Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"The Playboy Club" and "Pan Am"

Two of the networks have launched new drama series set in the 60s, each starring a bevy of bright-eyed young women in sexy uniforms, and promising to chronicle the emergence of of the modern working woman from the age when airline stewardesses and Playboy Bunnies had real cultural cachet. Both series' pilots, which aired over the last week, feature loving shots of a blonde lead actress gazing upward with the stars in her eyes and the future at her feet. Nobody points out that both sets of women are doing basic service jobs, but being paid a premium for their superficial beauty and being able to wear iconic outfits particularly well. The Pan Am flight attendants look more dignified than the Playboy Club's bunnies, but when you see them grouped together, it's apparent that they're also being made to conform to a particular, rigid beauty standard, right down to the off-the-shoulder haircuts.

Historically, these jobs may have opened doors, but dramatically, the whole spiel about the empowerment narrative doesn't hold up. "The Playboy Club" is especially bad at trying to convince the audience that the show is all about women coming into their own. With a little narration from Hugh Hefner to set the scene, the series opens in the early 1960s at the Chicago Playboy Club. New girl, Bunny Maureen (Amber Heard) gets herself in trouble immediately when an amorous patron assaults her in the storage room, and she accidentally kills him. Fortunately a white knight in the form of Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian), an attorney with mob ties, comes to her rescue and helps her dispose of the body. This puts them both in hot water with Carol Lynne (Laura Benanti), the senior bunny of the club, who thinks Nick cheated on her with Maureen. By the end of the episode, Carol Lynne is promoted to Bunny Mother, the immediate supervisor to all the club's girls, further raising tensions.

How is Bunny Maureen a progressive female character in any sense? She's in the victim role for the whole hour, suffering groping, an assault, and being painted as incompetent for leaving her post as Cigarette Bunny. Her finest moment comes when she makes a pass at a mobster to avoid an interrogation. Oh, and her big dream? To perform onstage as a singer. Her fellow Bunnies don't fare much better. African American Bunny Brenda (Naturi Naughton) vocally proclaims she intends to be the first "chocolate Bunny" centerfold. Bunny Janie (Jenna Dewan) refuses to marry her bartender boyfriend Max (Wes Ramsey) for reasons she won't explain. Bunny Alice (Leah Renee) is the only one with a compelling background so far, secretly a lesbian in a sham marriage with a gay man named Sean (Sean Maher). David Krumholtz is also in the mix as the club manager, Billy. The pilot spends as little time as possible actually observing the lead characters doing their jobs and instead distracts us with recreated musical performances from period musicians, a developing mob story centered around Nick Dalton, and the usual prime time soap opera intrigues.

The parents' groups boycotting the show have little to worry about. There's no skin and little sin that you wouldn't find on any other network drama in the 10PM hour. In fact, the show makes several very odd concessions toward wholesomeness, including taking pains to point out it's against policy for Bunnies to date patrons. We barely even see any glamor shots of the girls in costume. There's very little in that comes off as fun or sexy as a result, which defeats the whole purpose of making a series about the Playboy Club. In convincing us it's not sleazy, the show confirms it's a bore. The biggest problem is that the characters are uniformly flat and badly defined. At one point I thought Alice and Janie were the same person. Eddie Cibrian as the male lead is totally inert. I don't see this show surviving for very long, because it has too many conflicting agendas, the visuals tend toward the murky, and the level of the writing and the performances just isn't up to par.

"Pan Am" manages to avoid the bulk of the problems of "The Playboy Club" by spending more time fleshing out its characters, and being much lighter in tone. And though I find some of the messages problematic, the writers do a better job of convincing us that the Pan Am stewardesses lead exciting lives that are actually worth watching. Also set in the 60s, when the Pan Am airline was flourishing, the biggest difference is a matter of branding. The female characters are portrayed as active, well-educated go-getters who take pride in their work, and they're accorded far more respect and admiration from everyone around them. The fantasy isn't perfect, especially to the cynical modern eye, but it holds together a lot better than you'd think. The most exciting thread of the plot is the recruitment of Kate Cameron (Kelli Garner) as an operative by MI6 agent Roger Anderson (David Harbour). She has the perfect cover, after all, having a rare job that lets a young woman travel all over the globe.

Other characters on the show's featured airliner crew include Kate's sister Laura (Margot Robbie), a recent runaway bride, pilot Deal Lowrey (Mike Vogel), First Officer Ted Vanderway (Michael Mosley), a French flight attendant, Colette (Karine Vanasse), and the bohemian New Yorker Maggie Ryan (Christina Ricci). Led by Garner and Ricci, the cast boasts a lot of good talent, and if the show survives it'll be due in large part to their efforts. What I think is also a big draw is the nostalgic sense of wonder and optimism the show manages to summon up. The show's palette is full of bright, saturated colors, rendering a few scenes in picture postcard perfection. It's not so blatant that you'd notice right away, but the art direction is subtly stylized to the extent that the whole series feels a little unreal and a little fantastic. And it works.

However, in spite of all the lip service, the idea of stewardesses being such progressive trailblazers is pretty hard to swallow, which is why I think the pilot doesn't really say much about the job itself beyond some basic aspirational platitudes. Fortunately it nails all of its major characters immediately, and they're likable, sympathetic, and engaging right off the bat. Kelli Garner gets to show gumption. Christina Ricci gets to be sassy and adorable. The character of Laura shares a lot of similarities with Bunny Maureen, but "Pan Am" wisely keeps her part of the larger ensemble. The pilot played by Mike Vogel is a weak link so far, but he'll be getting more interesting material soon, so we'll see how he handles that. I also like the whole conceit of the show being structured around flights and airports, which is a world most people are familiar with, but from only one vantage point.

So I think "Pan Am" has a lot of promise. Its brand of female empowerment is clearly going to be a lot broader and less explicit than what "The Playboy Club" is going for, and as a result it has a lot more room for different kinds of stories and ideas. Also, it has a much better attitude toward its material, and ironically does a better job of selling Pan Am as a company, which went out of business decades ago, than "The Playboy Club" does with its nightclubs, which actually still exist. But as I said at the end of my "Sucker Punch" review, the big point is the marketing is totally off base. Neither show is all that strongly focused on women's lib from the outset, and there's really no reason that the marketers should feel the need to keep using the female empowerment narrative to sell these shows. They're nostalgia-based soap operas. One's lousy and the other might not be. That's all there is to it.

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