Confessions: Adventures in the Awesomely Awful
1960s Nostalgia Shows
We all have them: guilty pleasures. Those shows we don't tell our friends we watch, those movies we see over and over when we don't want to think, the books we hide under our beds. In Confessions, I try to explore what makes these particular pop-culture gems so compelling, and try to exorcise some of the bad mojo that surrounds them.

We live in an age of instant nostalgia. I mean, I know I wasn't the only one who used to watch VH1's Best Week Ever religiously. With media moving faster than ever, and the Internet making news and trends obsolete within hours of their arrival, time sometimes seems to move faster ("O yea, that meme is soooo"¦.three days ago.). I mean, I'm about to talk about shows that have just premiered as guilty pleasures, as if I've had the chance to develop a habit when it comes to them. That's saying something about increased exposure.

American Dreams

Enter the nostalgia show, focused on the glory days. This decade, the time period of choice for most nostalgia shows seems to be the turbulent 1960s. Blame it on the baby boomers, those who fueled this period of revolution with their rampant consumerism, suburban lifestyles, and taste for free love, coming to age as the largest demographic. And yes, I'm sure they all had these tendencies. At least that's what a proper nostalgia show wants you to believe: that the Boomer generation actually challenges their parents, termed "the Greatest Generation" by Tom Brokaw, changing history and cultural norms by the minute.

Add to that a supremely apathetic yet jaded younger demographic, one that looks back to a time that people their age actually did something about their protests, and you have TV gold. I'd argue that the 18-49 bracket, the most sought after group of viewers and consumers, with culture as with news, look back to this period and equate knowledge with action"”I am doing something by worshipping the people who did something. "That time was different, that time was better, this time is shit," the nostalgia show seems to say, appealing to the people who lived it as well as the people coming after. History's cycle has had just enough time to make the era retro and glamorous rather than obsolete. Because the grass is always greener, things were always easier earlier, and with modernity comes difficulty. No one wants to think about the seedy underside of the times, only the glamour (even when that glamour comes from the seedy underside. Think The Play Boy Club).

the HBIC herself, Joan Holloway

I count nostalgia shows in general as a guilty pleasure because of the elements that draw me particularly to them: luscious sets, beautiful costumes, rampant stereotypes, emotional repression, sexual complications, stunning women, alternately chivalrous and chauvinistic men, offensive dialogue, bright colors, etc. etc. They don't have to be "bad" or low culture. I mean, is there TV that gets closer to being "high art" than Mad Men? But this pilot season it seems that TV execs finally got their shit together and said "hey, this Mad Men thing is clearly more than a flash in the pan, lets get on it." I was quick to jump on the Pan Am and The Play Boy Club bandwagons. These shows, however, may count as legitimate guilty pleasures because, at this point, they're both basically relying on comparisons to Mad Men for viewership.

What makes the new nostalgia shows more guilty pleasures than respectable TV is their focus on spectacle. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Mad Men is all about nuance. Intricate identity politics, glacially moving norms, cultural chaffing, confused priorities, misplaced self-loathing, generational discord. It shows the struggle of every day; sure, Don goes through major life changes, as do Joan and Roger and all our other favorites, but the real story here is the monumental nature of the office and domestic cultures, the bedrock of the American experience that were changing drastically inch by inch (where the progress was hard fought. Look particularly at Peggy's transformation). And all of this comes across in the arch of an eyebrow or a pained grimace. Pan Am and The Play Boy Club, however, focus completely on the razzle dazzle: the spectacular specimens that were Pan American stewardess and pilots or Play Boy bunnies and key holders. All we see in these series, at least one or two episodes in, are the exceptions. Are you really yourself when you're flying across an ocean, or when the sun goes down and you descend into the deep center of Chicago's pleasure industry?

I'll focus particularly on The Play Boy Club, considering it has double the number of episodes as Pan Am (a whole two, you guys!). Episode two, "The Scarlet Bunny," suffers from a particular lack of nuance, which is the basic problem with focusing on the spectacle of the era rather than seeing the spectacular in the everyday, as Mad Men does. Guess what, you guys, Chicago is super corrupt. So much so, in fact, that you must talk to Mayor Daly the minute you consider running for office. And the first thing he's going to do is make you get him a car because his wife is gaudy and ostentatious. I mean, a murder takes place in the first five minutes of the show's pilot, it clearly isn't easing into anything. Everything is so directly stated and spelled out, as if the writers always go a line too far. Whereas Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, clearly understands the value of leaving something unsaid or inferred, the creative forces behind The Play Boy Club are definitely not taking any chances with the audience missing something's profundity. It may be that this kitschy hokey-ness is what makes the show a romp, but it is also the sort of thing that I see getting annoying really quickly (why do you think guilty pleasure shows have a tendency to be short lived?).

