60s TV: The 'Wonder', 'Grace', 'Dreams' and 'Mad'ness

The Beatles, American Bandstand, mini skirts, Sonny and Cher, Lucky Strike. All of these things hark back to the 1960s, an era that many of us (who didn’t live through that period or were children then) look at longingly, but we do so with rose tinted glasses. Still flying high in the post-war economic boom, America had freeways, the space-age, and great music (although some if borrowed from the blokes across the pond) and a youthful president. But we must not forget about the darker times of that era, such as duck-and-cover, Kennedy’s assassination, and the Vietnam War, not to mention the extreme limitations of women. Even after the decade was over, it remained popular.

Early Attempts

Rock around the clock with Richie and the FonzIn the 1970s, director/producer/star Gary Marshal dreamed up a show that highlighted the fun of the 1950s, but was worried that maybe something so trivial would go unwatched and was inappropriate in light of the Vietnam War. But a young director unknowingly came to his aid, George Lucas. Lucas painted a picture of high school seniors on their last night before flying off to college in 1962 California. With hot rods cruising the street on their way to the drive-in and girls in saddle shoes, it was rose tinted, but a huge success, and American Graffiti opened the door for Marshal and his show, Happy Days. While the rose tinted Happy Days started in the 1950s, it followed through to the 1960s, lasting eleven seasons (although many argue it overstayed its welcome, and spawned the phrase “jump the shark”), following high schooler Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard, who also stared in American Graffiti) and his friends through their coming-of-age moments and later their college years. In terms of period correctness, the errors are numerous and annoying, sometimes you just had to ignore the girl with the Farrah do in the background. It also offers up the classic stereotype of the 50s, where every girl wore a poodle skirt and saddle shoes, among others. It may have been about the 50s and 60s, but it was garish in its 70s feel. Just four years after Happy Days left the air, another show in the same vein, although a bit less rose-tinted cropped up, The Wonder Years.

The Wonder Years

Kevin and Winnie find their way in the 1960sWhile Happy Days focused on high schoolers and their bumblings through sex and other antics, The Wonder Years focused on the younger Kevin Arnold, who, with his friend Paul were just being introduced to the complex world of sex and girls, as aptly shown in the show’s second episode where they attend a sex-ed class in PE. With its voice over of an adult Kevin, the show was certainly a reflective take on the 1960s, and because the producers chose not to give Kevin’s hometown a name, it offered up the idea that Kevin and his family could have been your neighbors back in 1968, and you may have shared the same experiences. The Wonder Years chose to tackle the issues of the 1960s head on, as seen in the pilot when Winnie and her family get word that her brother has been killed in Vietnam. Additionally, Kevin’s sister is seen as a rebellious hippie, and Keven’s mother copes and adjusts to the changes of the feminist movement. More period correct than Happy Days, The Wonder Years tried to not glorify the 60s either in terms of style, and made the time period a bit more ordinary, and less stereotypical of the period. After six seasons, The Wonder Years went off the air in 1993, but found a new home in syndication on Nick at Night, but it has yet to reair since 2007, nor has it been released on DVD.

State of Grace

The Jewish Hannah copes with being in a Catholic schoolThe Wonder Years was a tough act to follow, but ABC Family tired in 2001 with its shortly lived State of Grace. Similar to The Wonder Years in its use of a voice over and ages of the characters, State of Grace followed the young Jewish Hannah as she moved to a new town to discover the only school to attend is a Catholic all girls school. She soon befriends the eccentric Grace with her even more eccentric mother.While rose tinted for the most part, it too tackles the Vietnam War and racism. State of Grace even tackled feminism in some light, but not head on. The show took another page from The Wonder Years, and kept from outlandish 60s styles, except when it fit the plot, where Twiggy eyelashes, vinyl boots and beanbag chairs worked to serve a purpose. State of Grace only lasted two years, but right on its heels was a new show about the 60s, American Dreams.

American Dreams

Roxanne and Meg enjoy being on BandstandAiring on NBC, American Dreams revolved around the Catholic Pryor family. With the pilot ending on the assassination of JFK, American Dreams shouted to the world it too would not be entirely rose tinted either, although for the most part it was.As its main character Meg and her best friend Roxanne join the regulars ofAmerican Bandstand, they and their friends and family also face tough issues of racism, polio, the pill, and eventually the Vietnam War.  It also stared Tom Verica who appeared several times on State of Grace and Brittany Snow went on to star in the film version of the musical Hairspray. The show’s first season was a hit, and earned several Emmy nominations, but as the show progressed, it began to morph into a soap opera, resulting in illegitimate children and ultimately with Meg riding off into the rain damp dark streets with a draft dodger on the back of his motorcycle. American Dreams kept its look fairly down to earth too, but loaded up its actresses with hairspray, additionally, it’s attention to detail with respect to Bandstand and music was especially nice. One rather garish error that the show makes for plots’ sake is that they keep Bandstand in Philadelphia, when in February of 1964 (which the show surpasses that date) it moved to Los Angeles. I adore the first season and own it on DVD. I would be more than inclined to own the other two seasons, but they have not been released.

Mad Men

What will season 4 of Mad Men bring??It is in this wake that America has seen yet another show about the 1960s, Mad Men. And what can I say? It has America going mad! Unlike each and every 1960s show before it, which focused on coming-of-age stories, often in the suburbs, Mad Men is about the classy, yet sinister life of Madison Avenue’s advertising devils. Mad Men is anything but rose tinted. It has tackled the pill, affairs, racism, antisemitism, smoking, the JFK/Nixon debate and everything in between all while looking fabulous! It has also really chose to focus on how women were affected during this period and how the actions of others truly affect their lives. The third season of the Emmy-winning show left its viewers with quite a bombshell, and I’m on edge wondering how its going to get pulled off, and if the fourth season may be the last. I guess will just have to wait and see!

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