When J.R. Ewing, the Texas oilman played by Larry Hagman, returned to TV earlier this year, it seemed a harbinger: “Dallas,” the scandalously popular evening soap opera of the 1980s, captured the nation’s fascination with the very wealthy throughout the Reagan era. The TNT revival, focused on a younger generation of Ewings, was perfectly timed for the “we built it” Romney-Ryan campaign, which hoped to follow Reagan’s path to the White House. This time, art and real life diverged. The new “Dallas” was a hit, but Romney-Ryan wasn’t.
Fortunately for both incarnations of the show, Hagman’s portrayal of the gleefully manipulative J.R. was varied and entertaining enough to satisfy differing sensibilities. Plenty of Americans regarded the character’s wheeling and dealing with a sense of excitement tinged with envy, just as some view Donald Trump’s take-charge persona on “The Apprentice” with cowering admiration. But plenty of others saw the wily J.R., with his roguish smile, as a symbol of mendacity. Still, both sides — whether in 1982 or 2012 — could sit down together with a bowl of popcorn and watch Hagman’s almost comic projection of human appetites and frailties. Hagman died of cancer on Friday at 81. His most famous character was more of a selfish lout than a job creator, but Larry Hagman’s enduring TV fame could be enjoyed by everyone.