'Pan Am,' A Pretty Ridiculous Melodrama
"Pan Am" looks like a postcard and unfortunately, most of the time, it feels like one too.
A candy-colored representation of life as a Pan Am stewardess in 1963, "Pan Am" follows four young ladies who make a living serving martinis to passengers as they navigate, life, love, and the Cold War.
Though 1960s fetishists might overlook the stilted dialogue and absurd melodramatics for the perfectly bobbed haircuts, vintage cars, and other period set pieces, viewers in search of more substantial human drama may be less than thrilled.
We follow the on-and-off air dramas of "Pan Am"'s heroines, Maggie (Christina Ricci), Kate (Kelli Garner), Laura (Margot Robbie) and Colette (Karine Vanasse), a scrappy quartet of shiny-haired women. Maggie is a bohemian New Yorker who hates to wear her girdle (uniform standard) and is just using the gig as a way to see the world. Laura is a beautiful runaway bride out to be more than just a womb for sale, while Kate, her sister, is a plucky -- they're all plucky -- gal moonlighting for the government. Colette is a very French French woman unlucky in love. This is about the extent of what we learn about these characters.
While the show revels in nostalgia-drenched visuals, it feels at times that the set and costumes have been more meticulously planned than the narrative or characterization.
Back in her downtown apartment, Maggie has the following exchange with the beatnik writer man she lives with.
"Does the Marxist dialectic account for a dual thesis?" he asks.
"That's Hegel, not Marx," she replies as she runs out to jump on a flight. She was suspended for the aforementioned girdle problem, but the airline can't fly without a purser (the chief flight attendant).
Colette, meanwhile, has discovered that a former lover is on the flight -- with his wife and children. Though Colette has perfected the art of looking invitingly over her shoulder, the encounter leaves her grimacing sadly instead.
Kate has bigger issues. Conscripted to carry out covert tasks for the U.S. as part of a Cold War initiative, much of her time in the pilot is spent trying to swap out a passport in a Russian's briefcase. While the show's acknowledgement of what is undoubtedly the most important foreign policy issue of the time is not unwarranted, the caper is totally unbelievable.
"I work for the U.S. government," a handsome man tells her in Italy.
"And I have the perfect cover!" she exclaims.
"Exactly," he responds. "A Pan Am stewardess can travel all around the world with no suspicion."
And so begins Kate's career as an undercover operative.
Though the women on the show are ostensibly subject to the tensions of changing gender dynamics -- after all, they all have careers, and none of them, thus far, seem interested in marriage -- we rarely get a sense of any conflict they might feel. Though Laura flees her wedding for a chance as an independent woman, we never really know what drove her to it. The show assumes instead that we'll recognize the familiar trope of that 1960s girl who realizes she doesn't want a family, but her own life instead.
"They don't know they're a new breed of woman," a pilot says at one point, waving at a table where the women sit. "They just had an impulse to take flight."
Hers is not the only storyline that suffers from a lack of invention. The show plays around with the images and concerns of the era without ever providing new insight, either about the period, or the people involved. As a result, "Pan Am" feels at times like a picture book set to music.
Music, dramatic, sad, exciting, sexy, swinging music, scores the show as if to signal to watchers what they should be feeling at any given moment. A flashback set at a prisoner pickup at the Bay of Pigs resembles low-grade Michael Bay in its bombast.
The men of the show are either authoritative spies, or sleazy buffoons, with the exception of the captain, Dean (Mike Vogel), who is pining after a missing British stewardess, Bridget (played by Annabelle Wallis).
At the end of the episode, a young girl stares out the terminal window as the four women stride by, purses dangling in tandem, in a neat line of aligned blue skirts. The picture, like much of "Pan Am" is pretty, but what does it mean?
Watch the trailer below: