From 'Playboy Club' to 'Pan Am,' When '60s-Era Nostalgia Isn't Enough

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A new crop of period series raises the question: What are we looking for in shows about the past?

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All pre-teens have their idols, but growing up an emerging nerd, my fixation was typically out of step with my peers. I caught a 30-years deferred case of Beatlemania and acquired a life-long affinity for the '60s. I snapped a pair of headphones in half so my best friend and I could listen to Beatles cassettes simultaneously on my Walkman. I got special permission to stay up late for the airing of The Beatles Anthology on ABC. And I even dressed up as a hippie for Halloween, though my mother wisely drew the line at letting me carry a hand-lettered "Make Love, Not War" sign as part of my ensemble.

Over time, my interest in the era shifted from its music to its social movements, from the first half of the decade to the second. But this year, the wave of Mad Mad-inspired '60s-era shows drew me back to ponder my youthful nostalgia for a period that I never actually experienced for myself.

Of course, all of these shows take for granted that the audience isn't engaged just by the era itself. Mad Men, The Hour, The Playboy Club (which debuted on NBC last Monday) and Pan Am, which starts on ABC tonight, share a common anxiety, a sense that they need to up the ante or audiences will lose interest in the clothes and cocktails. Don Draper can't just be an archetypal alpha male facing the sudden awakening of women's demands and desires. He has to have a secret identity. The Hour can't just be about the tensions and joys of running an upstart news program at a pivotal moment in British history. Its characters have to be pulled into a Cold War conspiracy. Similarly, Pan Am doesn't quite trust audiences to stick with women who, in exchange for representing a corporation, got to see the world. It has an espionage subplot of its own. And The Playboy Club isn't content to explore the tension between feminist self-expression and the commercialization of sex. The show just has to add a very dead, very powerful, mobster to the mix.

And while they're both concerned with women's nascent quests for liberation, The Playboy Club and Pan Am take wildly different approaches to their shared subject. Visually, The Playboy Club is a nocturnal show, splashes of shiny satin costumes and Mondrian-inspired lighting providing occasional sparks in the gloom. It's a fitting scheme for a show about people who are hiding something, whether it's a mobbed-up past, a made-up backstory, or secret desires. In Pan Am, by contrast, everything gleams, from the roof of the Pan Am building to the technicolor wheel of dresses at one of the main character's wedding, to a jet shining in a swampy Havana night as a crew evacuates Cuban dissidents as Castro takes over the country. It looks like a product of the period it's chronicling. The Playboy Club tries to sell the era with words, but it's Pan Am that presents a wildly delectable vision. We're supposed to be like the little girl, only slightly younger than I was at the onset of my obsession, who gazes at the Pan Am stewardesses as if there's nothing better or more glamorous she could grow up to be.

The Playboy Club, which desperately tries to sell Bunnydom as liberation, actually does a much better job in its messy pilot of laying out many of the ways sexism operated in the '60s than Pan Am. In The Playboy Club, Hugh Hefner tells us in a voiceover that "The bunnies were some of the only women in the world who could be whatever they wanted to be." But the characters are assaulted, harassed, assumed to be prostitutes, denied promotions (a decision reversed by an off-screen Hugh Hefner, also treated as an icon of racial equality), grapple with the fact that they earn more than their parents, and are told to quit their jobs by their boyfriends.

Pan Am suggests that working as a stewardess gave women options other than getting married and a chance to travel, which is certainly true. But it also buys into the same idea that liberation was there for a select group of women smart enough to grab for it. "I've hit on enough of these girls to know they're not like normal women. They're mutations," declares a loutish but charming co-pilot. "It's a compliment! Do you think when the first man crawled out of the primordial ooze he knew he was different?...Look at that table. That is natural selection at work. They don't know that they're a new breed of woman. They just had the impulse to...take flight." It's the same sentiment, but the closest thing to an exploration of gender roles is one pretty stewardess's embarrassment at becoming the face of the brand, and another, who has an unpleasant run-in with the wife of her lover.

And none of these shows quite capture my childhood yearning for the '60s, to feel something as strongly as the girls screaming their heads off for the Beatles did, to see the world turn upside down. Maybe that's part of growing up, and Pan Am and The Playboy Club are an embodiment of the tug-of-war between wanting to think of the '60s as magical and knowing that the struggles for equality that marked those years are still going on today. I have an original poster advertising the Beatles' Shea Stadium concert hanging in my apartment. But I know there's more to life than four boys from Liverpool, no matter how fab they were.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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