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CNN gets a grip on The Sixties, with substance

CNN has temporarily abandoned its obsession with the missing Malaysian plane. It has, however, continued to morph into a vaguely classier version of TLC. Celebrity-connected, up-market reality TV, parading as "docu-series," such as Chicagoland.

Now comes The Sixties (CNN, 9 p.m.), a multipart series running through August. You might think, "Oh no, not some schmaltz about the Sixties again." To some the decade means nothing, really. Me, I was 12 when the 1960s ended, and not caring much about how groovy it was. Because it wasn't, where I was located.

One of the executive producers here is Tom Hanks and, thankfully, the series aims to look closely at the 1960s not in some reverie of nostalgia, but by exploring aspects of the decade that truly resonate today, or act as indicators that not much has changed. It abounds with echoes.

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The first episodes are way better than expected. This is a series with a knowing tone – it is more interested in being reflective than in recapturing excitement with familiar footage, or in nerdy nostalgia. There's a refreshing sense that the point is to trace the purpose and significance of the turns and twists of the 1960s that might seem overly familiar to some people.

The opening program tonight, Television Comes of Age, is a very strong start. The point of beginning with TV is anchored in the fact that almost every single home in the United States had a TV set in 1960. As a communications and entertainment platform, it defined everything.

TV creators, critics and academics discuss the impact of TV, from the innocuous sitcoms to the searing news reports. "It was a new way of bringing the world to you," Tom Hanks says. "Television was the main event." (Later Hanks describes watching the Walt Disney show in colour as "like an acid trip," even though he was a little kid at the time.) And, tellingly, it all starts with politics.

We see part of the first televised presidential debate as John F. Kennedy clashed with Richard Nixon in September, 1960, at a studio in Chicago. We see Nixon declining to react to a question from Kennedy. We see Kennedy's relaxed demeanour and Nixon's sullen face. As one pundit says of it all, "If you're live on television, there's nowhere to hide." That's what starts this long look at the entire decade, and rightly so.

Later we have Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan musing about The Andy Griffith Show, talking about its "unexpected depth." Carl Reiner says that while working on The Dick Van Dyke Show he wrote about what was real – "the problems of living."

Someone else talks about sitcoms "tackling a social subject subtly, without seeming to tackle it." One of the Smothers Brothers notes the power of TV then by saying, "There were only three networks and one late-night show."

This is not in any way a dozy trip down memory lane for baby boomers. There's sensible talk about television's role in shaping perceptions, acting as escapism and being manipulated. Gilligan says, "It was where you escaped. A willful respite from what was going on in real life." Then it moves on to discussion of "real life" and how it appeared on TV news – and came of age with the JFK assassination. For most Americans, the Vietnam War and the civil-rights movement were experienced through TV.

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The second instalment, The World on the Brink, takes us through the Cold War and we experience the heightened tone, the gravity of the voices in the TV coverage. The palpable fears of real people. But there's substance to it to – the U.S. government's handling of a U-2 spy plane shot down in the Soviet Union is presented to us as a massive effort at lying by that government. The National Security Agency, then as now, proved an unreliable source of information. We get the Cuban missile crisis and hear a TV reporter say, "There is no way of knowing if Western civilization will live or die."

In general, mass media pays too much attention to the 1960s as an era. Look at the brooding about Mad Men and the nitpicking over its content. It must seem absurd to younger generations. And yet, much can be learned from a close study of the Sixties, and learning something is what this CNN series aims for. Which is, actually, as they used to say, groovy.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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