In the 60s, Pan Am wasn’t just an airline, it was the airline. In a tribute to that period, ABC’s new drama uses the Pan Am name to interesting (and perhaps cheap) effect to thatch a world-trotting, Cold War-era plot line. The stars here are the six crew of the Clipper Majestic, on her inaugural flight in the pilot episode, and their intertwined adventures told through a series of flashbacks and coincidences. But how much can a show rest its fate on the stories of four airline stewardesses?
It’s probably fair to say that this is a best attempt by ABC (along with The Playboy Club by NBC) to counter the monopoly on 60s television drama held by Mad Men, but let’s be fair: this isn’t even a close comparison. Mad Men is a dense, methodical portrayal of life that’s thoroughly anchored in that era. While I certainly don’t think airline stewardesses are irrelevant in this day and age, Pan Am does its best to lasso as many references to its era as possible. We see some of the members of this crew involved in the evacuation of exiles from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the to-be-mentioned spy stewardess is key to American and British secret services because of Pan Am’s role in international travel against the Soviets, Life magazine is a fixture, as are the martinis. It’s obvious that a lot of research went into the airline’s history, including the entertaining use of the Pan Am Worldport, a covered terminal that shielded against the elements in an era before deplaning took place in enclosed skybridges.
The four stewardesses are an interesting group, first seen under a thorough examination of their uniform (they had some standards back then!). Two are sisters (Margot Robbie, Kelli Garner): one fled her wedding to serve drinks to jetsetters and see the world, the other is actually serving as an international spy, getting assignments before planing (yes, this is a thing I just wrote). Colette (Karine Vanasse) is the French girl who happens to be on the same flight as the married man she’s having an affair with… and his family. Strangely underdeveloped, but somehow important enough to fly out to the terminal by helicopter in a rush, is Cristina Ricci’s character who, y’know, is Cristina Ricci. From weddings to international intrigue, this is some sort of female dream fulfillment; even the captain’s story is weighted down by a woman.
One major distraction is every external shot of the actual airplane, each caked in so much cheap-looking CGI that it looks like a rendered product of Pentium processors. This stuff looks more like Battlestar Galactica than period drama as the visual effects, including the innocent green screen composites, are dreadful. It’s going to be interesting how many contrivances the show will usher in to keep someone in each destination tied to the crew as they seem to be well-connected everywhere they go, but the pilot – even as a proof-of-concept – stretches a bit too far. It’s Pan Am‘s overactive imagination of the series that will probably end up grounding it.