Larry Hagman, who died yesterday at the age of 81, was of course best known for playing the evil J.R. Ewing on Dallas, a show that I never much watched and found boring on the few occasions when I did. I enjoyed Hagman much more on I Dream of Jeannie. I recall backpacking around Europe in the summer of 1980 right after graduating from college, and people I’d meet, upon discovering that I was American, would immediately ask, “Who shot JR?” Somehow they thought Americans must have the inside track. They were always disappointed when I said, “Who cares who shot JR?” After a while I’d start to baffle them by saying, “Who’s JR?”
I did include a short meditation about the whole Dallas phenomenon in the scene-setting opening chapter of The Age of Reagan. I think the most interesting factoid about the global Dallas craze was that the show was not a hit in Japan:
The seeming decrepitude of America [in 1980] extended beyond the intellectual class to popular culture. The highest-rated television program of the moment was the prime-time soap opera style drama Dallas, whose central character was a grasping, amoral oil man, J.R. Ewing. Ewing was the archetype anti-hero for the anti-heroic times, portraying what prosperity still existed to be wholly decadent. When an unknown assailant shot J.R. Ewing in the last show of spring 1980, “Who shot J.R.?” became an international obsession. London bookmakers gave odds on the suspected killers and took in several hundred thousand dollars in wagers. The episode that revealed the answer, broadcast two weeks after Reagan’s election in November, received the highest TV viewership in history up to that point. That the show centered around oil, the commodity thought to be at the heart of America’s economic difficulties, undoubtedly added to the show’s fascination. Dallas was hardly unique among Hollywood products; studies of TV shows and movies from the time found that a disproportionate number of films depicted businessmen and commerce as corrupt. The conclusion viewers drew was that private sector institutions were as dysfunctional as our political institutions. Dallas was also a huge hit internationally with a single curious exception. It did poorly in Japan, perhaps because commerce and businessmen were still regarded as heroic there?
UPDATE: Our friends at Reason.com add a fascinating item on “How JR Ewing Saved Romania from Communism.” I may have to reconsider.
JOHN adds: I never saw a single minute of Dallas. It aired during a time when I was working pretty much non-stop, and is one of many popular culture landmarks of which I am wholly ignorant. I did, however, see I Dream of Jeannie in my youth, and I can’t imagine that Hagman’s work in Dallas surpassed his turn as an astronaut who was lucky enough to stumble across a beautiful genie who called him “Master.” So in honoring Mr. Hagman, let’s add a tribute to the heroine who was every teenage boy’s fantasy in the mid to late 1960s, Barbara Eden as Jeannie: