Maligned as superficial and lacking in cultural value, the 1970s have long been a misunderstood decade, though it was hardly the decade’s fault: Pop culture historians have managed to align everything before “Frampton Comes Alive” with the 1960s and marked the end of the ’70s abruptly with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan and the release of hostages in Iran. The carefree lifestyle of drugs, disco and divorce — from spouses and reality — gave the end of the decade its shape, but there was a substantial portion of the population that arrived at 1970 with a curious blend of disillusionment and hope. Those are the stories that give “The ’70s” its heft.
The two-nighter begins on the campus of Kent State U. in Ohio the day before the National Guard is called in to quell disturbances that culminated in the burning of the ROTC building. Producers couldn’t pick a better starting point: It was America’s wakeup call to a divisiveness that went beyond generational. The horror of the bloodshed demonstrated how the Vietnam War had become a minefield at home.
The four characters whose intersecting and divisive lives chronicle “The ’70s” are present at the Kent State massacre — none of them particularly political and one, Dexter Johnson (Guy Torry), in the uniform of the National Guard. The four will see their lives touch on all the hot-button issues of the 1970s without a single one overwhelming the other. Each character carries a bit of ’60s rebellion and at least a bit of debt to their 1950s-informed upbringing.
Best of all, these are four realistic lives played out by adept actors as they separately get involved in Nixon’s re-election campaign, the black power movement, women’s rights, cults, environmentalism and, of course, disco and drugs. The casting work by Ronnie Yeskel and Richard Hicks is perfect — each actor is supremely suited to play each role.
It’s their initial post-college involvement in the real world that will attract and build the audience. The first night is a gripping two-hour telepic; the niceties of night two and television’s constant desire to wrap up things with tidy bows provide the show’s ultimate downfall. It’s not that these Americans couldn’t have entered the 1980s with a new set of aspirations, it’s just that the neatness with which the film concludes suggests a Hayes Code adherence that just didn’t seem to happen all that often 20 years ago.
Byron (Brad Rowe) moves to New York to study law and has managed to convince girlfriend Eileen Wells (Vinessa Shaw) to come with him — she attends Barnard College. In the haste to catch an uptown cab, he meets and shares a ride with Elizabeth (Chandra West), who not only becomes instantly infatuated with Byron, but she also gets him a job with the Committee to Re-elect the President in D.C. Before long, he is sent on undercover missions and gets close to some White House biggies; after the election, he is rewarded with a post at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. (There is even a slight hint that he may be Woodward and Bernstein’s Deep Throat — or that he may know who is).
Eileen dumps Byron after a surprise visit to D.C. finds him at dinner with Elizabeth, and she immediately embraces the feminist theology of her Barnard roommates. As much as Byron lives by the conservative dogma of his parents, Eileen rejects almost every notion of the generation that came before — until her parents’ sudden divorce finds mom (the charming Kathryn Harrold as Connie Wells) at her daughter’s Manhattan doorstep.
Byron’s sister, meanwhile, has made the Manhattan transfer as well, trying her hand at modeling, where she sees some success, and then acting, where she refuses to become a victim of the casting couch. She falls in with junkie record producer Nick (Michael Easton) and is soon battling demons with drugs and drink. Her journey will eventually take her to California, where she tries on a series of alternative lifestyles until she winds up in a cult called the Path.
Male characters are fleshed out better than females in “The ’70s,” and Dexter’s saga has the greatest ring of truth. He abandoned Kent State and his affiliation with the National Guard, heading to Los Angeles where he winds up buying and restoring a movie theater in Watts. His movie palace will eventually be home to films the black community wants to see, beginning with Melvin Van Peeble’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” The theater also will serve as a meeting place for community and political groups.
Involved with the Black Panthers, Dexter is on his way to a summit meeting with the Panthers, the NAACP and the Muslims when he is gunned down, closing part one on an overly dramatic note.
Part two is where “The ’70s” slips. A new reality has set in for the four: Byron has no future in politics and is even brought before the Watergate hearings; Eileen, trying to become an art director at an ad agency, can’t get out of a vicious secretarial cycle; a recovered Dexter finds a changed neighborhood threatens his theater; and Christie is on a search for happiness.
To make matters worse, Dexter and Byron have practically come to blows, and Byron has cut off his parents as well. He moves to Alaska to work on the pipeline, eventually landing on the oil-spilling Valdez, where he threatens to go to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward unless the company begins to clean up its fish-killing mess. Yes, it’s a bit forced.
Christie’s involvement with the cult is the conduit to bring all the parties back together. Dexter, who has sold his theater and built a clinic to help the chemically dependent, is brought in to help kidnap and then deprogram Christie. Eileen, who has lost a sexual discrimination suit, is there to reclaim her friend, and Byron, is once again attempting patch things up with his former college sweetheart. It ends with smiling faces all around.
Storyline is an improvement on the 1960s mini last year, and the compactness of the saga puts the show on the right path conceptually; that all of these are stories of triumph is what makes the collection a little hard to swallow.
Miniseries has definite mid-’70s feel in the costumes, locations and references — such as Mary Tyler Moore as role model. A few clever touches slide into the dialogue — a one-night stand is introduced as “a zipless”; there’s a reference to Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying”; and during a fight, the insult of “jive turkey” is tossed out — but a few more examples of pop culture and the era’s lingo would’ve been welcome.
Island Records last week released a soundtrack of the show, yet the CD is lacking two of the key musical match-ups: “Layla” by Derek and the Dominoes, and “Whipping Post” by the Allman Brothers Band. Music of the era dominates the atmospherics, with music supervisors going for moods rather than chronological correctness. With 60 songs cleared for the two nights, it seems a bit strange that the only time music is discussed is at a recording session involving Nick, Christie and changing a word in a song that would eventually make King Harvest a one-hit wonder.
Historical footage is intelligently assembled, and supplies a Reader’s Digest synopsis for the folks who weren’t there. (Chronology, however, is a bit off here and there).
Location and on-the-lot shots, including interiors, are top-notch across the board.