Never Been Flown? Fall TV's Paratexts

Curator's Note

NBC's The Playboy Club and ABC's Pan Am dispatched their female casts on paratextual containment duty to define their characters as the gender warriors of 1963. While it's a hard sell for the Bunnies, Pan Am's women, appearing in Louboutin heels at press junkets, convey ambivalence about their self-described escapist series. That ambivalence is more in keeping the 1955 tween clips spliced into the paratexts. They might succeed in borrowing Mad Men's "retro chic," but neither ABC nor NBC captures Mad Men's representation of the lingering impact of 1950s containment culture on women who embrace a "two can play at that game" approach to adultery.

Given the sexy espionage element, Pan Am might succeed through its ahistorical channeling of Alias-style post-feminism. If ABC prevails this fall, NBC will inevitably revive its taunts about ABC's "jiggle TV." Airports do have the long walkways suited to eye-catching strutting. Yet, they also provide ample space for the signature The West Wing "walk and talk" exposition with which Pan Am director Tommy Schlamme is already familiar.

As for the dramas on the rest of the schedule, Terra Nova intrigues me, mostly for its nickname, "Little House on the Prairie Meets Jurassic Park." The feature film and the '70s NBC-TV show spoke to tween aspirations and captured some co-viewing parents. As that dual demographic is key to the ratings success of reality competitions, the 8 p.m. drama might be a better bet than the more elusive 10 p.m. adult drama.

Mad Men-style, slowly-unfolding story structure is at odds with the attention economy of broadcast television. Premiere season inevitably leads to the discussion of whether there is a future for adult drama on broadcast television. In a year when FX and AMC both canceled critically-acclaimed series, the question applies to basic cable too and raises others about the role dramas play in reinforcing channel brands and the supposed binary between the "escapist" and the "quality" drama.

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