‘Pan Am’ Pilot Recap: “Better Buckle Up. Adventure Calls.”

Now this is a pleasant surprise. For a series whose entire existence seems to have been conceived solely based on an ‘Austin Powers’ catchphrase (“Bring on the sexy stews!”), ABC’s new period soap ‘Pan Am’ actually isn’t awful. In fact, it’s even kind of fun. I know, right? I can hardly believe it myself.

Along with NBC’s terrible ‘The Playboy Club’ (which I won’t be covering here in the blog), ‘Pan Am’ is the second new primetime drama this year set in the swinging 1960s. Although I’m not at all surprised that the major broadcast networks would attempt to trade in on some of the popularity and cachet from AMC’s ‘Mad Men’, I am surprised that it took them so long. Unlike ‘Mad Men’, however, ‘Pan Am’ has no pretense of realism, gritty or otherwise. This is a bright and bubbly fantasy, set in a sunny, optimistic 1960s where every smile gleams, all clothes are freshly starched, and airplane cabins are not clogged with cigarette smoke. Even the streets of New York City are spotlessly clean. The sets and locations all look like soundstages and backlots. The visual effects, while pretty well done, don’t really disguise the fact that they’re CGI. In its artificiality, the show feels like a Doris Day musical – minus the songs.

The ‘Pilot’ episode (double meaning, that) introduces us to the crew of Pan Am’s newest clipper jet on its maiden voyage to Europe. As we meet them, the stewardesses are poked and prodded, measured and weighed to ensure that they live up to the ideal of the company’s image. The flight purser (top-billed Christina Ricci, who is actually too short to have been a real Pan Am stewardess) had recently been grounded for a “uniform violation.” In other words, she was caught not wearing her mandatory girdle. Needless to say, all of the girls are cute and perky. The pilots are also young and studly.

Romance is afoot, of course, and heartbreak. Pilot Dean (Mike Vogel) had been dating the plane’s former purser, Bridget, who has gone missing (thus requiring Ricci’s Maggie to fill in). He’d recently proposed, and assumes that she got cold feet. The newest crewmember, Laura (Margot Robbie), had recently ditched her own fiancé. (In the episode’s best line, a clearly distraught Laura is instructed by her mother to, “Just smile through it, dear.”) The French stewardess, Collette, finds out the hard way that her boyfriend is married when he, wife and child get on the plane. That makes for an awkward eight-hour trip.

There’s also an unexpected and kind of intriguing subplot in which we learn that one stewardess, Kate (Laura’s older sister), is actually a spy. She’d been recruited by a government agent because her position is the perfect cover to travel the globe without suspicion and courier important intelligence. (Supposedly, there’s some nugget of truth to this sort of thing.) In the first episode, she’s assigned to covertly swipe and take photos of a Russian passenger’s passport. After the flight lands, she runs into him again and finds that he’s actually British. He claims to be her MI6 contact, and that she passed her first test. Something tells me that at some point this season we’ll get a plot twist that these men aren’t really good guys. As the episode ends, we discover that Bridget had also been a spy, and that’s why she’s run off.

I had very low expectations going into ‘Pan Am’, but I’ve got to say that the first episode is quite entertaining. There’s something refreshing about its lack of irony. While some of the proto-feminism stuff is a little much, and one corny flashback tries to get political, overall the show is just good, silly fun. This is what the ‘Charlie’s Angels’ relaunch failed to be. I plan to watch again.

3 comments

  1. Sol

    Wow – surprised by this positive review. I had the misfortune of watching this because my girlfriend/spousal equivalent wanted to – I might watch it again if I somehow manage to grow a vagina. This is primetime SOAP OPERA stuff – sure the production values and acting are a bit better but seriously, if you’re a man and you enjoy this, it’s time to check your testosterone levels. Thank Dog the GF didn’t like it either.

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