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Enough With Mid-20th Century TV Already

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.

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Comments

  • James MacQuarrie

    This is how nostalgia works. At any given time, there are usually three simultaneous nostalgia waves. For example, back in the ’70s, there was a ’50s trend (Happy Days, Grease, Sha-Na-Na), along with a ’20s (lots of Art Deco fonts, R. Crumb referencing ’20s comic strips, M.C. Escher posters), and an 1890s trend (lots of “Gay ’90s”-themed stores and advertising, also “old west” themes).

    Usually it goes like this: young adults are nostalgic for the things of their childhood, so stuff from 20 years ago, particularly toys and entertainment, gets a revival (as per the current ’90s cartoon revival); at the same time, decorators and fashion designers look back about 50 years for fashion and decor ideas (witness the revival of Mid-century furnishings and clothing), and others look at the designs of 80-90 years back, which are now old enough to be considered historic and classic.

    This pattern is consistent and predictable. 10 years ago, the fads were for ’80s cartoons and toys, ’40s fashion and decor, and Victorian architecture. 10 year from now, you’ll be seeing nostalgia for children’s entertainment from the late ’90s-early 2000s, fashion and decor from the early ’70s, and design from the pre-WWII era. Bank on it.

  • jgrantt18

    “There’s this great show on AMC about the 50’s or 60’s. The acting great. The writing is top notch, as well as the direction.”

    “Well clearly audiences just want shows about old times then.”

    And that’s how channels decided to make period shows. 

  • Dswynne1

    They already have: “Life on Mars” and “That’s 70s Show”.

  • Shaun

    Not to mention X-Men: First Class.

  • Mark Rosenthal

    Well TV producers always miss the point. and yes, many would be inferior products. but your headline is like saying: enough with the medical dramas. Not. Going. To. Happen.

  • Palmer

    So I’m guessing if American Dreams was made today, it would’ve gone on for more than like two seasons?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NAQPRH2S5FD35Q55RL7JT36MBE 665 the neighbor of the beast

    Honestly speaking these shows exist because there will always be people who like to think about specific times in their lives. They view these eras with the proverbial “rose colored glases”because who wouldnt like to imagine a time in America when we were the sole superpower. take the 80’s for instance..Ronald reagan was president, Clint Eastwood had his own police force and for some reason Arnold Schwarzeneggar was the biggest movie star on the planet. Not to mention the fact that Mtv played music videos[ that was what the M stood for ya know}. Even comic books attained a level of credibility that they never had before[1986…by god comic books attain perfection. The Dark Knight…The Watchmen. The Mutant massacre, Avengers Under siege, The murder of the HobGoblin[ned leeds] and Boris the bear[ went to far..damn]. Hey what do you know…my rose colored glases came in the mail.

  • JeffgibsonOSU

    another sky is falling article by you know who…… stop writing articles for the love of god ..and let a real writer  take over …  THE SKY IS FALLING [the should be the name of this column…]
    You always take a premise and extrapolate to the extreme that doesn’t existthis isn’t a big problem by any means — now procedural forensic crime shows and medical dramas and the such  …yeah enough with those but these may be of the same era but by no means the same type of show….

  • JeffgibsonOSU

    ENOUGH with the Graeme McMillan acticles already

  • Sonofspam

    as far as shows that take place in the late 70’s there was freaks and geeks but that never touched on punk until like the last episode.
    but yeah if there was a show that took place arround that era i would watch it.

  • thesnappysneezer

    Panam looks to be great though Iam not fond of your thoughts on this matter. We need more period pieces.

  • Coryjameson

    @Graeme: Don’t attack “The Playboy Club” it has something for everyone. The major draw of course is that Sean Maher plays gay in this series.

  • CaseyJustice

    Maybe… just don’t read them? If you don’t like his articles, why even continue when you see that he’s written it?

  • CaseyJustice

    You had me at Sean Maher.

  • Kenozoic

    I for one am thrilled that there will be two (I hadn’t heard about “Dope”, and I don’t get HBO anyway) similar-era shows filling in the gap we are forced to endure until the far-too-long wait ’til spring of 2012 for “Mad Men”‘s return. I agree that each will sink or swim based on its own merits, but at the very least: if they both suck it’ll ramp up the excitement for “Mad Men” even more; and if one is (or both are) amazing, then the forerunner will be complemented nicely.

  • Flip Maker

    Graeme’s got a point – if PanAm and The Playboy Club last more than one season, I’d be very surprised.

  • Anonymous

    If it’s a good show who cares when it takes place? Nonsense, man. Pure nonsense. 

  • scrappy

     Would you prefer more reality programs? They need to do more programs like Mad Men.
    Also, you talk poorly of Mad Men’s visual style like it is worthless, it is part of the artistry.