Toward the end of The ’70s, Christie (Felicity’s Amy Smart) has gone from being a free-spirited student to a coke-snorting disco dolly to a cult brainwashee. Finally, as a sappily contented young woman, Christie says dreamily, ”Some things get better with time.” It’s unlikely you’ll feel that way about this two-night, four-hour TV movie, which concludes to the musical strains of Kool & the Gang’s ”Celebration,” whereas the Sex Pistols’ ”Pretty Vacant” might have been more appropriate, chronologically and aesthetically.
The ’70s is NBC’s attempt to reprise the popularity of last season’s miniseries The ’60s, which grabbed big ratings and caused a bit of an industry synergy stir when the network also successfully hawked a bunch of copies of the soundtrack CDs crammed with Age of Aquarius-era oldies. The ’60s maintained an upbeat momentum, blanding out the political and hallucinogenic complexities of the counterculture with prime-time prettiness. But The ’70s doesn’t fare as well, since its makers have to grapple with pink disco jumpsuits and the sallow omnipresence of Richard Nixon, who takes up an oddly disproportionate amount of the miniseries’ length trying to explain away Watergate. We watch our main protagonists watch the President sweat on TV. Does media self-consciousness get any more stagnant than this?
As for those protagonists — well, I’ve mentioned trend-chasing Christie; I know not many of you watch Felicity, but there, the producers use Amy Smart’s baleful, flies-buzzing-in-her-brain beauty to good, ironic effect. Here, she comes off like a dazed sap. It’s hard to tell why she’s so beloved by her three intelligent chums, Eileen (Vinessa Shaw, a hot up-and-comer until Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut put a zombie chill on her), Byron (Brad Rowe, from Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss), and Dexter (Guy Torry, a talented stand-up comic).
In the script by Mitch Brian and Kevin Wilmott, each of these people is turned into a period cliché who is always in the hot spot at the right time. All four pals attend Kent State and are front and center during the 1970 demonstration that left four unarmed students killed by National Guardsmen. Upon graduation, Eileen wants to be an ad-agency art director but is a victim of sexist office oppression (good thing she roomed with a feminist law student who takes her to a consciousness-raising speech by Gloria Steinem, played uncannily in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her performance by Mod Squad survivor Peggy Lipton). Byron is a lantern-jawed law student whose young-Republican zeal leads to involvement in the Watergate break-in. And Dexter becomes a grassroots black-power organizer who’s shot and wounded while brokering a meeting between quarreling factions of the Black Panthers, the NAACP, and a contingent of Black Muslims.
Only Dexter is permitted a believable range of mixed feelings as well as an interesting, healthy relationship — this with an older woman (Leslie Silva) whose radicalism informs his own. The rest of the time, The ’70s relies on its soundtrack rather than its actors to provide the emotions. It says more about liberation of all sorts to see people dancing to the Chi-Lites’ 1971 hit ”(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People” than to hear Christie gush to a virginal Eileen, ”This is the ’70s – what do you think the Pill was invented for? Sex!”
Where The ’60s had a glowing performance by Julia Stiles, who’s since gone on to feature films (well, 10 Things I Hate About You), none of The ’70s’ stars, save for Torry, shine; it’s more the actors around the edges of the movie who give it what little appeal it has. Graham Beckel and Kathryn Harrold are intriguing as Eileen’s divorcing parents, and Beckel in particular has a touching moment in which he prepares dinner for his prickly daughter in an attempt to get closer, but the scene seems cut abruptly short.
The whole movie, in fact, has a lurching, pasted-together pace, and it concludes with a sappy wedding scene that lasts so long, I thought the ’80s were going to start. But that inevitability is for another miniseries. Meanwhile, I don’t recommend the soundtrack on NBC’s website; it doesn’t include the Chi-Lites. D+