How TV's 'Dallas' Won the Cold War
The oil-and-sex soaked TV show Dallas is back on the small screen. The unapologetically odious J.R., the unappealingly ethical Bobby and the uncontrollaby alcoholic Sue Ellen are all back, along with a new crew of young, hardbodied hotties to pull in viewers who have yet to start pulling in Social Security checks.
During its original run from 1978 to 1991, Dallas was an international cultural phenomenon with ratings higher than late-'70s interest rates. It was the most or second-most watched show in the United States for half a decade, showing up in ABBA songs and Ozzy Osbourne videos, and spinning off the megahit Knots Landing.
But Dallas' greatest impact ultimately wasn't in these United States but in communist Romania, where it helped topple the brutal Ceausescu regime.
Dallas was the last Western show allowed during the nightmarish 1980s because President Nicolae Ceausescu thought it showcased all that was wrong with capitalism. 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 communist-produced cars.
"I think we were directly or indirectly responsible for the fall of the [communism]," Larry Hagman told the Associated Press a decade ago. "They would see the wealthy Ewings and say, 'Hey, we don't have all this stuff.'"
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.
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 dictators, 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 shows may go a lot further than armored personnel carriers.
Like Mikhail Gorbachev, poodle haircuts, and Members Only jackets, Dallas didn't long survive the post–Cold War world it helped create. But like an uncontainable gusher in a Texas oil field, the original series left us far richer than we ever dreamed possible.
About 2.30 minutes. Produced by Meredith Bragg. Written by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch. For a fuller treatment of this topic, go here.
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