This fall ABC is premiering Pan Am, a new show about stewardesses, flight crews, and the jet set in 1962. It’s pretty evident they’re attempting to coat-tail on the ’60s nostalgia sparked by AMC’s hit show Mad Men. And right out of the gate they’re getting it wrong.
The cracks in their facade are small but telling. The most noticeable one might be their decision to rewrite history and go smoke-free. Ubiquitous as cigarettes were in the ’60s, there’ll be none of that here. ABC network management nixed the concept of showing people smoking. Although some bit players in the background will be shown holding cigarettes, none of the stars will.
Smoking Portrayed – Or Not
The secret to Mad Men’s success is not a secret at all: besides the writing of the drama itself, half its charm lies in the fact that they painstakingly re-enact the milieu of the 1960s. On this show, people smoke like chimneys and drink like fish – and those are not the only, or even the most, hallmark of the 1960s cultural practices on display. Social practices and attitudes are nailed, of course. Makeup, hair and clothes change according to the exact year and even season that is portrayed. The verisimilitude extends even to women wearing garters, and the inconvenience they presented in getting dressed or undressed – this minutiae tells its own story and informs the characters. Mad Men’s costume designer, Janie Bryant, has said of the show’s unmentionables, “Without the foundation garments, it’s not going to happen.” Women walk, move, sit, look differently, in girdles and garters and long-line bras, perched atop high heels. That’s a fact, and it’s part of what shaped that world.
Somehow one (sadly) expects network TV to be more timid, less risk-taking than cable productions like AMC, and one is not disappointed with ABC’s tentative approach to the edgier aspects of this era. Focusing on glitz and glamour should be easy enough in the scripting, but will the cultural details be real? Smoking is already out the window. Where else are they taking liberties?
Producer/director Thomas Schlamme said, “It’s understandable. It’s an enormous impressionable element. It’s the one revisionist cheat.” In other media comments, he’s said, “Television is just execution, it’s not the time period it takes place in…It has nothing to do with ‘Mad Men.’ We just hope our show is executed in a wonderful way.”
He can deny the obvious competition/inspiration all he likes, although Mad Men’s wild success has clearly demonstrated an interest in this particular period. That connection to Pan Am’s potential market appeal is screamingly obvious in spite of his denial. More worrisome here, though, is his blithe dismissal of period setting. Faithfulness to the period doesn’t matter, as long as everything else is “executed well.”
Really? I think we’ve seen this line of thinking in action before. Schlamme is one of the producers responsible for bringing us Life on Mars, another anomalously smoke-free show in a cop setting in 1973. Mars was infamous for its unbelievably egregious FAIL ending in spite of mostly great writing throughout the season and a stellar cast (Harvey Keitel, Gretchen Mol, Jason O’Mara, Michael Imperioli). That show failed for other reasons than lack of verisimilitude (well, ok, that too, if you count the unreality of the story resolution they were shooting for all along), but I’m seeing a pattern here: same network, same reservations, same willingness to screw with the internal reality of a storyline to achieve some technically well-executed goal. It is perfectly in keeping with this attitude to dispense with portraying cigarette smoking.
Period Details Don’t Matter If They Hurt Us Commercially
The justification for the “no smoking” policy is rendered, as Schlamme put it, as touching on “an enormous impressionable element.” Here we are supposed to understand that if a major network shows people smoking, it will be glamorized and kids will copy the behavior.
In fact, that’s not likely to have any real impact on kids choosing to light up. Today, with virtually no smoking shown anywhere on television (except on ballsy Mad Men), kids continue to start the habit all on their own, and in increasing numbers. It’s not TV watching that is fueling their decision, but peer pressure and the desire to look cool.
I suppose it would be inconvenient and embarrassing to the network if a producer were to speak the truth: “We not showing smoking because it will hurt us commercially if we do. People will kick up a fuss. Some advertisers may defect. We can’t afford the risk of the backlash if people don’t like it, and they won’t because they don’t expect it from a brand name like Disney.”
See, while most of us TV-watching schmucks weren’t really paying attention to corporate mergers and such, Disney gobbled up ABC quite a while ago. The American Broadcasting Corporation is now a subsidiary of Disney Media Networks. Now that explains a lot, doesn’t it? Think a “family friendly” ethos has an impact on content decisions and brand name sensibilities? You betcha.
That’s what’s really behind this decision, wrapped up in a weak “moral high ground” justification: the fear of losing audience, and the commercial backlash that follows, by showing “risky” content. Similar economic concerns, no doubt, drive the other notable period anomaly they’ve chosen to begin this series with: the introduction of a black flight attendant when none were employed by international carriers at all.
Where’d That Black Chick Come From?
Schlamme is being disingenous when he calls smoking the “one revisionist cheat.” The decision to inject a black stewardess into what was at the time a painfully bright white cadre of flight attendants, is another such warping of recent history.
Oddly, series creator and executive producer Nancy Hult Ganis, who used to be a Pan Am stewardess herself, seems to be okay with this mutation in reality. She’s introducing a black flight attendant near the middle of the season, although practically speaking women of color were not hired as stewardesses by the international carriers until mid-decade. A black stewardess with Pan Am in 1962? Unheard of. I can hear that network-management-infused “creative” meeting already:
“Let’s have an African-American on board too.”
“The first black stewardess wasn’t hired until the mid-’60s.”
“Well, if we don’t have racial diversity, we’ll lose our black audience.”
The fact is that stewardessing was almost without exception a racially exclusive industry and occupation until the civil rights movement had developed more traction. But hey, let’s alter the racial diversity timeline anyway. We’ve already changed the representation of smoking, lest we suffer commercial backlash. Surely we must fudge history to please potentially prickly minority audience members. They will no doubt be comforted by portrayals of an era that don’t match their memories of that era, and they will keep buying our sponsors’ products. And liking Disney, while they’re at it.
The Power of Mad Men’s Racism
The racism in Mad Men is unflinchingly present, interwoven into the era, at times emerging to become visible text, subtext no longer. The racial mix of the cast reflects the Madison Avenue reality of the era. It is this very frankness about racial exclusion that makes it so charged and revealing for the modern viewer when, for instance, a conversation with an advertiser reveals that they don’t hire blacks in the South, and don’t want to have anything to do with that consumer market either. That they are complacently happy and see nothing wrong with their whites-selling-to-whites approach to business.
This is not the central point of the show, but incidents like this acquire their stark impact precisely because the rest of the show is era-appropriate. They give similar treatment to women, Jews and gays. Short shrift all around.
(Hate to tell you, Thomas: often it is about the period.)
This and its many other layers of verisimilitude (and, of course, the writing) are the things that make Mad Men a gutsy, envelope-pushing show. It looks like Pan Am is staking out a strong claim to the middle ground of mediocrity. By selectively excising bits of truth. they weaken the fabric of dramatic reality that results, be it ever so technically well executed. I hope I’m wrong – I like these 60s rooted shows, if they are realistic – but at this point, I’m seeing glass half empty. If Pan Am proves to be a contender in the ’60s nostalgia marketplace, it will be on the strength of stellar writing and hopefully less ham-handed smoke-and-mirrors with other aspects of the era.
Pan Am premiers September 25.
Meanwhile, to get a glimpse into the real experiences of the earliest black flight attendant and her years-long struggle to get hired, please check out the interview with the inspiring Patricia Banks Edmiston here below.