Network Fears Lead to Diluted Television

The 2011-2012 television season has been generally lacklustre, a source of particular disappointment for me at this time of year when it’s dark and cold and I really want to be able to sink my teeth into some seriously juicy narratives. With the exception of Revenge, which I have been loving and discussing with friends, there aren’t any new shows that I am wildly enthusiastic about; I like Grimm, but I’m getting wary of it, for example. Many of the new shows have a kind of watered down feeling, like someone came to the network with a strong proposal and somewhere between proposal and execution, it got dialed back a bit to make it more palatable for television audiences.

Fear has become a major motivator for the networks. They’re struggling with a new economy where less money is available, and they need more sure hits in order to be sure to keep advertisers, to attract viewers, to retain their hold. They’re also struggling with a new world in terms of distribution. People don’t huddle up in front of the television at the appointed hour anymore. They use DVRs, or Hulu, or a network website for online streaming. Or they use torrents to access the television they want, when they want it, a particular issue internationally; Downton Abbey started airing in the UK months before it did in the US, but US viewers didn’t want to wait. As networks try to adapt, fear becomes a larger and larger thing on the playing field, a driving need to keep pace.

Copycatting seemed to be the order of the day on a lot of networks this season, as they looked to prior successes and tried to make their own versions, but these versions were more restrained, less expansive, and ultimately, much less bold. They failed, or teetered on the edge, precisely because the networks weren’t willing to go out on a limb and viewers sensed it. If the network didn’t want to commit to being aggressive and innovative, viewers didn’t want to commit to following the show; why bother, when there are other offerings that meet those needs.

On ABC, Pan Am attempted to capture some of the 1960s nostalgia brought about by Mad Men, and failed pretty spectacularly. The two shows are like night and day. Mad Men is aggressive, dark, bold. It’s got sharp visual design and a very specific aesthetic and it has complex emotional and political storylines, with characters who are, for the most part, deeply flawed even as they struggle to make their way in the world. It’s a show about a new era, and captures that new era with a bold, bright brush. One thing it definitely doesn’t do, for the most part, is make the 1960s seem like a great, happy, troublefree time to live. It reminds viewers that this was a time of change, and that many of those changes were not good.

Pan Am, on the other hand, seems to be going for a more happy go lucky vision of the 1960s. It’s gone for the romance of flying the friendly skies with one of the most famous airlines of the era, suiting up lovely ladies in classic uniforms and sending them off to exotic locations. Oh, it tries to hint at some social and political issues, like having them see Kennedy in Berlin and assigning one of the actresses a role as a spy, but it is much lighter in tone. It’s meant to be fun and fluffy, and it is, but people watching Mad Men aren’t there for fun and fluff, they are there for darkness and brooding. Which means that they aren’t overly drawn to Pan Am, because it’s just not their kind of show; it’s a watered down shadow of the show they’re watching, an attempt at a clone that falls well, well short.

About the only thing the two shows have in common, other than being set in the 1960s, is a failure to address the racial politics of the era in a meaningful way. We get hints and glimmer in both cases, but rarely do they confront race head on. A few interracial relationships, say, an occasional nod to the civil rights movement. It’s telling that there’s not a single Black stewardess on Pan Am, despite the fact that there would have been; that airlines were in fact one of the places where the battles of the civil rights movement were fought, and the 1960s marked an era of forced desegregation on a number of major air carriers. Pan Am is prettiness and fluff and a white-focused view of the world, just like Mad Men, a place where the real story is in what is happening to the white people, not to the larger world around them.

Mad Men was a smashing success because it was willing to take people to dark, angry, bitter places. Many of the characters are unlikeable and sometimes actively gross and unpleasant. It’s not a happy show, even though there are happy moments, and it’s a commentary both on the 1960s, and the nostalgia that surrounds it, and the kind of hero-worship of the 1960s, and on the modern era. How much has changed in the world since the battles fought in Mad Men? How many secretaries and administrative assistants find themselves in positions much like Joan as they struggle to navigate the workplace? People come for this, not the pretty clothes and the cocktails, and this is something ABC seemed to miss with Pan Am, thinking that glitter and fluff could replace critical content.

Continuing to water down storylines is not going to work for the networks. Eventually they’re going to need to break through their shell and get bold again, because bold television makes waves. It also flops egregiously sometimes, but that’s the risk you have to take; if you want a success, and a show that will become a hit, something people will talk about for years, you have to be daring.