Sexism + Racism + Cool Clothes = '60s Revival

Retro dramas take cue from Mad Men.

By , Columnist

NBC

Amber Heard, left, stars in NBC's new series The Playboy Club.

Ring-a-ding-ding, dig what Mad Men hath wrought: Scooping up 19 Emmy nominations this year for its fourth season, AMC's cable series about white men who smoke, drink, lie, treat women like chattle, and look really good while doing it has inspired a second helping of mid-century melodrama.

Next month, NBC gets racy with The Playboy Club. Set in pre-feminist Chicago during the early 1960s, the series stars Amber Heard as a waitress/sex object who goes to work for Hugh Hefner.

ricci_pan_am_380.jpgSimilarly idealizing the Perfect Woman, circa 1962, is Pan Am. Channeling the breezy vibe of Frank Sinatra's Come Fly With Me, ABC's series revisits an era when Americans still regarded airplane travel as the height of glamour. No full body scans, no cavity searches, no shoe removal, no terrorists — plus hot meals! In retrospect, it looks pretty good.

Christina Ricci stars, with Karine Vanasse stepping into the high-heeled archetype of swinging stewardess Colette.  She's having an affair with a Manhattan married man.  Calling Don Draper!

Australian actress Margot Robbie gets the ingénue role of Laura, who becomes the object of envious fascination when her face lands on the cover of Life Magazine. Laura's sudden celebrity seems an improbable twist until one remembers that in the pre-digital days of yore, people actually read magazines.


The most challenging exercise in '60s-era iconography can be found in Emma Stone's new movie The Help. Opening August 12, the film offers a group portrait of proper white ladies from a small Mississippi town who try to keep their bonnets on in the face of a burgeoning civil rights movement.

To personalize its theme of barely conscious racism, this big-screen adaption of Kathryn Stockett's novel demonstrates how black maids - "the help" - sustained the households of their white employers despite crap wages and minimal acknowledgement. Bryce Dallas Howard and Viola Davis co-star.

For middle class white folks, mid-century America represents the best of times, and the blandest of times. Mad Men and its spawn do a dandy job of evoking the period's surface cool, and it's a beguiling vista for citizens mired in data-drenched culture wars.

But America's blissfully ignorant age of "innocence" didn't last. It couldn't last. All the retro-stylings in the world wouldn't smooth over the cracks that would soon fracture this bygone picture of American solidarity.

Pan Am debuts Sept. 25 on ABC.

The Playboy Club debuts Sept. 19 on NBC.

The Help opens Aug. 12.

Mad Men returns to AMC in early 2012.

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Los Angeles-based writer/musician Hugh Hart covers movies, television, design, art and miscellaneous slices of pop culture for publications including Wired Magazine, Los Angeles Times and New York Times. When he's not interviewing people like Quentin Tarantino or Lindsay Lohan, Hugh likes to glug black…

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