Do "Mad Men," "Pan Am," "The Playboy Club" and BBC America's "The Hour" exploit society's barely suppressed appetite for a more sexist, racist and conservative era? Fear not. The underlying message in these depictions of the bad old days is clear: We should be better than that now, even when we aren't.
Just as we can enjoy "Gone With the Wind" without feeling nostalgic for slavery, or "The Sound of Music" without missing the Third Reich, we can watch the chain-smoking white men and underpaid, underappreciated women of "Mad Men" without wishing we could bring back Jim Crow racial segregation and legal glass ceilings for women.
Quite the opposite, the best moments of this surprising new nostalgia craze for the 1950s and early '60s come when they suggest glimmers of the social revolution that we, today's audience gazing back with the wisdom of hindsight, know is about to take place.
"Mad Men" led this craze by taking a chance on trying something new -- and won. The show found thoughtful drama in a New York ad agency in a time that today's much-coveted 18-to-35 generation knows to be ancient history, the 1960s.
We see how changing attitudes toward sexism, racism, homophobia and rising divorce rates, among other issues, play out in the lives of ad execs who are making change happen, whether for dollars or, in the case of the women in particular, respect.
"The Playboy Club" and "Pan Am," by comparison, are lesser over-the-air knockoffs. The most prominent theme that these retro shows share is a trip, as filmmaker-essayist Nora Ephron sarcastically wrote about "The Playboy Club" in a Newsweek essay, "back to the early 1960s, to that golden moment just before the women's movement came along and ruined everything."
Some deal with that theme better than others.
"Pan Am" does a bit better than "The Playboy Club." The program, starring Christina Ricci, plays like a high-flying "Sex and the City," a time when airlines opened up a world of fun, travel and financial independence to a generation of white-gloved women who are portrayed as well-trained, well-educated and, up against the prevailing sexism of the times, variously skillful at navigating men into or away from their restricted air space.
"The Hour" is a recently completed six-part BBC America take, still available On Demand, of a fictitious BBC newsmagazine program's backstage life during the 1956 Hungarian uprising and Suez Canal crises. Leave it to the Brits to give us a gripping noirish mix of love triangles, hardball office politics, a feverish hunt for a Soviet mole in their midst and genteel battles with government censors and, oh, yes, elegant bouts of class warfare between folks for whom class still mattered. A lot.
Here, as in their American cousins, we see the beginnings of what is known today as the culture war. Ads, news media, the Playboy ethic, globalism and changing concepts of family fuel emotions in America's political divide. Even seemingly dry issues like the economy -- and what to do about it -- take on a high moral equivalency in the battle between those who see a need for more liberal progress versus those who want to take American values back to, say, the days before Elvis.
To see where we're going, it helps to look at where we've been. The new retro TV dramas offer us sexism and other problems in a comfortably safe form for today's audiences. They offer a past that was much worse than today, but also one that offers directions to a better future.