President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara in a still from '1968' (CNN)

CNN’s ‘1968’ Revisits America’s Most Turbulent Year

Even before the presidential election, it became a common theme on social media to call 2016 the Worst Year Ever. By the end of that year, we had seen the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, panic over the Zika virus, the (at best) questionable police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the Pulse nightclub mass shooting that claimed 49 lives, the extremely disheartening presidential primary campaigns (whatever your politics), the Flint water crisis, the deaths of both David Bowie and Prince, and, worst of all, the release of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

2016 was crazy, to be sure, but how about a year in which not one but two political leaders were assassinated two months apart, the country realized the war it was fighting was not winnable, public opinion turned so viciously against the sitting president he declined to run for re-election, when rioting and racial tension were widespread, and the man half the country saw as the worst case scenario was elected President? That year was 1968, and in its new four-part documentary series, CNN takes it in strictly chronological order, a season at a time, starting with Winter: President Johnson’s State of the Union address in the face of foundering support for the war, the disastrous Tet offensive in Vietnam, rioting in Memphis around the local Sanitation Workers’ Strike, and Dr. Martin Luther King’s dispatch to the area to lead a more peaceful march, followed by his assassination.

It’s not all bad news, of course; the series is careful to include the less depressing cultural moments as they happened, including the release of James Brown’s ‘Say it Loud,’ the rise of the multicultural, unisex Sly and the Family Stone, and the 1968 Oscars, where The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde lost to the racially charged crime drama In the Heat of the Night. The show follows the same chronological approach through the seasons: Spring sees Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination; Summer, the disastrous Democratic and Republican National Conventions; and Fall, the election that propelled Richard Nixon to the presidency. 

Tom Hanks, who produced with longtime partners Gary Goetzman and Mark Herzog, is on hand for talking-head commentary, along with the likes of Dan Rather, Jesse Jackson, historians Robert Dallek, Rick Perlstein, and Thomas Ricks, feminist leader Gloria Steinem, former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan, writers Chris Connelly and Nelson George, and many more.

It’s always tempting to imagine that those of us in the present have it so much worse than anyone ever before us, and though it is always possible that that could one day become the case, it’s also worthwhile to look back at the past challenges our society has faced (and in some but not all cases, overcome), for perspective. (And the music is great.)

Parts 1 and 2 of 1968, “Winter” and “Spring,” premiere 8pm ET Sunday, and parts 3 and 4, “Summer” and “Fall,” follow at 8pm ET Monday on CNN; all episodes will be available on demand.