Monday, October 10, 2011

Pan Am Versus Playboy Club -- We Like The Light Better Than The Dark

September 2011 brought viewers back to the future with two very different shows that take place during the same nostalgaic time period -- the early 1960's: Playboy Club and Pan Am.  Both shows were obviously capitalizing on the excitement generated around the early 1960's retro plot mechanism so well executed in AMC's Mad Men, and comparisons between these shows and Mad Men are inevitable fodder for discussion, but we'd put neither in Mad Men's weight class.  Instead, a comparison and contrast between Playboy Club and Pan Am is probably a fairer match up.  The time periods and the plot devices are virtually identical.  But, we would argue, the similarities pretty much end there.  The key difference between the two shows is probably the greater edginess of Playboy versus Pan Am and the sunnier disposition (let's call it optimism) of Pan Am versus Playboy ClubPan Am is more like the America of the 1960's we see depicted in Life Magazine: adventurous and optimistic while Playboy club is more like the 1960's as seen through they eyes of J. Edgar Hoover: dark, salacious and full of conspiracy.

While both shows have an element of danger (Pan Am with it's International espionage element and Playboy Club with key characters directly linked to the underworld), Playboy Club's take is decidedly darker.  Playboy Club begins with the immediate loss of innocence of a the Club's newest Playboy Bunny (ok that's a bit of a stretch given her occupation) Maureen (played by Amber Heard) by having her accidentally murder a well known mob boss in the process of fending him off as he attempted to rape her.  In addition, Playboy club uses the Don Draper like anti-hero in the form of Nick Dalton (played by Eddie Cibrian) as a key protagonist.  Dalton is smooth and seemingly kind, however, his meteoric professional rise as a star defense attorney began by representing the mob in Chicago.  While he appears to have made good, with political aspirations likely to be realized, we can't forget that he was (and may still prove to be) in the pocket of the mob.

Pan Am's has risk takers as well, but they aren't dark, so much as inspired.  Stewardess Kate Cameron (played by Kelli Garner) is recruited by what is presumed to be the CIA to use her a) cover as a globe trotting stewardess, b) tri-lingual language capabilities and c) sense of adventure to act as International operative.  She takes real risks (the audience can palpaply feel the suspense as she tries to steal some papers from an Eastern European spy on the maiden flight of the Pan Am Clipper.  Additionally, we learn that Maggie is essentially replacing the missing Bridgette, another Pan Am stewardess.  Given the nature of her undercover work and her unexplained absence, we can only assume Bridgette has been captured and/or killed by Communist spies.  That said, there is a more optimistic element of adventure rather than darkness, as contrasted with Playboy Club's ominous weight stemming from the fact tht the mob will eventually catch up to the protagonists and it won't be pretty.

Further, while both shows have professional rivalries and their own version of office politics, Pan Am's are more like a child's sandbox versus Playboy Club's viper pit.  In Playboy Club, despite her striking beauty and almost unbelievable class (maybe all Playboy Bunnies had high IQ's, wonderful senses of style, poise, maturity, singing and dancing talent on top of striking classic beauty, but I am somewhat skeptical)  Bunny "Mother Bunny" Carol-Lynne (played by Laura Benanti) walks around with an air that perfectly combines depression and paranoia about getting older and losing her boyfriend (Nick Dalton) to a younger rival (Maureen).  In the first episode, Carol-Lynne seems determine to make Maureen's existence a living hell while attempting to wrest at least some management responsibilities from Billy Rosen (the club's old school, mysonginistic manager). 

The rivalries and politics in Pan Am reflect lighter tone.  The key source of tension between characters is between sisters Laura and Kate Cameron.  Kate is an experienced Pan Am stewardess who comes home to attend her sister Laura's wedding some 6 months before the time pilot episode takes place (as refected in flashbacks).  Despite her clear misgivings about going through with her wedding, everybody around Laura (especially her stereotypical early 1960's mother) thinks it's all just jitters and she should ignore what are simply butterflies.  But Laura clearly sees her life unfolding in a way she's not willing to live.  She isn't sure what she wants, but she knows it's not simple middle class domestic bliss as the "the little woman" who waits for her husband at home.  But Kate understands this and encourages her sister, at the last moment, to become a runaway bride.  Laura can be a Pan Am stewardess, Kate tells her.  In a scene almost reminiscent of wedding scene in The Graduate, they take off together moments before the ceremony with several people in the wedding party (most notably, their very displeased mother) chasing after the two sisers.

Flash forward 6 months, and Laura, not Kate is the beautiful stewardess featured on the cover of Life Magazine, highlighting the glamour of the jet setting Pan Am flight attendent life.  Clearly, Laura has stolen the spotlight in a remarkably short period of time and supplanted her sister as the glamour girl of both the Cameron family, but more importantly, the Pan Am family. There is rivalry and tension, but there is also sympathy, as Laura genuinely seems reluctant at having achieved her All About Eve like rise versus her sister.  Her sister clearly resents Laura's meteoric rise, but she doesn't hate her for it.  Neither of these two wish each other ill.  It just sort of worked out the way it did -- life isn't always fair, but nobody is malicious.  More importantly, Kate doesn't appear to be ready to sit back stewing about how to get back at her sister for the run of the show.  Rather, she appears to embark on a path to establish her own identity: one that will celebrate far more than beauty, as U.S. intelligence operative abroad.  In other words, she has bigger fish to fry.  She is like America of the period -- she moves on, optimistically.  As an aside, the senior member of the team on Pan Am, Purser Maggie Ryan (played by Christina Ricci) has virtually no political issues with her crew.  She is neither threatened by them, nor does she seem to dislike any of the me.  She is a team player.

One senses that against a plot device driven by nostalgia, the two shows will gravitate toward very different poles.  Pan Am will likely reflect more of the Cold War intrigue and broader optimism of world becoming increasingly globalized against a backdrop of glamour and not so much sexuality (though clearly there is an overt message about the increasing empowerment woman will have in the coming decades).  Playboy Club will likely reflect a backstory more focused on the underwold and somewhat still romanticized mob, as well as more overt sexuality.

The story lines seem authentic and carry lots of suspense while offeirng eye candy and a neat nostalgaic angle, but the characters are so one dimensional.  On top of the one dimensionality, the anti-heroes aren't very likable (or even deep -- not every handsome, intelligent professional in 1960's TV can have the depth of Don Draper).  The characters on Pan Am are just plain more likable.

One last thought.  In case it's not obvious, I love Television.  Like many others who share my passion, I often love the underloved show -- the one that doesn't always catch on at first, because not everybody appreciates the depth and cleverness of the show.  I tend then, to root for the ratings underdog.  In this case, however, I tend to agree with the public who have voted with their eyeballs. The pilot for Pan Am had about 11.1mm viewers and a 3.1 18-49 Nilesen rating.  The Playboy Club's pilot, on the other hand, had about 5.02mm viewers and a 1.6 18-49 Nielsen rating while the following week saw about a 20% drop in both rating and audience while Pan Am held onto it's audience.   By week 3 of this new Television season, Playboy Club had the ignominious distinction of being the first show of the Fall 2011 season to be canceled.

This may just be a case where the public has it right.  But the beautiful thing about teleivision and viewer passion is that one man's caviar is another man's tuna fish.  Perhaps Playboy Club will someday be hailed as brilliant buut canceled.  Till then, let's keep watching Pan Am.