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Whether or Not You're a Baby Boomer, Don't Miss CNN's 'The Sixties'
May 28, 2014  | By David Bianculli

Two installments of CNN’s new ambitious documentary series The Sixties have been televised already, as anniversary-timed previews of the JFK assassination and the British invasion. Starting Thursday, you can, and should, see the rest…

The 10-part series is a wide-ranging team effort by CNN, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman’s Playtone Productions, and Mark Herzog’s Herzog & Company. It premieres May 29 at 9 p.m. ET with Television Comes of Age, a scene-setter that frames the decade as much of it was framed at the time: within a television screen.

Subsequent weekly episodes include encores of the two shows CNN already has presented, The Assassination of President Kennedy (June 12) and The British Invasion (July 10), and new installments on such topics as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and the Space Race.

Full disclosure demands, at this point, that I acknowledge my own participation in The Sixties, as both an on-air interview subject and a behind-the-scenes consultant for the Television Comes of Age episode that kicks off the series. My role in both respects was relatively minor, however, and limited almost completely to the episode about TV in the Sixties – which is, after all, a subject I teach at New Jersey’s Rowan University.

Besides, I’ve previewed a handful of the upcoming installments of The Sixties, and I’d react to them the same way whether or not I played a small part in one of them. This is a well-researched, well-crafted documentary series – one that selects and presents the right clips, not just the ones for which broadcast rights can be gotten cheaply or easily.

In the JFK program, there are, almost unthinkably, lots of vintage TV pieces that most viewers will see for the first time, because they’ve been culled from local archives in the Dallas-Fort Worth television market. And when any documentary on The Beatles shows me anything I haven’t seen before, as The Sixties does, I’m instantly, and thoroughly impressed.

All that it will take to sell you on this series is to persuade you to tune in. The Sixties does the rest – beautifully.

The opening Television Comes of Age episode does so much so well, in ways in which I had absolutely nothing to do with, that I’m almost giddy trying to describe it. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan shrewdly deconstructs both The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, while Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal nails what was so special about The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Major seismic TV shifts of the decade are recounted – the Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960, the JFK assassination of 1963, the Democratic National Convention of 1968 – but so are smaller, yet still significant ones. The racial barriers being challenged, from single episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show and Star Trek to the stars of I Spy and Julia. The late-night comedy, and freedom, of Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett. The shift from escapism to topicality, as personified by Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

And since I wrote the book on the Smothers Brothers, let me say what a personal treat it is to see Tom and Dick interviewed anew, together, for The Sixties – their first such national TV appearance since retiring several years ago.

All of The Sixties – every installment I’ve seen, at least – is a treat.

If you’re a Baby Boomer, old enough to have lived through that tumultuous decade, it’ll spark memories, clear up misconceptions, and connect lots of historical dots. If you’re younger, it’ll explain the 1960s in ways that very few documentaries have succeeded at doing: clearly, concisely, and cleverly.

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