Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Pan Am: “One Coin In A Fountain”

Image for article titled Pan Am: “One Coin In A Fountain”

When a new Pan Am script reaches Jack Orman, and he reads through the flashbacks, the dull Dean plots, and Maggie’s weekly non-zinger, do you think he regrets not creating a series along the lines of Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!? Research into Cold War espionage and learning the mechanics of a good spy thriller aside, that would be a far less complicated series to helm. Every episode could be a variation on the simple formula that Pan Am already uses for Kate’s missions: Start by giving her instructions in the opening scenes. Drop a few red herrings and initiate suspense on the departing flight. Play the rising action to its climax at the destination. Save the denouement for the return flight or a debriefing in New York. She’d still have the main cast to bounce off of, hide things from, and have full-fledged relationships with—but if we were only following Kate, the way the passengers and other external characters pass in and out of Pan Am would feel much less jarring. (Since Orman opted not to take this route, why not take it yourself—write a spec script and try to sell it to USA, who’d probably gobble up a premise with this much easy-to-digest intrigue and the prestige of a period setting.)

Of course, as light and fluffy as Pan Am already is, such a series would be even more inconsequential. And while I wouldn’t say that Pan Am is necessarily “rewarding” viewing—its visual sharpness and playfulness with genre and narrative aside, it’s a standard nighttime drama—a less ambitious, pared-down version would be much easier to skip from week to week.

Also, as evidenced by the Sky Spy!-heavy “One Coin In A Fountain,” the ever-charming Kelli Garner would completely drown in such a series. Don’t get me wrong: I like the energy Garner brings to her Pan Am role, and her performance so far has consistently upstaged that of the series’ supposed marquee talent, Christina Ricci. But from what we see in “One Coin In A Fountain,” Garner’s effervescent sass isn’t exactly sizzling or steely enough to effectively carry a theoretical version of Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!

In the world of the actual series, however, those qualities—paired with experience on the billiards table and resourcefulness with a glass of red wine—are enough to help Kate complete her mission and bed a hunky Yugoslavian diplomat played by ER alum (and one-time James Bond candidate) Goran Visnjic. Earning her “in” with Visnjic’s Niko Lonza requires Kate to overshadow Maggie—an art-imitating-life coincidence which is too rich not to note. As much as I don’t want to see Kate and Maggie throwing down in the galley in a later episode, I do enjoy the way “One Coin In A Fountain” expands on the growing rivalry between the two characters. Last week, Maggie wedged herself between Kate and Laura, and that development puts a fun twist on this week’s episode, where Kate has to put herself between Maggie and Niko in order to finish her latest assignment. This time, it’s personal—and a little petty, sure, but for Kate Cameron, Sky Spy!, the stakes were already higher than two-and-a-half weeks of made-to-order-egg duty.

As is to be expected from an episode that partially takes place in Monte Carlo, “One Coin In A Fountain” is all about stakes, wagers, risks, bad odds—and ignoring all of those factors and letting it ride. In Kate’s case, that means blowing a few paychecks and resting on her minimal experience as a CIA operative to infiltrate a small (like “three person” small) circle of European socialites in order to get the fingerprints of a Soviet spy. Lydia Woodward’s script pulls this off fantastically—the transition between Kate saying “I’d prefer something red” to the sight of her target’s vino-stained gloves is one of the best moments of the series so far—but as soon as it switches the Sky Spy! gears from “business” to “pleasure,” Garner’s performance starts to lose some sparkle. There’s a noticeable lack of confidence in the way she plays any of her flirty scenes with Visnjic; that may suit the character’s inexperience in the spy game, but it doesn’t make me eager to watch their relationship play out over the rest of Visnjic’s four episodes on Pan Am. Here’s hoping it was just the jittery start to further Sky Spy! adventures.

