Fall TV's midcentury moment

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 27, 2011 - 5:33 AM

What's behind '60s dramas 'Pan Am,' 'The Playboy Club' and 'Mad Men?'


In this image released by ABC, the cast of "Pan Am," from left, Karine Vanasse as Colette, Michael Mosley as Ted, Margot Robbie as Laura, Mike Vogel as Dean, Christina Ricci as Maggie and Kelli Garner as Kate, are shown.

Photo: Bob D'amico, Associated Press

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Fall TV is having a midcentury moment.

Last Sunday night, AMC's "Mad Men," the early '60s drama about Madison Avenue advertising execs reinventing America -- and themselves -- won its fourth straight Emmy Award. On Monday, the scene shifted to Chicago, the location of "The Playboy Club," which had its first episode on NBC. This Sunday ABC's take on the Sputnik-era takes flight with "Pan Am."

Like most TV trends, a complex confluence of commercial and cultural factors is behind the nostalgia.

Commercially, radio-era comedian Fred Allen's midcentury quip still stands: "Imitation is the sincerest form of television."

"Mad Men" has won awards and has awed audiences as well as advertisers, so NBC and ABC want in on the highball and beehive action. And the midcentury setting fits the middle-aged audience still loyal to network TV, as many viewers were born or came of age in the early 1960s.

Having an era that viewers can relate to is key, said Edward Schiappa, professor and chair of the Communication Studies Department at the University of Minnesota.

"Nostalgia for an idealized past is not an uncommon phenomena, especially because of the last century's rapid social, political and technological changes," he said.

Those changes can make our postmodern lifestyle look drab compared to midcentury-modern style. Each program shows characters dressing formally for work, yet casually carousing at night. Now we dress casually at work, but are uptight at night, never far from technology that was supposed to give us more free time. "Pan Am's" story is about the love lives of stewardesses (they weren't called flight attendants then), but for some viewers the real romance may be the glamour of midcentury air travel, which looks luxurious compared to today's Greyhounds with wings.

But it's more than style driving this nostalgia -- it's how people envisioned their futures. Each show captures the unbounded optimism of a baby and economic boom. And there were other reasons to hope: World War II and Korea were over, and for most Americans, Vietnam was a Cold War construct, not a hot-war conflict. JFK (who could have played "Mad Men's" Don Draper) was a dynamic young leader who embodied can-do and captured the world's imagination. And even the U.S.-Soviet rivalry had the clean lines characterizing the architecture and style of the time, as each nation's capability and ideology were well-defined.

Today all the lines are blurred: Gone is the hot line to the Kremlin (if the Pentagon calls "global terrorism," who picks up?). The baby boomers are shuffling into an age wave that threatens to capsize Social Security and Medicare. We're drawing down from Iraq and Afghanistan, but neither nation seems capable of fighting nihilistic, asymmetric threats. And the economy is more bust than boom.

Of course, early '60s optimism didn't apply to everyone. Along with the fights against communism and for consumerism the era had racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and other crippling "isms." "Mad Men" best captures these conflicts, particularly with story lines that show how chauvinism marooned talented women in reduced roles. "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club" airbrush the Bunnies' and flight attendants' lives.

"In the 1960s, a women's place was not in the home," begins the "Pan Am" trailer.

"It was the early 1960s, and the Bunnies were some of the only women in the world who could be anyone they wanted to be," says the show's version of Hugh Hefner.

This revisionist history makes each more of a costume drama showing a lot of skin than a real drama with fleshed-out characters.

"The key to success in popular entertainment media is to have a product (we call it a text) that is polysemous -- that is, it has different meaning for different people," explains Schiappa, who goes on to say that successful retro shows like "The Waltons," "Happy Days" and "That '70s Show" mean viewers "could either feel or laugh 'with' or 'at' what was going on. The 'with/at' distinction is significant: Nostalgia brings you closer, so you laugh with the characters or otherwise identify with them. It is a positive affirmation of what you like about that time period."

Based on this criteria, don't expect "Pan Am" or "The Playboy Club" to match "Mad Men's" four Emmys, let alone four seasons.

Or, as Fred Allen put it, "Television is a medium because anything well done is rare."

The Rash Report can be heard at 7:50 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. Follow John Rash on Twitter: @rashreport.

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