ABC’s ‘Pan Am’ finale looks to a future that may never come

02.20.12 6 years ago 85 Comments


Because of Kurt Cobain’s suicide note, “It’s better to burn out/Than to fade away” is the most remembered line of of Neil Young’s “Hey, Hey, My, My (Out of the Blue),” but the variation “It’s better to burn out/ Than it is to rust” is every bit as evocative.
My favorite network pilot of the fall of 2010 was FOX’s “Lone Star.” It died spectacularly after only two airings, doing the sort of inconceivably low ratings that have taken their place as the stuff of industry legend.
On one hand, that failure was a TV-level tragedy (not to be confused with actual tragedy) because I like to see good things succeed, especially when those good things suggest different storytelling avenues from the ones normally followed on network primetime.
On the other hand, I’ll always have a pristine memory of the “Lone Star” pilot, which I loved, and the second episode, which I quite enjoyed. I never had to worry about the predictable, hypothetical lag from episodes four through six. I never had to twiddle my thumbs through hypothetical episodes seven though 10 as the producers responded to low ratings by tinkering and stunt-casting. I never had to sit through the desperation of episode 13 with its hypothetical absurd cliffhanger to try to force FOX into renewal.
“Lone Star” burnt out, but it did so with authority. Kyle Killen lit the match and America and FOX licked their collective fingers and snuffed it out.
My favorite network pilot of last fall was ABC’s “Pan Am.” I didn’t love it, but I marveled at its high production values, stellar direction and charismatic cast and perhaps because I was comparing it directly to NBC’s “Playboy Club” and indirectly to a lackluster crop of new fall shows, I admired its aspirations and its potential scope.
Unlike “Lone Star,” “Pan Am” didn’t instantly burn out. In fact, it premiered to nearly 11 million viewers and a robust 18-49 rating. It wasn’t an instant hit, but ABC got people in the door, which seemed like a minor miracle.
Instead, “Pan Am” rusted. The show changed. Viewers tuned out. ABC kept airing the show opposite powerhouse dramas and major events and it kept getting clobbered.
Five months later, “Pan Am” is probably done. Sunday (Feb. 19) night’s episode was only the season finale, but barring some sort of overhaul of what constitutes “success” and “failure” on network TV, it will also be its series finale.
Given what “Pan Am” has been for most of its truncated season, I’m not going to mourn the show’s passing for very long. The cast never ceased to be charismatic and talented and the production values remained pretty admirable, but “Pan Am” lost any sense of its identity many months ago. The jumble of half-hearted Season 2 pitches in Sunday’s finale only confirmed that lack of direction moving forward. 
Neither “Lone Star” nor “Pan Am” will see a back-nine, much less a second season, but with “Lone Star” we saw only the fall, but with “Pan Am,” there was a complete decline and fall, all in accelerated motion.
More on the “Pan Am” finale after the break…
What happened to “Pan Am” was a form of simultaneous burn-out/rust unique to network TV and its particular scheduling and production cycle.
Take something like “Terriers” on FX. In terms of audience, the show was as immediate a failure as “Lone Star.” However, Shawn Ryan and Ted Griffin had already been given full latitude to make their 13-episode season before it premiered and FX never would have considered pulling it midway through its first season. The show was exactly what its creative force wanted it to be and the 13 episodes of that series are, if not perfect, fully realized on every level. When you get to finale of “Terriers,” you know for certain it’s the conclusion of the 13-episode arc that you started with the pilot. I don’t know the proper variation on “res ipsa loquitur,” but the show speaks for itself.
If “Pan Am” were to speak for itself, I don’t know what voice it would speak with. Jack Orman created the show, but Tommy Schlamme was a powerful creative force from the beginning. Then Steven Maeda was brought in as showrunner for the second half of the season, but his arrival wasn’t a bloody coup, just a shift in direction or control. So I can’t say whether Orman or Schlamme or Maeda would ultimately be considered the voice of the show, or whether the voice of “Pan Am” is actually the voice of some executive on ABC’s drama development side, or possibly a creative executive at Sony Picture TV. Probably that’s why “Pan Am” seemed to have less of a narrative identity with every passing week and why the main characters, strongly, but simply written and established in the pilot, became fuzzier and less sure of their wants and needs as the season unspooled.