On the basis of Kate’s mission, “One Coin In A Fountain” is a stellar episode; unfortunately, we still have to contend with the other characters getting the main focus here—and for the second week in a row, none of them is Colette. Dean begins a romantic rehab with a passenger played by Erin Cummings, whom he woos with the help of Ted’s pack of Jujubes, and who later turns out to be the wife/mistress/secretary of an Pan Am exec… zzz. As with all things Dean, the plot is bland even in its pair of twists, and since there’s still so little reason to be invested in the character, the suspense of seeing him nearly caught by the exec (played by Scott Cohen, currently of Necessary Roughness but previously of “getting dumped by Lorelai Gilmore” fame) as he searches for a stray hotel key in the exec’s convertible. Cummings is a good bit of brassy fun, though, so there’s a legitimate reason to looking forward to Dean’s presence for a couple of episodes.


The latest turns in the Ted-Laura saga add some relief from the Dean drudgery, thankfully—even if the “Will they? Won’t they?” tension between the two is almost non-existent and the series’ insistence about it is growing more insufferable by the episode. (Because they almost certainly will.) Dean may be positioned as the white knight of the cockpit, but flawed, experimental aircraft-wrecking Ted is the guy we should really root for—even as his plots with Laura become more and more tortured. For all his caddish advances, he comes off looking pretty valiant this time around, as he shepherds the object of his affection to Harlem (boy oh boy is that Gaius Charles episode ever going to be rough) to retrieve the engagement ring she pawned after moving to New York. It isn’t a win for Laura’s sense of agency that Ted’s the one who eventually secures the ring, but there are some interesting emotional beats when he finally returns it to her. He undercuts the gesture with a tactless rejoinder (“A guy’s gotta pick the right moment to give a girl a ring!”), and Michael Mosley really sells his regret at saying something so callous, before segueing nicely into his puckish account of giving up his prized wristwatch for something that means infinitely more to Laura. It’s a sweet moment that isn’t deflated by the awkward cutaway or the unnecessary huff from Margot Robbie which follows.

If only the series weren’t forcing Ted and Laura together so soon. As much as it serves to isolate the principal characters and foster connections between them, Pan Am is also hurt by the way passengers come and go from the lives of the pilots and stewardesses. Any connections with external characters have to come in three- or four-episode chunks, lest they be dealt with exclusively through flashbacks or “guess who’s on the plane” surprises. And so, in order to for a lasting romantic hook to exist, the writers have had to put a lot of work into putting Ted and Laura together extremely early in the series’ run, before we really have a sense of who either of these people are and why they should be together or why they shouldn’t. So far, it goes like this: “Laura makes Ted want to be a better person. Ted helps Laura retrieve things from old jazzmen.” Not the most compelling stuff.


Of course, you know what series wouldn’t have to deal with such concerns? I’ll give you a hint: It rhymes with “Mate Lameron, Tie Pie,” and it’s currently occupying a Saturday afternoon marathon in the somewhat exhausted collective psyche of the Pan Am writers.

Stray observations:

  • According to ABC’s press releases for future episodes, Colette won’t be receiving top billing again until the first Sunday of November. Express your disappointment by sending powder-blue hearts with your “[Your initials] + KV” to Jack Orman’s office.
  • Michael Mosley and Margot Robbie couldn’t sound more unconvincing talking about jazz, could they? (At least one of them was supposed to sound unconvincing.) I couldn’t find a version of Chet Baker playing “Tasty Pudding” on YouTube, but here’s a version credited to the Miles Davis Septet.
  • “Could be worse—you could’ve Jujube’d his wife.” Sanjeev, on the board!
  • Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! (Where we talk about Kate’s other job as if it was the main thrust of the series): So, clearly my desire to will this series into existence seeped into this week’s review, which is more or less a super-sized version of this feature. So, let’s use this space to discuss what we’d include in our theoretical Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! spec scripts: I’d want more back-and-forth between Kate and the Russian, escalating to the point where the Russian confronts Kate after she takes the glove and glass, and Kate has to subdue the Russian with either a judo chop or the cape of her gown.
  • “I’m not included in the price of your ticket” (Where we present, without commentary, the most ridiculous thing Christina Ricci has to say in each episode): “Smile—he’s worth it.”