Tom Hanks is one of the executive producers of a stunning, revelatory, exciting and surprisingly provocative 10-part television series titled “The Sixties.” And there he is on camera at the start of Episode 1, saying, “The TV was the center of our house. I don’t remember a time without TV.”
For those of us of a certain age — Hanks was born in 1956 — television defined our view and understanding of the world and the events that took place during the 1960s, that most disorderly decade. The whole world (or at least those in the United States with TV sets, which was almost everyone) was watching, and thus did TV dominate our lives then and remain in our heads.
One TV critic in the first episode, “Television Comes of Age,” suggests, rightly, that the more benign offerings of the time — “The Flying Nun,” “Leave It To Beaver,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” “Route 66” et al; the variety shows fronted by Dean Martin, Carol Burnett, Ed Sullivan et al; talk shows hosted by Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett et al — made television for many, as another voice says, “a willful respite from things going on in real life.” Yes, but it was also our connection to that real life in visceral, enlightening and often disturbing ways.
“The Sixties,” which begins Thursday, May 29, at 9 p.m. and runs through Aug. 7, comes to us on CNN.
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Many of us have been bombarded for decades by the images and sounds and personalities (and personal memories) of the 1960s. Here, what is familiar is made fresh.
The so-called “talking heads” that populate most documentaries are, in this series, the cream of the crop. Historians, journalists, former soldiers, eye witnesses to and participants in events — all offer pointed insight and/or firsthand knowledge. These voices, combined with rare and rarely seen film footage, a thoughtful soundtrack and perfectly orchestrated editing are able to give the series (I have screened the first four episodes available at press time) an impactful relevance.
The first episode is a feast of old TV clips that are pleasing in their ability to evoke memories. It might be a little much to hear that “The Andy Griffith Show” was marked by “emotional honesty” and “unexpected depth” and that “The Fugitive” was a “somber character study,” but these analyses are examples of how the series attempts to get beyond the obvious. It seeks depth and gets a lot of it here from Tom and Dick Smothers, whose variety show was deemed too rough for TV at the time.
It all begins with Hanks and his few words, and then we are in Chicago, at the first televised presidential debate (Kennedy vs. Nixon) in September 1960, in Studio One at Chicago’s WBBM-TV. That hourlong live broadcast changed politics forever, as candidates realized that rhetoric and ideas were less important than physical style and sound bites.
TV’s power was henceforth accepted, as was its ability to transport viewers to places as ludicrously gentle as “Gilligan’s Island” or as horrific as the killing fields of Vietnam.
Episode 2, “The World on the Brink,” focuses on the “perfect failure” and “calamity” that was the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the escalating nuclear tensions between the USSR and the U.S. that had people building bomb shelters in their yards and schoolchildren hiding under desks (a lot of good that would have done) in safety drills. We watch the Berlin Wall go up and faith in our politicians erode as they try to spin facts to their liking.
Chilling and fascinating is Episode 3, “The Assassination of President Kennedy.” One of two episodes (the other is No. 5, “The Long March to Freedom”) that extend to two hours, this one details the assassination and explores in depth the conspiracy industry born of the murders (Kennedy’s and Lee Harvey Oswald’s). We are taken behind the scenes of Dallas newsrooms scrambling to tell the tragic story, hear from members of the Warren Commission and watch Oswald’s Dallas funeral — the same day as the president’s — where his six pallbearers had to be recruited from the press corps.
“The War in Vietnam,” Episode 4, is filled with film clips of soldiers fighting in jungles and protesters doing battle in our nation’s streets. Morley Safer, now the grizzled old man of “60 Minutes,” is shown giving courageously frank reports from the ground in Vietnam and now recalling the “war” as an “absurd situation.” Generals and politicians are heard lying, LBJ is seen tormented, mothers weep. Much of what happens in this hour echoes in our country’s current conflicts: Do we never learn from the past?
Future episodes will focus on such matters as civil rights, the space race, cultural upheaval, feminism, environmentalism, gay rights, moon landings, sex, drugs and rock and roll … the whole messy, maddening, wondrous decade.
As one who was witness to so much of what the series contains, or at least the TV images (and in front of the Conrad Hilton during the riots of the Democratic Convention of 1968), I was grabbed with surprising effectiveness. Those of a younger vintage should find “The Sixties” a rewarding time trip. This is history told in a most intelligent, visceral and effective fashion.
This series is part of CNN’s attempt to rebuild under the hand of former top NBC executive Jeff Zucker, CNN’s worldwide president. Two of these 10 episodes have previously aired: “The Assassination of President Kennedy” in November last year at the 50th anniversary of the murder, and “The British Invasion” (Episode 6) in February, marking the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” According to CNN, these shows attracted 21 and 15 million viewers, respectively.
Still, TV remains in more ways than ever the “vast wasteland” Newton Minow called it when he was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 1961 to 1963. In “The Sixties” we are being offered a stimulating and meaningful oasis.