Like all people with both taste and cable television, I’m a fan of Mad Men. How could I fail to be? It’s sharply written, sensitively acted and filled with all manner of beautiful people and glorious retro easter eggs, thanks to its 1960s setting. But with The Playboy Club, Pam Am and now Dope both threatening to mine the same era, it may be time for a television intervention when it comes to mid-century modern.
You’ve probably heard about Pan Am, ABC’s upcoming drama based around the iconic airline way back in its heyday of the 1960s, and chances are, you’ve heard of The Playboy Club, NBC’s upcoming drama based around the iconic magazine way back in its heyday of the 1960s (Noticing a trend yet?), but it’s possible that Dope is brand new to you. It’s an HBO project that’s being kicked around right now, potentially as a Julianne Moore vehicle, about a former heroin addict turned private eye in the late 1950s/early 1960s. You know, the heyday of dope addicts (Only joking; everyone knows that’s really 1980s Scotland, after Trainspotting. My country thanks you, Irvine Welsh. You can find out more about Dope here, though). That said – and I’m asking this despite being completely and ridiculously in love with the 1960s myself – is television beginning to forget that there were other decades in the past where things were cool?
Don’t get me wrong; the ’60s were an especially iconic time for everyone, but America especially. You have Camelot, the space program (The moon landings!), assassinations of both MLK and JFK, the counter culture and Vietnam… but… there were lots of other things happening in other decades, as well. Why are we apparently stuck in the days where people took the dawning of the Age of Aquarius seriously? It’s got to be more than the sexy clothes and promise of free love and cultural revolution, right…?
(I dream of someone trying to do a show set in the 1970s, as punk started to become a thing, a cultural revolution in the other direction with disillusionment and selfishness and greed setting in as the 1980s begin to take shape. But I don’t think people would tune in.)
I worry that producers are looking at the success of Mad Men and missing the point amid the undeniable glamor. What makes Mad Men so good has nothing to do with the surface, ultimately. Sure, it’s what lured us all in in the first place, but if that’s all there was, we’d have dropped out as quickly as our Jon Hamm/Christina Hendricks obsessions wore thin. The fact is, Mad Men could lose all of its visual style and, as long as the show stayed as well-written and performed as it’s been for four seasons, people would still be glued to their seats. The lesson Mad Men should be teaching is the value of quality, not of making things have a certain visual style and era.
Of course, I don’t really know what I’m worried about. The intervention I long for will come, doubtlessly, when Pan Am and The Playboy Club debut and sink or swim based on what’s inside the pretty wrapping. Because, if those shows aren’t any good, it doesn’t matter if they came with a real time machine that zapped the viewers back fifty years… The shows will still die a death, and the networks will see the error of their ways.
At least until next summer, when Mad Men starts up again and hypnotizes everyone into missing the point one more time.