How The 60s Are Taking Over TV


What is it about the 60s? When we talk about the 20th century, the 60s always almost comes up as the decade that had the most cultural clout. We talk about milestones like the Civil Rights movement, the sexual revolution, the Beatles.

Now the 60s are taking over TV, one big new show at a time. Programs like The Playboy Club (since cancelled), Pan Am, and now Starz’s new show Magic City have all taken on the time period (alright, Magic City is actually set in 1959, cut me some slack). It's pretty clear these series are all out to grab a bit of Mad Men’s success.

Mad Men, obviously, was first on the scene when it comes to the recent “60s period piece” market. Right from their first season in 2007, Mad Men established itself as a smart, gripping drama that nailed the time period. I’d argue that after Mad Men, people of my generation see the 60s less and less as “way back when hippies were prancing around” and more like the über-cool decade when everything was new and anything was possible.

Much has been made of the fact that, despite the undeniable quality of Mad Men as a TV show, it doesn’t pull huge audiences in to AMC. So there was little surprise when NBC’s The Playboy Club was announced for the fall TV season, followed by ABC’s Pan Am and Starz’s Magic City.

That last one I only heard about today – it stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a hotelier and nightclub owner in 1959 Miami, who must deal with the debt he owes to a mob boss (Danny Huston). Even though Magic City technically takes place a year before the decade in question began, watching the trailer for the show reinforces how closely Magic City will resemble the other 60s dramas on the air.

The first reason we’re seeing so much of the 60s on TV is simply a shrewd business decision by the networks. Take one look at Mad Men and you know it’s a hit show – consecutive sweeps at the Emmys and its name on every TV fan’s lips. TV executives want to repeat that success on their own networks, and scripts are commissioned for more shows set the 60s. And so a trend was born.

But I think the popularity of the 60s on TV goes deeper than that. People wouldn’t be counting down the months to Mad Men Season Five’s premiere if there wasn’t something about the setting that they identified with. That something is a remarkable similarity between the present and the 1960s – a time when people were discovering new personal freedom and enjoying new methods of communication.

In the 60s the United States was still crawling out from under the all-out McCarthyist fear of communism. Similarly, now we citizens of North America are recovering from the paralysis caused by the early-2000s terrorist attacks, or even the lower points of the 2008 recession. These parallel experiences make it easier for us to understand the characters on 60s series – we share a similar sense of liberation.

This carries over to parallel forms of mass communication. The 60s had the television – which had existed in the previous decade but was just achieving a strong foothold in people’s homes. We have the Internet and social media – again, inventions of an earlier decade, which have only recently matured into a platform we use without thinking.  Like the social similarities between the 60s and now, we can appreciate what a unifying technology like television can mean.

There’s yet another level to why the 60s are doing well on TV. Many people enjoy films and TV shows that focus on an older time period, one that feels sufficiently removed from our own, one we can rediscover through a TV series.

Perhaps the most common versions of this genre are the costume dramas set in the 18th and 19th centuries – now Pan Am and Mad Men offer the same experience as the bodice-ripping material on BBC and PBS: an alternative depiction of a time that has lost its coolness factor over the years.

The 60s, being half a century in the past, are sufficiently removed from the present that the core TV demographic (the 18-35 set) can have their eyes opened by an accurate TV version of the 60s. For those who are unfamiliar with the fashion, the ideas and the lifestyle, I’d even suggest that the current 60s shows could be educational (but please check other sources for your history, too!).

It’s worth noting that the recent 60s-based programs do focus on certain layers of society: flashy ad men, well-paid stewardesses, and upper-crust Miami nightlife. If I were to make a request of the TV industry, it would be to make a TV series that features the poorer, blue-collar demographic of the 1960s, just to see what kinds of stories can be told through that lens.

It’s still hard to tell how well the “wannabe Mad Men” programs will fare over the coming months. The Playboy Club, for its part, will likely go down in history as the show that didn’t capture the magic of the 60s in the way Mad Men did. I’ve recently written about the promising start for Pan Am, and I’ll have to reserve judgment on Magic City until it premieres next year. No matter what happens with this batch, I’m convinced the 60s won’t disappear from our TVs – there’s still a whole lot of decade left to unravel.


What do you think about the “Mad Men” effect on TV? Is it here to stay, or will it fade away like so many other trends? Does the 60s time period have a chance at becoming the next version of costume drama? Sound off in the comments down below (or get your secretary to do it!) and check out some of my other TV-related articles:

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