Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Review: PAN AM, 1.1 - "Pilot"

Wednesday, 28 September 2011
written by Jack Orman / directed by Thomas Schlamme
starring Christina Ricci, Margot Robbie, Michael Mosley, Karine Vanasse & Mike Vogel

The second and best of this year's '60s-set US network dramas, Pan Am triumphs over NBC's The Playboy Club because its backdrop is indisputably fascinating instead of merely titillating, and it remembers to focus on the women at the centre of this once-glamorous occupation. Directed by Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing), there's a lovely sweep and momentum to this aviation soap, but also a whitewashing of historical accuracy by writer Jack Orman (ER)—who doesn't even touch on the sexism of the era, and seems to think the Bay Of Pigs' evacuation of exiles from Cuba was mainly handled by Pan Am aircrew. The former is hopefully intentional, to show us the jet age fantasy sold to readers of LIFE magazine, before showing us a darker reality over time, but I have a suspicion Pan Am doesn't have Mad Men-esque social realism very high on its agenda.

The aptly-named "Pilot" introduces as to the sexy crew of the Clipper Majestic's maiden voyage from New York to London: handsome pilot Dean Lowrey (Mike Vogel) who's engaged to missing stewardess Bridget (Annabelle Wallis); co-pilot Ted Vanderway (Michael Mosley); saucer-eyed bohemian Maggie Ryan (Christina Ricci), a stewardess on probation for not wearing her girdle, who's called into action to replace an absent purser; photogenic rookie Margot Robbie (Laura Cameron), who's embarrassed to be on the cover of LIFE magazine promoting the airline because she doesn't think she can live up to the fantasy image; Kate Cameron (Kelli Garner), Laura's jealous sister, who finds herself caught up in the world of international espionage; and French stewardess Colette Valois (Karine Vanasse), who's discomfited by the presence of an ex-lover and his family aboard the flight.

I was expecting to dislike Pan Am, but it was an enjoyable and smoothly delivered drama. This isn't a cynical show, it's a reverent view of the Jet Age that's especially nostalgic given today's sinister associations with air travel post-9/11. It's appealing to be reminded that in 1963 anything to do with aviation was the epitome of glamour, and this pilot does a brilliant job making you buy into the romance of airports and quaffing champagne at 34,000 feet. Sleek silver passenger jets turning on the tarmac, women in deep blue uniforms striding purposefully through terminals (watched enviously by a little girl, face pressed to a window), the elegance of the in-flight experience, and a reminder of the magic when the cabin doors open and—voila!—Ne w York has transformed into London. It's still an experience to travel overseas today by plane (even on a budget airline), but it must have been unimaginably thrilling 50 years ago when such travel was the cutting-edge of technology. There's a take-off scene that makes you think the passengers may as well be rocketing to the Moon, such is the air of anticipation.

One unexpected aspect of Pan Am is the use of Lost-style flashbacks, which are likewise used to deepen our understanding of a character or reveal the motivation for a present-day decision. It's a wise move, as it's hard to see how else the show can avoid the problem that, frankly, the activities of stewardesses while in-flight aren't hugely compelling. Plus there are opportunities for drama when the crew touch down in domestic/foreign cities and check into expensive hotels or go sightseeing. One thing Pan Am has that AMC's Mad Men doesn't is a network-sized budget to explore the '60s visually, without having to restrict its locations and focus more on interiors.

The cast were immediately engaging (particularly Ricci, Robbie and Garner), and this pilot delivered the feeling of romance, glamour and social optimism it's aiming for. A few of the characters and storylines were captivating enough to draw you back—especially Laura finding herself recruited by a British spy, and Ricci's intrinsic mysteriousness (no flashback for her yet)—and it all looked fabulous, despite the occasional artifice of a CGI jet or some hazy greenscreen. It's just a shame Pan Am isn't as intelligently written as Mad Men, and doesn't appear to be offering much beyond rose-tinted escapism and soapy drama. But you can never judge a show on its pilot, so Pan Am could yet soar to unexpected highs.


  • 1963 was the year Pan Am Flight 214 crashed in Maryland after being struck by lightning, killing all 81 people on board. I can't see how this show can avoid dramatizing that event, or at the very least referencing it, which could be interesting given how upbeat and positive the pilot is about air travel.
  • BBC2 have bought Pan Am for UK broadcast. As much as I enjoyed this pilot, I think I'll be waiting for the show to arrive here to continue watching. I don't envisage reviewing it every week anyway.
25 September 2011 / ABC