WFMU Ichiban, Rock and Soul with Debbie D

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bad-TV Beat: Playboy, Pan Am & the Fake Sixties

Like most folks, I kinda try to keep up with the culture. And, being a Sixties-raised oldster now, I had to tune in to Pan Am and (the already cancelled) Playboy Club, just to see how the decade would be portrayed.

This week I read an L.A. Times piece celebrating two MTV programming clods for their bold new shows, all being promoted under the network’s new slogan “Life Amplified.” Watching Playboy and Pan Am, and knowing Mad Men, I realized how right-on that line is. TV’s main riff isn’t accuracy, but embellishment, a high-gloss exaggeration polish applied to whatever subject is at hand. In the case of era-specific TV shows, the intent isn’t dramatic. It’s simply expedient: to get us to recognize the pre-screened, dolled-up signage that we’ve been taught spells “SIXTIES”; bouffants + skinny ties = Early Sixties; straight hair + tie dye= Late Sixties. A genetically modified culture crop, these Sixties look and taste like we think they should, whether they’re real or not.

So The Playboy Club, set in 1961, has Les Gore belting out 1963’s “It’s My Party” to all the bunnies and Don Draper clones. Do you really think the young-adult crowd swishing cubes in that joint would’ve given a chit to see a high-school hitmaker sing rock & roll to them? Hardly. But then I thought, ‘Hey, the club’s in Chicago. And so was Gore’s label, Mercury, so maybe’…Were Zola Taylor’s Platters warming them up in the lounge? Was Vee-Jay’s Wade Flemons valet-parking? Perhaps. But what about last week, when Bunny Mother Laura Benanti roused the club with her boob-rubbing, crypto-girl-group arrangement of the Chords’ “Sh- Boom”? Phony, yes, but it telegraphed “pre-Beatles era,” which on TV conflates everything from Sun rockabilly to the Sunrays into one big mash-up.

Gore’s club gig was but another example of a driving conceit of period TV producers. Since rock & roll/pop was the era’s big bang, we’re shown that back then everybody, all the time, consumed it all day and all of the night. So Playboy Club has the off-duty Bunnies dancing (in their lingerie) to “The Locomotion” in their rabbit hutch. It’s virtually the same scene that routinely appeared on the Eighties series Crime Story. Dennis Farina’s genial Detective Frank Torello couldn’t stop tossing twist parties at his Googied-up pad, he and his 30- and 40-something squad members and their high-heeled spouses forever squashing the carpet to Joey Dee’s latest. (This show was also Chicago-set: Was there something in the air?)
Twister Torello: “You should see…my little sis.”

This amplification of reality also works in reverse. As much as they need to put us in our place chronologically with visual cues, TV creators need to click the empathy tab to show us that, despite the quaint Jet-Age customs, folk then were really just like us. Hence the conversations on Pan Am where the cutesy stews of ’62 earnestly discuss their ambitions much the same as the solipsistic members of a reality-show focus group—or utter lines, as they did last week while resting poolside on a stopover, like “We’re not in Kansas anymore!” (That sentence, not known to exist in nature, is rivaled only by the deadpan “Let’s do this” that precedes every guns-drawn takedown scene on TV or film.)

As someone once said, you gotta love it. And I kinda do.


Debbie D said...

Yeah, I kinda do too, Gene. Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

Over here (Europe) there was little rock/pop until the Beatles.And the sweetened stuff. Still, movie like Grease, every year on still, hammers the the same image that you so rightly refer to. We all rocked all the time !!

Anonymous said...

Non-stick Pan-Am lost all credibility in the premiere ep when they used a wretched (ungodly post-Specialty...!!!) Little Richard remake.

Howzaboutthat?! A Cool One on the Ichi spot!!!

Say "Hi-ya!" to Vic 'n Art!!!

- B._Brian