Written By: Jack Orman
Draft Date: January 24, 2011
Written By: Chad Hodge
Draft Date: January 17, 2011
Gentle readers, we have a problem. I had no intention of reviewing these two scripts in combination, but, as it turns out, I read ABC's Pam Am and NBC's Playboy back to back (if days apart). And now... to do otherwise seems impossible even though, at this point in the process, these shows ARE NOT competing with each other. Pam Am is competing with the rest of ABC's drama development, while Playboy is doing the same with NBC's. The only way these two projects would be in actual competition is if both were picked up to series.
Let's just go through the list of considerable similarities and show where each diverts from the other by highlighting the differences.
The time period: the 1960s.
Wait, that's too general.
The year: 1963 (seriously, both of these projects take place in 1963).
Both projects feature suave mid-30s leading men. Playboy has Nick, a charming lawyer with a secret past and mob ties (hey, it's Chicago) who is carrying on a relationship with one of the club Bunnies. Pan Am has Dean, the captain of a 707 Clipper named the Majestic's maiden voyage from NYC to London in the pilot with a secret... present...? (it was a tad obscure) who is carrying on a relationship with one of the stewardesses. There's a clear Don Draper influence / blueprint on both. Yes, there are other males, but these are the leading men of each story.
It's my contention that the real stars of the two most recent major TV period dramas - Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire - are the women. Sure, the men have the power. And the women start as seeming caricatures. But it's the growth of the women that really gets our attention and keeps us watching. Really, what would Mad Men be without Peggy and Joan (and, yes, Betty, he admits while gnashing his teeth)? And Boardwalk Empire without Margaret Schroeder or Lucy Dazinger? The truth of it is that we've seen the story of the men in countless movies. The growth of these women... those are the long-running stories that TV is the best forum for.
And, so, we have the women. The Playboy club's Bunnies and Pan Am's stewardesses. Both, in their own ways, 1960s fantasy images of sex and glamor (my own personal "judgment" on the issue from a 2011 vantage is that the Bunnies are in a male-gaze line of work while the stewardesses are both male-gaze and female-aspirational... though, the Playboy script does try to make the Bunny job seem more "lifestyle" than I think we consider it in the modern day). And both scripts make a point that the women who hold these jobs will age out... or get married and leave. Hey, it's 1963.
Let's meet our ladies. Just so we know where the key characters are starting.
- Kate: smart to the point that she's being tested to see if she can use her job as stewardess as a cover for espionage
- Maggie: a peace-preaching bohemian who is a competent leader when in uniform... minus the girdle (so many girdle jokes...)
- Colette: French, saucy, thinks she's going to marry a frequent passenger... until he unexpectedly shows up on this flight with his wife and child (easily the most cliche of the stewardesses)
- Laura: Kate's older sister sister now following in Kate's footsteps, extremely new at this but has the misfortune of being Pan Am's posterchild due to a photographer snapper her picture at her stewardess graduation. Prone to panic attacks brought on by marriage (her own in flashback, and a pair of newlyweds on the Majestic's maiden voyage)
- Bridget: Dean's paramour, a stewardess who was supposed to be the "purser" on the flight, but goes missing...
Playboy (the script tells the reader a lot of things that don't come out during the actual plot, so it'll be up to the actresses and potential future episodes to bring those aspects forward... I don't take issue with this, except when the script tells me):
- Maureen: the naive newcomer with a raw sensuality that suggests she's meant to be a star, her that, if this were Showgirls or Burlesque, would cause a significant amount of campy comedy... oh, running from her past
- Carol-Lynne: blonde bombshell, the club's most senior Bunny, a performer, in a relationship with Nick, and sharp enough to finagle her way into becoming the "Mother Bunny" to help train the girls as she feels her grip as number one slipping
- Alice: married... but to a gay guy, and she's a lesbian
- Brenda: the "Chocolate Bunny," determined to be the first Black centerfold, the script tells us she has a tough past she's put away but it doesn't really bear fruit
- Janie: Southern, dating the bartender, he proposes, she reveals she's already married, the script tells us she's carefree and on the run from something in her past (gee...)
My opinion? Most are a little thin. Pan Am's Kate and Playboy's Maureen and Carol-Lynne are the most fully fleshed out (though we've seen versions of all three before). There's room for all to grow.
There is definitely competitiveness between each set of ladies, but at the same time, there's also a sense of teamwork. There's a job to be done. There's a more positive light in Pan Am, where there is a genuine group friendship by the end. Playboy features a "darker" side, as there is definite potential back-stabbing between Carol-Lynne and Maureen, though that has more to do with jealousy issues.
Each world has seedy connections to provide "juice" to the story and take the shows beyond just period atmosphere and sexy fantasies. In Pan Am, per the above, one of the stewardesses is, for all intents and purposes, a spy. In Playboy, there is organized crime.
The true difference, for me, between the scripts is the narrative structure.
Pan Am makes the (at first, seemingly) bizarre choice to incorporate extended flashbacks. Hey, without them, most of the story would take place in a plane. It'd be claustrophobic. I get it. Doesn't mean I have to like it (I still don't). The flashbacks fill in the backstories of most of the girls and, in a roundabout way, lead into the "mystery" of the series. Like with Dean's "secret," the exact nature of the mystery about Bridget is vague. Is she a spy? Was she working for the Americans? Cuba? I'm not actually sure the latter implication is there, but I'm not sure what the big deal is if she just was doing espionage work for America and now she's done, and Kate is taking over.
Playboy, on the other hand, puts its seedy underbelly and mystery on its fishnets and beneath its stilettos... literally. On page 8, Maureen is attacked by a club keyholder (who we find out is connected to the mob) and, in the fight, puts her heel through his ear. Mmm, murder. Nick stumbles on Maureen as she is traumatized from this, and he helps her, bonding them in a way that Carol-Lynne, of course, misconstrues. Playboy has the element of danger that Pan Am, caught up in the fantasy of flight in the 1960s, was sorely lacking (only highlighted by the long, not-necessarily-dull-but-certainly-not-incredibly-engaging flashbacks). Ironically, of the two, it's Pan Am that does the teasing by trying to build its continuing story just on intrigue.
Of course, Playboy also ends on an extremely typical note (you thought you got rid of a body and destroyed the evidence? Well something literally floats to the surface that could lead to you being found out...)
I'm interested in the show about a 1960s stewardess who travels around the world doing espionage along the way. I think that's a rather novel "in" to a spy story. But I'm not that interested in the rest of what Pan Am is offering or the extremely languid pace with which it unfolds (even the act outs don't truly operate to propel the action forward... since there's not that much action taking place).
The other problem both these projects are going to face is the comparison with Mad Men. Boardwalk Empire had to face those (plus The Sopranos), but at least BE is in the 1920s and MM is in the 1960s. Playboy and Pan Am run concurrent with Mad Men Season Three. And, really, are you gonna out period piece Mad Men? Are you gonna out-"Women in the 1960s" Mad Men? Certainly not on a critical-acclaim level. So, Playboy amps up the danger, while Pan Am plays on intrigue and romance. Both feel glossy.
I'm conflicted on both of these projects. They both read like something I'd have to see... and wouldn't be able to truly judge until I'd seen the filmed, finished version.