'Pan Am' Proves It: 'Mad Men' Knockoffs Just Don't Work

Word comes today that Pan Am, ABC's big, gaudy Mad Men of the skies, has been cut off at the knees. Please put your tray tables up, because this thing is coming in for a landing. So can we declare it once and for all now? Mad Men ripoffs just don't work. 

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Word comes today that Pan Am, ABC's big, gaudy Mad Men of the skies, has been canceled had its episode order reduced, which does not bode well for its second season prospects. Please put your tray tables up, because this thing looks to be coming in for a landing. So can we declare it once and for all now? Mad Men ripoffs just don't work.

Pan Am is the third such retro period show to struggle and die, after CBS' trashy 2008 summer series Swingtown and NBC's terrifically bungled The Playboy Club from earlier this fall. All three shows lamely tried to capture a little of the zip and spark that Mad Men's cool cat costumes and other period details have in spades, and all proved that without the basis of what makes Mad Men so good, namely smart and penetrating writing, all the pretty period gloss in the world can't make a show work.

As we've grumbled about before, the onslaught of Mad Men-esque shows is all a little silly, as if the simple formula for success is to just find something, anything, that people like and then cheaply roll out an inferior version of it. We saw the same dull thinking a few years ago after Lost hit big, as the networks rushed to slap together and throw at us like monkey poop such mystery shows as Surface, Invasion, Flashforward, and The Event. They all came out hasty, undercooked, and cynical in their crass attempts to capitalize on a popular thing.  It's not that easy, guys! It's really not.

The '70s-set Swingtown tried to recreate the tingle of sexual revolution that plays at Mad Men's saucier edges. But instead of mining the confusion and sadness and fear that, unfortunately, comes as part of that new territory, as Mad Men often does, Swingtown just stuck with the surface sex stuff and tossed a series of basic, blockish "insights" into sexuality and relationships at us. Similarly, The Playboy Club attempted to tap into the swinging vibe, but ended up garish and cheap, seemingly completely misunderstanding that the accepted sexism shown on Mad Men should be unacceptable to us now. In trying to say that Playboy Bunnies in the '60s were secretly symbols of feminist empowerment, The Playboy Club came across as an embarrassingly misguided and uninformed school history paper. And Pan Am went for the workplace intrigue that Mad Men obviously thrives on, but it seemed to entirely forget, or not get at all, that lots of what happens at Don Draper's ad agency is allegory for bigger, much heavier themes. Pan Am was quite literally just about high-flying stewardesses, and while that's a fun concept and certainly not every show can or should swing for the philosophical fences just because Mad Men does, soapy shows are great after all, Pan Am  fatally committed the crime of thinking we wouldn't notice or mind tired old cookie-cutter plotlines and characters so long as they were all dumped onto an old airplane. That was, obviously, not the case! We do notice things like lack of depth or originality. Mad Men is largely about deeply nuanced people who just happen to live in an interesting modern past. These three ripoffs started backwards and never got their way to anything more substantial. Dressing up a cliche-ridden show in a cute retro outfit doesn't mean it's not still a cliche-ridden show.

At least with Lost the networks had the excuse that, hey, Lost was a network show too and it had crazy good ratings, so why not try to duplicate that. But with Mad Men, the jump from relatively little-watched cable prestige project to bright and gummy network series is so far a distance as to not make sense. If Mad Men itself was on a network it probably would have been canceled after only a few episodes. So why then did the networks all scramble to try to get their own piece of this single-serving pie? Who's spearheading these ideas? Do the manatees that write Family Guy have cousins that run TV networks? These ripoff shows just seems so dense and ill-considered that it begins to seem like there must be some shocking, secret reason behind them. Anyway, sorry for the crash and burn, Pan Am. At least the real airline is still going strong. Oh. Wait. Never mind. Sigh.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.