Every TV season brings with it a pair of somehow unrelated twins: shows developed at different networks, by different people, that are remarkably similar in subject matter and/or style, no matter how weirdly specific those things get. One year, the twins may be hospital dramas set in Chicago; another, it may be middle-aged men traveling back in time to relive their adolescence. Don’t ask how/why this happens. It just does, always and always and always, and this year’s unlikely twins are a pair of dramas set in the “Mad Men” era about women who have jobs that seemed glamorous at the time, that have seemed more demeaning through a modern lens, but are now the subject of shows that argue for them being liberating.
The first of those was NBC’s “The Playboy Club,” which debuted Monday night, was both terrible and terribly unconvincing in its feminist arguments, and which bombed royally. (Not that anyone should be shocked; the ratings “Mad Men” gets on AMC would get it canceled in a heartbeat by a network.) The second is ABC’s “Pan Am,” which debuts Sunday night at 10. It may not do any better commercially than “Playboy,” but it’s both a much better show and makes a much better case for women’s lib.
On the latter, it helps that the women are, in fact, the center of the show, where “The Playboy Club” quickly turned into the “Let’s Talk About Eddie Cibrian Hour.” Our four main characters are a quartet of Pan Am stewardesses on a new trans-continental flight in 1963.(*) Christina Ricci is Maggie, a beatnik who tells her establishment-hating roommates that she keeps the job because “I get to see the world.” Kelli Garner and Margot Robbie are Kate and Laura, sisters with a mild rivalry, but close enough that Kate helped Laura run away from her own wedding to join the Jet Age. And Karine Vanasse is Colette, a French woman who enjoys the chance to have a new man in every port.
(*) Bet the house on there being a JFK assassination episode during November sweeps.
There are a couple of men in the cockpit, of course – earnest rookie captain Dean (Mike Vogel) and chauvinist co-pilot Ted (Michael Mosley) – but the show is very clearly about the women, and the challenges and freedoms that come with wearing the famous sky blue uniform. They have to endure periodic weigh-ins and girdle checks and lose their jobs if they get engaged, but they also get to travel the globe and meet interesting people and do interesting things, back in a time period when air travel was glamorous and fun rather than the inhuman slog it is today.(**)
(**) To an audience below a certain age (say, if you were born after 1980), that aspect of the show is almost going to seem like science fiction.
Though Ted is portrayed as a dog who’d gladly go to bed with any stewardess who would let him, he’s also somewhat in awe of them, at one point comparing them to the first man to crawl out of the primordial ooze.
“See that table over there?” he tells Dean. “That is natural selection at work, my friend. They don’t know that they’re a new breed of woman. They just had an impulse to take flight.”
(Unsurprisingly, the more colorful role helps Mosley – the best part of that strange final season-spin-off of “Scrubs” – make a greater impression than Vogel does as the generic good guy.)
As with “Playboy Club,” “Pan Am” has an impressive central set in the large recreation of the cabin of a Pan Am Clipper jet of the era, and smooth, engaging direction from “West Wing”/”Sports Night” veteran Tommy Schlamme. (One of the best directors in TV history at taking full advantage of a physical space.) The script, by “ER” veteran Jack Orman, is less memorable, but it has to work in backstories for the four stewardesses and Dean, introduce a few notable passengers on the plane’s maiden voyage from New York to London, and weave in an extra layer of drama by revealing that Kate moonlights as a spy for our side of the Cold War, keeping her eyes peeled for shady characters in foreign lands and occasionally having to lift something from a passenger’s briefcase.
BBC America’s “The Hour” – yet another recent drama set near the “Mad Men” era – also had an unexpected espionage element, and one that the show ultimately didn’t do a great job of justifying. On the other hand, a TV news program during a tumultuous political era seems a more fertile ground for drama than the passenger cabin of a Pan Am jet, and “Pan Am” may need the spy angle more. And at least in the pilot, it puts the spotlight squarely on Kelli Garner (the highlight of ABC’s largely-woeful “My Generation” last fall), who seems more than capable of being the star.
(Although, interestingly, the pilot’s structure gives Christina Ricci, the cast’s biggest name by a mile, the least to do of any of the stewardesses. I don’t expect that to continue, as she didn’t come to network TV to play fourth banana.)
Like most of the season’s rookies, the “Pan Am” pilot doesn’t give an incredible sense of what the series may be like on a weekly basis. The episode is almost structured like the “Lost” pilot, with flashbacks to how most of the main characters wound up on this crew, dealing with these situations. Orman has said the flashbacks will be an ongoing element, but used variably based on the needs of the plot. In the pilot, at least, the number and length of them suggests there’s not enough drama in the flight itself.
But the female leads are appealing, the world promising and the pilot much more clear-eyed and less compromised in its view of the era than “Playboy Club” is. “Pan Am” may never soar to the creative heights of a “Mad Men,” but it’s not a bad start.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org