THEY are worlds that swirl in plumes of cigarette smoke. Where men wear hats on the 7.14am commuter to the city and steaks are washed down with a scotch and water. There are girdles and coiffed hair and harmless pats on the bottom in the office. Men rule the roost and women make cups of tea and type on great clunking typewriters while they wait to get married. Television has spent the past couple of years mining these bygone eras. From the Prohibition-era Atlantic City of Boardwalk Empire to gloomy 1950s London newsrooms in The Hour and the 1960s New York of Mad Men, retro television is exploring hopes, disappointments and desires that remain timeless.
Nostalgia is not usually believed to be a particularly useful artistic technique. Too derivative, too marketable, too easy. As author Chuck Klosterman wrote in Grantland this year, it is typically an uncritical viewpoint. Put Hanson’s MMMBop or the Spice Girls’ Wannabe on at a party and me and my fellow mid-20s friends are almost certain to start shrieking and clutching each other. It’s not because the songs are good (they’re probably not) but because they remind us of being 12 and making up synchronised dances in our parents’ rumpus rooms when we didn’t have to worry about being a grown-up. Nostalgia is not just remembering something but imbuing it with meaning from having been there.
The nostalgic television shows being created today are different. Their fictional worlds evoke experiences that don’t belong to us and within these shows are characters who are interesting in their complexity. Because we have the advantage of time and history and not belonging, we fill these characters out with our own perceptions of who people are and why they behave as they do.
There are men who behave badly but are not bad men, such as Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire and the philandering, tormented genius that is Don Draper in Mad Men. There are women who want more than what is expected of them, the Peggy Olsons and the boop-boop-a-doop Joan Holloways in Mad Men, the Bel Rowleys in British mini-series The Hour. Bel Rowley is the ”best man for the job” and tells her somewhat shambolic male colleagues at the BBC that they can get their own cup of tea because she is not their secretary. Indeed, it is in these characters that the most resonance can be found – the ones who are trapped by the times they live in.
The glamorous air hostesses in the new series Pan Am, set in the airports of the 1960s and airing in Australia next year, long to see the world. Bel Rowley is making her mark in an almost entirely male environment. Joan Holloway works her many advantages but knows her limitations. Retro television is in part an escape but solace is found in well-dressed characters who are chafing against their surrounds. We keep digging back because there remain the questions: Can we have it all? What do women really want? What does it mean to be a man? No era, it seems, has the definitive answer.
Earlier this year, Rona Jaffe’s best-selling 1958 book, The Best of Everything, was republished after Don Draper was seen reading it in Mad Men.
He was trying, optimistically one imagines, to find out what women really want. Jaffe interviewed 50 young women about ”all the things that nobody talked about in polite company” and thus the book was entirely scandalous with its depictions of career girls in the 1950s who had affairs and abortions and wanted to drink in every single thing about being young and untethered in New York. It tapped into the desires of young women taking their first steps into adulthood – they wanted to be loved and were unnerved by the depths of what they wanted.
Writing in The Guardian, Rachel Cooke said that even though Jaffe’s batch of girls were ”modern”, the pressures to conform were simply too entrenched – particularly understandable when you consider that those ”left on the shelf” at 25 were considered spinsters.
Yet despite this, and despite the casual sexism that flows so freely throughout the book and in shows such as Pan Am, Mad Men and this year’s ill-fated 1960s-era show The Playboy Club – in which women are appraised according to their waist and breast size and whether they were ”fast” or marriageable – their quest to do something with their lot remains universal.
Some of the retro shows have a certain despair that runs beneath the stylish production values and historically accurate costumes. Nucky Thompson was hated by his father. Don Draper stole a man’s identity. The prettiest air stewardess (played by Australian Margot Robbie) in Pan Am flees her own wedding because she has never made a decision for herself.
In The Best of Everything, an aspiring actress plays a game called ”isn’t this fun?” With a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, the game is played on nights of drinking and dancing and everybody wanting something more. We play it too by being enthralled by retro television and its martinis and stylish cigarette smoking and sometimes joyless bed hopping. ”Isn’t this fun,” we say as we keep looking back and thinking that everybody who ever lived is having more fun than we are.
The Best of Everything was about the things that aren’t talked about in polite company. So, too, is much of what we take from retro television. The nostalgia is marketable but not empty and these shows are a reminder that life is complicated and that most people are not bad, exactly, but never entirely good. Happiness does not necessarily match up to your circumstances.