The decade of the 1960s still seems to fascinate, even some 50 years later. True, it was an era of dramatic change — but so was every other decade since 1900.
The history of the ’60s, however, was documented and distributed to the general public as it happened, in a way that was fresh, new and sometimes horrifying, thanks to television.
Certainly, film exists that puts earlier decades on display, but in the 1960s, television came of age and news coverage captured innumerable major events as they happened, or immediately afterward, and spread them around the world at a rate that had never been experienced before.
A presidential assassination, a landing on the moon, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll
Perhaps the real reason we keep going back over this decade, however, is that many of the people who lived through it are still with us. Not just everyday folk but also filmmakers and TV producers.
Write (or film) what you know, right?
Hence, the 10-part TV miniseries “The Sixties” now showing each Thursday on CNN. Among its creators and participants is a very famous name — Tom Hanks. A baby boomer himself, Hanks spent his tween and early teen years growing up during that era.
I’m 8 years older than Hanks and I get it. All of those events and many more were a part of my life, too. And, despite the tragedy attached to some, there is a strange sense of nostalgia that bathes over you when reliving your past through documentaries such as these.
The only problem is there have already been too many documentaries on these subjects. What does this show have to offer that’s different?
In some cases, not much. The first episode, “Television Comes of Age,” which was shown May 29, covers overly familiar territory and barely allows sound bites from the talking heads present — which include Carol Burnett, Diahann Carroll, the Smothers Brothers and other pillars of the era.
Turns out, however, that the opening episode may be the weakest link.
The second, “The World on the Brink,” which was shown June 5, is much better as it covers the Kennedy presidential years in office, and how the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis threatened World War III. Crisp and smart and well-structured.
The third, “The Assassination of President Kennedy,” which will be shown next Thursday, June 12, is unquestionably the subject that has been the most examined and re-examined ad nauseam over the past 50 years — but this documentary is surprisingly captivating in its telling and smart enough to go beyond the event itself to discuss its impact on the country and how conspiracy theories have managed to keep it alive. This one also benefits from a two-hour running time (eight of the 10 episodes run 60 minutes).
Upcoming episodes are about civil rights (which also runs two hours), the Beatles and other British pop-music invaders, Vietnam, the space race, feminism and gay rights, and the hippie culture.
One episode is devoted to a single year, 1968, shown to be a 12-month period in which political upheaval around the world and especially in America was at a startling high. Or low.
If “The Sixties” episodes about Kennedy and the British invasion seem familiar, you may have seen them on CNN last November or February, respectively, when they were shown as stand-alone specials. All of the others are first-runs.
If you missed the two episodes that have already aired, you can catch them on July 3 when CNN will run the first five episodes in a back-to-back marathon. Set your DVRs.