Will TV’s Pan Am Work? (And Why Mad Men Always Will)

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Everyone knows it’s difficult to launch a TV show in this era of informed, sophisticated viewers who have a zillion options. It’s also tough because we can be fickle (and sometimes vicious) viewers who won’t suffer fools – or foolish dialogue and bad actors. Whether we’ll continue to put up with the atrocious Charlie’s Angels reboot remains to be seen. Whether that’ll be one of those shows that magically keeps going because its cast and scenery are so attractive is anyone’s guess. Hard to imagine it will survive, given its writing which has to be some of the most wooden and uninspired verbiage emanating from Hollywood right now.

The newbie Pan Am (about a crew of stewardesses aboard the once famous/now defunct airline ) has another set of problems facing it. For one thing, not one but two of fall’s new shows are set in the 1960s – the other one being The Playboy Club. Although given its dismal ratings, who knows how long it will last. The second things that makes Pan Am’s climb very much an uphill one is the fact that it may never be able to escape Mad Men’s shadow. Although globetrotting stewardesses do stand a better chance than mansion-bound Bunnies from a story vantage point.

Did you see Pan Am? I was reasonably intrigued by last night’s pilot, and in contrast to The Playboy Club it is bright and colorful (sleek 1963 airline cabin vs. dark, smokey nightclub). The stewardesses are saddled with the typical TV pilot plot-furthering language and exposition tasks. The plot themes are fairly standard for the period (e.g. career vs. husband, mistress vs. wife) although there is also an element of espionage (it’s set during the Cold War) that could prove to be very interesting because some of the girls may be spies. This I’ll want to see more of, and if they follow through on that story line, Pan Am will definitely warrant watching.

But even if Pan Am is a hit, and it could be, the fact is Mad Men will still always trump both new 60s shows. For one simple reason:  subject matter – specifically, it’s actually about guys. They’re not Mad Women. Question: what is the simple environmental factor most clearly demonstrated by all three of these shows? Answer: that men – during the 1960s – had enormous freedoms to do as they pleased, but that women were by and large relegated to a role of subservience and limited exposure in the workplace. Basically, men got to have the fun and make stuff happen. Stuff happening = more interesting plot lines and more tangents to hook viewers. Thus, Mad Men works because it’s primarily a story that follows men who get to run things; they’re also the ones who get to break more taboos, make more careless decisions, effect cultural change, impact commerce and so on. Women, on the other hand, were frequently confined to a more traditional role – hence they’re depicted far less dynamically. In fact, one of the reasons The Playboy Club feels limited is because the title characters are Bunnies – who actually don’t have too much latitude in the grand scheme of things. At least Pan Am stewardesses could attain a degree of worldliness via travel and adventure – and maybe they’ll even get to do some spying, which would be cool. Clearly the jury’s out on Pan Am – if the ladies can break free of the mold and lead “exciting” lives on multiple continents (thus generating more colorful storylines for viewers) it might just work.

Today’s poll:

It’s Week Two for new fall TV. Voice your choice in today’s featured poll and tell us which of these freshman dramas do you plan to continue watching?

1)   Charlie’s Angels

2)   Pan Am

3)   The Playboy Club

4)   Revenge

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