Washington: Behind Closed Doors DVD Review: some things never change

Washington: Behind Closed Doors was a landmark television mini-series which first aired on ABC in 1977. A lot has changed in the 35 years since the program was initially broadcast, but some things (it seems) never change.

Specifically, the connections between business, government, and “spooks” seems to be as strong as ever these days. That is only one aspect of Washington: Behind Closed Doors, however. There was another, much more topical subject at hand as well. The first half of the decade of the '70s saw the government of the United States in an incredibly tenuous position.

The presidency of Richard Nixon crumbled under the scandal that is now referred to simply as “Watergate.” For a nation wishing to put the awful spectacle of a President’s resignation behind it, Washington: Behind Closed Doors was an important step. Today, a show like this would probably be relegated to one of the basic cable channels. Even if it did air on one of the “major” networks though, the audience for it would undoubtedly be much smaller than what it was in 1977.

Back then, most of the U.S. had just three majors, PBS, and (depending on where you lived) a couple of local “independent” stations to choose from. Those days are gone forever. While we may very well think it is better to have more choices now than we had then, one important thing has been lost. That would be the sense of a nation watching a show together. Roots was probably the ultimate example of this, although there have been many others.

Although Washington: Behind Closed Doors did not garner record-ratings along the lines of Roots, it did very well for itself. There was clearly a sense of a nation wishing to watch a thinly-veiled expose of our “secret” government in action. The six-episode mini-series has just made its home video debut, with the new three-DVD set from Acorn Media. The show is based on the post-Watergate novel The Company by former Nixon advisor John Erlichman.

The series featured an all-star cast, which included Andy Griffith, John Houseman, Cliff Robertson, Jason Robards, Stefanie Powers, and Robert Vaughn. The basic story is clearly based on events of the early '70s. For example, there is a war going on somewhere in Southeast Asia, and government hawks are battling anti-war protestors at home. Things get even more transparent with the depiction of a President who is basically paranoid. His administration is completely under fire, while scheming aides plot to hold on to their positions. With a new President in the wings, CIA director Bill Martin knows that things will change. His overriding motivation is to keep prying eyes away from the top-secret Primula Report, but it is a dicey challenge.

Meanwhile, his current boss is interested in settling scores both old and new, more than anything else. It is a fascinating experience to watch this program after so many years. I was very young when it first aired, and do not remember actually watching it, although I would not be surprised if my parents did. In any case though, Watergate is one of the most pivotal events in recent history, and most of us are fairly well-versed in what happened. Watched on that level, Washington: Behind Closed Doors is indeed a great “reminder” of what happened, and what went wrong.

But the series has a great deal to say about our current situation as well. As previously mentioned, some things never really change. There are definite parallels between what happened in the '70s, and in the world we currently reside. This is an excellent series, and Acorn have once again done a brilliant job in presenting it.

As usual with sets such as this, Acorn have included an informative booklet. In this case, it is an eight-page affair, with articles on the historical background of the program itself, plus the Vietnam War, the peace movement in America, Nixon’s landmark visit to China, and of course Watergate. On the DVDs, there are also brief biographies of the political figures of the day.

Washington: Behind Closed Doors is a not only a wonderful glimpse at our (relatively) recent past, but a reminder to our nation to stay ever-vigilant. As the old saying goes, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Fortunately, we have never suffered such a situation as ever having our government ruled in an “absolute” manner. Watching Washington: Behind Closed Doors is a reminder that even when certain elements do get “out of hand,” our system of checks and balances still works in the end. Washington: Behind Closed Doors remains a very compelling mini-series, and is recommended.

By Greg Barbrick

About the author

Greg Barbrick has been watching TV so long he remembers watching first run episodes of Star Trek.

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