In pilot form, “Pan Am” was about a specific brand and a specific moment in history, particularly what that brand and that moment meant for young women, what it represented. Did I totally buy the proto-feminist message of the opening episode? No, but I bought that the creators did and I bought that the characters on the show did. 
Then, almost by the second or third episode, “Pan Am” became a show about cute girls giggling about boys in foreign countries, while occasionally Kelli Garner’s Kate delivered a mysterious package, as part of her spy lift. ABC obviously wanted romance, so a largely uninspired back-and-forth/will-they-won’t-they ensued with Michael Mosley’s Ted and Margot Robbie’s Laura, in which even the writers seemed to forget the degree of their chemistry from week to week. And since ABC obviously wanted more romance, Mike Vogel’s Dean and Karine Vanasse’s Colette went back and forth and back and forth and the writers lost the thread there as well. Early episodes emphasized the sense-of-place in the locations the characters were flying, but somebody must have decided that faking Paris and Haiti wasn’t working and “Pan Am” became a claustrophobic series of beautifully decorated interiors. Early episodes played around with time and storytelling. Later episodes became linear and usually sluggish.
This is why it’s better to burn out than it is to rust. With the “Lone Star” burn-out, we never saw the creative confusion or the network panic (assuming either would have happened). The show was there and then it was gone. With “Pan Am,” we saw the flop-sweat all the way up to the finale.
If you felt like there was no momentum to Sunday’s “Pan Am” finale, there wasn’t and that was the fault of the writers, but ABC didn’t really help matters.
The “Pan Am” finale aired on February 19 and it followed on the heels of the January 22 episode. Who waits a month between airing penultimate and final episodes? ABC. The only episode in the interim was last Sunday’s episode, which was “new,” but intended for the middle of the show’s run. Viewers may have been confused by the backtracking, but it was also illuminating, since it filled in a bunch of gaps that made very little sense to regular viewers, including the end of Dean’s really uninteresting affair with Erin Cummings’ Ginny, the minimal repercussions of Maggie (Christina Ricci) outing that affair to protect her own job, at least one step in the relationship between Kate and Goran Visnjic’s Niko and the circumstances behind Laura’s nude photos, which came completely out of nowhere in the penultimate episode. Why was “Romance Languages” delayed? Dunno. ABC didn’t like the episode? The episode wasn’t completed in time? ABC was desperate to leap ahead to episodes featuring “Twilight” co-star Ashley Greene, as if she were the magical talisman needed to draw in fresh eyes? I have no answer. 
And even though ABC aired the out-of-sequence episode, the network didn’t care if anybody watched, since it was put opposite the Grammys on CBS.
And what of the finale itself? Well, it seems odd to me that you build all season to the moment on the cusp of the Kennedy assassination, which ended the true penultimate episode. Then, having done that, you skip to a month later so that nothing that came of the assassination or the loss of innocence would have any impact on the characters. Why set the show in 1963 at all if that’s your plan? Why build episodes around Maggie’s obsession with Kennedy? You choose an era and then decide that really and truly you don’t want to bother with that era’s defining moment? 
Then you have an episode that develops to all of our main characters in a room together celebrating New Year’s Eve and toasting what a terrific year 1963 was and I could only think, “Ummm… I’ve watched ‘Pan Am.’ I know what happened to these characters this year. None of them have any reason to be celebrating 1963 as a great year.” 
But the finale was all about sweeping the mess of the first season under the rug and trying to make a pitch to ABC that a second season would be clearer.
