Tuned In

Test Pilot: Pan Am

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ABC

Test Pilot is a semiregular feature sharing my first impressions of the pilots for next season’s shows. These aren’t reviews, since these pilots can be rewritten, recast and retooled before airing, and the shows that eventually get on the air can prove much better or worse. But premature opinions are why God invented the Internet, so let’s get on with…

The Show: Pan Am, ABC

The Premise: It’s a work/relationship drama about life among the stewardesses of Pan Am airlines, who are held up as icons of glamour and sex appeal–and who are forced into girdles by the dress code, and forced out of the job once they marry or hit their early 30s. The pilot begins with the inaugural flight of the airline’s flagship new transatlantic clipper, and the meet the flight crew, one by one. There’s Maggie (Christina Ricci), an intellectual (we know that because she knows the difference between Marx and Hegel) who’s working for The Man to get to see the world. There’s Collette (Karine Vanasse), the French stewardess looking for l’amour in the friendly skies. There’s Laura (Margot Robbie), a runaway bride from whom air travel is a literal means of escape from a confining life. And finally, there’s Laura’s sister Kate (Kelli Garner) who, I kid you not, is being recruited to work as an honest-to-God U.S. spy, using her Pan Am job as a cover.

First Impressions: Ask me how I feel about this series, and I have to say: which one? The relationship drama about stewardesses and their various entanglements? The social drama about women in a high-visibility profession that both glamorizes and objectifies them? (See also NBC’s The Playboy Club, also set in 1963, about which more later.) The period drama that explores the social mores of the early 1960s, while also throwing in a lot of set-design eye candy and creating the sense of a time that was benighted in some ways but more gracious and optimistic than today in others? Or–weirdly, to me–the Cold War spy drama that the producers seem to have grafted onto here for fear that the above are not all interesting enough for a mass audience? Seriously, there comes a point where we flashback to the cast using a Pan Am jet to airlift Bay of Pigs survivors out of Cuba. Cuba! I’m not doubting there was historical precedent for the scene, but are we going to send the crew to Vietnam at some point too, just to make sure that no landmark of the 1960s experience goes unused?

I’m not going to compare the series with Mad Men at this early point, because that would just be cruel, but don’t go in expecting similar subtlety (including the treatment of women in ’60s society). On the bright side, Christina Ricci is strong as the talented free spirit of the crew, and beyond the pretty art direction, the series seems to have some sort of point of view about the Flight Age as a metaphor for its time period, underneath all the narrative tangles. But: busy, busy, busy!

Do I Want to Watch Another Episode? Probably. As eagerly as I wanted to watch the first? No. But I want to see if Pan Am can manage some traffic control on its cluttered airspace.

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