"After the Sexual Revolution," tonight's ABC News "Closeup" documentary, is certainly exhaustive, but then you'd expect any three-hour documentary to be exhaustive. "Revolution" examines social changes wrought by the women's movement and the emergence of women in the American work place and finds much convincing cause for concern.
The question is whether a huge three-hour lump of this stuff is the best way to present such material. The program, at 8 tonight on Channel 7, has been produced with all kinds of energized inventiveness, and yet it tends to be just sprawlingly numb, a great torrent of facts and figures and observations that pours out without the impact its producers must have imagined for it.
Anchor Peter Jennings opens the program with a historical introduction and then prefaces each of the evening's four thematic compartments: "Women at Work," "Women and Men," "The New American Family" and "After the Sexual Revolution." The last sequence is a bit of a preachment about what ought to be done about things, and correspondent Richard Threlkeld lays it on pretty thick:
"We are now a nation at risk, but if we are to reinforce our families, rescue our children, protect our own future, we must see things the way they really are . . . "
Come to think of it, Threlkeld lays everything on a bit thick. He has an irritating, unrelenting, declamatory speaking style, and yet he doesn't seem able to put points across with much authority or finality. A lot of him goes a little way.
Jennings notes at the outset that the two chief correspondents on the report, Threlkeld and Betsy Aaron, are in real life husband and wife. This is nice, even if it gives a kind of CNN feel to the proceedings. But having made that point, it seems odd that Threlkeld gets what appears to be much the larger share of narrating chores on the broadcast. Aaron seems reduced to helpmate status. So much for the revolution.
There is reason to believe that the documentary was inspired in part by ABC News' own internal problems in facing up to the potentials and demands of the modern woman. A number of meetings between management and unhappy members of women's and minority caucuses within the organization were held at ABC News during the past year. In March, ABC News announced the promotion of two women to newly created administrative positions.
Perhaps this experience accounts for some of the sermonizing tone of the final segment of the program. Jennings returns to close it with the pronouncement, "It takes a creative nation to deal with the new realities and a concerned people to realize that when women are strong, we're all stronger." One wonders if this is a documentary or a manifesto.
Rock music and flashy editing help enliven the filmed portions of the program. Sometimes they enliven it to death. Visuals are on the meaningless side and a great deal of extraneous motion is introduced for the sake of motion. The fact that one woman works in maintenance on the New York City subway system is established with wearing, redundant blasts of subway cars in full zoom, clackety clack, rockety rock, bangety bang, as if this were "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three."
Whew, such production. One recalls what little Dorothy said to the Cowardly Lion as he wept and wept over a simple slap in the face: "My goodness, what a fuss you're making!"
A great many women, and men, are interviewed during the program. The experts consulted include Betty Friedan, author Anthony Astrachan, psychiatrist Virginia Sadock, sociologist Pepper Schwartz and Labor Secretary William Brock.
In addition, we meet a wide variety of women who have come through the "revolution" feeling victorious or feeling misgivings. Barbara Ware and Pat Sullivan, cofounders of Job Opportunities for Women (JOW), talk about the wear and tear on their marriages and family lives. Judy Kramer, pregnant by artificial insemination, talks about hearing loud ticks from the biological clock that imposes a deadline on having a child.
Easily the most engaging couple on the program are the Auciellos, Lillian and Dominic. She has gone back to work because she has to, to help pay the mortgage. He is now tackling the family laundry ("I haven't learned all the cycles yet") and, after having mistakenly cooked a frozen turkey breast inside the box it came in, is also attempting to master the microwave oven his wife insisted they buy.
These two people appear sufficiently symptomatic and reverberant for more of them to have been included. But the sensibility of "Sexual Revolution," as of so much television news, is that we'll become disinterested if things don't keep zipping and flipping and doing somersaults. Threlkeld returns to drone out more statistics, and we press on to other weighty issues, having been given just a smattering of exposure to actual human beings.
The strange thing is that all the visual variety becomes visual sameness. The flash and flicker get to be lulling rather than involving, and the rock music (including what sounds like the instrumental intro to "West End Girls" as a recurring motif) predictable. You can sense the producers trying to keep things lively, but the length of the program and the abundance of material conspire to defeat them.
Certainly on TV tonight there is nothing to challenge "After the Sexual Revolution" for freshness and relevance, and the time spent with the program is by no stretch wasted. But the results aren't what they ought to be, and where the program seeks to rock the boat, it only ends up tilting it a little.