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Fall TV preview: Winging to the age of ‘Mad Men’

ChristinRicci flies 1963 skies ABC’s “Pan Am' one two new 'Mad Men'-inspired dramas this fall.

Christina Ricci flies the 1963 skies on ABC’s “Pan Am," one of two new "Mad Men"-inspired dramas this fall.

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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:47AM

It’s fall and time to turn back the clock — to the early 1960s.

Both ABC and NBC are rolling out dramas this month set in a smoky, martini-swilling, skinny-tied time period that will look strikingly familiar to fans of AMC’s hit show “Mad Men.”

“The Playboy Club” (NBC) takes place in Chicago in 1961, shortly after Hugh Hefner’s legendary bunny pit got hopping. Fast forward two years and head up 30,000 feet, and you have “Pan Am,” ABC’s stewardess-centered series that takes off in 1963 during the glamorous dawn of the Jet Age.

Like “Mad Men,” which is slated to start its long-awaited fifth season next year, “The Playboy Club” and “Pan Am” are largely workplace-based dramas with a highly stylized look. The shows’ storylines may be different, but they all unfold during a singular time in our country’s history, when the impending cultural revolution was shifting from simmer to boil.

“The big broadcast networks are playing catch-up,” said Max Dawson, a television professor at Northwestern University.

“Success breeds imitation,” Dawson said. “Once someone taps into a particular brand of nostalgia there’s a feverish rush on that period, whether it’s Banana Republic releasing ‘Mad Men’-inspired clothing or mid-century modern furniture seeing a bump in price on Craigslist.”

Like the crafty ad men that they are, Don Draper and company clearly have kick-started a craze for the early ’60s (and in turn, its cultural counterpart, the late ’50s). And television network executives seem eager to feed viewers’ newfound hunger for a bygone era.

Starz cable network has ordered 10 episodes of “Magic City,” a mob drama set in Miami Beach circa the first season of “Mad Men” (1960). It’s scheduled to debut next year.

HBO reportedly has a mid-century drama in the works called “Dope,” based on a novel by Sara Gran. Julianne Moore is the name being bandied about to star as a drug addict-turned-private eye in 1950s Manhattan.

BBC America’s new series “The Hour,” a spy thriller set in 1956, premiered last month. Even though “The Hour’s” London newsroom is an ocean away from the New York offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the show begs inevitable comparisons to “Mad Men,” if only for its retro-chic aesthetic.

“Pan Am” executive producer Nancy Hult Ganis insists “Mad Men” wasn’t the source of inspiration for her show; she started working on the concept before Matthew Weiner’s pop culture juggernaut hit the air in 2007. But Hult Ganis admits that the latter’s success at least partly paved the way for “Pan Am” to land a spot in ABC’s line-up.

“There’s no question in my mind that the interest in that era helped,” said Hult Ganis, who spent seven years as a Pan Am stewardess starting in the late ’60s.

While the two shows could share a key to the same wardrobe closet, “they are so unrelated, other than the early ’60s,” Hult Ganis said. “This is really [about] young girls with a perspective of seeing the world through their eyes, which is very different than what ‘Mad Men’ is.”

“Playboy Club” creator and executive producer Chad Hodge acknowledges that his show — which comedian Joel McHale has jokingly referred to as “Mad Men with boobs” — might owe a tip of the fedora to AMC’s hit.

“People may not have been open to a show like this if ‘Mad Men’ hadn’t been the success that it is,” said Hodge, a Highland Park native.

“The shows are very different,” he added. “The only thing they have in common is the era.”

And what an era it was. The civil rights and feminist movements were gaining traction. The Cold War was heating up. Sexual mores were shifting. It’s the kind of stuff that makes screenwriters salivate.

“The world was changing drastically,” said “Pan Am” executive producer and writer Jack Orman. “There was a lot of injustice and a lot of turbulence. It seemed like a very rich environment” in which to set a show.

“I’ve always found that period of time fascinating — not so much the late ’60s but the transition from the Eisenhower era to the beginning of a cultural revolution,” said Natasha Vargas-Cooper, author of Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America. “We really went from citizens to consumers. The identity of women started to shift and the old guard started to wither and fall away.

“It’s a largely unexplored period,” she said.

And that’s part of the appeal. The early ’60s are something old that feels new again.

“It’s an untapped corner of our pop culture that hasn’t necessarily had the big revival that disco or the hippies have had,” Northwestern’s Dawson said. “It hasn’t been strip-mined of all its icons and styles. It almost seems fresh, even though it’s the Eisenhower era.”

The 20th century’s midsection also takes us back to a time when it was OK — or at least we thought it was — to chain smoke, knock back three Old Fashioneds at lunch and buy your groceries without reading the labels for trans fat.

“There’s wonderful wish fulfillment in watching people not be PC and engage in these taboos,” Vargas-Cooper said. “Good looking people smoking, drinking, behaving badly and having sex with impunity — and it’s all set against a backdrop of a more restrictive society where you didn’t have moms going to pole-dancing classes. It’s exciting to watch.”

That, no doubt, is what the TV networks execs are hoping.

“This current crop [of shows] will be an important referendum,” Dawson said. “If the ‘Mad Men’ formula can be emulated successfully, we can expect to see a lot more.”

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