Pan Am

This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Erik Adams, who’ll review the show week to week, and Todd VanDerWerff talk about Pan Am.

Pan Am debuts tonight on ABC at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Erik: Remember when air travel was fun, kind of sexy, vaguely adventurous—and not a harrowing, multiple-hour reminder that the vehicle you’re riding in is a potential weapon of terror and/or a flying justification for needless, endless war? Pan Am certainly does!

Okay, so maybe that’s not the best way to introduce my favorite drama pilot of the new season. But there is an air of frothy, jet-set nostalgia to the première, even though it does acknowledge that, hey, what with The Cold War, political unrest, and begrudgingly tolerated but sadly institutionalized sexism, the early 1960s a pretty tense time period, too.

Obviously, Pan Am is not the first pop-culture product to make this point, and the pilot contains traces of previous chronicles of those a-changin’ times—both successful (Mad Men) and unsuccessful (NBC’s atrocious 1999 miniseries The ’60s). But it is unique in filtering that era through the eyes of a flight crew for Pan American World Airways, an airline which, nearly 20 years after its final flight, still stands for the optimistic promise of the jet age. Over the course of a transatlantic flight, creator Jack Orman (who previously worked on ER, Men Of A Certain Age, and, er, JAG) does a deft and efficient job of introducing that crew, showing (and, in the thankfully rare circumstances demanding overly expository dialogue, telling) us who we’ll be traveling with in the coming weeks. They all slot cleanly into one archetype or another, none of which are exclusively tied to the time period—they’re merely enhanced by it. There’s nothing new about a young woman (Kelli Garner’s Kate) wanting to escape the shadow of her overachieving sister (Margot Robbie’s Laura), but her decision to do so by taking to the skies gives that character a fresh spin. The same goes for Laura’s choice to follow Kate into the stewardess field.

The chosen occupation of Pan Am’s four female leads—Garner, Robbie, Christina Ricci, and Karine Vanasse—is bound to raise eyebrows, given that we now live in a world where “stewardess” has been replaced with the more palatable term “flight attendant.” But unlike the bunnies of NBC’s similarly themed The Playboy Club, there’s actually a sense that the characters of Pan Am are more than jaunty hats and attractive Life cover models. On the plane, their roles are rigidly defined; off the plane, they can be who they want, where they want (flight schedule permitting).

Still, there’s a plastic sheen to the “when” of the pilot. Do you think Pan Am’s view of the 1960s is a little too cheery, Todd? And am I wrong to think that, with regard to the non-occupational opportunities afforded to Garner et al., the Pan Am première gets right what the first episode of The Playboy Club got wrong?

Todd: I, too, vastly enjoy the pilot for Pan Am, which strikes me as escapism done right. I get that much of the grousing about the show’s debt to Mad Men and its “sexism” is probably inevitable, given the time period the show is set in and what it’s about, but I think the show gets right what The Playboy Club got wrong, as you say, in both of these cases. In the first, Pan Am does its best to distance itself from Mad Men early and often. The show uses several flashbacks to fill us in on character backstory, and it constantly moves forward, zipping along like a sleek, transatlantic jet flight. On a surface level, it’s very fun to look at, and beneath that surface, there’s quite a bit going on inside its head, though you can enjoy it entirely for its surface pleasures if you’d rather (something that I don’t know is really true of Mad Men). Plus, the plot wraps in everything from international espionage to the politics of the era to a doomed romance, so there’s a little something for everyone, and just enough to create something that’s got a nice flavor overall.

The major problem with The Playboy Club was that it really did seem to believe that the bunnies on that show were free to live their lives in a way other women of the era were not, when it was fairly obvious that just wasn’t the case. The bunnies, after all, were controlled by others, men mostly, and the show didn’t seem terribly cognizant of this reality, opting instead to believe that monetary safety was the only element necessary to have freedom. Pan Am understands both sides of the coin. It gets that these women got to travel the world and had financial stability without having to get married, but it also gets that they were only able to do so because they put themselves on display and let themselves be used for the entertainment of wealthy men. The show can suggest that they’re pointing the way forward for the next wave of women’s rights, but it can also acknowledge that they’re nowhere near that yet (even as it cheekily suggests things aren’t that much more evolved today).

