New network shows “The Playboy Club” (NBC) and “Pan Am” (ABC) each appear to be riding a coattail of AMC’s “Mad Men” and its revival of 60s style in our culture. But they’re missing several key points about that show’s popularity, mainly that viewers may like the fashions and music from that era, but no one actually wants to go back to the ’60s. No one. Women may want to look like Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris, but they don’t want to be her. Both new shows are using the era as their stories instead of writing stories set in the era. And both lack the confidence of “Mad Men,” which focuses heavily on its characters’ professional world as well as their home life and relationships. The new shows instead rely on gimmicky premises to move things along: “Playboy” has the mob, “Pan Am” has spies and both plots are ridiculous. Where “The Playboy Club” fails and “Pan Am” manages to (somewhat) succeed, however, is both series’ purported tales of female empowerment. Their young women of the early ’60s take different roads to find the independence they long for, the gals on “Playboy” becoming Bunnies and “Pan Am” becoming stewardesses. Neither choice is the right or wrong one to have taken, but given the treatment each is given here, the ladies of “Pan Am” are the ones with the real freedom.
Indeed, “Playboy” opens and closes with Hugh Hefner himself providing voiceover, wistfully romanticizing the 60s and his Playboy franchise. Chicago may have been “corrupt” and “crime-filled,” but he built a place “where everything was perfect, where life was magic, where the rules were broken and fantasies became realities for everyone who walked through the door. … Yes, it was a place where anything could happen to anybody. Or, any Bunny.” The main Bunny here is Maureen (Amber Heard), a wide-eyed blonde from Fort Wayne, Ind., who gives off a golly-shucks vibe to Playboy Club customers, including Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian), a hot-shot lawyer and a poor man’s Don Draper. Together, they make for a boring pair. Maureen’s naïveté has her discarding her cigarette tray to dance with various customers, an act that certainly would have been a no-no in reality at the clubs. Bunny life was glorified waitressing and hard work, with a plethora of rules to abide by and not fraternizing with keyholders being one of them. (Gloria Steinem’s undercover piece, “A Bunny’s Tale,” from 1963, is more enlightening than the “Playboy” pilot; she had to undergo a blood test and Pap smear as part of her Bunny training. Steinem has posted a download of the article on her website.)
Inexplicably, Maureen manages to kill a mob boss with her high heel after he cornered her in a back room, him upset she had rebuffed his advances while dancing with him, and she is helped by Nick in covering it up. But the mob is on to Maureen and its members, who appear as caricatures and aren’t remotely intimidating, keep asking questions. It only takes a day for the new Bunny to suddenly gain gumption and know how to outsmart one of them by flirting her way out of a tricky conversation. Roll with the punches is the name of the game, apparently, something we assume Maureen has always had to do. Her entire backstory so far consists of two lines: “I’ve been on my own since the day I was born and I worked too hard to get here. And I’m not gonna let anyone stop me.”
The other main Bunnies have similar outlooks, from the tough and Carol-Lynne, the first Playboy Bunny who becomes Bunny Mother to oversee her heirs, to the soft-spoken Alice (Leah Renee), who appears to be a happy housewife but is hiding a bigger secret: She’s gay, and so is her husband. Their marriage is a front, and with her Bunny earnings she helps fund the new Chicago chapter of the underground Mattachine Society working to end discrimination against gays and lesbians. Then there’s Brenda (Naturi Naughton), the “chocolate Bunny” who wants to be the first black Playboy pin-up girl. According to her character bio, “Brenda knows how lucky she is to be a Bunny and doesn’t take it for granted.” That’s what she tells a mopey Maureen at the Playboy Mansion as a party is underway. “Life is always gonna be rough out there,” Brenda says. “But we’re in here. We’re at the party. You turn down an invitation, you’ve only got yourself to blame.”
Bunnies aren’t Playmates; that’s an important distinction. But is their life really glamorous? They made good tips but only by appearing as part of the Playboy brand. Most of the characters are Bunnies only to make enough money to find a better life and better opportunities, and that seems true to life. Alice’s story is interesting, but it deserves a better outlet. I can’t judge a woman’s decision for becoming a Bunny or anything else because I don’t know her life. But I can judge “The Playboy Club’s” writers and creators for presenting the Bunny life in a manner as if it were fabulous, an amazing opportunity that more women should have taken back in the day. If only they’d had the guts!
Conversely, the women of “Pan Am” don’t appear to have come from such hard circumstances but all have taken to the skies for adventure and a chance to see the world. Maggie Ryan (Christina Ricci) is a hip New Yorker who doesn’t mind jetting away from her Village apartment to see new cities and continents. Kate Cameron (Kelli Garner) rebelled against her family by spurning the chosen life of wifedom and boredom, and eventually, her younger sister, Laura (Margot Robbie), chooses the same, the two of them running away on Laura’s wedding day. The sweet Colette Valois (Karine Vanasse) lost her parents during World War II but has found a new life through Pan Am. They and pilots Dean Lowrey (Mike Vogel) and Ted Vanderway (Michael Mosley) are all smiles and giddiness as they take off for London at the beginning of the pilot. Inspirational music plays as a “Gee whiz!” mood is created for those of us no longer thrilled by the notion of air travel.
And straight out of a Patton Oswalt skit, “Pan Am” features spies. Numerous flashbacks tell us how the main females got to be stewardesses, as well as how Laura came to work for the CIA as a spy. She had the help of her fellow stewardess Bridget (Annabelle Wallis), another mysterious spy who has gone AWOL from her job and her boyfriend, Dean. She’s in London at the end of the pilot, however, watching her crew member friends through the window of a pub, the men having drinks at the bar while the women share toasts at a table. Here, the ladies do seem confident, in control and happy. If only this upbeat show would focus more on their human drama instead of bringing in the James Bond plots. Colette, at least, is given the first bout of heartbreak when she realizes the man she’s been having an affair with is married. Kate is busy being tested by an undercover member of MI6 while Laura deals with the attention she’s receiving from her picture being plastered on the cover of Life magazine as the face of Pan Am.
“Pan Am” is drama light, a breezy yet largely unmemorable take on the 60s. Its characters at least have more dimensions and promise than those on “The Playboy Club,” which lacks any drama and whose women also are trying to start new lives but to much less successful results. Given the show’s presentation, however, you would think the Bunnies were just as “lucky.” “It was the early ’60s, and the Bunnies were some of the only women in the world who could be anyone they wanted to be,” Hefner says. More fascinating than that line in the pilot was the inclusion of Ike and Tina Turner performing at the club and later the after party. Maureen stares in awe at Tina and at one point imagines herself singing on stage in Tina’s place (in a sequence stolen from Chicago). I would hope that Tina’s inclusion in the narrative isn’t pointing to the larger story of women making lemons from lemonade — that to achieve the fantasy life one wants they must put up with all the other bullshit that may come, whether it’s being harassed, or worse, beaten. Creator Chad Hodge must think along with Hefner that by including a lesbian and a black woman they are presenting the club just as progressive — “The world was changing, and we were changing it, one Bunny at a time,” Hefner says. But they should compare “The Playboy Club’s” final scene with “Pan Am’s.”
The stewardesses are drinking and laughing at a pub, single, happy, independent. The Bunnies are dancing in their négligées and bikinis at the Playboy Mansion as the real life Hugh Hefner invites viewers to “come on in” but intones, “If you don’t swing, don’t ring.” Empowerment: You’re doing it wrong.
Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Pembroke Welsh corgi. She’s also very thankful she was born in the 1980s.