‘Pan Am,’ & ‘Playboy Club:’ Why the ’60s Crashed

“The Playboy Club” has already been canceled, and now comes not-particularly-surprising word — careering around via Twitter — that “Pan Am” is hitting the kind of turbulence that makes a second season unlikely.

PanamSo why, other than perhaps “Mad Men” producer Matthew Weiner’s muttered curse, did both series crash?

It’s easy to say “Mad Men” isn’t a bona fide hit — especially by broadcast TV standards — so both shows were doomed to fail conceptually from the get-go. And based on the poor opening of “Playboy Club” on beleaguered NBC (compared to a much better start for “Pan Am”), there’s a germ of truth in that.

The problems, however, are more complicated than that, and begin with one shared and glaring shortcoming: Although set in the 1960s and informed by that backdrop, neither of them really had anything interesting to say about the period beyond a cosmetic level. That’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment, considering we’re still re-litigating issues that came to the fore in the ’60s — race, feminism, drugs, income inequality — more than 40 years later.

“Pan Am” certainly got off to a better start ratings-wise, but it was all sizzle, no steak. While there were things to like among the female cast members, the guys were pretty much window dressing. Moreover, I still think the spy element felt like an entirely different show — “Alias: The Cold War Years” — shoehorned into a soap.

Remember, though, “Pan Am” has fumbled away an audience willing to give it a shot initially; “Playboy Club,” on the other hand, never got off the ground, rejected by a public that couldn’t be bothered in the first place. (One can debate the wisdom of aiming a show titled “Playboy Club” at women, but that’s a subject for another day.)

At a minimum, this fall’s 1960s hangover should offer a caution against “me-too” development. And somewhere, I suspect Matthew Weiner — whose show has dared to tackle the ’60s in all its complexity, using it as a mirror to reflect on our present — is smiling.

 

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