Back up for a moment—before the dream was buried beneath the Southfork soil on a Saturday night. The 30th anniversary reunion was assembled in part by Hagman himself, a 77-year-old man acutely aware he might not make it to the 40th anniversary. And if, for better or worse, it marks the end of an era, it's necessary to reflect, for a moment, upon its beginning. Because one must ask at this late date: What was it about Dallas that brought all these people—2,000 or 4,000 or God knows how many—back to Dallas in 2008?
It's hard to recall after all these years, but before Dallas debuted on CBS on April 2, 1978, there had been only one other prime-time soap opera of any note: Peyton Place, which wrapped its five-year run in June of 1969. Initially, Lorimar, which produced the series, thought Dallas would be nothing more than a short-lived mini-series: the story of Jock Ewing's dysfunctional, dastardly clan. It only became a smash midway through its second season, when CBS moved it from Saturdays at 9 p.m., prime-time's graveyard, to Friday night. By the time Mary Crosby's Kristen shot J.R. on March 21, 1980, 40 million viewers in the United States alone were watching every single week.
"Most hit shows live off habit; Dallas arouses demonstrative loyalty," Richard Corliss and James Willwerth wrote in the August 11, 1980, Time cover story. "Millions of Dallas T-shirts, bumper stickers and buttons are festooning torsos, fenders and lapels. Half a dozen 'J.R.' novelty records are heading for the charts. Society matrons are planning Dallas costume parties for the night the program returns...Gradually and purposefully, like J.R. slithering toward a voluptuous Texas belle, Dallas has ascended the international ratings until it rivals The Muppet Show as the world's most popular TV series."
Indeed. Because as popular as the show was in the States, it was a phenomenon elsewhere; politicians and clergymen were advised not to meet on nights when Dallas was on. The Brits cleared the streets when it aired, and it remains so popular in the U.K. even now that both BBC television and radio ran pieces before and after the reunion on November 9.
"And in Turkey," Corliss and Willwerth wrote 28 years ago, "the head of the Muslim fundamentalist National Salvation Party presented a 16-page ultimatum that included 'the elimination of Dallas from television programs' because it is 'degrading and aims at destroying Turkish family life.'"
The series, which spawned the Dallas: Power & Passion on Primetime TV exhibit at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum earlier this year, remains a staple of the TV diet elsewhere. Here, the show doesn't even air in reruns, but from England to India, from Belgium to Bulgaria, the Ewings still run amok in Dallas; right now, somewhere on this planet, Kristen is shooting her ex-lover all over again, and someone is begging for the answer to the age-old question, "Who shot J.R.?" (Says Mary Crosby today, "I am the answer to the ultimate trivia question.")
In the 1980s, there were books written about the series' appeal and influence, among them Florence Dupont's Homère et Dallas: Introduction à une Critique Anthropologique and Ien Ang's 1982 study Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination, which more or less accused the internationally popular series of promoting "cultural imperialism." Dupont's study was mentioned only recently—in the November issue of Reason, which proclaimed Dallas the series that helped end the Cold War. Dallas, wrote Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, "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."
In 1990, a good chunk of the book The Export of Meaning: Cross-Cultural Readings of 'Dallas' dealt with the show's impact on Israel, where Prime Minister Menachem Begin was a rabid fan. Wrote Tamar Liebes and Elihu Katz, just as there were Israelis who viewed the "money and muscle of the Ewings [as] an invitation to the supposed 'American way,'" there were also those who watched the show and believed they were better off without the grief. "It is a message to stay down and enjoy the better of the possible worlds," they wrote, "letting the unhappy few take care of the rest."
Reached in Australia, where she is a professor of cultural studies at the University of Western Sydney, Watching Dallas author Ang says she hardly thinks about the series anymore. It looks "dated," she says, but "it was much more than 'entertainment'—it was a sign of the times." But, ultimately, the show endures for the same reason people still fetishize Star Trek or Elvis Presley: They all "create communities of interest that feed on themselves, and they provide meaning to these people, fill their lives in some way," she says. Hence, the thousands at Southfork—most of whom had found out about the event through UltimateDallas.com, where fans still gather to sift through every last grain of sand, from scripts to detailed episode guides to whatever-happened-to's to a list of every last location used in the series.