More than 'Mad Men': Producers tap '60s for new shows

Rick Bentley
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — The late '50s and early '60s are popular this year with TV producers, who insist they're not just trying to capitalize on the success of "Mad Men."

BBC America's "The Hour" — the first of three new dramas set in the time period — launched this week, offering a look at the birth of serious television news journalism in the late '50s.

NBC's new drama "The Playboy Club" peeks under the bunny ears of the women who worked in the Chicago night club started by Hugh Hefner in the early '60s.

And ABC's "Pan Am" follows the lives of airline stewardesses — before they were called flight attendants — in the '60s.

The new shows share an era with Don Draper and company of "Mad Men," but those behind them say they're not copycats. "Mad Men's" success aside, producer stress the time period is rich for stories because it was such a turning point for social change, pop culture and politics.

"The Hour" started with an idea about doing a TV show set in a '50s newsroom. Writer Abi Morgan's research revealed that while the date might be different, the themes and concepts are very modern.

"I suddenly was very led by how brilliant the sort of historical event was and how many parallels I felt there were with our modern times. What was key to that was the Suez crisis, which was really a moment in British history when the government actually pulled us into a phony war. I just thought there was an immediate comparison with what's been happening in the world today," Morgan says.

Morgan understands the comparison to "Mad Men" because of the time element but stresses "The Hour" will be much different because behind the sharp suits, cigarette smoke and chauvinistic thinking is a story of espionage.

NBC president Robert Greenblatt says he has great respect for "Mad Men" but "The Playboy Club" is completely different because it's more of a soap opera. "The Playboy Club" executive producer, Ian Biederman, adds that his show has a musical element that will bring a different energy to the series.

In the opener to air in September, a young Tina Turner sings and dances on the club stage while Sammy Davis Jr., Ray Charles, Sam Cook and Frank Sinatra will stop by in later episodes.

ABC president Paul Lee says his network's "Pan Am," launching in September, differs from "Mad Men" because it "is a much broader, brighter canvas and so we think it's going to attract a broader and brighter audience."

"Pan Am" producer Thomas Schlamme has heard comparisons to "Mad Men" but suggests that's too simplistic.

"It's not the time period it takes place in. It's not the character. It really is just execution. So all I can really say, it has nothing to do with 'Mad Men.' We hope our show is executed in a wonderful way that will have sort of a wish fulfillment that will attract a large audience," Schlamme says. "It's as simple as that. I think we are all fans of 'Mad Men,' but, literally, one had almost nothing to do with the other.

"So it happens to be they are both set in the '60s. I hope there's lots of shows. It is a great time period. I hope there's starting to be shows set in the '70s, and the 1880s and wherever else we can tell great stories."

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