Pan Am is a new series airing on ABC that centers around the lives of four Pan Am stewardesses. It also takes place in the 1960s, so there’s an inclination to compare it to another retro sixties show, Mad Men. While there’s no doubt that the success of AMC’s critical darling was a key factor in getting this show picked up, Pan Am is very different from Mad Men in all terms, including quality. For good or ill, better or worse.
Like I mentioned previously, Pan Am is a centerpiece show with four stewardess and to a lesser extent two male pilots flying on a brand new Pan Am jet plane. Oh yes, the sleek aesthetic of jet age is in full display here, with the pilot opening in a spotless New York airport that almost looks like the set-piece from a retro Sci-fi flick. Everything is clean and shiny from the bright blue of the stewardess’ outfits to the glittering gleam coming from the jet aircraft.
Each character has their own separate story hook that carries through the pilot and their backstory is told through flashbacks. There’s Maggie, played by Christina Ricci, the forerunner of the show. She’s a bohemian free-spirit who gets called in to work a flight after being grounded due to the disappearance of another stewardess. The character is a looking glass, a way for modern audiences with supposedly more advanced views on gender roles to identify with and thus get an introduction to the setting. Why she’s so progressive and spunky that she even changes into her uniform while in the back of her cab to the airport, and even tells the cabbie to keep his perv eyes on the road. Cute. I would call her the fanservice of the show, but the whole thing is forty-five minutes of fanservice so I’ll just move on.
Kate (Kelli Garner) is another one of the stewardesses and she, gasp, seems to be have herself two story hooks. The first is a spy plot straight out of John Le Carre. I shit you not. She’s been tasked by a mysterious government agent to steal a German passenger’s passport and replace it with a fake. I’d say that this feels tacked on and forced except for events later in the episode that I’ll get to in a moment. There’s not much more to say about this character other than that.
The second of Kate’s hooks is her sister Laura (Margot Robbie), the new girl onboard who is also on the cover of Life Magazine which did a piece on the new flight attendants. She’s somewhat reserved, and naïve and gets smacked on the ass by her female supervisor after she gets her weight checked. I’m guessing this is a nod to the blatant sexism and what we’d consider sexual harassment nowadays that was prevalent back then, but it just kind of feels both forced and weak. The fact that it’s a woman superior doing it loses its impact since it comes off more as a quirk than anything approaching social commentary. This’ll be a constant throughout the episode so better get used to it.
Laura is also trying to start a new life at Pan Am, and actively avoiding her old life, which to be fair didn’t seem all that exciting. She was set up and pressured to wed a man she didn’t love by her overbearing mother. In a flashback that seems lifted straight from Lifetime network movie, she realizes that she needs to live her own life and she and Kate make a getaway in a red convertible while the wedding guests look on in confusion and their mother shrieks at them like what the producers thought a 1960s overbearing shrew sounded like. That’s about it, let’s move on.
The last character is Colette, played by French-Canadian actress Karine Vanesse, who plays a French stewardess who’s sleeping with a man who just happens to be on the same flight as she is. He also happens to be traveling with his family who Colette didn’t know about and which means she was unknowingly having an affair with a married man. While this sub-plot is a clichéd, Karine Vanesse is probably the best actress on this show and imbues her scenes with a subdued and subtle passion that actually gives her character some screen presence. Out of all the cast,
Oh yes, and there’s the pilots too, but their such drab and forgettable characters that I’m not even going to get into them cause I think I’d fall asleep while trying to even remember their names. One of them was supposed to be engaged to the missing stewardess but things happen and yadda, yadda, yadda.
The plot of the show is pretty much exactly what I explained above; a series of minor sub-plots that never really come together. In that sense the show seems like Desperate Housewives in that regard. Not that I’ve really watched Desperate Housewives, but that bored afternoon on their TV Tropes page filled me in as much as I care to. I will say that the final five minutes of the show actually manage to show some creativity and smart writing, as what I took to be previous plot-holes were explained quite well. It’s not
Essentially the theme and I suppose the premise of the show is that these stewardesses are a new breed of women (it’s actually commented on by the aforementioned two pilots while drinking in a Parisian pub) that can be both good looking, sexy and independent. There’s a shot at the end of the episode where the characters are walking in a row to their plane, one hand clutching their bag while the other is held up daintily before them, and Laura looks back to see a little girl watching them and winks at her. I suppose this is meant to imply that the little girl and thus her whole generation are inspired by the Pan Am stewardesses to become the smart, sexy, independent women of the future, but I’m not buying it. Mostly because the characters, for all their implied independence, are still meant to be good looking servants to a largely male passenger base. Not exactly what I’d call empowerment.
Where Mad Men was subtle about showing the changes that were going on in the 60s, and showing the dichotomy between the past and today, Pan Am seems to be almost going through the motions. The only person who smokes is the ‘evil’ German, the only people who display sexist behavior is their female boss, and the only truly feminist character is a bland pastiche of a beatnik who seems to rail against the system while at the same time serving coffee and tea to the men. Like the stewardesses themselves, the show is shiny, pretty and at times engaging, but don’t try to strain yourself looking for any deeper meaning.