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Boomer TV: Stripping the sentiment

Two TV movies tonight typify the growing need for baby boomers to know the story behind the perfection of the small-screen heroes of their youth.

Consider it a battle of the baby boomer TV titans.

In one corner, you have Growing up Brady, NBC's insider account of all the smooching, ego-fueled battles and teenage shenanigans that went on backstage at America's cheesiest family sitcom.

In the other, there's The Linda McCartney Story, CBS' sentimental, at times overwrought drama focused on her marriage to "cute Beatle" Paul _ telling the story of '60s rock legends through the prism of their 30-year-plus relationship.

Both movies are more than kitschy bids at nostalgia viewership. They're the latest examples of a new genre of made-for-TV movie _ one that rips the mask off baby boomer icons for a generation made cynical by Watergate and the Vietnam War.

"I would venture to say the central experience of the baby boom generation was the media . . . namely, TV and music," says Bob Thompson, a boomer who now heads the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "TV has been around long enough that when it tells a story about the olden days, it tells a story about (old) TV."

For evidence, note the avalanche of made-for-TV projects focused on baby boomer icons in the past year.

From Fox-TV's behind the scenes look at The Brady Bunch last week to ABC's biopic The Three Stooges (executive produced by uber-boomer Mel Gibson), CBS' The John Denver Story, ABC's Sonny and Cher and two projects focused on The Partridge Family, TV networks have opened the floodgates for movies telling the "truth" behind squeaky-clean pop culture touchstones.

Of course, there's a host of reasons why such projects exist _ from pop culture's growing appetite for Behind the Music-style scandal to attempts by faded icons such as David Cassidy and Barry "Greg Brady" Williams to cash in on the shows that sparked their fame.

Still, these are boom times for TV movies that take an ironic look at the TV shows that accompanied the boomers' coming of age.

"Now, all of this stuff is a representation of childhood for people who grew up on this," Thompson adds. "Especially for the '70s, which is America's great schizophrenic decade. Unlike the '50s and the 60s, there has never been a consensus interpretation about the '70s, so there's still a lot to be said about it."

You might not think there's much left to be said about The Brady Bunch. After all, the series _ which originally aired on ABC from 1969 to 1974 _ has spawned a variety show, Christmas special, two spin-off series, two feature films and more.

But Williams found a subject few had explored before: Who fought with whom behind the scenes? And more importantly, who slept _ or at least tried _ to sleep with whom?

In his book Growing up Brady: I Was a Teenage Greg, Williams and ghostwriter Chris Kreski tell all _ including the time a clueless New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller visited the set (a confused production worker reacted to Rockefeller's compliments by asking, "Who is this a_h_-?").

Other high notes include the actor's date with TV mom Florence Henderson (see book experpt) and desperate attempts to bed TV co-star Maureen "Marsha" McCormick.

"I see Growing Up Brady as the alternative to negative (accounts about the show's) ugly side," says Williams. "All of the cast has been handed this legacy . . . for better or worse. We watched it take on its own life. One of the purposes in writing this book was letting people know who the real people are."

When it came time to make a TV version of Growing Up Brady, producers jettisoned a lot of the book's subtler parts, focusing on the crushes kid actors had on each other and the ongoing feud between producer Sherwood Schwartz and Robert "Mike Brady" Reed.

Daniel Hugh Kelly is Reed, a classically trained actor who found himself cast in an airheaded sitcom developed by the producer of Gilligan's Island.

Almost immediately, he began clashing with Schwartz (played by L.A. Law's Michael Tucker) over the show's bubbleheaded focus; that he was a closeted gay man playing a father of six didn't help. Reed died in 1992 of cancer and AIDS-related symptoms.

As Reed and Schwartz fight, Williams (played by unknown Adam Brody) alternates between horsing around with his TV brothers on set and trying to get lucky with McCormick (Kaley Cuoco). One poolside scene, in which the camera slowly pans up Cuoco's body, highlights the sexual tension between the two.

Williams says the scene is his attempt to answer the question he hears every day from Brady fans: Did you two really get it on?

They didn't. And by sugar-coating the most oddball moments in cutesy dialogue and sound effects reminiscent of the original Brady Bunch series, producers create a purposefully cheesy TV movie that excavates touchy subjects with a lighthearted flair.

