TV Review: ABC’s ‘Pan Am’

09.25.11 6 years ago 19 Comments


Regarding the late Ida Blankenship, Bert Cooper opined, “She was born in 1898 in a barn, She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She’s an astronaut.”
Bert’s brief eulogy was one of the best lines from the fourth season of “Mad Men” — or at least the best lines in which one character wasn’t showing another character what the money was for — and it was a valuable reminder that progress is context-dependent. It’s a factor of where you started from and where you end up and the journey you took along the way.
I thought back on Bert’s words when watching the pilot for ABC’s “Pan Am.”
Towards the end of the episode, Michael Mosley’s Ted, previously depicted as a somewhat boorish chauvinist, looks over at the table of laughing Pan Am flight attendants and observes, “They’re not like normal women. They’re mutations. It’s a compliment.” He continues, “They don’t know that they’re a new breed of women. They just had the impulse to take flight.”
It’s a big statement and it’s the thesis statement for “Pan Am” as a series. And in some ways, it’s just as brazen as the snippet of Hugh Hefner voice-over that comes near the end of the “Playboy Club” pilot and goes, “Bunnies were some of the only women in the world who could be anyone they wanted to be.”
Both lines of dialogue are potentially laughable, especially when viewed through jaded 21st Century eyes. 
And in the case of “The Playboy Club,” that “potentially” becomes a “certainly.” That pilot has a lot of people talking about progress, but it’s mostly chatter, because why illustrate a contentious point when you can merely pay lip-service to it and give Eddie Cibrian additional time to preen?
I didn’t laugh at the line from “Pan Am.” Yeah, it sounded a bit hyperbolic and on-the-nose, but I didn’t laugh. Over 44 minutes, “Pan Am” had laid sufficient groundwork that I was willing to entertain the possibility that Ted had a point, maybe not one that was fully proven, but also not one that was utterly fabricated.
That’s not a small achievement for a show like “Pan Am,” which is also one of the most handsomely produced network pilots in recent years, a pilot loaded with appealing characters and a opens a wide array of future narrative avenues across several genres. The combination of a formative surface charms and a whirring intellectual motor underneath are enough to make this my favorite new network show in a relatively dismal fall of fresh programming.
Full review of “Pan Am” after the break…
There’s a lot happening in the “Pan Am” pilot, which was written by Jack Orman and directed by Tommy Schlamme. We’re spanning continents, skipping around in time and also introducing a half-dozen regular characters. 
It’s 1963 and Pan Am is launching a new Clipper jet flight across the Atlantic, a run the allows us to meet our crew. In the cockpit, we have Dean (Mike Vogel), much too young to have his captain’s wings, but still cocky and romantically involved with the mysterious Bridget (Annabelle Wallis), and the previously mentioned Ted. They’re flying the plane, but this show isn’t really about them. Our heroines are the flight attendants. Christina Ricci’s the biggest name in the cast and she’s playing Maggie, who lives with beatniks, but is willing to put on a uniform in order to see the world. Then there’s Colette (Karine Vanasse), sexually liberated, but with poor taste in men. And then there are sisters Kate (Kelli Garner) and Laura (Margot Robbie), both fleeing the same model of suburban domesticity, but doing it in very different ways.
Oh and did I mention that there’s also espionage afoot? Yup, several of our main characters are tied up in some Cold War cloak-and-dagger action, which doesn’t seem that absurd for attractive multi-lingual women with the ability to pass through borders with ease and access to the upper-tier clientele flying Pan Am at the time.
It’s always interesting when you examine a pilot to look at how much effort is put into stressing the premise, how much is pushed into properly introducing the characters, how much goes into establishing a particular tone (or theme), how much is dedicated to laying out the world of the pilot and how much is just about telling a good stand-alone story. What’s most impressive about “Pan Am” is how well Orman and Schlamme balance almost all of those things.
None of the characters in “Pan Am” are exactly over-developed, but Orman and Schlamme work to give them context, which is exactly what the “empowerment” message requires and which is exactly what sets “Pan Am” apart from “Playboy Club.” For me, Garner was the standout in the “Pan Am” pilot, though in this case, she isn’t the lone standout, as she was on ABC’s “My Generation” last fall. Robbie, who I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen before, also pops instantly, both because she’s gorgeous, but also because she works hard to suggest that the liabilities that her beauty causes. Ricci is a bit broadly comedic at times, but in a likable way, especially since I feel like she’s only occasionally been allowed to play big screen characters with this little angst. Vogel’s mostly asked to look young and square-jawed and he succeeds there, but there are tiny, well-planted, hints about the character that could be interesting.
The characters are the most important part of the pilot and the flight itself provides some structure and the spy storyline adds tension and stakes. And then Schlamme and the ace technical team create the world. I couldn’t put a finger on exactly how much of “Pan Am” is virtual, but I have a strong sense that the answer is “nearly everything,” that “Pan Am” may ultimately be as effects-heavy as “Terra Nova” in its own way. In that light, what’s been accomplished here is extremely impressive. There’s a shiny newness to every frame that mirrors the shiny newness of the Boeing 707 and whether what’s being recreated is a terminal a Idlewild or a European destination, the whole pilot has a recreated hyperreality that actually had me mentioning “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” in my notes. And even the things that are actually real — costumes, the occasional car, the inside of the plane — are comparably spiffy. Schlamme’s work blending the real and virtual aspects of the environment and navigating through the “Pan Am” version of 1963 is top-notch, but he never sacrifices performance for spectacle.
Returning quickly to the show and its treatment of its female characters… At the TCA press tour, there was a lot of confusion and even outrage about the idea that stewardesses could be considered empowering or empowered characters, as if somehow any job in the hospitality industry — particularly one featuring girdles and regular weigh-ins — is both inherently demeaning and regressive. But I’m OK with the idea of equating flight with opportunity. Going back to Ida Blankenship, it’s about the distance between where you’re expected to go (by society, by your family, by your station) and where you see yourself going. There’s a glamour in travel and escape and built into that glamour is some measure of progress and empowerment. Whether you look at Zooey Deschanel’s character in “Almost Famous” or Brie Larson’s character on “United States of Tara” or the reality bimbettes of The CW’s “Fly Girls,” it’s an image that still holds allure, albeit an imperfect allure. The four main characters on “Pan Am” aren’t aspirational figures because they wear tight skirts serve beverages. They’re aspirational, because they have aspirations themselves.
And no, as I said earlier, I don’t know if “Pan Am” sold me completely on that bill of goods. The “Pan Am” pilot is so all-over-the-map that you don’t come away utterly convinced on any one element, but you also don’t come away convinced that any element is misguided.
But really, I’m over-dwelling on that aspect of “Pan Am” anyway. I don’t think anybody’s going to rush to watch the pilot because it does or doesn’t have feminist values. It has strong female characters, but it also has strong male characters (well, less-so on the male characters, but they aren’t bad). But, more than that, it has nifty special effects and spy stuff! And maybe that’s the solution to the “Why would TV networks try to copy the ‘Mad Men’ period-drama formula when nobody [by network standards] watches ‘Mad Men’?” conundrum: Offer a little bit of everything and hope that you can snag segments of five or six audiences and leave them just satisfied enough to stick around for a while. I think “Pan Am” does that with style.
“Pan Am” premieres at 10 p.m. on Sunday (September 25) night on ABC.

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