Come fly with them: Christina Ricci and Margot Robbie in "Pan Am." (ABC)

The lavish "Pan Am" is nostalgic bonbons for the mind

ABC\'s period epic is as light as prime-time drama can get without becoming bubble-headed

Matt Zoller Seitz
September 25, 2011 9:26PM (UTC)

If production values equalled artistic quality, "Pan Am" (Sundays 10 PM/9 central) would win a Nobel prize.

This new series about Pan American airlines flight attendants -- oh, wait a second, it's set in 1963; I'll use the word "stewardesses"! -- is a triumph of retro atmosphere. Unlike NBC's dreadful "The Playboy Club," the series doesn't feel like a good-enough-for-government-work re-creation of another era, with contemporary attitudes, hairstyles and music inadvertently creeping in. Almost every touch is just right: the orange Tourister suitcases displayed in the opening airport sequence; the green-shelled manual typewriter that a young man uses to type a paper on Karl Marx; the crinkly chiffon dresses and 8mm camera in a wedding flashback; the way the stewardesses' blouses and skirts wrap their tummies and hips, thanks to the girdles that the company makes them wear. The opening section, which revolves around the inaugural flight of Pan Am's Clipper Majestic, has a couple of images whose scale is breathtaking: a shot of a yellow Checker cab racing up Park Avenue toward the Pan Am building, the street lined with vintage automobiles and signage; and an aerial shot of a chopper approaching the same skyscraper, every building in the 1963 Manhattan skyline lovingly re-created.


As for the drama, well ... Let's just say that for all its busy plotting, Pan Am is not a terribly intense show, and judging from the tone of the premiere, it isn't trying to be.  The core cast of young female characters all have intriguing back stories that are touched on in this episode, and will be explored at length in future installments. The French Collette (Karine Varnasse) is rattled when a handsome man she had a one-night-stand with in Paris shows up on the Clipper with his wife and young son.  The beatnik Maggie (Christina Ricci) looks askance at the conspicuous consuption she sees in her job, but she loves being a stewardess because it gives her so much freedom to travel (a huge incentive for young women from all walks of life). Laura (Margo Robbie) becomes a stew to avoid a wedding she decided wasn't for her; there's a marvelous comedy scene with Laura and her sister Kate (Kelli Garner, "My Generation"), who also works for Pan Am, escaping the event in a fishtailed sedan. When we first meet Laura, she's a quasi-celebrity just three weeks into her job, thanks to a candid photograph of her in her stewardess outfit that somehow ended up on the cover of Life magazine. ("With a face like that you'll find a husband in a couple of months!" she's told. ) 

Big sister Kate has connections to the American espionage community and is engaged in Cold War-type subterfuge, such as replacing a diplomat's passport with a nearly identical but expired one. Did the CIA or some foreign spy service have something to do with the mysterious disappearance of a fourth character, Bridget Pierce (Annabelle Wallis)? We'll find out eventually.There are also handsome pilots and copilots (Mike Vogel and Michael Mosley, respectively) whose stories are secondary to the ladies'; Moseley's character, Ted Vanderway, is connected with the disappeared Bridget via the Bay of Pigs invasion, and had a "Casablanca" moment with her on Havana tarmac.

That last bit probably makes "Pan Am" -- which was created by "ER" coproducer Jack Orman -- sound like a spy thiller in globe-trotting romantic comedy drag. It's not. The series isn't  a  comedy, either; nor for that matter is it a somewhat introverted psychological drama with flashes of corporate satire, the go-to mode of its partial inspiration, "Mad Men." It's really more of a cinematic time machine, and quite happy to be that -- a non-morose "Mad Men," more interested in surfaces than emotional interiors.


Because Pan Am folded 20 years ago, and thus has no branding stake in this program as Playboy does in "The Playboy Club", the producers were free to make a more satirical, cynical or bleak statement, but they opted instead for an immersive experience that's about as cheery as a prime time drama can get without being bubble-headed. "Pan Am" isn't blind to the social realities of the era, but it doesn't feel compelled to stare at them accusingly. On first glance it suggests a program founded on retro-sexist fantasies. The working world that we see is almost completely white; men fly the planes (and run the world); the women are by definition subservient -- mainly stewardesses catering to the needs of their passengers and having romantic and personal adventures during their off-hours. But although the show isn't making any overt feminist statements, it isn't anti-feminist, either. It's aware of the stewardesses' problematic but significant place within the story of gender equality, and acknowledges the downsides of the job without underselling its real benefits.

I've met a number of women over the years who worked as Pan Am stewardesses in the 1960s and '70s. Each one looked back fondly on the experience, but with clear eyes rather than rose-tinted glasses; each was grateful to have been able to do that job during an exciting time for women, and for the world generally. The show captures the curiosity and spirit of adventure that I associate with them. Laura, for instance, isn't sitting around before her wedding composing a speech about how marriage equals sexual bondage and submission to paternalism, but you don't need to hear something like that to know that she feels suffocated by constricted expectations, and wants to get out; all you have to do is look at her panicked eyes before she makes her escape and her rapturous expression after. What she finds in the air is a fantasy of liberation, but it's her fantasy; she made it happen.  And whenever she forgets about reality, that damned girdle is there to remind her. "Pan Am" is nostalgic bonbons for the mind, made with the finest ingredients.

Matt Zoller Seitz

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