At the New York Times, Maureen Dowd wonders about the relative glut of retro-themed TV shows set at the uncool end of the 1960s, i.e. 1960 to approx. 1967.
Maureen Dowd sees two interconnected reasons for commissioning new TV shows focused on the Playboy Club in the early 1960s or Pan Am stewardesses in the early 1960s*. The first reason Ms. Dowd identifies is the success of Mad Men, which mirrors my initial thoughts at reading about these particular additions to the US TV line-up. “My, someone is trying to get a piece of Mad Men“.
The second and more problematic reason Maureen Dowd detects, both for the success of Mad Men and the appearance of copycat shows, is the more or less overt desire of many men to return to an era when gender roles were clearly defined, men were king (at least as long as they were WASP men) and women were submissive.
I’ve blogged about my thoughts on Mad Men before. And again, I agree with Marueen Dowd, because it was always pretty clear to me – even before I actually saw an episode, way back when Mad Men was first making waves and gaining acclaim – that the retro sexism and the look back at the “good old times” of the early 1960s, made to look for more attractive than they ever were in reality, were a huge part of the appeal of the show.
Now retro and costume dramas generally feed on nostalgia for supposedly better times when men were men, women were women, clothes were more elegant (unless you actually had to wear them, of course), drinking and smoking was possible without feeling guilty about it and life in general was simpler. This nostalgia impulse is the reason behind the success of Mad Men in the US, Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes in the UK, the unanimous fawning about Downton Abbey and the fact the Cold Case remained on the air for several seasons (because the retro episodes of Cold Case were always the best).
Quite a few of those retro shows play on a mix of superficial condescension towards the past (“Look, she’s drinking and smoking and pregnant! – Thank heavens, we know better now”) and a latent desire for returning to a less politically correct time. It’s this impulse which made Gene Hunt from Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes a sex symbol in Britain, which baffled everyone, including the writers and the actor. It is also telling that the TV producer quoted in the Maureen Dowd article singles out the Christina Hendricks character from Mad Men, an intelligent woman who uses her sex appeal to get what she wants, that is men buying her things, instead of the much more interesting Peggy and Rachel characters, who use their smarts and business savvy to get ahead in their chosen careers. There are a lot of people, mostly straight white men, who long for a return to the world of the 1950s and early 1960s.
This is also answers the question why those American retro shows are all set in the early 1960s. Because the early 1960s were the last time when the old sexism, racism, homophobia, etc… was still socially somewhat acceptable, yet the mores were already beginning to change, particularly with regards to sex. A lot of the raunchier plotlines in Mad Men, let alone Playboy Club and Pan Am, wouldn’t have been possible to the same degree in the 1950s or before. The early 1960s were the sweet spot for straight white American men, though not so sweet for everybody else.
It’s also interesting that while both British and American retro shows walk the fine line between “Look how unenlightened those people are” and “But damn, wasn’t it cool?”, the British ones generally manage to keep the balance better. Mad Men is very pretty to look at – almost too pretty, considering that everything is done up in the latest styles and no one has furniture, clothes, cars, etc… that date from an earlier decade – but it’s essentially hollow. Mad Men does address the social issues of the time, often in painfully blatant dialogue, but it rarely tackles them. It seems as if the only actual problem the Mad Men writers have with the early 1960s is the fact that people drink and smoke with abandon and sleep with women they are not married to. Racism, sexism, homophobia, etc… are dutifully mentioned, but not really dealt with. And I sincerely doubt that the Playboy and Pan Am shows will be any better – most likely they’ll be worse.
Meanwhile, British retro shows like Inspector George Gently, which is set during the same period as Mad Men, and Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes, set during the early 1970s and early 1980s respectively, are grittier and less stylish, but they have a lot more heart.
I just chanced to watch an Inspector George Gently episode set in a Playboy type club, i.e. the same territory covered by the upcoming US show. Yes, there was some skin on display, but the episode itself dealt with the doublestandard facing women who worked in such clubs and the men who went there and also touched on issues such as rape, access to contraception and abortion, etc…
As for Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes, the hints are there from the very beginning that the 1970s or respectively 1980s are a fantasy assembled from individual memories and pop cultural detritus, though it still looks more like the actual 1970s or respectively 1980s than the overly stylish Mad Men world. And in the very final episode, it’s not only becomes clear that we have indeed been watching a collective fantasy, the Jim Keats character basically throws the fact that it’s all a fantasy into the faces of the assembled cast (“Did you think this was a real police station? They were never like this in reality”) and by association the viewers as well. By contrast, I don’t think that Mad Men is even aware that it’s a fantasy and there’s no Jim Keats to tell the truth either.
*I wonder how much they had to pay to Hugh Hefner for the rights to the Playboy Club name and insignia. Though it’s clear why they chose Pan Am, because as the airline is no more, there won’t be legal problems. Though I still wish they’d have chosen Braniff, because their planes and uniforms were so much cooler. My Dad actually did fly Braniff once during the colourful period. I’m so jealous.