The future of television lies squarely in the past, preferably on a bed with a blond bombshell. That’s where you’ll find Nick, the hero of NBC’s upcoming 1960s drama “The Playboy Club,” who’s described by one lady friend as “everything you want and everything you don’t.” With his well-oiled hair and sharply creased pocket square, he looks like he just stepped out of an ad designed by Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Surrounded by a gaggle of pink-eared, cotton-tailed friends, Nick lives in a world where, as Hugh Hefner’s voice-over explains, “everything was perfect, where life was magic, where ... fantasies became realities for everyone who walked through the door. It wasn’t the ‘50s anymore.”
Remember nostalgia? It used to be more original. Back in 2007, when “Mad Men” brought its cigarette-puffing, garter-snapping, five-martini-lunch vision to AMC, the idea of letting viewers revel in the thrill of 1960s-endorsed bad behavior, while also allowing them to keep the moral high ground of our relatively enlightened times, felt groundbreaking. Now, with two 1960s dramas due this fall, NBC and ABC are following suit behind AMC -- and that suit looks a lot like Don Draper’s gray flannel number.
Both set in 1963, with civil rights, the Cold War and the sexual revolution on the horizon, NBC’s “The Playboy Club” focuses on the bunnies working in gangster-run Chicago while ABC’s “Pan Am” follows a team of stewardesses, one of whom might be a spy.
Each show feels like a “Mad Men” spinoff: “Pan Am” recalls the blue-uniformed flight attendant who helped Draper get his wings, while “The Playboy Club” echoes advertising boss Lane Pryce’s affair with a bunny. By combining the smart historical references and character studies of cable with the broad reach of network television, NBC and ABC are betting that they’ll achieve all the critical acclaim earned by “Mad Men” with a ratings boost that trumps its roughly 2.3 million viewership.
Jack Orman, the creator of “Pan Am,” admits that “Mad Men” paved the way for his show. “It certainly helped in the pitching stage, because it showed that the ‘60s could work for a contemporary audience,” he says. Before “Mad Men,” Orman believes, there hadn’t been a truly successful series set in that decade since “The Wonder Years.”
Of course, the allure of the 1960s remains somewhat timeless, especially when it mirrors our own times. “These shows represent a slice of 1960s America that’s closer to modern day,” says Michael Allen, a history professor at Northwestern University who teaches a class on “Mad Men” and the 1960s. “It’s a moment that is cosmopolitan, focused on large cities, business and travel, but it’s also quite conservative. The world is mostly white. It’s all well-educated. It’s not really representative of how most Americans lived at that time, but it’s very advertiser-friendly today, because it reflects upper-middle class values.”
Indeed, if there’s anything “Mad Men” taught the networks, it’s that it’s easier to wink at product placement when your show is set in the past. That’s a lesson that hasn’t been lost on NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt, who recently explained to a crowd of potential advertisers in New York that “The Playboy Club” offered many cross-promotional opportunities, since Hefner will be reopening a few clubs around the time of its premiere.
Demographically, 1960s period dramas also extend the networks’ audience. Older viewers watch them to reflect on their own experiences during that decade. Younger audiences, many of whom already love heritage vintage clothing and Hipstamatic photos, are often drawn to the retro style, as well as their curiosity about how their parents lived. “It’s a built-in four-quadrant zinger,” says Chad Hodge, creator of “The Playboy Club.” “You’ll watch no matter how old or young you are, and it appeals to both men and women.”
Luring more male viewers is particularly important to ABC, whose audience is 65% female. True, some women will enjoy both networks’ lipstick-feminist take on career girls busting their carefully manicured fists through the glass ceiling. (One “Playboy Club” bunny tells her friends that she’s making more money than her father.) But both of these dramas also indulge a popular male fantasy -- at a time when many men are anxious about job stability and women are getting higher college degrees, “Pan Am” and “The Playboy Club” recall a less threatening era, when an ambitious woman’s prime goal was to serve the guys who rule the boardroom. The “Pan Am” tagline boasts, “They do it all and they do it at 30,000 feet.”
Though both dramas are driven by their female characters, each one features a suave leading man, who also happens to look a lot like “Mad Men’s” Don Draper. “Playboy” has Nick, a suave lawyer with mob connections who opens doors for women and effortlessly helps one bunny bury the body of a patron she accidentally killed with her stiletto. “Pan Am” has Dean, the captain of a 707 Clipper who keeps his affections for the stewardesses where they belong: 30,000 feet above ground.
For Allen, these old-fashioned gentlemen are especially enchanting to today’s young viewers. “If you think about representations of young men at the present moment, you think about ‘The Hangover’ and ‘Pineapple Express’ and all of these man-boy characters who don’t know how to be a man at all. There’s a sense that people played by certain rules back then, and there’s a yearning for that certainty, even if some of those rules are really bad.”
As Hefner reminds us in his voice-over, the Playboy Club was also a place “where rules were broken.” That explains why, in one scene, naked bunnies are playing in the pool with “men watching them as if at SeaWorld, only much, much better.”
Yes, “The Playboy Club” is all about the guilty pleasures -- but Hodge argues that that’s what the 1960s were about, too. “Today, people wish we were living in unhealthier times,” he says. “Watching this pilot, people are always like, ‘I wish I could smoke and drink and have sex in the bathroom.’ Now if you do those things, you’ll die.”
“We’re punished for everything that’s fun,” he insists. “Why not go back to a world where there were no consequences?”