When ABC’s Pan Am crossed the Atlantic in the fall of 2011, a Radio Times cover asked us if we were ready for the mile-high Mad Men and, in a move that her character Maggie would have frowned on, Christina Ricci invited us to fly her. On the face of it, there are some similarities with Mad Men: both shows are set in the 1960s with high production values and attention to period detail, but that is where the similarities end.
Pan Am is light entertainment, which is not something you can accuse Mad Men of. One of our forum regulars says that: ‘Pan Am is Mad Men for Lambrini girls, people who like Joan’s wiggle dresses and can’t be doing with all that Don shit and laden looks’. The show is set in 1963, in the golden age of flying. Commercial flights are available to the post-war generation. Pan Am is opening up exotic locations to the American public. There are six central characters: the fresh faced young pilot Dean, his co-pilot Ted, and four air stewardesses. There’s the afore-mentioned bobble-headed Maggie. Kate is joined by her younger sister Laura, a runaway bride and the new face of Pan Am. The French/Canadian Colette completes the group.
Riding the wave of sixties nostalgia and with considerable hype, the pilot episode introduces us to the crew and the creators use CGI along with period set design, costume details and music to create the look and sounds of the time. The show is based partly on the experiences of one of the show’s producers, Nancy Ganis. Apparently there are errors such as stewardesses wearing hats and gloves after the doors close, being weighed before each flight, and having the same members working regularly; but these shouldn’t detract from your enjoyment of the show.
So far so good. However, there’s a naivety in the crew and their storylines that starts out as charming but papers over the lack of depth. There is more than a hint of style over substance. The suspension of disbelief is challenged by the ridiculous spy sub-plot.
At the beginning of the Cold War, The CIA and MI-5 are recruiting Pan Am stewardesses as they have access to global destinations and are unlikely to be suspected. Kate, played by Kelli Garner of G-Force fame, is approached by a CIA agent to perform a series of tasks that escalate from basic courier work to pick-pocketing, rescuing an agent from the Russians, and eventually trying to turn a Yugoslav agent. This is the story that kept me coming back for more, as her tasks get more and more crazy.
I have to admit that I enjoy watching bad films and TV shows to revel in their awfulness. A recent example of this is Blue Bloods; in which there is a sub-plot involving a mysterious underground association of the NYPD known as the Blue Templars. In Pan Am, we have air stewardesses being recruited by the CIA. The writing and acting in both of these stories belong in the so-bad-it’s-good category. If you’ve seen Gwyneth Paltrow in The View From Above then you have my sympathy. It trod a fine line between drama and comedy and it never seems sure which it’s meant to be. The same can be said of Pan Am.
In the third episode, the crew flies a group of journalists to Berlin to cover JFK’s visit. After the famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech, they are invited to a party of US and German diplomats. Colette is uneasy in the company of Germans as she believes they were responsible for her parents’ deaths in WWII. She sings the Nazi verses of Deutschland Uber Alles to the stunned group. This should be a moving scene, and the writers are aiming for serious drama. This is not something they do well, and the effect on the audience is bemusement. Not coincidentally this is the episode and the exact point in the show where I first suspected there wouldn’t be a second season.
The ingredients are in place for this to be a good show. A young attractive cast in a sixties setting with airports and airplanes and various locations offer up many avenues for plotlines, which unfortunately the writers squander. There are romantic interactions amongst the crew members themselves and with the passengers they bring to the various destinations. There are sub-plots involving smuggling, failed astronauts, racism and other topical stories from the era. ABC brought in Steven Maeda to try and salvage the show midway through the season. The brief was to focus on the soap aspect of the show, and it did embrace the light-hearted fun elements as it progressed, but the ratings continued to fall. 11 million viewers tuned in for the first episode, less than 4 million watched the season (and series) finale.
ABC has a history of shows that get canned after one season. Before the final episode, they jammed an extra commissioned and out of sequence episode that aired on the same night as the Grammys. Chronologically jarring and outright confusing, it does contain the most bizarre moment of this and possibly any other show. Dean had been having an affair with Ginny, the PA and mistress of one of Pan Am’s chief executives. When Dean tells her it was just a fling and ends the relationship, Ginny reacts badly and breaks a window with her face. Her face. Meanwhile Colette looks after a young passenger on the flight to Rome who becomes infatuated with her and later breaks into her room after they have a romantic dinner. This probably makes it sound a lot more interesting than it should.
It may like to think of itself as a show with strong female characters and perhaps even an empowering feminist slant. In reality, to quote a MostlyFilm regular again, ‘Pan Am is good like movies for tween girls are good, like early Anne Hathaway films. It’s all wish-fulfillment and acting like a grown up and Bunty plots. Little known to her friends, schoolgirl Mandy McGee was actually a secret agent for the Americans, and only her gymkhana star horse Twinkle knew!’
The DVD is on sale now. I had hoped to review the discs to comment on the sequence – Romance Languages, the episode with the face-glass smashing, is chronologically corrected, so you won’t be confused by some story elements such as Laura’s nude photo-shoot like those of us who watched the show as it aired. There are special features which I can’t comment on either, unfortunately, or the complaint that the 3 discs are all crammed on top of each other, because I never received them.
Overall, I’d like to give it a more positive review but there are too many flaws. Colette’s smile alone is worth watching it for, and ex-Neighbors actress Margot Robbie’s good looks should ensure she will have a career beyond the uniform.
If you like a bit of light entertainment and the glitz and glamour of the sixties then it’s worth a look. If it’s quality script writing you’re after, S6 of AMC’s Mad Men airs on the 7th April. Pan Am is out on DVD right now.