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?