Two of this week's most talked-about TV premieres have very similar settings: Pan Am, first airing on Sunday, is about attractive young women working as Pan Am flight attendants in the 1960s. The Playboy Club, which premiered Monday night, is about — well, attractive young women working as Playboy bunnies in the 1960s. Both shows are trying to imitate the success of another show set in the '60s: Mad Men.
In The Playboy Club, new bunny Maureen has a pretty good setup. She's fresh in from Fort Wayne, Indiana, with a job at the coolest nightspot in town, Chicago's Playboy Club. She gets caught up in some mob action, but when she's told to leave Chicago — for her own good, of course — she wants to stay because being a Playboy Bunny is her dream job.
The opening even features narration (and an implied blessing) from an actor portraying Playboy founder Hugh Hefner himself: "I built a place in the toddlin' town where everything was perfect," he intones. "Fantasies became realities for everyone who walked through the doors."
Male-dominated fantasies, mostly — and for all its nostalgic glamour, NBC's Playboy Club gets stuck between its roots in a pre-liberation era and the reality of women's prominence in modern television. Because we're watching it in 2011, The Playboy Club has female characters argue for bunny work as empowerment; they say it's the best option for an ambitious woman in a troubled world.
"Honey, all I'm saying is that life is always going to be rough out there," explains the one African-American bunny. (She calls herself "chocolate.") "We're in here. We're at the party, and the party just started."
But because this is also about the Playboy life, the women's jobs and successes depend on serving and pleasing men. It's a hard line to walk. The show doesn't even give last names to the bunny characters, including star Amber Heard's troubled Maureen.
Worst of all, because this is network TV, the show commits what's a cardinal sin in Hugh Hefner's hedonistic universe: It isn't sexy. It's hard to believe, but NBC made a show about the Playboy Club that has almost no actual sex in it. It's not much more than a transparent homage to the Mad Men era of Rat Pack songs and sleek suits.
Sex appeal is not a problem for ABC's Pan Am. The airline's stewardesses — again, it's the '60s, so we're not calling them flight attendants yet — emerge as the ultimate symbol of buttoned-down beauty, the cameras lingering on their wide eyes, occasional cleavage and tight skirts. It's a decidedly male vision that at times seems sexier than anything The Playboy Club has to offer.
Here, the nostalgia on tap is for the Jet Age, the first time you could fly a plane anywhere in the world on an hour's notice, with more leg room than you find in today's airport lounges. So what if the only way for a woman to get ahead in this world is by serving drinks in the sky, enduring girdle checks and mandatory weigh-ins before she puts on her sleek stewardess hat?
Both Pan Am and Playboy Club attempt the same balancing act that Mad Men actually pulls off. They want to bask in the sexy glamour of the 1960s while also exploring its oppressive reality. This way, the networks hope to draw male viewers — whom advertisers love — without losing the female viewers who watch TV far more often.
But for these series to work, they need to dig deeper, moving beyond the superficial glitz of a time when too many lives were unfairly limited. Otherwise, The Playboy Club and Pan Am will just be celebrating a time when women had less freedom and less power. That's a history lesson no one needs to learn.
Eric Deggans is the TV critic for the St. Petersburg Times.