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In Movies & TV Commentary

"Pan Am" had a pretty successful maiden voyage Sunday night.

OnMedia: The dramatic differences between "Pan Am" and "Mad Men"

Of the fall season's two network dramas set in the 1960s, ABC's "Pan Am" looks more likely to survive. We'll know more about NBC's "The Playboy Club" after Monday night's overnights are in, but its opening last week was far from successful.

"Pan Am" did better than its Sunday night lead-in, "Desperate Housewives" (which is in its final season), pulling in nearly 11 million viewers , according to Nielsen Media Research overnight numbers.

Both shows are at least inspired by the relative success of AMC's "Mad Men," which as a cable show produces far fewer episodes per season and doesn't need anywhere near as many viewers.

That allows concentration on a story line. In fact, shows like "Mad Men" – not due back with new episodes until next spring – use their setting in a different way than most network shows.

For "Mad Men," the 1960s and the ad business allow layers to be added to the story line, which is basically about how people interact, and the lies that drive them.

For "Pan Am," the 1960s and the airlines are a "situation," as in sitcom, merely a different vehicle for the same stories that fill the network lineup. Instead of being peopled by characters who just happen to live where and when they do, "Pan Am" and its plane is filled with cardboard characters.

The 1960s of "Pan Am" is a bright and shiny place. The 1960s of "Mad Men" has its bright and shiny spots, but is as complex and frequently dark as the modern world.

And on "Mad Men," people are actually smoking.

None of this means network TV can't make quality dramas. "West Wing" shines through as one that used its setting to tell a larger story.

HBO is the best example. "The Sopranos" was about far more than a bunch of mobsters whacking each other. It was about broader issues of family, and it used the interesting world of organized crime to deal with everyday problems.

Its latest period piece, "Boardwalk Empire," which started its second season Sunday night, HBO tells an historical story about the beginning of Prohibition and the birth of modern organized crime. But it tells it through the stories of individuals on the inside of that history.

None of these are the kinds of drama you're likely to see on network TV. "Pan Am" may be the best we can expect.

Here's a scene from Sunday's "Pan Am":

Here's a sample from "The Playboy Club":

Tonight at the Milwaukee Film Festival: "Dragonslayer" screens tonight at 7 at the Downer Theater, and tells the story of skate punk Josh "Screech" Sandoval. For complete program information on the Film Festival, which runs through Sunday, go to the website.

Here's the trailer:


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