As far as whether the show is too “cheery,” I’m not entirely sure what you mean. The show embraces its escapist spirit early and often, and I think that’s probably the right call. This is probably part of another discussion entirely, but I do think there’s an overreliance on the idea that “dark” somehow equals “good drama” nowadays. I love many dark dramas—from Breaking Bad to Boardwalk Empire—but I think there’s a certain value in creating things that have an escapist sheen but also aren’t afraid to dabble in the darker elements of life. (Justified is a really good example of this, and if Pan Am keeps it up, it could be too.) Superficially, the things that the women on Pan Am are doing—flying around the world, carrying out spy missions, hooking up with strangers—are fun, and it’s hard to portray them as otherwise. I’m sure there are darker elements in these lives, but I think the show made the right choice by foregrounding the fun and only letting some of the doubts and darker stuff seep in very, very slightly toward the end.

Here’s a question for you: This show’s being sold as “Christina Ricci’s arrival on TV!” but in the pilot, she’s very much a supporting character to Garner and Robbie. What do you think of that call? (As a lifelong Kelli Garner fan, I may have to recuse myself from this discussion.)

Erik: It’s weird how little Ricci has to do with the main plots of the pilot, right? But it’s not like her face is the only one on the billboards for Pan Am—it’s just the most recognizable.

That said, I like what’s she’s given here, nominal as it is. As Ricci mentioned in her recent interview with Todd, her character, Maggie, is being set up to be the series’ link to the social and political changes of the 1960s, and we get a brief glimpse of that in the pilot. The script is smart not to saddle her with any preachy monologues or character-defining confrontations; in another example of its skills with showing rather than telling, we meet Maggie in a bohemian-strewn flat in Greenwich Village and learn she’s been “grounded” for refusing to wear her company-issued girdle. There’s no need for extensive flashbacks to convey that information—the character details and the cool, confident way Ricci carries herself in the role (even as she’s suiting up for a flight in the back of a cab) are enough. Plus it makes Maggie a bit of a mystery, the clues to which will be parceled out down the line, I’m sure.

Nonetheless, it’s a smart call to background Maggie for the bulk of the episode, because her arc wouldn’t make the kind of splash that Pan Am needs to make in its first outing. If the braintrust behind Pan Am is setting out to make a good drama that’s also a good deal of fun, Ricci railing against uniform regulations for the bulk of the pilot probably wouldn’t guarantee any additional episodes. So I don’t think it’s a matter of Garner and Robbie (and Vanasse, whose Colette is being set up as the tragically romantic member of the crew) usurping  the movie star’s place at the center of the series. Instead, it’s simply a shrewd move by Orman, who will hopefully receive several more hour-long chances to showcase Maggie and the actor playing her.

What’s truly thrilling about Pan Am is the range of stories those future episodes might tell. The pilot fully embraces the venturesome spirit that attracted travelers to Pan Am, and the variety of their destinations is likely to be reflected in the variety of the stories told down the line. Within this first hour, there are elements of a well-researched period piece, a primetime soap, a family drama, and a surprisingly effective spy thriller. The main challenge Orman and his writers will face is that of striking the proper balance between the varying storytelling conventions and tones of those disparate styles. There’s the potential for Pan Am to feel like a different show from week, but as long as the episodes stay as invested in the characters as the pilot does, it shouldn’t be too jarring to go from, say, a more spy-heavy, Garner-centric episode to a sudsier hour focusing on Vanasse.

But maybe I’m just being overly optimistic in light of the series’ boldness. I can’t recall any series from the past that attempted to balance this many styles. Is there a series like that which come to your mind, Todd? And if so, what can Pan Am do to repeat its successes and avoid its failures?

