The Playboy Club vs. Pan Am

Two shows set out to evoke the verve of 1960's America, feverishly digging into nostalgia for those who remember and sparking fantasy for those who cannot. One spilling out of its corset, espousing the lavish nightlife and mystique of the era's most favored fetish. The other neatly tucked into uniform, bright and airy with the promise of the world before it. A comparison not unlike Batman and Superman, Gotham City versus Metropolis, if you will. Ensemble casts, superb production, and entwining storylines are found in both, but it's really only one that edges out…


NBC took a bold move signing up for this one, and their hearts were probably in the right place. Certainly the network was searching for any kind of drama to bring it some notice, least alone some critical cachet found by the likes of AMC's Madmen, which can't be ignored as inspiration. The Playboy Club as an entity comes with heaping bagfuls of history and backstory. Sex appeal is front and center, and it's the good kind. "Good" meaning innocent and coquettish, all costumes and cleavage. The premise -- the adventures and goings on of the women who work the iconic ears and tail-- seems like a can't miss. Well, on Cable, perhaps. On Network? With all it has going for it, the inability of a NBC to really take some risks to allow the series to get beyond its dressing becomes its greatest block. This disappointment seems unnecessary, since Network, even NBC, is more than capable of creating and sustaining a great one-hour drama.

It's not even about sex. There's a nice helping of sex alongside the obvious built-in appeal in the first three episodes. It comes down to the ham-fisted approach of character introduction and lackluster plot lines, many seen coming a mile away alongside others that have come too many times before. Ironically one of the most interesting subplots introduced is the least touched upon: Leah Renee Cudmore playing Bunny Alice, a closeted lesbian "married" to her closeted gay husband Sean, Sean Maher. The two have teamed up in the still conservative 60's to protect each other's identities while clandestinely attempting to further acceptance via an underground organization. Each characters' circumstances both inside the club and out show legitimate promise with parallels to today's equal rights issues.

In comparison, other characters could more than use origins as half as interesting. Leading man Eddie Cibrian as Nick Dalton is so straight as the would-be political avenger, he becomes little more than a stubbly mannequin in a nice suit. His political aspirations and loose mob ties are tired story points and do little to make him worth following. The stars of the show, the Bunnies, fare better, but not much. The new one, the tough one, the domineering one, the sassy one, the nice one-- they're all here. They are quick to point out the rules of The Club for us sheltered viewers and labor over the trials of being a Bunny. Not that they aren't real or accurate; so far the exposition, if forced, is all up to par. Many tidbits seem quoted verbatim from Katherine Leigh Scott's "The Bunny Years," an outstanding account of life working for the The Playboy Club, and not suprisingly cited as one of the sources for the series.

What brings the Bunnies life are the actresses beneath the ears. Each of course stunning to look at in uniform and out (more so in), they do their damnedest to deliver on the mediocre scripts and situations. If anything, The Playboy Club is a breakout vehicle for Amber Heard who plays ingénue Bunny Maureen. She seems born for playing the era, the camera loves her and the sight of her strutting around in satin is often more than enough reason to sit through an entire episode. Meanwhile, Laura Benanti vies for equal attention as Carol Lynn. Lithe and dark haired in a black bunny suit, she really can command attention even if the script forces her to be artificially bitchy. As a performer at the club in addition to her "Bunny Mother" duties, Carol Lynn is front and center in some of the more enjoyable sequences of the show.

Though the stories lack oomph, where The Playboy Club shines is in its gorgeous production value. Many scenes are shot with cinematic composition, and the overall direction is solid. There are scene upon scene with wonderful lighting and fantastic sets, mainly in the Club proper. Every set piece in the show is drenched in color, harmonic alongside the dreamy costuming the era has to offer. There are Emmys to be had here on the production side, were the show able to vie for them. Any fan of what The Playboy Club has to offer visually would not be disappointed.

Alas, we'll never know if the Bunnies would have found a groove (or some decent story lines), as The Playboy Club was the first of NBC's new fall season to get the axe!


Over on ABC, who rides quite a wave from shepherding several successful dramas in recent years (when not blatantly trying to recreate Lost), a refreshing entry is found in Pan Am. In many ways, it and The Playboy Club are the same show. Similar premise, similar setting, similar character archetypes, and a few more comparisons aren't hard to make. Yet the sun-blasted skyways of Pan Am become the Yin to the dark nights and stage lights of The Playboy Club's Yang.

Subconsciously we've already been set up for loving a show about Pan Am stewardesses, in that we've been given the best the concept could offer in Spielberg's Catch Me if You Can. To call Pan Am its spiritual successor is just shy of the obvious, it's as if it was merely waiting for the right time to come to fruition. Again we have production values literally reaching for the sky. Extravagant establishing shots and cinematic flair are punctuated by the spot on costuming and set design. Surely this is the dream-like remembrance of the 1960's at the peak of its entry into international travel.

The story benefits greatly from a few extensions to the focal setting, even if one or two border on the far fetched. First and most successfully is the use of flashbacks to vastly open the plot lines and provide welcome escapes from the cramped and claustrophobic airplane cabin, as nice as it is in the heyday of air travel. These flashbacks provide welcome backstory while also tying various characters together in different ways.

Guiding us above the clouds is a endearing cast of actresses who can live up to the task of making us want to fly along. The audience very quickly gets to learn there is more to these stewardesses than the uniform, and not just "girl with a mysterious past." The appearance of Christina Ricci is a welcome surprise as Maggie, the sharp beatnik wholly aware of the irony of her career. Margo Robbie takes the role of the token newcomer as the lovely Laura, but it's her sister Kate played by Kelli Garner who is the real star of the show. Rounding out the quartet of featured players is the sultry Karine Vanasse as Colette, who remains as playful as she is sweet with a French accent of which you just can't seem to tire.

One of the reaches the show makes centers around Kate's introduction into the world of... espionage. Seeing her career as an international traveler the perfect cover for delicate operations, Kate is dutifully recruited by the CIA. This waves every flag for going awkwardly wrong, but so far it's working as a foil for both the aforementioned flashbacks and future conflicts. Alias this is not, but even a light throwback to The Avengers or Mission Impossible is not the worst that could become of this development. Thankfully this device also opens up the show immensely to romantic world locations, another advantage it has over the singular locale and surrounding city of The Playboy Club. Overall the script and story is handled better and smarter than one might expect, bolstered by the crisp surroundings and attractive, talented cast.

An odd side effect of the show may have you grumbling of just how amazingly crappy it is to travel in modern times. There's no doubt the show idealizes the lifestyle purposely, but that doesn't make it sting any less. This is not to begrudge the workers of modern airlines, who's job it is to keep sane as much as the rest of us, but one can't help but imagine what such a traveling environment could have been like.

So... With each painted in the pastiche of a past era, we're given the choice of decadent night life versus shiny air travel. The ever-grey limits of Network television allow only one contender to stand out for now. Winner: Pan Am.

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