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Class Dismissed: The One Word CNN's 'Seventies' Television History Won't Mention

06/10/2015 11:58 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016
Gino Santa maria via Getty Images

Nostalgia is not history. Like any effort to cram a decade's worth of noteworthy events into eight hour-long segments, CNN's "The Seventies," (9 p.m., Thursday) is as remarkable for what it neglects as what it remembers.

It's first hour, "Television Gets Real" is a good example. Employing an impressive panel of TV producers, critics and columnists, it wastes little time recalling the major trends of the time. It discusses the provocative political and social satire of "All in the Family"; the strident, funny women of "Maude" and "Mary Tyler Moore" and the rise of PBS as a serious source of historical miniseries, innovative children's programming and an offbeat British series from the Monty Python troupe. It soldiers on through the cult of "Monday Night Football" and "SaturdayNight Live"; the importance of sports in cable's rise; the advent of the network miniseries and that most Seventies of all genres: "Jiggle TV."

In shoehorning so much into any one hour, "Real" trades in some accepted wisdom about the period that could stand reexamination.

"The Seventies" repeats the common assumption that "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was essentially a reflection of the burgeoning Feminism of the period.

Sometimes such casual surveys forget to remember the past has a history of its own.

Yes, "Mary" seemed to mirror the lives of many women just entering the workforce in the 1970s. But, like many of Rhoda Morgenstern's outfits, it also reflected nostalgia for the 1940s, a time when women, bereft of men away at war, defined themselves by their work and their sisterly solidarity.

The network audience for "Mary Tyler Moore" was broad enough to contain baby boomer would-be female professionals as well as their mothers, women who had watched Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Carole Lombard and Eve Arden trade in smart sassy dialogue while projecting an effortless style -- not unlike Mary, Rhoda and Phyllis.

To this day many conservatives depict 1970s Feminism as a destructive cultural revolution that attacked the family and challenged the "normal" way of life. And that makes some sense if you accept the Feminism of "Mary Tyler Moore" as completely new and disruptive, something that announced itself between "The Mothers-in-Law" and "One Day at a Time."

But if one sees the show as a reconnection to the lost "Women's Pictures" of the 1930s and the Rosie-the-Riveter culture of the World War II era, then "Mary Tyler Moore" seems as much conservative and nostalgic as revolutionary. And in that light, the 1950s -- the cultural right's favorite decade, symbolized by submissive suburban wives -- begins to look more like an aberration than the norm.

"The Seventies" does acknowledge that after some of the more challenging series of the early 1970s, the audience clamored for calmer fair, often bathed in warm nostalgia. Viewers returned to the Eisenhower era with "Happy Days," and with "The Waltons," even seemed to prefer the Great Depression to the era of Watergate, Vietnam and gas shortages.

But "Television Gets Real" all but ignores other developments that would reflect and even further conservative agendas. We learn about the development of ESPN in 1979, but not about the launch of The Christian Broadcasting Network in 1977 or that the decade witnessed an explosion in nationally syndicated televangelism.

Most curiously of all, "Television Gets Real" neglects to mention "Dallas," one of the more popular and pivotal shows of the decade.

More than any other series, "Dallas" made being rich sexy. And that was a major departure for television in 1978. The smash success of "Dallas" would pave the way for the camp glitz of "Dynasty," and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," touchstones of the 1980s, a very different decade.

"Television Gets Real" talks about TV's radical introduction of black families, gay characters, working women and other topics. But it never mentions the taboo C-word: Class.

That's particularly strange, as nearly every show recalled in this special extolled an embrace of averageness that, forty some years later, seems downright radical. From Archie Bunker's shabby living room to Rhoda's uninsulated Minneapolis garret, to the brewery of "Laverne & Shirley," the "Sweathogs" on "Welcome Back Kotter," and the "Taxi" garage, sitcoms asked viewers to associate with blue-collar-to-middle class characters.

Lou Grant and Mary Richards felt uncomfortable crossing a picket line when their non-management colleagues -- even Ted -- went out on strike. Some years before the term "yuppie" had been coined, childless working professionals on "The Bob Newhart Show" seemed rather proud of a modest and minimal Chicago apartment. An obsession with money, possessions and status seems curiously absent on many 1970s series.

"Dallas" changed that. And in a hurry.

Just ask Karl Malden. Viewers who loved him as a detective on "Streets of San Francisco" from 1972-77 did not migrate to a 1980 drama in which Malden starred as a middle aged Union steelworker from Pittsburgh. It was cancelled after six episodes, teaching networks that blue-collar storylines had become toxic. Its title, "Skag," probably didn't help.

Perhaps the sunbelt riches celebrated on "Dallas" were merely reflecting changes already under way and that would announce themselves with a wallop by the end of the decade. In the mid-1970s, Presidents Ford and later Carter would go out of their way to demonstrate their average-guy status. Recoiling from Nixon's "Imperial Presidency," Ford let us know he made his own toast. Carter carried his own luggage. Both men would be challenged and eclipsed by Ronald Reagan, a wealthy movie star and Beverly Hills resident who seemed much more likely to have cocktails with the Ewings than with the Jeffersons. To Reagan, the pursuit of the average was not the American way.

"Dallas" did not banish lower-middle-class comedy from the dial. It would return, and with a vengeance, just as the Reagan era was ending. But after ten years of the Ewings, the Carringtons and the Huxtables, the blue collar families of "Married ... with Children" (1987), "Roseanne" (1988) and "The Simpson" (1989) were not seen as a return to TV traditions but as something offensive and subversive. Even dangerous. Perhaps because they seemed to be saying that as the 1990s approached, an average working stiff's pursuit of the American Dream had become a crude joke.

It takes more than TV nostalgia to explain how a culture and a country migrated from Kent State to Reagan in ten challenging years. And "The Seventies" has seven more hours to document that transition. Shelves of books have been written trying to explain how Ronald Reagan built a landslide majority by appealing to the love of wealth and to Christian piety -- both at the same time. Perhaps it took a medium as powerful as television to help "The Great Communicator" thread that proverbial camel (Matthew 19:24) through the eye of the needle.

Kevin McDonough is a nationally syndicated television columnist for Universal Syndicate. He is the co-author, with Andrew J. Edelstein of "The Seventies: From Hot Pants to Hot Tubs."