The show: Pan Am, Sundays on ABC
The premise in ten words or less? Pan Am stewardesses in the 1960s. One is secretly CIA!
Any good? One surefire way to get me intrigued in a TV drama is to make a pilot that I can watch in its entirety and have no idea what's going to happen in the second episode, let alone the fifth or the tenth. The best way I can sum up my stance is that I like TV dramas with well-engineered seasons that within any given episode have no set formula or repeated structure. That's why, despite thinking both episodes of Prime Suspect that have aired so far are competent, I'm pretty sure I'm done with the show – the two episodes have the exact same structure and so will the next ten. That bores me.
And that's why I liked Pan Am. It's an odd show, to be certain, one that (despite premiering to a respectable 11 million viewers) I'm not sure will make it to a second season, but it sure ain't formulaic. The show focuses on four women, played by Kelli Garner and Christina Ricci and relative unknowns Margot Robbie and Karine Vanasse, who are stewardesses for Pan Am airlines in 1963. Like a certain other well-known 60s drama, it's set against a backdrop of retro glamour (in this case specifically revolving around air travel) while also depicting a darker undercurrent of ingrained sexism.
But lest you think the show is simply Mad Men on a Plane, it also has a spy thriller component, as Garner's character Kate is secretly working as a courier and spy for the CIA. What! Beyond that, it has a Lost-esque flashback structure and a story concerning the mysterious disappearance of the stewardess who Ricci has replaced. Mix all that with its empowerment message and you have an absolutely fucking packed show. The pilot doesn't contain anything you'd describe as an action scene but is nonetheless impressively breathless.
The other obvious show to compare Pan Am to is NBC's The Playboy Club. Both are new 60s-set dramas about women in outwardly glamourous, sexy careers who still operate under a certain misogyny – the Pan Am stewardesses have exacting restrictions placed on them in terms of age, weight, etc. – but unlike The Playboy Club, which forces us to view them through the viewpoint of Eddie Cibrian's (shitty Don Draper wannabe) Nick Dalton via the condescending and sexist assumption that we'll only be interested if we see it through a man's point of view, Pan Am actually lets the women be the main characters. Men play a role – most notably an airline captain played by Mike Vogel – but aren't forced into a leading role it makes no sense for them to be in.
The show's visual style is kind of dazzling, and, like its storytelling, weird in a good a way. The way the jets are filmed doesn't look all that much more photorealistic than the dinosaurs in Terra Nova, but unlike that show, it isn't aiming for realism and botching it. Pan Am's visuals gleefully reject realism and go about 10% askew from reality for this soft, colorful, nostalgic look that, of all things, made me think of The Incredibles and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I really hope that wasn't something they only put in the extra effort to do because it was the pilot, and the look is actually maintained throughout the series.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in Pan Am is how firmly Kelli Garner seems to be the main character. I'd assumed ever since hearing that Christina Ricci was cast in a TV show some months back that that show would be The Christina Ricci Show as surely as New Girl might as well be called The Zooey Deschanel Show, but, at least as of one episode in, that isn't the case. Like, not even a little bit. Ricci has less screentime, less development, less focus, and less dialogue than Garner. But the last five years of Ricci's film career haven't exactly been chock full of hits, so maybe I shouldn't be too surprised after all.
Okay then. Whew. I made it through this entire discussion of Pan Am's pilot without making one pun about a Pan Am pilot. Not to toot my own horn, but I'm pretty sure I deserve a medal.
Will I watch again? I feel compelled to watch at least a few more and see if the show takes shape as something interesting. Granted, I have no trouble whatsoever imagining Pan Am quickly becoming a shallow, repetitive soap. But I can also easily see the opposite. I feel like writers and producers who make a pilot where I have no idea what the second episode will entail deserve my eyeballs for their audacity alone.