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Pan Am: “1964”

“1963 was pretty eventful.”

Sure, that’s easy for Laura Cameron to say, as she and her coworkers approach the end of a year where they’ve Forrest Gump-ed their way through some of the year’s Important Moments—and a few you won’t find in the history books.

Of course, you’re not likely to eventually read about Pan Am itself in any histories of television any time soon. While ABC is yet to officially declare a time of death, the prognosis is grim. The strong ratings of the show’s series première never recurred. The series is being cleared from the schedule to make way for ABC’s new Sunday-night hope, GCB. And while there’s a note of hope laced throughout tonight’s series finale, “1964,” there’s also an air of finality. There are also some noticeable flaws for the decision-makers at ABC to point to if they choose not to renew the series.

At times during “1964,” it’s like the crewmembers ofthe Clipper Majestic don’t inhabit the same universe, let alone make regular transcontinental flights together. They’re set in the same version of New York City, obviously, but the events of Kate’s double-agent plot and the courting of Colette are conducted with minimal overlap. At the series’ outset, this seemed like an enticing break from the norm—Pan Am is the show that can be any show, depending on the week. What it actually led to was a jumble of a TV series. The pieces were either too similar (Laura can’t be with Ted! Dean can’t be with Colette! Kate can’t be with Niko!) or too incongruent (Kate’s cover might be blown; meanwhile, Colette goes on a dinner date with a child) to maintain excitement from episode to episode. The finale manages to keep all its disparate balls in the air with a degree of grace through its cold open—at the newly rechristened John F. Kennedy International, a neat tracking shot brings the ongoing storylines up to speed as it bounces from character to character—but it doesn’t last long.

However, the episode does find a parallel to the most consistently entertaining of the shows parading under the Pan Am banner—Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!—in Maggie’s dalliance with George Broyles, Sky God! Maggie and Broyles are like a flipped-negative version of Kate and Richard, a mentor-mentee relationship where the job is hush-huh and the mentee surprisingly resourceful. There’s potential for Maggie’s jewel sale and Kate’s game of trust to be the types of plots with too much overlap, but they share “1964” pretty well. It’s hard to say the same for the romantic travails of Laura, Ted, Dean, and Colette, which limit the characters to tedious tracks of either disappointing or being disappointed in their love interests. 

I don’t want to spend most of this review second-guessing the Pan Am writers, but I also think an emphasis on stories with higher stakes and greater potential for adventure (remember adventure, Pan Am?) would’ve better suited the pacing and the format of the series. It wasn’t the type of show to draw out romantic tension for more than three episodes at a time, and as a result, storylines like Colette being swept off her feet by a Middle Eastern prince just felt rushed. Colette was positioned as the vessel for Pan Am’s soapier instincts, but the deeper she got into true-love territory, the more the character’s spark and charm fizzled. In that regard, Karine Vanasse does a great job of showing how the rules and regulations of a “royal courtship” are wearing on her character in “1964”; there’s a glimpse of the original, enchanting Colette as she details her plan to find her brother to Dean near the episode’s end. I was no great fan of the Dean-and-Colette material in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” or “Unscheduled Departure,” but sending the pair on a worldwide search for Colette’s brother could make for compelling viewing.

Provided we’d actually get to see that search, rather than hearing about it later—like the jeep excursion in “Unscheduled Departure” (and unlike Colette’s flying lesson in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”). The events of the former episode come back to haunt Dean in “1964,” and his hearing in front of some anonymous Pan Am bigwigs is an unfortunate reminder of the first season’s uneasy flirtations with serialization. Memories of past destinations crop up plenty of times throughout the episode, indications in a New York-based episode that, yes, this series based on an international airline did take advantage of international settings. Coincidentally, allusions to Haiti, Moscow, and Jakarta have the same transportive power as the episodes set in those locations—which is too say they’re examples of telling over showing. Pan Am never quite found the right way to properly inject the local color of its various destinations into the proceedings—better to take inspiration from events occurring in those destinations, as in “Ich Bin Ein Berliner”—so it was a wise choice to let the finale play out in The Big Apple.

The finale—credited to LAX creator Nick Thiel—is also smart for playing things light. Set chronologically after the events of “New Frontiers,” “1964” could’ve easily been a dour 45 minutes dealing with how the Kennedy assassination cast a pall across the nation etc. etc. But such societal psychoanalysis was never part of Pan Am’s palette, and the late JFK receives only sparing mention, as when Maggie bemoans the fall of Camelot in the cold open. (Her exact words, in grand Maggie fashion: “My future died last month in Dallas.”) Of course, not everyone gets a happy ending: Ted’s locked into a marriage with a woman he doesn’t love; Dean’s kiss with Colette might be a show of one-night-only affection. But every one of the principal characters is poised to start a fresh chapter in his or her life.As much as its setting and visual style recalls Mad Men, Pan Am never sought to present a mile-high network equivalent of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Pan Am the airline offered the promise of new horizons for its employees and passengers—the characters of Pan Am attempted to translate that to a television audience.

Ultimately, “1964” is about setting up the circumstances that could pull these people apart. It’s open-ended enough to wash all those developments away in the unlikely event Pan Am is renewed for a second season, but I like leaving these characters standing on a precipice, their stories unfinished. It takes some straining to get them to that point, but after 13 episodes, asking for organic developments from this show is asking too much. There’s uncertainty in the air as the camera slowly pans across the six people gathered on Ted’s balcony at the end of “1964,” which reflects the ambiguity of Pan Am’s fate as much as the fate of the characters. “1964” is fractured, and it implies that the crew of the Clipper Majestic is already isolated from one another, but it at least does its characters the service of suggesting that they have a future. Whether we get to see that future is a whole separate question entirely.

Stray observations:

  • A sincere thanks to all of you who stuck around for the whole season. May Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! watch over you to the end of your days. Speaking of which…
  • Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!: So obviously Kate’s been working her way toward being a full agent for the whole season, but it’s still a fitting conclusion to officially put her on that track at the end of “1964.” It’s also a neat bookend to the pilot to make Anderson a double agent, seeing as he posed as the Russian target of Kate’s first mission in the pilot. If there was one element of Pan Am that I never had trouble praising (and always hated criticizing), it was Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!
  • “I’m not included in the price of your ticket”: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  

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