Having survived the '70s - the decade and the NBC miniseries - boy do I miss "The '60s." The clothes were way better, for one thing, and so was the use of archival footage in dropping a fictional family into the decade that gave us JFK's Camelot, the Beatles, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the "I Have a Dream" speech, Woodstock and enough youthful rebellion to last a few lifetimes.
Trying to create an apparent franchise, NBC has graduated to "The '70s," a four-hour miniseries that takes the old formula and applies it to the decade that produced four dead in Ohio, Watergate, disco, streaking, feminism, the Silent Majority, President Nixon's resignation, odd-even days at gas stations, the Alaskan pipeline and Jonestown.
"The '70s" dispenses with any background and simply plunges us into the lives of four friends at Kent State University in May 1970. Unrelated to anyone in the previous project, they are: child of privilege and aspiring lawyer Byron (Brad Rowe); his Cosmo-quoting sister, Christie (Amy Smart); Byron's devoted girlfriend, Eileen (Vinessa Shaw); and their friend Dexter (Guy Torry), an African-American and member of the Ohio National Guard.
As in the past, the characters are either witnesses or participants in history. They watch the ROTC barracks burn at Kent State and then happen upon the parking lot and nearby hill where the Guard - Dexter included - open fire on the students, killing four.
Dexter, convinced the Guard was wrong to fire on unarmed students, flees to California. Christie gets a job selling lipstick at a department store. Byron goes to law school in New York and Eileen follows, enrolling at Barnard College. In one of the biggest leaps of fictional faith, Byron serendipitously shares a cab with a young Republican and ends up with a job with the Committee to Re-Elect the President.
Byron happily agrees to participate in disinformation campaigns and dirty tricks and even figures into the Watergate break-in. If you have to pick an alternate universe version of Watergate, go with the silly movie "Dick," in which a couple of teens on their way to mail an entry for a Tiger Beat contest cross paths with the burglars.
In "The '60s," which aired in February 1999, Julia Stiles was a standout as wild child Katie. She brought rebellion, desperation and passion to her character of runaway hippie and unwed mother.
In "The '70s," Smart (Ruby on the WB's "Felicity), is given a similar role in Christie who is, by turns, former homecoming queen, model, girlfriend to fast-living record producer and then proponent of every California cliche in the book, from communing with trees and rolfing to primal screaming. Katie was given real problems to grapple with - being estranged from her father and trying to beg money to feed her child. Christie may be as lost as Katie, but her character is more vacuous and it's hard to care about her in the same way.
As Byron, Rowe seems like a low-rent Brad Pitt. Even when he's on the run from subpoena servers, his hair looks perfect. It's Shaw, who played a prostitute in "Eyes Wide Shut," who shines here.
As their earlier counterparts did, writers Mitch Brian and Kevin Willmott seem to have made a checklist and then invented ways their characters could participate in the big events of the decade. It becomes somewhat laughable when Byron is called to the Watergate hearings and Christie suggests to her boyfriend that the 1973 King Harvest tune should be "Dancing in the Moonlight" instead of "Singing in the Moonlight."
There are also anachronistic moments, as when someone suggests bikini-clad women are being "objectified" and the response is, "Thanks for sharing." I don't remember that first word being in wide use in the early '70s, even among Ms. magazine subscribers, and that second phrase seems a modern rejoinder.
The story is strongest when it deals with the working life of Eileen, the Barnard fine-arts grad who wants to be an art director and is shunted to secretarial jobs. When she finally decides to sue for sexual discrimination, the mini-series has a ring of truth.
Maybe that's because it's not shoehorning Eileen into some historic happening but playing out her own story, invented though it may be. The best moment comes when one of Eileen's colleagues, a longtime secretary, testifies in court. "Twenty-two years I've been on the job and they all call me Betty," she says, while she addresses her young, male bosses as "Mister." She says she just "chokes it down," but the girls today want more.
That scenario tells more about the women's liberation movement than any march or faux Gloria Steinem (surprise doppelganger Peggy Lipton, in what amounts to a cameo) ever can. If the mini-series does anything, it will remind a younger audience of what working women faced in the '70s - when their role in society was in transition. Of course they can do what Eileen does, which is watch "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" where Mary Richards grappled with similar issues.
The weakest element of "The '70s" is the Dexter story. He is woven into Kent State and then, after he heads West, into the black power movement, the rise of blaxploitation films (he runs a movie house where the audience would rather see Melvin Van Peebles than Ryan O'Neal), the changes in Los Angeles, rising scourge of drugs and the need for rehab centers.
And of course it wouldn't be the '70s without a glittery ball and disco dancing. Do the hustle! When it comes to some things, once really is enough.