Laura and Ted now know they’re in love and even though Greene’s Amanda is having Ted’s baby, she’s a lesbian anyway, so that’ll work itself out, wackily. You want a goofy romance about a flight attendant who pals around with Andy Warhol, a lesbian and a pilot with daddy issues? Bring *this* show back, ABC!
And who cares that the series started with the notion that real Pan Am stewardesses really were, indeed, used by the CIA in the 1960s? It’s time to get Kate out of her uniform and turn her into a legitimate spy! You want a show about a sexy female spy in 1964? Bring *this* show back, ABC!
And Maggie? She’s a smuggler. For some reason. And can she speak Portuguese  or not? I’m totally lost. 
And I guess that Colette learning she’s Jewish and not getting to marry a prince means that it’s smooth flying for her and Dean, though Dean’s going to be grounded for a few months, though boy that Haiti trouble flared up and then was extinguished with no commitment or urgency. 
And what of poor Sanjeev? What.EVER.
The “Pan Am” finale wasn’t a culmination of the season I watched regularly. It was a poo-poo platter just begging ABC to find some storyline it liked enough to justify a renewal. 
Realistically, what are the chances of a renewal? Well, ABC isn’t officially calling “Pan Am” cancelled, because that’s not what networks do. For the most part, nothing is “cancelled” until May. Even “H8r” isn’t cancelled.
Why would ABC want “Pan Am” back? The drama does reasonably well in terms of Live+7 DVR numbers and in a brief free iTunes promotional window, a lot of people downloaded “Pan Am.” There has also been talk that the show has done well overseas. 
And why wouldn’t ABC want “Pan Am” back? Remember the 11 million viewers who watched the premiere? Last Sunday’s episode drew under 2.7 million viewers. That was against the Grammys. The previous new episode drew under 4 million viewers. That was against the NFC Championship. It was also under 4 million for the airing before that. But that was against the Golden Globes. You’d have to go back to early January to find a “Pan Am” episode that ABC wasn’t sacrificing against some behemoth and even that episode barely limped over 4 million viewers. DVR numbers and iTunes numbers are nice, but they don’t cover for ratings that low.
How low are they? NBC looks at “Pan Am” ratings and thinks they’re probably just a bit too low.
So barring an aggressive campaign of a currently unimaginable sort, “Pan Am” will probably end with Sunday’s episode.
The end comes as pilot casting season is in full effect and I urge casting directors to pick “Pan Am” clean.
Margot Robbie is a star. She’s gorgeous, but more than that, I think she handled the writers’ confusion about her character like a pro through the entire season, but absorbing every screwy character detail and making it believable. 
Karine Vanasse is utterly charming. If no pilot knows how to handle her Quebecois cadences, the writers on “Once Upon a Time” should craft a character for whom a French accent would be both magical and organic.
Kelli Garner’s had a stretch of being one of the best parts of unsuccessful shows and I’d beg casting directors not to give up on her, though maybe after “My Generation” and “Pan Am,” she’d do well to leave ABC for a bit.
Michael Mosley and Mike Vogel will find new homes in no time (Vogel already has, actually) and even Christina Ricci could be a valuable part of some show with tighter direction than she often received here.
I hope that all of the production designers, costume designers and art directors from “Pan Am” get the respect they deserve and that the special effects team, especially the folks who worked on the early episodes, can get value from having this show on their reel.
I guess I’ve written this much about “Pan Am” — an inexcusable amount, really — because of how much potential I thought it had after its pilot and how interesting a test subject it is for all of the different ways that   a show can go sideways or backwards from a very good pilot to presumed cancelation after 13 episodes. For all of the creative shakeups, network mismanagement and far-from-invisible tinkering that took place, “Pan Am” never became a bad enough show for me to give up on it and even after a finale that was made for ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee and not, in any way, for viewers, I’d still return if “Pan Am” somehow got a second season. 
Is it better to burn out than it is to rust? I don’t know. Sometimes watching something rust has its own fascination.

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