One of the most talked about television programs of the last few years has been Mad Men. It has long been a critical darling, and has won 14 Emmy awards in four seasons — including four consecutive wins for Outstanding Drama Series — and has been nominated for 54 more.
Set in the advertising world of the 1960s, the series follows the lives of creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his colleagues at the fictional agency Sterling Cooper, later Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. It also delves into the personal lives of its characters, including Draper’s rocky marriage.
Mad Men has been praised for its rich writing and vibrant acting, but what makes it such a remarkable program is the way it depicts the early ’60s in vivid detail. Everything on Mad Men creates a sense of immersion into New York in that era.
With the success of Mad Men as a buzzworthy series and a snapshot of times long gone, it made sense that sooner or later it would spawn imitators. And lo and behold, this year we saw the debuts of ABC’s Pan Am and NBC’s The Playboy Club.
Pan Am and The Playboy Club arrived on the scene with plenty of fanfare and high expectations. Both series were heavily touted, and the comparisons to Mad Men were inevitable. Yet now, a few weeks into the fall TV season, The Playboy Club has been cancelled, and Pan Am is on the verge of being grounded.
Is there a reason why Pan Am is floundering and The Playboy Club is already dead, while Mad Men resonates with viewers so much that it continues to pick up new fans even during its off-season? It boils down to the fact that Pan Am and The Playboy Club view their ’60s settings through a modern prism, while for Mad Men the ’60s are essentially the setting for a character and plot-driven show that remains true to the era.
Next: Why Pan Am is struggling to take flight…
Pan Am is set on the titular airline in 1963. It’s a time of attractive stewardesses, new global routes, and worldwide change. The show has an impressive pedigree: its producers include Thomas Schlamme, formerly of The West Wing, and Jack Orman of ER fame, and it stars Christina Ricci.
Since the program is set in the early days of the beginning of second wave feminism, it would stand to reason that Pan Am would delve into the treatment of women at that time. Instead the show’s writers are firmly planted in the 21st century. One young stewardess (Margot Robbie) leaves her groom at the altar for the life of independence and adventure offered by Pan Am. Another (Kelli Garner) is tapped to serve as a spy for the CIA, while Ricci’s Maggie is a bohemian who lives with a group of Marxist types, constantly flaunts the airline’s rules, and stabs a passenger with a fork when he makes an inappropriate move on her.
This post-feminist view of the world of elegant stewardesses is jarring — and not quite accurate. One critic noted that the show’s stylized image of the 60s is
…addictive, but the espionage plot, with its link to political history, is absurd. And the female empowerment message grows feeble.
Linda Strong and Marge Aultman, two former Pan Am stewardesses living in Charlotte, also made observations about the differences between the show and reality. They noted that some of the show’s details have clearly been sexed up, while other plot points are simply implausible:
Like the stewardesses in the ABC show, they had to wear girdles, high heels, stockings and a full slip. But there are some elements of the program that don’t ring quite true.
“For one thing, we didn’t wiggle our fannies like that down the aisle,” says Aultman. “Or strut through the terminal.”
Stewardesses didn’t serve food in high heels and their jackets, either. They had a second set of flat shoes they’d slip into and wore a smock or apron at meal time. And cabin attendants moonlighting as spies? They never heard a whisper of anything like that.
Next: Why The Playboy Club was doomed from the beginning…
Pan Am is a pretty good show but it’s obvious that the show’s writers are looking back at the 1960s in a way that’s not entirely true to the time. It’s as if they aren’t sure what to do with the attitudes and mores of that era, especially when writing with a “girl power” ethic.
The Playboy Club, on the other hand, was practically doomed from the start. The series, which glamorizes the lifestyle of the Playboy Bunnies and their customers at the first Playboy Club in Chicago in the early 60s, was a lightning rod for criticism from both Right and Left.
An NBC affiliate in Utah refused to air the show, citing the station’s “long-term policy to screen programming for material which significant portions of our audience might find objectionable.” The Parents Television Council had the show in its crosshairs from the start, calling the show an “attempt to mainstream a brand that is synonymous with the pornography industry.”
From the Left, feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who once went undercover as a Playboy Bunny to write an article about the organization, called for a boycott:
“Clearly ‘The Playboy Club’ is not going to be accurate. It was the tackiest place on earth. It was not glamorous at all,” Steinem told Reuters in an interview.
“When I was working there and writing the expose, one of the things they had to change because of my expose was that they required all the Bunnies, who were just waitresses, to have an internal exam and a test for venereal disease,” she said.
Cultural critics weren’t the only ones with a beef against the show. Former Bunnies, like Marilyn Miller, decried the lack of realism in the relationships on the program:
The bunnies never danced with or dated customers, nor were there mobsters and politicians.
“I didn’t like the whole show. I thought it was cheap, it was degrading, it was demoralizing. It makes the Bunnies seem silly,” she said. “Not one Bunny I know liked the show. Everyone is hoping it gets canceled.”
Next: Could The Playboy Club have succeeded on HBO?
Part of the problem with The Playboy Club might have been the fact that it was on NBC rather than cable. It’s apparent that a Playboy-themed show on network television would have to be sanitized to fit network standards and practices, and it seems like the producers shot themselves in the foot by teaming up with NBC instead of a cable network.
The Playboy Club may well have wound up becoming a victim of its own controversy. Though it’s not clear whether advertisers scurried away from the show due to the controversy surrounding it or because of ratings, the show was cancelled after a handful of episodes.
So why have these shows failed to capture the zeitgeist the way Mad Men has? Why is it that Mad Men has succeeded at becoming a sort of cultural phenomenon? One critic sums it up this way:
Though it’s certainly true that the Emmy darling has its fair share of issues, the show makes conscious effort to depict a realistic, if highly sexualized, reflection of 1960s America, flaws and all. The writers of the show seem…to balance the misfortunes of the times.
It is this consideration, in conjunction with the fully realized pacing and apt direction, that has launched Mad Men to the success it enjoys today.
Mad Men is successful, unlike these other shows, because it presents a warts-and-all portrayal of life in an earlier time. The series is driven by its flawed — my editor and friend David Swindle once referred to them as “completely broken” — characters, who just happen to live in the 1960s.
The best historical dramas portray characters within the context of their time. Mad Men doesn’t try to make bold statements about the ’60s, though it does address issues of the time period incidentally. The writers never seem to view the characters as anything other than what they are. That is what makes Mad Men so successful and resonant with viewers and critics alike.