"Making Sense of the Sixties" is six hours of television that is short on memory and devoid of any real vision. That can make for frustrating viewing -- a long trip via the television set that ultimately takes you almost nowhere in terms of understanding the 1960s or the demographic bulge known as baby boomers, which entered early adulthood then and has dominated American popular culture ever since.
But that doesn't mean "Making Sense of the Sixties," which begins at 9 tomorrow on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and continues Tuesday and Wednesday at the same time, is a washout.
The series is an ambitious one that casts its interviewing net far and wide to bring us some interesting pictures from the times and several insightful voices from today to reflect on what those pictures mean.
The series also is representative of the programming wave about to wash over our television screens this spring. Reunions and retrospectives of TV shows from the 1960s and early '70s, which were favorites of baby boomers, are on the way this spring, along with new shows about how much baby boomers liked the old shows. What's emerging is part of a cultural obsession -- television programmers and baby boomers unable to tear themselves away from the video mirror that holds the image of their shared past.
"Making Sense of the Sixties" begins tonight with "Seeds of the Sixties" in the first hour and "We Can Change the World" in the second. The seeds of the series' fatal flaw are found in that first hour.
It shows the 1960s as a reaction to the Puritanism, repression and literal social conditioning of the 1950s. Much of the hour is spent with "educational" films -- short features shown to students in the 1950s -- found by co-executive producer David Hoffman.
The films promise girls a life of fulfillment if they learn "domestic skills" and are "obedient" to their husbands. They promise boys a good life if they "control their emotions" and "respect authority." The films are, of course, laughable now. But they were an important part of the socialization process 40 years ago.
The producers' thesis is that the underpinnings of the 1960s and counterculture were a direct reaction to such heavy-handed conditioning. "Let it all hang out" was a reaction to the warnings to "control your emotions," the producers say. "Do your own thing" resulted from constant encouragement to conform. "If it feels good, do it" was the inverse of the '50s generation being told, "Don't even think about sex."
Ricki Green, the series' other executive producer from WETA-TV in Washington, said in a press conference last week that this context is needed to understand the '60s. Ironically, that thinking is what underpins the series' failure. By focusing only on the dynamic between the '50s and the '60s, the producers miss the larger context of the overall American experience. In that sense, the series suffers from the same hubris that afflicts many from the baby boom generation: They are not much interested in anything that happened before the year of their birth.
What about the radicals of the 1930s? Were not some members of the 1960s generation -- intellectually at least -- their "children"? Did the back-to-the-country movement chronicled later in this series really spring full blown from a song by Canned Heat, "Goin' Up the Country," as the editing suggests? Wasn't it a tenet of American life from the 17th century on that he who lives near the land is nearer to goodness and God? You wouldn't know that from this series.
"Making Sense of the Sixties" lacks that kind of vision and resonance. It is the kind of vision -- looking both backward and forward -- that marked "Eyes on the Prize," "The Civil War" and even less ambitious programs such as the "American Experience" report that Garry Wills did on George Bush; that show linked Bush to a strain in American life stretching clear back beyond the Colonies.
The second half of tomorrow night's installment, "We Can Change the World," is not going to offer much to viewers who have seen "Eyes on the Prize." In fact, in reporting on the civil rights movement, it uses some of the same pictures that "Eyes" used. While it talks of "empowerment," it never makes you feel the soul-stirring process and recognition of it the way "Eyes" did.
The most frustrating installment is "Legacies of the Sixties," the final hour, which rounds up thoughts on what it was all about, Alfie, but fails to do the hard part of figuring out what is smart and what is not smart about what's been said. That's part of the series' overall problem. In the end, it is like an all-night rap session at college. A lot of people say a lot of things more or less connected to a general strain of conversation. Some of it is bright. Some of it isn't. Some of it is deeply felt. Some of it seems calculated.
Overall, it is interesting enough "to get into it," to recycle the '60s language.
But when the sun starts shafting its way through the cigarette smoke and everybody's talked out, you feel like not much has happened. In fact, it is hard to remember much of what was said.
This is a series that is finally not much more than nostalgia -- old home movies of dads in Bermuda shorts trying to work a hula hoop in front of the barbecue and kids making funny faces in front of the Christmas tree -- like the opening montage of "Wonder Years."
In that sense, for all the promotion and seriousness PBS is treating it with, "Making Sense of the Sixties" is not much deeper than the spate of reunions and retrospectives headed our way next month.
Those shows include an "All in the Family 20th Anniversary Special" Feb. 16, "The Very Best of the Ed Sullivan Show," Feb. 17 and "Mary Tyler Moore: The 20th Anniversary Show" Feb. 18. On Feb. 3, "Sunday Best," described as "a show about our shared video past," premieres.
Maybe "Legacies of the Sixties" should have looked at the fascination of baby boomers with such shows and the way that fascination can dominate culture in a consumer society where advertisers and programmers court one key age group. That's the kind of sense this series failed to make of our lives then and now.