Bunny Alice and her husband are particularly pertinent in the realm of "obvious social statements". This seems like a blatant culture criticism of the current fight over gay marriage, even more so than Sal in Mad Men. Sal gets outed and disappears, and we feel his profound loss not just as a person, but as a member of the agency and as a presence on-screen. Bunny Alice is part of the core group, with her husband woven in pretty firmly as well, and I really don't see them going anywhere (mostly because I don't see the writers taking a chance with what their disappearance, or outing, would mean. I think that actually handling what it would mean for these people to be out, with Sean's political dreams and Alice's status as the embodiment of every man's fantasy). We're meant to like them, sympathize with them, and respect the difficulty of their situation, an then realize how far we've come as a society (people can be open with their sexuality) while at the same time recognizing that we've still got some way to go. The subtly of the situation is lost, because the matter of secrecy is so blatant, the stakes are stated so explicitly. I'm not saying I don't like Alice and Sean. In fact, they're some of my favorite characters (that moment in "The Scarlet Bunny" when Sean embraces an upset Alice? Too cute. I hope the show does a lot more with the couple's friendship, rather than portraying their marriage as simply a practical matter of convenience).

And the girls are all best friends! No one has any problems with each other. Except for Carol-lynne, that is. I can't decide if I like her or not. Last episode she stuck up to Nick, but this episode she falls right back into him, which would be fine, except that during the process of getting back with him she proves herself petty and jealous, not nearly the strong woman she attempts to show herself as/that the show seems to want her present her as. I mean, she melts over some cheesy pink roses, how seriously am I supposed to take her?

But Rachel, you say, isn't this the nuance of character you've been calling out for? Isn't this proof that she's a complicated modern woman? No, dear reader, it isn't, it's just evidence of her hypocrisy. I'm sick of her bunny talking points, which she seems to immediately contradict every time she mentions them. She talks about the bunnies being independent, strong, self-made women while enforcing her strict bunny code with an iron fist, melding them into exactly what she wants them to be rather than anything they're particularly interested in being. And they're all hiding something, so even though bunnies are supposed to be representations of truth and sincerity, the mask they assume is just as significant as that taken on by your "average woman" of the era, bending to the will of society rather than being completely frank and genuine.

I mean, their goals are generally admirable: Brenda wants to own something as a means of self-establishment, Maureen wants to escape her obviously troubled home life and become her own person, Janie wants to escape a "crazy" husband rather than giving in to the cultural norms that would have her shut up and suffer. But still, they're hidden, shaped by the men in their lives, even if that man is Hugh Heffner. I would rather that the bunnies embrace the spectacle of their lives and be honest about the fact that they're clearly meant to be a fantasy. The show is attempting to position them as empowered women, but I honestly think it would be more empowering if they said, "yes, men will fantasize about me. I will lie to them and let them imagine for an evening that they could be with me. And I will use that fantasy to get what I want." But they don't. They're deluded into thinking the power of being a bunny is being an object, rather than enabling real progress of character. The show has the potential to take this route, but only if the bunnies eschew the bunny code and take control of their dreams: Maureen needs to stop seeking validation for her obvious daddy issues and figure out who she is outside of a reaction to bad circumstances and victimhood, Brenda needs to stop keeping her ambitions secret, Janie needs to take control of her situation and learn to be motivated by something other than fear, and Alice needs to be honest about what she is. And Carol-lynne needs to figure out if she wants to be an independent temptress or a legitimate partner, both of which are fine, as long as she does one with true conviction.

It's unfortunate that the spectacle shows lean so heavily one way, rather than balancing the phenomenon of the age with the mundane of the home front as in my old favorite, the 2002-2005 drama American Dreams, starring Brittany Snow, Tom Verica, and Gail O'Grady. Here, the profound changes rendered in the home are balanced by the actual extraordinary experience of dancing on the cultural powerhouse American Bandstand. We see your typical American family, caught up the maelstrom of the era in incredibly personal ways: a daughter falling in love, a son going to war, struggling to maintain your individual faith in the face of overwhelming doom. And each member of the Pryor family and their various acquaintances, enemies, and lovers, seemed like a person, not a lesson. Bunnies are Halloween costumes, these people were flesh and blood and emotions. I will never understand how this show was not just an absolutely giant deal, rather than a middling performer. I'm still more than a little bitter it got cancelled.

One thing that all of the nostalgia shows I've discussed do well, however, is showcasing the music of the era. American Dreams is most explicit on this, of course, focusing on young people falling in love with rock and roll. But Mad Men usually features a perfectly placed song or two every episode, and The Play Boy Club with it's live performances, portrays some of the great performances of the era (mind you, not nearly as well as American Dreams recreated the iconic acts of the era, but still, at least they're trying). And ultimately, maybe that's what separates shows like American Dreams and Mad Men from Pan Am and The Play Boy Club: the latter shows are imposters, looking to cash in on a trend, whereas the earlier shows were filling a void in the moment. But I'll keep watching, because really, the clothes are fantastic and sometimes a spectacle can be fun. I like the (mostly artificial) representation of major cultural progress, as well as the recreation of huge social upheaval in a time when everything seemed new but far from plasticine. Our memes are Ikea furniture; the generation portrayed in these nostalgia shows is hand-crafted vintage.

Hooked? Check out more Confessions: Adventures in the Awesomely Awful here

Tags: American Dreams, Mad Men, The Play Boy Club, Pan Am
comments powered by Disqus