The Corner

Farewell, J. R.

Larry Hagman has died.

When Dallas first appeared on British TV screens, it was a  moment of grand, glorious, exuberant, and absurd delight. Watched from the depths of British economic decline the early seasons made America look very, very good indeed. I was transfixed. I bought the poster. I drank the (J.R.) beer.

And this wasn’t only a British perspective.

Take Estonia, for example (the New York Times reported last year):

Imagine growing up in the Estonian capital city, Tallinn, during the cold war and discovering “Dallas” transmitted by television from Helsinki across the Gulf of Finland. Life in the 1970s was drab in Estonia, then a Soviet republic under the thumb of Moscow.

In the eyes of the Communist leadership, that American serial with its jousting millionaires epitomized the creeping allure of capitalist decadence.

In the facetiously lighthearted documentary “Disco and Atomic War,” the director Jaak Kilmi, who grew up in Tallinn in those days, recalls how the exploits of J. R. Ewing and company mesmerized his city in the far north of the country, where the broadcast infiltrated the Iron Curtain.

“Dallas,” he remembers, became a national mania as word of its forbidden charms filtered to the south, where residents out of range of Finnish television relied on friends and relatives from the north to relay the latest plot twists.

A playful compendium of archival footage, dramatic reconstructions with a surreal comic edge and solemn talking heads, “Disco and Atomic War” persuasively makes the case that the “soft power” of Western popular culture seeping in via radio and television was instrumental in the breakup of the Soviet Union.

You have only to remember the birth of rock ’n’ roll in the United States to realize the unstoppable power of popular culture in the mass media. The sexy insurgent music that exalted limitless individual freedom and self-expression was irresistible. In a way Elvis Presley was to American culture in the 1950s what “Dallas” was to Estonia two decades later…

What a show! Sue-Ellen (click here for an entertaining fact about the actress who played her), loveliest of lushes, old Jock, the real hard man, twisted Cliff, dull Bobby (I’m sorry, he was), sharp-shooting Kristin, and all the rest.

But best of all was J. R. Ewing. At his schemin’, connivin’, womanizin’ worst, he was total TV pleasure, a big-hatted reminder that the Devil has the best tunes.

RIP, Mr. Hagman. And thanks.

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