Todd: The series that immediately comes to mind is another ABC series that balanced present-day storytelling with flashbacks: Lost. In that series, depending on which character was being followed in the flashbacks, the show was, effectively, an entirely different kind of show, particularly in its first season. Jack’s flashbacks were often medical drama. Sun and Jin’s were tiny little foreign films with a domestic backdrop. Locke’s verged on weird, Southern gothic, with a cross of sci-fi. And so on. This was, I think, one of the reasons Lost was so big in its first year and then fell off every year after. It was a show that could be any show, but it eventually ran out of shows to become. By limiting its palette just a bit, Pan Am may have figured out a way to accomplish much of the same without wearing out its welcome with audiences. (The question of whether they’ll even sample it in the first place remains, of course, an open one.)

But Pan Am, like Lost, also owes something to the big ensemble shows of the ’70s, shows like The Love Boat. Now, The Love Boat is terrible, but like Lost or Pan Am, it isolates a bunch of characters in an interesting location (cruise ship, mysterious island, glamorous jet plane), then dives into the story of one or two of those characters. Like Lost, Pan Am is just a bit smarter about this than Love Boat was, but it’s still fundamentally very similar on a structural level. That said, it does seem like Orman is going to treat these characters a bit more seriously than Love Boat did, which suggests that he’ll follow the same solution Lost found for essentially treating this material in a way that will make it work as long-form television, and not just a soapy collection of fun incidents.

Though, honestly, I’m not so sure the latter would be awful. It probably wouldn’t make for great TV, but it seems like there are so few escapist dramas anymore that offer pure fun. It’s the kind of thing that USA, exclusively, seems able to make work, and their shows have a crushing sameness that Pan Am’s jet-setting ways might avoid. There’s potential here to be a kind of cotton-candy show, a fun hour of TV that lets you turn off your brain every week and groove along to its cool exterior, sort of like Alias back in the day (though that show had an emotional core, no doubt). And there’s nothing wrong with that. I just think that by running so far away from Mad Men initially, Pan Am sneaks up on it from behind eventually, and gets at some of the same things that show does well, without doing them in the same way. It’s a crafty way to work, and I’m hopeful this signifies this show will be more than a candy-coated surface.

That said, the pilot isn’t perfect. It has its share of issues, chief among them a tendency to have the characters underline the subtext by stating it right up front. And while the women of the show are fascinating, its two male characters are slightly less so. Did you have any problems with the pilot, Erik?

Erik: Well, now that you’ve confirmed my suspicions that there’s a little bit of The Love Boat in the show’s DNA, there’s that. If I ever see one of the stewardesses helping Charro to a seat, I’ll begin uneasily eyeing the emergency exits.

I also found the two men at the controls of the Clipper Majestic dully and broadly drawn. The pilot gives us a lot of reasons to care for newly minted captain Dean (Mike Vogel), but those reasons all go back to his missing love interest, Bridget (Annabelle Wallis). But even in their flashbacks, it’s Bridget who’s the more interesting character, and she’s ultimately more important to the overall arc of the episode, her mysterious disappearance being the reason for Kate and Maggie’s new assignments off and on the Majestic, respectively. And though Dean’s copilot, Ted (Michael Mosley) is given the episode’s climactic monologue/thesis statement, his main function elsewhere is to deliver caddish come-ons and era-appropriate jokes. (In the midst of a flashback detailing the evacuation of Cuba, Maggie asks Ted, “Whose country is it?” Ted replies, “Castro’s. He’ll never be able to hold onto it.” [Rim shot]) If anything on Pan Am can be accused of being a Mad Men pastiche, it’s Ted, who’s a bit like the early glimpses of Pete, Ken, Harry, and Paul rolled into one character. So yeah, there’s plenty of room for development there.

But I’m coming around to Todd’s argument that there’s nothing wrong with Pan Am being well-executed escapism. At this point, pulling back the curtain on idyllic pieces of Americana has been done to death. If Pan Am really was just “Mad Men in the sky,” there’d be no reason to watch it. But by establishing itself as an ambitious and fun piece of television, Pan Am sets one of the most exciting courses for this young fall season. After all, when all the hemming and hawing about What Pan Am Has To Say About The ’60s dies down, there’ll be one line from the pilot that sticks out: “Better buckle up—adventure calls.”

Erik's grade: B+
Todd's grade: B+