"What we're experiencing now is a nostalgic look at a time in people's lives that was nicer, innocent and less complicated," Williams says. "It was a cynical time in the '70s, but the Bradys weren't a part of that. A lot of people who grew up in that time were kids, and the show is a nice reminder of that."

But Syracuse University's Thompson says it's significant that boomers now want to see the idyllic surface ripped off relentlessly upbeat series such as The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family.

"What baby boomers love about these programs as adults is watching them ironically," the professor adds. "Baby boomers have an appreciation for kitsch and camp and trash . . . we think back on these shows with affection for their cheesy quality. Growing Up Brady is about something we love because we embrace the cheesiness."

If Growing Up Brady is for all of the boomer guys who secretly lusted after Carol and Marsha Brady, then The Linda McCartney Story speaks to the gals who went to sleep with pictures of Paul under their pillows.

What better way to hook legions of girls who once swooned over the Beatles than to present the life of a woman who lived their dream?

CBS' drama outlines the early days of rock through the eyes of Linda McCartney, a single mom and little-known photographer who spent the early '60s photographing and romancing just-emerging stars such as The Doors' Jim Morrison and the Rolling Stones.

For executive producer Tom Patricia, The Linda McCartney Story was also a way to set the record straight about his subject, who died of breast cancer in 1998.

"People believed she was part of the Eastman/Kodak fortune . . . she was responsible for the breakup of the Beatles . . . she wanted to go onstage with Paul in Wings . . . all not true," says Patricia, who also produced ABC's recent Muhammad Ali biopic.

"Boomers, as they get a little older, realize it's not that easy to stay married and raise a normal family," Patricia adds. "Here is a couple whose marriage withstood 30 years of a very public life."

Played by Gia's Elizabeth Mitchell, the soon-to-be Mrs. McCartney is a virtuous cipher _ earnest and principled, but not very distinctive. Devoted to her work and a child we barely see, she hooks up with McCartney in a London nightclub and eventually he persuades her to get married.

As the film progresses, we see Linda help Paul through his feud with John Lennon, the Beatles' breakup, the formation of Wings and Paul's brief incarceration on drug smuggling charges in Tokyo.

There are the requisite bad times, including a time when McCartney turned to drink during the Beatles breakup. But much of this action is sanitized, placed against the backdrop of Linda McCartney's struggle against breast cancer, as the movie flashes back and forth between the couple's early history and the progression of Linda McCartney's disease.

Patricia sees the current tell-all atmosphere of such TV movies as an illustration of the basic difference between baby boomers and the World War II generation.

"My parents' generation was kinda private . . . they would rather not talk about certain things," he says. "The baby boomers speak out a little more . . . and it can be hurtful to people. But is it better to get things out in the open? Perhaps."

Though Patricia will admit to no formula in assembling his biopics on boomer idols _ "It's an instinctual process," he says _ some patterns emerge, if you look closely.

n Barely known, telegenic stars who slightly resemble the subjects, but not too much: "You don't want people saying, "Oh that's so-and-so playing Paul McCartney'," says Patricia, who cast Gary Bakewell, seen as McCartney in the film Backbeat, as his Paul. "You don't want to burst the bubble."

n A simple script, heavy on emotion, light on substance and fast-paced: Growing Up Brady covers five years in two hours, while The Linda McCartney Story covers three decades in the same time. So there's little time for nuance or character development; just hit the historical high points and move on.

n Behind the Music-style revelations about icons: John Denver had a drinking problem. Robert Reed once came to the Brady Bunch set drunk. And David Cassidy romanced Partridge Family co-star Susan Dey. Says Patricia: "We wonder, "What can we tell people that's new, fresh and different?' And that's where we go."

n Seemingly bargain-basement production values, which only add to the cheese factor: Williams admits some details in Growing Up Brady scenes were changed to cut costs. Unable to win Paul McCartney's support, Patricia only presents two Beatles songs during his movie.

Still, Thompson insists there are deeper lessons to be learned from these lightweight TV movies.

"These programs are all about narcissism, fame and celebrity . . . all of the things we are still living with," he adds. "Arguably, the nature of how celebrity happened in those early days of TV is something that can illuminate society today. If told correctly, The David Cassidy Story is an important American story."