Has any miniseries ever had a title this grandly inane? The many characters in NBC’s four-hour sudser about The ’60s, airing February 7 and 8, don’t undergo a single experience that violates the clichés of the period. At least producer Lynda
Obst openly dotes on the clichés: “It’s impossible for me to think about the ’60s without feeling corny,” she burbles in the press kit. Or to make a miniseries about them that isn’t, since this account of generational conflict ends with a family reconciliation that’s the dopiest upbeat finale since Holocaust‘s. Happens right on cue in ’69, too, without a hint that plenty of polarizing stuff— hey, what about Kent State?— was yet to come.
Then again, by ’69 Bob Dylan himself thought corniness had its aesthetic virtues— and big-event TV isn’t made for Ellen Willis. On its own MOR terms, Obst’s numbskull epic— think Dharma and Greg meets The Winds of War— is gratifyingly nonrevisionist. Doesn’t vilify the era as destructive, wimps out on but doesn’t demonize sex-and-drugs, and offers not only a favorable if shallow take on the antiwar movement but a sympathetic if gingerly one on the Black Panthers. Which would leave me feeling grateful for small favors if by now these didn’t count as big ones. However fed up I get with the mythologizing of a decade I’m old enough to remember but can’t claim I experienced— too young and geeky for the sex (drat), too craven for the drugs (oh well), my dad dropped me off at the protest on his way to work at the State Department— I lost my taste for counterculture bashing as Newt discovered his. I think seeing yesteryear’s upheavals turned into schlock for the same mainstream that was appalled by the reality is sublimely touching— touching because it’s schlock.
Not that the dramatic content isn’t risible. The script serves up two representative families — one white, one black, and guess which hogs the screen. The Herlihys are blue-collar Catholics in Chicago; Dad, played by Life Goes On‘s testy Bill Smitrovich, is a barber who wants a better life for his children as the decade rosily dawns. But soon goofus son Brian (Jerry O’Connell) has joined the Marines: “I’ve got good news! I’m going to Vietnam.” Punished for doing the twist like she means it at a high-school dance, frisky Katie (Julia Stiles) is then impregnated by a passing rock-and-roller (simp-off-the-old-block Donovan Leitch, who’s pretty good until a hippie wig does him in), and tearfully flees her father’s reproaches by clearing out for the Haight.
Meanwhile, smart son Michael (Josh Hamilton) winds up at Loyola, to be tutored in the budding antiwar movement by Daniel Berrigan (Cliff Gorman) after a stint as a freedom rider. That’s how he fleetingly bumps into his African American opposite number— Leonard Roberts as Emmit Taylor, whose minister father (Charles Dutton) is leading Civil Rights protests. Then, at a teach-in whose location a title card helpfully identifies as “Greenwich Village, New York City,” Michael meets the love of his life: fellow radlib Sarah Weinstock (Jordana Brewster), who shares his fondness for conversing in Dylan quotes but soon falls under the spell of charismatic antiwar organizer Kenny Klein (Jeremy Sisto, pretending to be Mark Rudd).
In its nitwit way, this pastiche has some
ingenuity— you can’t say it doesn’t cover a lot of ground. Yet everyone is kept so busy hurtling among milestones that the actors have trouble registering as much more than Furby toys. (The main exception is Brewster; as Warren Zevon would say, her hair is perfect.) The miniseries’s opportunism can be so guileless it’s funny: the minute Michael shows up at the 1967 march on the Pentagon wearing a familiar-looking white sweater, you know he’s going to mimic the famous photograph of a protester placing a flower in a National Guardsman’s rifle barrel. Not only that, the gesture is what gets him back in Sarah’s good graces, since of course she’s nearby.
Less funny is the expedient way, once his church is burned down in payback for his activism, Reverend Taylor turns tail and moves his family to, whaddya know, Watts— insulting the staunchness of Taylor’s real-life counterparts to hustle viewers off to black America’s next flashpoint. In any case, the Taylor episodes are so glaringly a poor second to the Herlihys’ adventures that the only thing they’ll teach anyone’s children about the ’60s is the meaning of the word “tokenism.” Yet though I don’t want to minimize this failing, I’m going to, because The ’60s is of interest mainly in relation to the middle-class white TV audience— not just its attitudes then, but the limits of its nostalgia now. More than it knows, the lopsided structure recapitulates the discomfort of white folks happy enough to venerate MLK and SNCC but estranged from what followed.
While his flashy, fake-newsreely simulations of celebrated events— notably the recreation of the ’68 Columbia student strike— sling zeitgest hash with verve, director Mark Piznarski doesn’t lose sleep fretting that he’s too obvious. For That Day in Dallas, he piles on teary montages, the Zapruder film, and (let up already) Simon &
Garfwhozit mewling about “a time of innocence” until his one good image— a nun’s face crumpling as she prepares to break the news to her class— gets lost in the overkill. Yet just because Piznarski regurgitates so many hand-me-downs while remaining oblivious to their triteness, the miniseries lumbers right past cheap into primitive, which gets to you. When the Pentagon march begins to the chatter-toothy sound of— I be gosh, Velvets fans— “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” it may not be overwhelming, but it sure is disarming. And when part one cranks up to the frenzied climax of Katie’s symbolic labor pains— carries on like she’s giving birth to either Jesus or the thing from Alien— you may feel as sheepish as I do about admitting that hyberbole this banal can be moving.
Unexpectedly, the miniseries does better by the decade’s politics than its fun, which Obst probably worries will look silly. (It was, transcendently; it does, insipidly.) The sop to the audience is that Kenny the hardcore activist is an egotistic blowhard who comes to a bad end. He also “cares more about ideas than people,” a comment the script finds so deep it’s made twice. But compared to Forrest Gump‘s dim-witted caricature of Abbie Hoffman, treating the antiwar movement’s leaders as flawed but not monstrous looks downright sophisticated— and say what you will, The ’60s does make a hero out of a guy who burns his draft card, which in 1999 strikes me as affirmation enough. Obst’s message that her generation did more good than bad before ending up like everyone else is far preferable to The Big Chill, which declared boomers so wonderful that even their sellouts had magic.
Sentimentalizing got-a-revolution into a bourgeois rite of passage may enrage militancy fans. But it’s not a misrepresentation of the movement’s or the counterculture’s rank and file, most of whom, once all tomorrow’s nirvanas went phhhft, indeed did turn once more to Sunday’s God. At one level, Pop Herlihy’s reaction when his wayward offspring all turn up on his doorstep in ’69— they’ve been reunited at (c’mon, guess) Woodstock, and did I mention that Brian comes back from ‘Nam a hairy basket case?— trivializes the whole era into a sitcom episode. Yet it’s also such a great line that I don’t want to spoil it, and the moment where the miniseries should end even if we get a surfeit of maudlin wrap-ups instead.
Of course, conceiving experience generically falsifies it. Deep down in her shallowness, even Obst probably knows there’s no such thing as “the” ’60s. But her sappiness generates its own let’s-call-it-Pavlovian validity. Because it deems radicals and hippies fit subjects for bathetic prime-time crud, The ’60s both tests and celebrates just how much of the decade’s legacy has passed into the collective acceptance that appeals to bathos presuppose— which turns out to be quite a lot. Loved every stupid minute, myself.