Tree Inn in north Dallas for a crazy flame-out/impending bankruptcy seminar/party of an oil company that was headed by someone with the actual name of Ewing. This Double Tree Inn was the home away from home for quite a few of the minor characters of Dallas, so there was an interesting opportunity to intermingle with them. I'm sure the "real" Ewing carefully chose the location for his swan song, as it were.
    I was a very loyal viewer of Dallas. J. R.'s wife was the one who got my motor running. Victoria Principal always seemed sort of shallow and phony. Now, Bing Crosby's daughter did a marvelous job in her part.

  • economist||

    I once was stranded in a foreign country where I didn't speak the language and didn't have a guide for several weeks. Don't laugh, I was supposed to catch a connecting flight. It just didn't work out that way.
    Interesting story, though.

  • ||

    I once read a similar anecdote about the film "The Grapes of Wrath" when it was shown in the Soviet Union.

    An American Leftist went on tour with the film when it was shown to the Soviet peasants. They asked him if what was in the film was true. He and his commissar handler assumed that what the peasants took away after watching the film was that American was a horrible place and that the USSR was a much better place.

    The peasant's actual take away was that American must be a very nice place if even the poorest people have a car.

    Just my $.02 worth.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Boy, Lonkewacko / Orange Line Special even shows up on the Dallas thread.

    For those of you who haven't seen it, we have his TopTenReasons not to vote for BarackHUSSEINObama.

  • Rationalitate||

    While libertarians would prefer if roads were privately owned and operated, they are not strictly speaking "subsidized," the operating and capital costs are paid for by users through gas and property taxes, etc, or at least could be if governments actually used those funds as intended.

    A subsidy is by definition paid by the majority to a minority, like farmers or public transit users.


    While true that the gas tax pays for most of the capital/operating cots of the roads, this is only viable because of America's low density development. And this low density development is only possible if people are forced to build sparsely, thanks to very anti-libertarian maximum density zoning rules and minimum parking regulations. Were it not for these, Americans would build much more densely, and the highway fund would soon be totally inadequate to fully "road" all these dense houses.

    (Just imagine the cost of trying to provide all of Manhattan with road service - you'd have to pay for half of the city to be uprooted [which the highway fund doesn't have to do, thanks to eminent domain] in order to pave over it.)

  • LarryA||

    And this low density development is only possible if people are forced to build sparsely, thanks to very anti-libertarian maximum density zoning rules and minimum parking regulations. Were it not for these, Americans would build much more densely, and the highway fund would soon be totally inadequate to fully "road" all these dense houses.

    Not sure where you live, but around here (Texas) the most popular model is the ranchette on several acres. Most development is outside city limits, where land use is unregulated.

    Also, making cities more dense makes no difference in highway construction, which is mainly between towns and cities. More density would simply mean slightly longer trips from one to the other.

  • Werner Patels||

    I'll always have fond memories of the show, because I worked on the show for about 4 weeks while the show was shot on location in Europe. I acted as a translator for Mr. Hagman, Mr. Duffy, Ms. Wilson and Ms. Podewell. It was fun.

  • ||

    You can shoot J.R. but you can't kill capitalism (it constantly re-invents itself).

  • nfl jerseys||

    hyetgfg

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