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'Polyester' or Not, History Snags Viewers

May 08, 2000|SCOTT ESSMAN | Scott Essman is a Los Angeles-area freelance entertainment writer. His book, "Freelance Writing for Hollywood," will be published in June. He can be contacted at

In my years as a voracious reader of everything I could get my hands on related to entertainment industry journalism, I have always presupposed that the point of arts criticism was to shed light on the positive and negative attributes of a particular project. Though infusing one's opinion into a review is unavoidable, clouding a critique of a movie, concert or TV program with personal biases, politics and preferences does a disservice to readers and potential audiences of the projects in question.

Unfortunately, Howard Rosenberg did just that as regards a recent TV project, riddling his write-up with inappropriate perspectives and missing the entire point of providing readers with relevant commentary on the show's strengths and weaknesses in the process.

In his misinformed review of NBC's miniseries "The '70s" ("There's Lots of Polyester in 'The '70s', " April 28), Rosenberg writes that the project came into existence only because its predecessor, last year's "The '60s," drew an enormous audience, "the way a freeway crash draws a crowd." Perhaps a better explanation for the ratings success of "The '60s" is that millions of Americans--even those like myself too young to have experienced the period first-hand--wanted to see a dramatization of the landmark events that shaped that pivotal decade, a time that is too often ridiculed or dismissed in contemporary entertainment. Both "The '60s" and "The '70s" offered viewers a satisfying combination of dramatizations, news footage and period music and fashion that shed light on what life was like for many through those years.

Rosenberg further remarks that "The '70s" gives the impression that all Americans who lived through that decade as adults were heavily involved in sociopolitical movements "and gave little thought to the ordinary routine of life."

Though his statement might be earnest in its intent, it reveals a decided lack of understanding about the basic nature of drama. What chronicle of history could possibly be compelling if it showed characters in their ordinary routine of life? Should we have been treated to two hours of Rhett Butler working on a plantation? Of the soldiers in "Platoon" marching endlessly in the jungle? Of Luke Skywalker choosing to stay on his planet as a farm boy?

Audiences are sophisticated enough to realize that the essence of drama is fabrication; reality can be simulated in a story without subjecting viewers to the daily tasks with which most of us are readily familiar. Strategically, "The '70s" chose to represent that decade's most important events through the eyes of its characters.

Lastly, in a knock on the archetypal constructs of "The '70s" teleplay, Rosenberg notes that one conservative character in the miniseries inherited his traits "from his rich, sniffy and naturally rigidly narrow-minded parents." Though this comment is drenched in mockery, there is a factual basis for Rosenberg's thinly veiled swipe at the counter-cultural elements of the '60s and '70s.

Millions of parents to children of the late '60s-early '70s (also knows as baby boomers) were in fact Eisenhower-bred nouveau riche suburbanites.

In response to their rigid upbringing, many of these children became the activists, rebels and free spirits of the ensuing decades. Who were the volunteers who went to the South to register black voters? Who attended Woodstock? Who marched against the Vietnam War? Most were the upper-middle-class sons and daughters of parents whose 1950s values were the product of regimented thinking, conformity and static conservatism, and those kids were clearly disillusioned by their parents' way of life.

Perhaps to Rosenberg's personal dismay, this was clearly presented in the relationship that the major characters in "The '70s" have with their parents and was part of the reality of growing up in that time for millions of young people.

Obviously, "The 70s" and "The '60s" before it are touching a nerve in audiences. According to a May 3 article in The Times, the first evening of "The '70s" drew more than 12 million viewers. Whether all of them lived through the period and can relate to it individually is unimportant; the bottom line is that people are interested in recent history, and shows like "The '70s" are bold enough to keep us from forgetting how significant recent times are to our current realities.

Rosenberg sarcastically closes his column by predicting that next year NBC will be back with "something called 'The '80s.' " Here's at least one viewer who is looking forward to another such entertaining and dramatic look back.

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