How J.R. Ewing Won the Cold War

After the fall of communism, Larry Hagman, who had played J.R. Ewing in the 1980’s global mega hit “Dallas,” was on vacation in Romania, walking through Bucharest. A man came up to him with tears in his eyes and said, “J.R. Ewing! Thank you so much for saving Romania.”

Saving Romania? That’s weird, he thought.

It turns out, in the late 80’s, Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu had cut off his country from all external media, except for one TV show: Dallas. He felt that Dallas would illuminate all that was wrong with western society.

But, surprise! The opposite happened, Hagman found on his trip. “Wow, that’s America?” the people said when the watched the show. “Hey, we don’t have all that stuff!”

Because Dallas wasn’t just a TV show for them.

It was a story that helped spark a revolution.

Citizens of Romania saw the vision of a world that could be different. They felt their dissatisfaction with their own lives: waiting in lines for food, waiting years to get a car. The contrast between what was on the screen and what they experienced in their lives got under their skin, and the drama became their own.

Once the found themselves in a new story, nobody was going to stand in their way.

Certainly not their President, who had allowed this show to be shown across the country because he thought his audience wouldn’t choose it. He underestimated the power of a good story to catalyze a powerful vision. Because a recent study out of Princeton say this: When we experience a great story, our brains couple with the teller’s brain.

We experience what the characters in the story experience.

Maybe it’s greed, or passion, or pride. It makes sense – not just when you think of Romanians thanking Larry Hagman for “saving” them. It makes sense when you think of what truly inspires people, and keeps them inspired for the long haul.

A new story doesn’t emerge out of thin air – it’s an old story with a new twist. And right now, when it comes to the story of climate change, it’s easy to see that we’re heading in a direction that we don’t want to go. But just revealing how bad things are won’t motivate people. We need a new twist on an old story.

And that begs the question, fellow storytellers: What will be the Dallas for the Climate Era?

The story of our time is emerging, and it’s not going to be one big TV show changing a world. No, this one is going to be told from a thousand different directions, by millions of people, and by you. To be effective, it will be sexy, it will be inspiring, and it will tap into what we really need – not just McMansions and Cadillacs.

It will be a story that sends us on this journey. A tale with suspense, and some intrigue, that speaks to our need to be a part of something greater than ourselves, to feel healthy, and to ensure that we’re caring for our kids, our neighborhoods, and our home.

You might say such a story seems unlikely to emerge. But if I told you that JR Ewing helped save Romania, you’d say probably say that was unlikely too.

1 Comment

  1. Dane Golden on September 19, 2014 at 5:10 am

    Great post Jay.

Leave a Comment