Let's just proclaim Tom Hanks America's Official Historian.
The first TV program Hanks ever produced was the monumental miniseries From Earth to the Moon (1998). His G.I. dramas Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010) remain the definitive World War II miniseries. And now he's the executive producer of CNN's ambitious attempt to crystalize the most turbulent decade of the past half-century, the 10-part documentary series The Sixties.
CNN has made a few episodes available to the press for preview, and based on those installments The Sixties, like the 60s, is something of a mixed bag. When it comes to covering the top news stories of the decade, the series can be spot-on (well it had better be; this is CNN, after all). But the series' attempts at tracing the era's entertainment and cultural trends seem aimed more at cramming in as many clips as possible, rather than finding a coherent narrative.
Appropriately, the series begins May 29 with an episode called "Television Comes of Age," the premise being that from its "boob tube" 1950s infancy TV matured during the 1960s into a cultural mirror that revealed the harsh realities that America had previously failed to acknowledge (note to CNN: go ahead and Google the legendary 1950s newsman Edward R. Murrow).
The early-decade clips include dismissive references to shows like T he Addams Family, Gilligan's Island, The Flying Nun, and Gidget (Sally Field, the star of those last two, is on hand to share in the eye rolling).
But then come the late 60s, and with them TV's first twitches of social awareness. We see a lot of clips from Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, which is over-analyzed here as a transitional vehicle between old-school comedy (the veteran hosts in their ever-present tuxedos) and an edgy new direction in topical humor (the younger cast members, including Goldie Hawn and Arte Johnson, in their miniskirts and Nehru jackets). In fact, Laugh-In was firmly rooted in the past, sort of the illegitimate child of vaudeville and Ernie Kovacs. It was funny, all right, but not a societal watershed.
One promising segment involves the emergence of great Black comedians during the 1960s, including Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and Flip Wilson. But have you noticed an annoying trend in shows like this, where the producers take a classic scene or routine and break it up into little segments, then insert some talking head to explain to us why what we're watching is funny?
"Television Comes of Age" does that with nagging regularity, most egregiously during Flip Wilson's classic "Ugly Baby" routine from 1965. For my money this may the funniest and best-told joke of all time:
Johnny Carson is right. "That's one of the funniest lines I've ever heard in my life!" But really, wouldn't you want hear the whole joke?
Other parts of "Television Comes of Age" do get it right. The segment on talk show hosts from Jack Paar to Johnny Carson to Merv Griffin to Dick Cavett makes us long for the days when late-night shows were like cool cocktail parties where actors, authors, politicians and scientists gathered on that long couch to engage in actual conversations. And a good deal of well-deserved time is spent on The Smothers Brothers (still funny as ever in a new interview), who really did change the landscape of TV comedy, and got fired for their trouble.
As you'd expect, CNN is more sure-footed in the previewed episodes that deal primarily with news content. The episode on the Cold War comes out with guns blazing, declaring that JFK's lie about the Soviets' advantage in the so-called "Missile Gap" may have gotten him elected, but also poisoned the international political tone for the rest of the decade. Curiously, though, the hour-long episode covers only the JFK years, and implies that the Cold War was exclusively a U.S.-Soviet affair. Presumably, the Chinese component of the Cold War will be covered in the not-previewed "War in Vietnam" episode.
Airing weekly through July 31, The Sixties will include eight new documentaries: "Television Comes of Age" (May 29); "The World on the Brink" (June 5); "The War in Vietnam" (June 19); "A Long March to Freedom" (June 26); "The Space Race" (July 10); "The Times, They are A-Changin'" (July 17); "1968" (July 24); and "Sex, Drugs, and Rock N'Roll" (July 31)
Two previously aired CNN specials are included in The Sixties' 10-week run: "The Assassination of President Kennedy" (June 12) and "The British Invasion" (July 3). The JFK episode, in particular, is a superior piece of documentary film making, utilizing little-seen TV coverage, rare news report outtakes, and emotion-charged man-on-the-street interviews from those dark days. Much time is spent exploring the ensuing JFK conspiracy craze, demonstrating just how deeply the assassination got its bloody claws into our national psyche.
In one revealing street interview from the mid-1960s, a woman declares confidently that she knew there were multiple gunmen in Dealey Plaza from the moment she saw the assassination on live TV that day. "I just happened to be home at that time," she says. Of course, there was no live coverage of the murder, and only Abraham Zapruder's 8-millimeter home movie exists of the actual event (there's an interesting interview with his granddaughter). Still, the woman's words capture that national sense that we were all, in a way, witnesses to the death of JFK. And that was largely because television-which really did come of age that awful weekend-drew us together, like a grieving family.
Despite its sometimes blinkered look at 10 turbulent years, The Sixties is always engaging television, particularly for those of us of a certain age. Which leads me to suspect that what we're seeing here is history not as defined by nerdy historians, but by savvy TV producers.
Carol Burnett and the Smothers Brothers: Matt Derba for Herzog & Company
Alexandra Zapruder: CNN