Judge Victor Valdivia believes even the Grateful Dead would find this set embarrassingly sloppy.
Was the 1960s the most astounding decade in American history, as many believe?
It may have been, but you certainly wouldn't know it by this collection. Of all the "megaset" DVD packages History has released over the last year or so, The '60s is by far the most unsatisfying. Part of the problem is that unlike some of the previous compilations, this is just too broad a topic to sum up in one set. The America at War set covered military history of the United States, and The Universe: Collector's Set was devoted strictly to astronomy. This collection encompasses the Vietnam War, the Moon landing, the Kennedy Assassination, the Civil Rights Movement, and hippies. Astronomy buffs who are interested in the space program are not going to be interested in the history of psychedelic drugs, and pop culture junkies curious about the hippie movement will find the military heavy shows on the Vietnam War uninvolving. Far worse is that this set is much too erratic, compiling some good shows alongside some of the worst History has ever done. Viewers who shell out for this collection will be incensed to pay for some discs that they will certainly never watch more than once. Unlike most sets of this size, it's actually a better idea to buy the programs individually than all at once on this package. It's the only way to avoid getting, to use '60s lingo, "ripped off."
The '60s compiles the contents of the previously released box sets The Vietnam War, JFK: A Presidency Revealed, History Presents: The Race to the Moon, Voices of Civil Rights and Days of Rage and Wonder, in addition to the discs King and 1968 With Tom Brokaw and two discs of additional shows. Here are the shows compiled on all fourteen discs:
With such a breadth of topics, it's not surprising that the shows are a mixed bag. What's shocking is how truly terrible some of them really are. By far the two worst offenders are the Tom Brokaw shows, King and 1968. Brokaw's middlebrow ponderousness and timidity makes these shows so whitewashed that no viewer could possibly find anything remotely unpleasant or disagreeable about them. For shows built around the most turbulent period of the late twentieth century, that's an enormous failing. King is particularly toothless, turning one of the most insurrectionary and controversial figures in American history into a big ol' huggable teddy bear. It's the MLK even Dick Cheney could love. Both shows are also padded with inane celebrity interviews that surely goosed ratings but add nothing of significance. After watching these shows, you'll wonder how on earth Brokaw ever earned any reputation as a serious journalist.
Though none of the other shows are quite as dreadful, they're also not always successful. Peyote to LSD is meant to examine the life and work of botanist and anthropologist Dr. Richard Evans Schultes, who is credited as having discovered and popularized many psychedelic plants and substances, by recreating his most adventurous journeys. Unfortunately, the show's host and narrator, Wade Davis (a former student of Schultes'), takes this too literally and decides to indulge in all of the psychedelic rituals Schultes chronicled, including a peyote ceremony, a yage ritual, and a psilocybin rite. These interminable scenes stop the show cold, since there's almost nothing more boring in the world than hearing about someone else's drug experiences. At those points, the show stops being about Schultes and is more about Davis, who frankly isn't nearly as interesting. Similarly, the shows in the Vietnam collection, except for the one about LBJ, are too narrowly focused on the military to interest most viewers. The Vietnam War was by far the most politicized war the United States fought in the twentieth century, so stripping out the politics leaves out almost all of the most important decisions necessary to understanding it.
The box isn't just inconsistent in the quality of shows. These are all just randomly assembled, in no order or logic. What possible common thread could run through shows as different as Sex in the Vietnam War and Modern Marvels: Apollo 11 other than their time period? Also, don't be fooled by the prominent pictures of Bob Dylan and Steve McQueen on the front of the box. Apart from a few bits and pieces in 1968, Peyote to LSD, and Hippies, the pop culture of the era is ignored. Considering that pop culture, especially music, was such a crucial part of the '60s counterculture, this omission is inexcusable. Maybe some Biography episodes dedicated to notable musicians and actors of the era should have been included on this set, especially since many of the shows that are included instead have been released and recompiled many times before.
The package isn't a total loss. JFK: A Presidency Revealed, Failure is Not an Option, and the Voices of Civil Rights series are amongst the best that History has to offer. These are entertaining and informative shows, incorporating fascinating new information and perspectives rarely heard on television. Some of the less hyped shows, like the ones compiled on discs 11 and 14, are also well-done. Not surprisingly, these are older, dating from around the time when the History Channel really did show programs about history instead of warmed-over reality crap like Ax Men. Still, even with these programs, there's just too much dross mixed in to make this box worth getting.
The technical quality of the shows is also inconsistent. The older programs look less sharp and crisp than the more recent material, and the quality of the archival footage varies. The same is true for the Dolby Digital stereo mix. The extras from the original releases of 1968 (bonus interviews and thoughts from Brokaw) and Failure is Not an Option (commentary) are included. The commentary is worth hearing, but the extra footage for 1968 isn't any more useful than the main feature. Otherwise, there are no other extras, making this set (which lists for $199.99) an extremely bad buy for value. Yes, there are some good shows here but it would probably be better for viewers to pick those up individually. This box is too expensive and unwieldy to justify getting it just for them. Ultimately, The '60s is guilty of being wildly uneven, both in selection and execution. Save your money and get the good shows separately instead.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• Commentary on "Failure is Not an Option"
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