NBC Documentary Series: Fluff for a Summer's Eve

"Why," asks rising NBC News star Connie Chung, vacantly, "do Americans dread getting older?" Try fear of dying.

In "Everybody's Doing It" at 10 tonight on Channels 4, 36 and 39, Chung examines aging in the fashion of a slickly packaged ratings sweeps minidoc. Instead of getting involved, you feel like you're window shopping.

TV's lamentable documentary drought has surely ended, given this summer's first-run documentaries of contrasting looks and shapes that are surfacing like prickly heat. The best and most challenging of the species are still available on public television; the most disappointing on NBC.

Tonight's program is the third of seven hourlong documentaries that NBC is grinding out this summer under the umbrella title "Summer Showcase," a cluster of modest distinction to date.

Is "Summer Showcase" to be the catchy-titled legacy of the illustrious "NBC White Paper"? It boggles the mind.

NBC began its series two weeks ago with "Of Macho and Men," more funumentary than documentary, a snappy collage of 30-second sound bites and song bites relating to society's so-called anti-male double standard.

So much for the best-laid plans of reporting. Among other things, the hour defined boxing, football and war movies as "male bashing." But you really began questioning reporter Deborah Norville's grasp on reality when she said about men shown on the screen beating drums and shouting as a means of getting in touch with their true masculinity: "Across the country, groups like this have been forming."

Not on my block.

Last Tuesday's "Guns, Guns, Guns" was better, as it chronicled handgun violence in four states over two days in May. The bloodshed included the headline-making fatal shooting of a young boy and the wounding of other children at a Winnetka, Ill., school by a deranged woman who later took her own life.

The program interviewed families of victims in this incident and others, and made a strong case for more gun control. It also did a lot of hand-wringing ("Handguns and children just don't mix") while devoting only 15 seconds to the powerful National Rifle Assn. (NRA) that has lobbied so successfully against strong gun control laws. And "Guns, Guns, Guns" ultimately threw up its hands, leaving behind a residue of hopelessness.

If the program were looking for an example to counter NRA claims that gun control won't diminish body counts, moreover, it might have tried the Los Angeles freeway shootings. There's no evidence of anyone being killed on a freeway recently by a knife or rock.

On to tonight's flimsy program, meanwhile, where Chung, the reporter and writer, sets the tone early by saying: "We'll talk with the experts, the elderly, along with Bill Cosby, Betty White, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy and Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, daughter of Rita Hayworth, the actress who died of Alzheimer's." Then with hardly a pause, a suddenly grinning Chung chirps: "Aging--everybody's doing it!" She makes it sound like a fad.

Even when Chung abandons her perkiness, matching upbeat success stories with grimmer ones of senior citizens who are floundering without hope, "Everybody's Doing It" neither adds new information nor offers an agenda for enhancing the environment for the elderly.

What this program does is extend the technique of past "Summer Showcase" hours by identifying and defining elements of aging in America that have already been identified and defined many times over. Yes, as Chung notes, for example, there remains a heavy youth emphasis in America, witness her own industry, where aging--particularly in regards to women--is often a career-threatening burden. Call us when you're 55, Connie.

But why do Americans traditionally celebrate youth over age? The program supplies no answer. Are we different from other cultures in our attitudes toward aging and the older crowd? Again, no answer.

Also unexplored is Ronald Reagan's impact on age attitudes after becoming President at an age when many Americans are in retirement. But that impact ultimately may be negative, ironically, in view of his often creaky image while serving his last days in the White House.

Creaking--everybody's doing it!

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