The fall television season is in high gear, and there seems to be a barrage of tight skirts, panty-hosed legs and perfectly made-up faces making their way from the 1960s to the small screen.
On ABC is Pan Am, a show about airline stewardesses. There's also NBC's The Playboy Club, which following the stories of fictional bunnies in Hugh Hefner's nightclub. The networks are hoping to get on the nostalgia bandwagon after the success of Mad Men, AMC's period drama.
Ratings aside, what is it about that era and the women who lived it that has captured our collective imagination?
"It's one of the most glamorous, most beautiful eras in our history, but I also think it was an era of most change for women," Stacey Wilson, senior editor at the Hollywood Reporter, tells Rachel Martin, host of weekends on All things Considered. "And I think that it offers some ripe scenarios for fictional storytelling."
Girl Power In A Girdle
One male character in Pan Am dubs the fleet of stewardesses "a new breed of women." The networks must want viewers to remember that because ABC and NBC have played up their characters as gender pioneers — using their good looks and charm to get by in a man's world.
At times, it might be hard to look beyond the corsets and bunny ears and see a feminist, but Wilson says the formula can serve as a springboard for richer characters.
"Yes, the women are hot; they're in tight clothes," she says, "but I do think it allows for interesting evolution of character when you start with a girl who's kind of confined to this costume."
Wilson says there is something oddly comforting about watching "train-wreck history." She says watching these characters on the front lines of sexism elicits a combination of shock and relief. Network television is able, she says, to show us the uglier parts of our past in a lighthearted way.
"I think it really actually affords us appreciation for how good things are now," she says.
RACHEL MARTIN, host: The fall television season is in high gear, and there seems to be a barrage of tight skirts, panty-hosed legs and perfectly made-up faces making their way from the 1960s to the small screen today.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PAN AM")
MICHAEL MOSLEY: (As Ted) You see that table over there? That is natural selection at work, my friend. They don't know that they're a new breed of woman. They just had an impulse to take flight.
MARTIN: That's a scene from ABC's new show. It's called "Pan Am." It's about stewardesses in the 1960s. Nope, we didn't call them flight attendants back then. And while those stewardesses might have been a, quote, "new breed of woman," there's a lot of 1960s going around these days. There's "The Playboy Club" on NBC and of course the show that started it all, AMC's hit "Mad Men."
So what is it with that era and the women who lived it that's captured our collective imagination? With me now is Stacey Wilson. She's a senior editor for Hollywood Reporter. She's joining me from NPR West in Southern California. Stacey, welcome to the program.
STACEY WILSON: Hi. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So what do you think? Why at this moment in 2011 are we fascinated, or at least TV producers are, with the 1960s?
WILSON: I think the deal with the '60s is that it's, you know, one of the most glamorous, beautiful eras in our history, but I also think it was an era of the most change for women, and I think that offers some ripe scenarios for fictional storytelling and such.
MARTIN: ABC and NBC have both been marketing these shows by showcasing the female characters as really strong women, essentially working what they've got to get ahead in a man's world.
MARTIN: Here's a clip from "The Playboy Club" as one of the women is serving drinks to men at the club.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PLAYBOY CLUB")
JENNA DEWAN-TATUM: (As Bunny Janie) Everything's a buck and a half.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Everything?
DEWAN-TATUM: (As Bunny Janie) If it's on the menu, it's a buck and a half. If it's not on the menu, it's not for sale. And I'm not a waitress. I'm Bunny Jamie.
MARTIN: She's Bunny Jamie. I mean, these shows are trying to paint these women as these strong characters, feminists even, but it's hard to buy when they're wearing bunny ears and corsets, no?
WILSON: Right, and that show have gotten some flack, but I do think, yes, the women are hot, they're in tight clothes, but I do think it allows for interesting, sort of evolution of character when you start with a girl who's kind of confined to this costume. I'll be interested to see what they do with it. I think "Pan Am" actually has an edge. It offers a bit more of a rich, more believable, I guess, tapestry of storylines later on.
MARTIN: Is there a part of the audience, of us, that actually relishes watching the sexism unfold in that era?
WILSON: I think so, in a weird way. I think it's sort of train wreck history with sort of showing us the kind of the bad parts of who we used to be. I think "Mad Men," specifically watching how the women are regarded in the office, the character of Peggy, she's actually had the benefit of evolving a great deal over the last four years. But there was a very pivotal moment in last season where she was talking to Don and he told her, you know, I don't have to thank you for your work. That's what the money is for. I think it really actually affords us greater appreciation for how good things are now.
MARTIN: I want to play another clip from "Pan Am." Here, the character of Kate, who's one of the flight attendants, stewardesses, is bickering with her mother before her sister's wedding begins, and they're fighting about her lifestyle.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PAN AM")
KELLI GARNER: (As Kate) Do you know what we get to do?
KATE JENNINGS GRANT: (As Judith) You made it clear you don't care what I think of what you do. Go ahead, gallivant around the world if you like, but don't use your sister's special day...
GARNER: (As Kate) Oh, this isn't Laura's special day, this is yours, because Laura hasn't made a decision for herself her whole life.
MARTIN: So they're clearly casting these women as some kind of pioneers.
MARTIN: Are they aiming for a feminine demographic with the show?
WILSON: Certainly. I think they are really hoping that young women will tune in, you know, college age through 20s and 30s. You know, it's a great overtone and, you know, the interesting thing about that show, it's a show created by a man, and the pilot was directed by a man, which I find interesting because I think the overtone of the show is, wow, you know, look at yourself. Look at the options you have today. You can do whatever you want.
And back then, the idea of being a flight attendant was rebellious and it's absurd but it's interesting. I think it makes you appreciate what we do have today in a lighthearted way without kind of beating you over the head with it.
MARTIN: A lot of the fall comedies out this season were actually created by women.
MARTIN: What do you make of that? And why don't we see kind of longer dramas written by women?
WILSON: It's interesting. I'm actually putting together a big package on show runners, you know, the top 50 show runners in the business, and there are very few women on the drama side. And I actually think about this a lot. I'm not sure why that is.
WILSON: I think women tend to use, and actually this applies to female stand-up comedians too. The humor tends to be very autobiographical. I think for whatever reason, women use these stories as catharsis. Jenny Bicks specifically from "The Big C" said if I can use my disease to make other people laugh, she's like, that's a great return for me.
MARTIN: What's significant about the roles that the men play in these shows?
WILSON: They, for me, come across as kind of terribly unpleasant, but I also think they had so many expectations put on them, you know, married by 22, had to be providers. You do feel sort of empathy but also kind of mild disgust.
MARTIN: There's also a lot of martinis. Lots of martinis.
WILSON: A lot of martinis. So you can't blame everybody. You know, they weren't coherent most of the time, so we've got to cut them a little slack.
MARTIN: That's Stacey Wilson, a senior editor for the Hollywood Reporter. She's been speaking with me from NPR West in California. Stacey, thanks so much.
WILSON: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Coming up, Ernest Hemingway is often remembered as a great writer and a terrible person. But a new book argues that out in the Gulf Stream on his beloved fishing boat, Hemingway was much more than that.
PAUL HENDRICKSON: He could be everything on that boat. He could be a boor and bully and an overly competitive jerk, and he could save somebody who was in the water swimming from shark attack on that boat.
MARTIN: "At Sea with Ernest Hemingway" in the next part of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.