Reliving the 1960s through retro TV shows

Living through the 1960s was weird enough for a lifetime, now television gives us a chance to relive it.

Do we have to?

Earlier, we were eased into the decade with "Mad Men," the award-winning AMC show set in the 1960s. It is self-described as a "sexy, stylized and provocative . . . drama (that) follows the lives of the ruthlessly competitive men and women of Madison Avenue advertising, an ego-driven world where key players make an art of the sell."

I rarely miss it.

Emboldened I suppose by the show's success, we now are served up two more '60s retro shows, ABC's "Pan Am," which centers on the old Pan American World Airways (its stewardesses), and NBC's "The Playboy Club" (its bunnies).

Could this be the beginning of a trend?

At the time of this writing, I've seen neither one, but the early reviews aren't especially good. That will either kill off any further attempts to market the '60s, which could be a good thing for the national psyche, or inspire a better product, also a good thing. Either possibility is better than the current batch of banal reality shows.

What puzzles me, though, is why it has taken us so long to latch on to the '60s for popular entertainment. In addition to the decade's aforementioned weirdness, it is arguably the most important 10 years in the second half of the 20th century. Also, the most depressing, interesting, goofy, creative, inspiring and exciting.

I say arguably because I think it is legitimately rivaled by only one other decade: the 1950s. Every decade that has followed is merely a spinoff of those two.

Any television show depicting the decade thus needs to rise to a level that's commensurate with the decade's importance. Shows about ad men, stewardesses and Hugh Hefner fall short (especially shows that relate in any way to Hefner, the prototypical dirty old man). Interestingly enough, both liberals and conservatives of certain stripes are blasting the show: Social conservatives because of the libertine culture that it fostered and feminists because it toasts Heffie, in the running for the half century's most chauvinistic pig. They're both right.

I suppose you could argue that these shows are meant only to be entertainment, so leave them alone. But if we are to reprise the '60s, why with stilted portrayals? More than half of today's Americans were born after the '60s or are too young to have any significant memories of the decade. It would be a shame if their impressions of the '60s were as simple-minded and inaccurate as the "Ozzie and Harriet" cliches that characterize the1950s.

The '60s perhaps were unmatched for drama. Here's just one: the Cuban missile crisis. The world shivered at the prospect that the greatest fear of the '50s — nuclear warfare — would be realized as the United States and the Soviet Union literally faced off. American warships were prepared to fire the first shots of the war at ships carrying Soviet missiles destined for Cuba to be aimed at cities as far away as Washington, D.C. The hours and days ticked slowly away while visions of nuclear annihilation danced in the heads of children.

I'm not a fan of what the 1960s wrought, specifically the era of radical individualism that has helped unravel the social contract that has blessed America with greatness, prosperity and liberty. By redefining liberty as hedonism, the 1960s have nearly obliterated concepts of our entwining threads of responsibility. As the great philosopher P.J. O'Rourke noted in his seminal analysis of liberty, "Don't Vote; It Just Encourages the Bastards," in the upheavals of the '60s, you never heard the cry, "Responsibility to the people!"

For good or bad, the 1960s were crammed with suspense, spectacle, consequence, tragedy and lots of funny stuff. If television producers can't find a script in that, which is better than the concept of women in bunny tails, then there's not much hope that this decade can rise to that dizzying level of the '60s.


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  • Dennis, one 60s icon was tasteless then, only to become pretentious now. I speak, with no small scorn, of the man who would be a cultural force in our fair land. Hugh the Hefner...! I happily had the chance to roast him once. Frankly, his claim to fame should be as a very successful entrepreneur. But a cultural force in bringing a new freedom to society? Please...! That's a little like saying Mel Gibson brought a new truth to the Jews.

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