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10:01 pm
Mon September 19, 2011

Fall TV: Nostalgia For The Glamorous 1960s Needs A Tune-Up

Originally published on Tue September 20, 2011 10:50 am

Two of this week's most talked-about TV premieres have very similar settings: Pan Am, first airing on Sunday, is about attractive young women working as Pan Am flight attendants in the 1960s. The Playboy Club, which premiered Monday night, is about — well, attractive young women working as Playboy bunnies in the 1960s. Both shows are trying to imitate the success of another show set in the '60s: Mad Men.

(NPR pop-culture blogger Linda Holmes wrote about The Playboy Club when the network introduced the show to critics over the summer, and she weighed in on the revamped pilot episode this week.)

In The Playboy Club, new bunny Maureen has a pretty good setup. She's fresh in from Fort Wayne, Indiana, with a job at the coolest nightspot in town, Chicago's Playboy Club. She gets caught up in some mob action, but when she's told to leave Chicago — for her own good, of course — she wants to stay because being a Playboy Bunny is her dream job.

The opening even features narration (and an implied blessing) from an actor portraying Playboy founder Hugh Hefner himself: "I built a place in the toddlin' town where everything was perfect," he intones. "Fantasies became realities for everyone who walked through the doors."

Male-dominated fantasies, mostly — and for all its nostalgic glamour, NBC's Playboy Club gets stuck between its roots in a pre-liberation era and the reality of women's prominence in modern television. Because we're watching it in 2011, The Playboy Club has female characters argue for bunny work as empowerment; they say it's the best option for an ambitious woman in a troubled world.

"Honey, all I'm saying is that life is always going to be rough out there," explains the one African-American bunny. (She calls herself "chocolate.") "We're in here. We're at the party, and the party just started."

But because this is also about the Playboy life, the women's jobs and successes depend on serving and pleasing men. It's a hard line to walk. The show doesn't even give last names to the bunny characters, including star Amber Heard's troubled Maureen.

Worst of all, because this is network TV, the show commits what's a cardinal sin in Hugh Hefner's hedonistic universe: It isn't sexy. It's hard to believe, but NBC made a show about the Playboy Club that has almost no actual sex in it. It's not much more than a transparent homage to the Mad Men era of Rat Pack songs and sleek suits.

Sex appeal is not a problem for ABC's Pan Am. The airline's stewardesses — again, it's the '60s, so we're not calling them flight attendants yet — emerge as the ultimate symbol of buttoned-down beauty, the cameras lingering on their wide eyes, occasional cleavage and tight skirts. It's a decidedly male vision that at times seems sexier than anything The Playboy Club has to offer.

Here, the nostalgia on tap is for the Jet Age, the first time you could fly a plane anywhere in the world on an hour's notice, with more leg room than you find in today's airport lounges. So what if the only way for a woman to get ahead in this world is by serving drinks in the sky, enduring girdle checks and mandatory weigh-ins before she puts on her sleek stewardess hat?

Both Pan Am and Playboy Club attempt the same balancing act that Mad Men actually pulls off. They want to bask in the sexy glamour of the 1960s while also exploring its oppressive reality. This way, the networks hope to draw male viewers — whom advertisers love — without losing the female viewers who watch TV far more often.

But for these series to work, they need to dig deeper, moving beyond the superficial glitz of a time when too many lives were unfairly limited. Otherwise, The Playboy Club and Pan Am will just be celebrating a time when women had less freedom and less power. That's a history lesson no one needs to learn.

Eric Deggans is the TV critic for the St. Petersburg Times.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, Host:

TV networks are also struggling in a changing marketplace. Some hope to capture viewers by dipping into the past. TV critic Eric Deggans has been watching two new shows, "The Playboy Club" and "Pan Am."

ERIC DEGGANS: By 1960s standards, Maureen has a pretty good setup. She's a young, pretty blonde, fresh in from Fort Wayne, Indiana with a job at the coolest nightspot in town, Chicago's Playboy Club.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "THE PLAYBOY CLUB")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: But I built a place in the toddling town where everything was perfect.

DEGGANS: But she's also a symbol of what ails NBC's "The Playboy Club." It's a transparent homage to the "Mad Men" era of Rat Pack songs and sleek suits.

ACTOR: ...broken and fantasies became realities for everyone who walked through the doors.

DEGGANS: The opening even features narration - and an implied blessing - from Playboy founder Hugh Hefner himself. But for all its nostalgic glamour, NBC's "Playboy Club" is stuck between its roots in a male-dominated fantasy and the reality of women's prominence in modern television. Because we're watching it in 2011, "Playboy Club" has female characters argue for Bunny work as empowerment; the best option for an ambitious woman in a troubled world. An African-American, self-described "chocolate bunny," explains this to Maureen.

NATURI NAUGHTON: (as Brenda) Honey, all I'm just saying life is always going to be rough out there. But we're in here. We're at the party and the party just started.

DEGGANS: But because this is also about the "Playboy" life, these women's jobs and success depend on serving and pleasing men. Worst of all, because this is network TV, the show commits a cardinal sin in Hugh Hefner's hedonistic universe: it isn't sexy. You heard right. NBC made a show about the Playboy Club that has almost no actual sex in it.

That's not a problem for ABC's "Pan Am."

Here, the airline's stewardesses emerge as the ultimate symbol of buttoned-down beauty, as the camera lingers on their wide eyes, occasional cleavage and tight skirts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEGGANS: It's a decidedly male vision that at times seems sexier than anything "The Playboy Club" has to offer. But it's also beauty which comes at a price, as new flight attendant Laura soon discovers. She lands on the wrong side of the airlines' grouchy stewardess wrangler, who ruthlessly enforces a detailed dress code.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PAN AM")

ACTOR: (as character) Hands? Are you wearing your girdle?

CHRISTINA RICCI: (as Maggie) Yes ma'am.

ACTOR: (as character) Oh. There's a rip in your stocking.

RICCI: (as Maggie) Yes. I know. Can you help me? My flight leaves in less than an hour.

DEGGANS: Here, the nostalgia on tap is for the Jet Age.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOICES)

DEGGANS: The first time you could fly a plane anywhere in the world on an hour's notice, with more leg room than you find in today's airport lounges. So what if the only way for a woman to get ahead in this world is by serving drinks in the sky, enduring girdle checks and fleeing oppressive marriages? In the end, both "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club" attempt the same balancing act that "Mad Men" actually pulls off. They bask in the sexy glamour of the 1960s while also exploring its oppressive reality. But for these series to work, they need to dig deeper, moving beyond the superficial glitz of a time when too many people's lives were unfairly limited. Otherwise, "The Playboy Club" and "Pan Am" will celebrate a time when women had less freedom and less power. That's a history lesson no one needs to learn.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Eric Deggans is the TV critic for the St. Petersburg Times. And you were just listening to him on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.