Success spurs ‘Mad Men’ spins: But do ‘Pan-Am’ and ‘The Playboy Club’ live up to expectations?

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By Caitlin Gardner

When a TV show becomes popular, networks tend to look at what made that show popular and make their own version of it—but these ‘clones’ are often poorer quality.

There were many twenty-something ensemble sitcoms after Friends exploded in the 1990s, while doctor shows and police procedurals continue to thrive on the networks since really gaining traction in the 1980s.

Now, ABC and NBC are taking notes from AMC’s smart 1960s drama Mad Men.

ABC recently debuted Pan-Am, based on Pan-Am stewardesses in 1963. In good form, NBC released The Playboy Club, based on the first Playboy Club in Chicago.

Much like AMC’s serial Emmy-winner, the latter of the two new series deals with specific corporate brands that are tied to the era. How do they compare?

The Playboy Club pilot seems imbalanced in tone. An attempted rape occurs within the first five minutes, followed by a death of a mob boss by accidental high heel to neck—no doubt, a TV first.

Yet the show ends with a narration by the real Hugh Hefner about how great and perfect his empire was with a stand-in sitting on his throne as the Playboy Bunnies’ party in the Playboy mansion.

The show tries to be all-encompassing of the era, dealing with politicians tied to the mob—a bit too convenient in its Chicago setting—and too many drive-by scenes of side-characters who really do nothing to move the episode forward.

None of the actors were able to rise above mediocre writing. The show may have all the looks of a Mad Men episode—the art direction is definitely one of the show’s strengths—but I would not even watch The Playboy Club again for the articles.

Pan-Am, on the other hand, is probably the strongest network pilot that debuted this fall, and that could partially be a sign of a weak fall television season.

It is not perfect; like The Playboy Club, it treads toward being all-encompassing of the era, specifically with one eye-roller sub-plot of a marriage proposal.

But the use of flashbacks is quite effective, well-paced, and, for the most part, written so that the audience learns more about these characters and their relationships.

The show is lighter than its NBC counterpart and much better for it. These characters, mostly women, feel a real sense of liberation, not obligated to immediately find a husband and start a family.

Since the fifth season of Mad Men will not arrive until 2012, Pan-Am will hold me over for the time being.

Will it have the nuance and biting critique of Mad Men? Probably not. But if it retains the charm of its pilot, Pan-Am is a keeper.

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