On May 1, Jonathan Last, writing about "The West Wing" in the leftist online magazine Salon, declared that "liberals can do drama well and conservatives can't." I tend to agree. Yet that night, when NBC's four-hour dramatic miniseries "The '70s" wrapped up, millions of viewers were forced to conclude that liberals are also fully capable of producing awful drama.
Inevitably, much of "The '70s" deals with the sociopolitical uproar that started in the previous decade. (The tumultuous period we think of as "the '60s" somehow actually began in the fall of 1963 with JFK's assassination and ended in the summer of 1974 with Nixon's resignation.)
In a sense, "The '70s" does present both sides of the issues that divided the nation at the time. Unfortunately, while the liberal arguments here resemble what respectable, intelligent real-life liberals were saying back then, the conservative positions are not quite the ones you would have read in National Review - and not only are they unsophisticated, they're also stated by people who are at best naive and at worst would-be murderers.
A mainstay in the miniseries is Byron, an eager-beaver young Republican who soon after graduating from college lands a job with Nixon's re-election committee. He sabotages a McGovern-Shriver press conference by stealing reporters' shoes from outside their hotel rooms, then infiltrates the Democrats' campaign and helps plan the Watergate break-in. (Yes, in the '70s according to "The '70s," McGovern picked Shriver as his running mate before that infamous "third-rate burglary" - one of many chronological boo-boos in this project.) Oh, and when Byron isn't busy scheming on behalf of Tricky Dick, he's cheating on his girlfriend.
As the likes of Bob Woodward expose more and more of the scandal, Byron suffers a mini-crisis of conscience over what he and the Nixon administration have done, but his father, who's at least as loyal a Republican as his son, won't hear of it. "These are dangerous times," he lectures Byron. "Every day, some new extremist group showin' up wantin' to overthrow the government. Black power, gray power, pink power, for God's sake. It's a civil war, is what it is. The president only did what he had to do to protect the law-abiding citizens of this country."
The really creepy figure is a shadowy Nixon operative who justifies the administration's criminality ("You and I have preserved this nation for the God-fearing people that matter") and threatens Byron's life when Byron considers going public with his knowledge of Watergate. The operative hints that he had something to do with the assassination attempt on Byron's best college friend, a black community organizer. This is too much, of course. Before long, Byron calls the Vietnam War "evil," grows a beard, moves to Alaska to help build the pipeline, and becomes an environmental activist.
"The '70s" also takes a straw-man approach to feminism, opposed by only the most clueless or smug male chauvinists. One middle-aged woman leaves her husband and moves to New York to, uh, find herself, a process which of course includes reading that sexual-liberation manifesto "Fear of Flying." The husband is at first upset over his wife's departure but in the end, his consciousness raised, he actually tells his thirtyish daughter, "We've come a long way, baby." (There are more cliches in "The '70s" than there are historical inaccuracies.)
But the most ridiculous element of "The '70s" relates to the plotline in which Byron's sister joins a cult. A film montage of real-life '70s cultists and their leaders includes one guru who remarks, "More is never enough. There's only a moment of enough. It's just the same as the moment of orgasm." Incredibly, the next "cult leader" shown is...Billy Graham. That vicious, gratuitous insult to Christianity and one of its finest preachers is followed by another vicious, gratuitous insult, as an unidentified voice comments, "The recruitment techniques are so sophisticated that almost any one of us could be captured by the approach of various cults."
It's hard to believe that "The '70s" ends on such a different note, but it does. Byron becomes a Bad Republican again. Clean-shaven, he marries that long-suffering college girlfriend, and the lead-in to the wedding scene is a montage from the 1980 Reagan campaign - but this time, as far as I could tell, not offered at all ironically. It doesn't make up for all the liberal crusading that preceded it, but it does lead one to hope that if NBC does "The '80s," it won't be just the broadcast television premiere of "American Psycho."