Oh, those colorful 1960s, era of swinging singles, that kooky Cold War, men who wore suits on airline flights instead of sweatpants, and women who wore girdles to cover flesh rather than casual wear to expose their tattoos! It was heaven on earth, wasn’t it? So, at least, both Pan Am and The Playboy Club would have you believe.
In the first, The West Wing director Thomas Schlamme has filmed a dreamy vision of what it was like to be a stewardess, his smooth visual storytelling doing a lot to conceal clunky dialogue and corny plot twists such as a married passenger boarding a flight containing the stewardess (pert Karine Vanasse) he’s been having an affair with. Over at The Playboy Club, new Bunny Maureen (Amber Heard) accidentally kills a mobster who’s playing too rough; she slams her spike heel into his neck. Ouch! Fortunately, there’s a sleazeball — ‘scuse me, I mean hero — played by CSI: Miami‘s Eddie Cibrian to help her cover up her accident. All the while, on both of these new series, men leer and women smile gratefully. It would be fine if the shows just left it at that, but the scripts have to bop us over the head with prefeminist dialogue that tries painfully to justify the casual sexism (”They’re a new breed of woman”).
Pan Am and The Playboy Club suggest the deep envy that broadcast networks have of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men. The period drama has a persistent allure for network programmers, despite the fact that it hasn’t really worked for them, ratings-wise, in a long time (R.I.P. Swingtown, Homefront, American Dreams). The crucial problem for The Playboy Club is its association with the phenomenon that gives the show its reason to exist. In exchange for the use of the Playboy name, the series courts the expectation that nothing too critical of the organization is going to surface. For the dubious privilege of having a Hugh Hefner soundalike say things like ”I was a rebel” and ”If you don’t swing, don’t ring,” it seems unlikely that Playboy will ever feature plots where the Club becomes a site for truly exciting, scandalous behavior.
Thus it’s Pan Am that has more promise. Costarring Christina Ricci as a rebellious stewardess with a working knowledge of Marxism, the show juggles romance, espionage, and comedy in subplots that will take a while to get sorted out. Right now Pan Am doesn’t seem to know exactly what it wants to be; it’s experimenting with tone, and seeing what works and what doesn’t. That’s the kind of attitude that, if the tinkering is done right, could lead to an interesting series. The Playboy Club, by contrast, looks to have a built-in expiration date, as coldly brutal as the judgment passed by an aging female employee: ”You can’t be a Bunny forever.” Pan Am: B The Playboy Club: C
Fall TV We Want to See: Ken’s 10