Snooki and The Situation might be the United States’ newest international ambassadors (for better or worse), but they are by no means the first American characters to travel the world over the airwaves. Decades before Jersey Shore became a worldwide television hit, family guys, policemen, oil tycoons, and buxom lifeguards shaped foreigners’ perceptions of Americans. A look at eight shows that shaped the way the world sees us Yanks.
Unlike most 1950s comedies, which focused on perfect, suburban middle-class families (Leave It to Beaver, anyone?), The Honeymooners told the story of the blue-collar, Brooklyn-bred Kramdens. Perhaps the urban setting is what made the show catch on with city dwellers in Western Europe. In 1994 the Dutch network KRO produced a remake of The Honeymooners set in 1950s Rotterdam; the show was so popular, it ran for 16 years.
Theo Kojak, a tough, Greek-American cop with a bald head and a lollipop fixation, became a huge hit in the 1970s. The show was so popular in Brazil that the phrase “I won’t give a chance to Kojak” became slang among Rio de Janeiro criminals, meaning something like “I won’t leave any clues for the police.” Kojak thus became a stand-in for the idea that American cops enforce the law at all costs.
In the 1980s communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu allowed Dallas, the prime-time soap about the dramatic—though, occasionally, only dream-induced—lives of oil and cattle tycoons in Texas, to be one of the only American shows aired on Romanian television. Ceauşescu hoped that J.R. Ewing would convince Romanians of the evil decadence of capitalism; instead, Dallas only promoted discontent with communism. In the mid-’90s Romanian billionaire Ilie Alexandru built a Dallas-themed attraction—complete with a replica of the show’s Southfork Ranch—to commemorate the show’s role in encouraging the Romanian revolution of 1989.
When Married With Children, the bawdy sitcom parodying dysfunctional middle-class families in America, premiered in the late ’80s, it provoked advertiser boycotts because of its racy humor. But when reruns of the show started airing in Russia 20 years later, Russian audiences found it so entertaining that the Russian channel TNT debuted its own remake, called Schastlivy Vmeste (Happy Together), and hired some of the American writers to work on it. Russian audiences once found it difficult to relate to American characters—Latin American soap operas were much bigger. But a middle class has solidified in Russia, and so Russian audiences seem ready to laugh at their own versions of the Bundys.
If you were to ask a foreigner in the mid-’90s what an American high school looked like, chances are they would describe fictional West Beverly High: palm trees swaying in a sunny courtyard outside, spoiled rich kids slamming metal locker doors in anger inside. Between 1992 and 1994 the names Dylan and Brandon (as in Beverly Hills, 90210’s rebellious anti-hero Dylan McKay and suave popular guy Brandon Walsh) suddenly became popular baby names in Sweden—despite being rather difficult to pronounce in Swedish.
A buxom blonde running in slow motion down a beach, her red swimsuit clinging to her skin—could there be a more exportable image of America? During the heyday of Baywatch in the mid-’90s, the show was a hit anywhere that television existed, broadcast to more than 100 countries and every continent but Antarctica (the penguins thought that bathing suits were a dumb idea). Even Borat, Sasha Baron Cohen’s fictional ignoramus from Kazakhstan, has seen Baywatch, finding Pamela Anderson “veeery niiiiice!”
It’s been six years since Friends stopped airing in the United States, and lord knows the last time an American woman asked her hairdresser to give her “the Rachel.” But in China the show hasn’t lost its hold on young people, many of whom watch it as a way to hone their language skills in college English classes. The portrait of American youth that emerges is occasionally puzzling to Chinese viewers—do Americans really hang out with their friends more than their family, even on holidays?—but even so, Friends is so popular that a coffee shop modeled after Central Perk, the show’s prime hangout, recently opened in Beijing.
Desperate Housewives became the most-watched television show in the world in 2007, propelling the naughty ladies of Wisteria Lane to worldwide fame from Albania to Tunisia. The image of the American suburbs as a dark world harboring sexy secrets clearly appealed to foreign audiences—except in China, where the dubbed version of the show was cleaned up so that it aired without sex and crime scenes.