Pan Am & The Playboy Club: Romancing a future that’s already happened

The other day I finally caught up with the first episodes of both The Playboy Club and Pan Am, both of which have seemed to be destined to be Mad Men but about women. Certainly, both shows are trying to cash in on the interest in that stifled and stylized world, and neither have in conception struck me as likely to do it very successfully.

On viewing, The Playboy Club seems more in the mold of Mad Men at first glance. It’s dark and no matter how central women are to the story, it’s really feels like a story about men and their clothes, haircuts and ordering of the world. Selling it as a story about women because of the bunnies and the women at the supposed center of the plot seemed besides the point, despite several central female characters I should theoretically care about. Frankly, I was bored.

That said, the show is doing some interesting things odd to the sides, even if I found the female rivalry plots overplayed and the mob drama of no emotional interest. The lesbian bunny is an interesting choice. Being a bunny wasn’t sex work, but queer women in sex work is a real thing, and certainly this is as close to that story as we’re going to get on network TV. If any straight people want to tell me how the Mattachine Society plot line read to them, I’d love to know. For me, it was the first time I really sat up and paid attention. Did I feel the hope and the fear because it was my people? Or was that when the show snapped into some better pacing?

Pan Am, on the other hand, is a much larger bucket of weird. It’s a lot less subtle, and really, as much as I’m all over it, the sweeping movie soundtrack music and the completely pornographic shots of airplanes before every commercial break are a little much. I love that stuff, but really, I can only take so many emotional climaxes about our past imagined future in 48 minutes. And there are lots of moments that feel like heightened reality (particularly in the repeated row of marching stewardesses routine) in a show that, in its domestic dramas (here again, another confrontation between two women who have slept with the same man), is also trying to be delicate. That it also seems to have two subplots involving international spying just adds to the possibly delicious ridiculousness.

Of the two shows, Pan Am managed, I thought, to be a greater love letter to the era and showcased the rivalries between women with a greater subtlety. But both shows’ emotional tones feel so off — The Playboy Club is too full of despair for a first episode and Pan Am is a little too up about a future that’s already happened. For me, they really only worked as companion pieces, bracketing the world as it was and is.

Pan Am was definitely more fun to watch, and I suspect it will last longer. But I really want to see where the Mattachine Society plot on The Playboy Club goes, although right now, I’ll be surprised if the show survives the season.

Anyone got any bets?

9 thoughts on “Pan Am & The Playboy Club: Romancing a future that’s already happened”

  1. 1. Yes, I should Google this, but can I find either of them on Hulu or some such?

    2. I am slightly boggled that they chose the Mattachine Society and not Daughters of Bilitis. Wouldn’t the second have been more relevant? I suppose I should watch it to find out.

    3. I’m not sure I’d categorize being a Bunny as “not sex work” – no, there was no contact permitted (please do not touch the bunnies, sir) and the duties were largely that of a waitress, but the sexualized costume puts it, for me, on a continuum that includes strippers and prostitutes of various sorts. Then again, I think of Hooters girls and Jaegermeister girls as existing on that spectrum, too.

    I’m interested in watching them now, and comparing my impressions to yours.

  2. There are a lot of jobs that really aren’t sex work but often get classified as near enough to not matter. Bunnies, belly dancers, and nude art models are some of those types of jobs.

    I had to have a very firm discussion with my MIL because she thought it was improper for me to be a nude art model because I had a kid (and quite probably there was some ageism thrown in for good measure). I told her in no uncertain terms what being a model really was about and that there was no reason to stop.

  3. Not sure if I’m a straight person for this purpose, or just a clueless one. The plot line made me google it to find out what it was.

    The plot line… well until the meeting–and googling the meaning–I hadn’t been sure quite what was going on there. It was the free love era, after all. I wasn’t sure if she was with her brother, and he was gay… if she was with both of them/they were all together, or… well, or what.

    (But then, I also googled the sign on the Bunny Mansion too… and I think, perhaps, both things are supposed to be pretty common knowledge?)

    And if we’re going to get into what one considers sex work, etc… … I don’t really see (from the tone of the shows) that being a Bunny is any more sex work than being a Pan Am girl is.

  4. (here again, another confrontation between two women who have slept with the same man)

    Part of the reason I’m sticking with 2 Broke Girls for a few episodes is because in the first ep, what could have been that sort of conflict was resolved by people actually communicating for a change

  5. I read your first paragraph, “Mad Men but about women,” and went Wait, What? Isn’t Mad Men about women? For me, it’s ALL about the women — Peggy, Joan and Betty, and foreseeing how they each will navigate the feminine mystique and women’s liberation and all that in the 60’s and 70’s. The men are just a side order of soap opera and cute suits — okay, and how locked into their own gender roles they all are, and how confused they are about that.

    Maybe I read the show that way because I’m older — really only Sally Draper’s age or even younger, but when I began my work life as a secretary in the late 1970’s, a lot of the things we see on Mad Men were only just beginning to change, and we were all still self-conscious about them changing.

    1. No, you’re completely right. Mad Men is so absolutely about women and gender, start to finish. The way it’s able to be such a feminist show but at the same time attract many people with otherwise reactionary, nostalgic, and/or anti-feminist mindsets is one of the brilliant things about the show. Though I think some of them have been dropping off as the seasons go on; the lure of the cute suits wears off and they start actually paying attention to what’s being shown about the social mores of the era and the people who inhabited it, which makes them acutely uncomfortable. But I have to think that at least some of the viewers who went in for the cute suits will come out with a deeper understanding of what the show is saying both about how the ’60s used to be and about how things are right now.

  6. I just watched the pilot of PanAm. Figured it might be worth my time if it was worth yours. I remember being the little boy at the window, looking out at the 707 AstroJet, from another airport but in the same year.

    I’ll be interested to see where it goes. I kind of liked the two sisters running away from the wedding, in a twisted homage to The Graduate.

    Have to agree with Katepwa above. For me Mad Men is also very much about Peggy, Joan, and Betty. My mother strongly identified with Betty though mom never did kick my dad out, even though he was as much a womanizer as Don. I think that from the very first the story arc of Mad Men has been told from Peggy’s perspective. There’s a Helen Gurley Brown / Betty Friedan thing going on too, comparing and contrasting two different ideals of feminism that were happening in the early 60s, with Joan something of an avatar for Brown, Betty Draper an avatar for Betty Friedan, and Peggy as EveryGirl (in the EveryMan sense), I won’t be surprised if Peggy ends up as vice-president of an agency, visiting Don in the hospital where he’s dying of lung cancer.

  7. The Mattachine Society? That makes me curious; I remember once seeing, a long time ago, video of Harry Hay speaking about the Mattachine Society, and the Radical Faeries.

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