You’ve heard the bad news. We aren’t going to get any new “Mad Men” episodes until next year. While the Emmy-gobbling hit sits it out for a spell, NBC and ABC are kindly stepping into the gap, providing two shows that capture the same, sexy, suave, swingin’ ’60s vibe. NBC has got the nightclub drama “The Playboy Club.” And ABC has got the airline stewardess drama “Pan Am.”
Both shows favor style over substance, providing plenty of visual flair. Both play with the sexual conventions of the era, offering up a bevy of uniform-clad beauties—and promptly leavening the sex appeal with an injection of halfhearted feminism. Both are based on iconic, real-world corporate entities. Both are lightweight ensemble dramas that rely on patently artificial genres to provide some storylines.
“Playboy Club” masquerades as a mob drama. It centers around the big-city adventures of damaged goods good girl Maureen (the quite appealing Amber Heard from Drive Angry and Zombieland). Maureen spends most of her time befriending / competing with fellow Bunnies and defending herself from the jealous machinations of an aging-bunny-turned-boss-lady (the dominant, Tony-winning actress Laura Benanti). The rest of the time, she tries to cover up the accidental murder of a Chicago Mafia boss with the help of a handsome, genially corrupt former Mob lawyer who’s running for district attorney (Eddie Cibrian, “CSI: Miami”). It’s a hilarious study in how not to cover up a crime. (Hint: Don’t pose on the cover of Playboy magazine with the one piece of evidence that ties you to the crime.) Also, none of the supporting characters and their various storylines are particularly interesting. Still, with its odd mix of musical numbers, sexy stars and cartoonish crime drama (plus the occasional cameo by a fake Hugh Hefner), “The Playboy Club” is a suitably guilty pleasure.
“Pan Am,” meanwhile, pretends to be a Cold War spy drama. It bides its time watching over society babe Laura (Margot Robbie of the Australian soap “Neighbours”), who ditches out of her stifling wedding to join her adventurous sister Kate (Kelli Garner from The Aviator) as a globe-hopping stewardess. Kate, meanwhile, is recruited by the CIA to spy on passengers and act as an international courier. Like “Playboy Club,” the other characters in the ensemble aren’t as absorbing. (Hell, big-name Christina Ricci has yet to do much of anything on the show.) On the other hand, the show isn't quite as vapid as “Playboy Club” and boasts slightly better writing.
In the end, both shows do a decent enough job of puncturing their respective myths, showing the restrictive temporal environments and Draconian corporate control that led to the creation of these female icons—while still managing to squeeze in a decent number of gratuitous boob shots. Still, if you’re going to choose one, I’d pick the sharp colors and snazzy look of “Playboy Club” over the cheap special effects and overplayed romance of “Pan Am.”