Christina Ricci’s unfeasibly large head turned out to be the most eye-catching feature of Pan Am‘s pilot episode. I’m exaggerating, of course, but no more than the carping British TV critics who built up BBC2’s new US import as “the new Mad Men“, only to clip its wings after just 90 minutes of glossy but vacuous action.
The world of Pan Am is New York in 1963 — the golden age of air travel. Season 3 of Mad Men was also set in that year and (perhaps foolishly) I checked in at Sterling Cooper before watching the new show. On the basis of two episodes Pan Am is clearly not heavyweight drama (apart from Ricci’s head), but does that matter? The schedules are so overloaded with shows about Z-list celebrities and talentless wannabes, that we should at least give it credit for not being yet more reality TV pap.
The four elements I look at in a new TV series are: concept, cast, script and authenticity. With a surfeit of shows about cops, lawyers and libidinous doctors I like the idea of a series based around the airline industry in an age before carbon footprints and airport body scanners. Pan Am‘s main characters are the meticulously groomed and tightly corseted (no muffin-tops here!) team of stewardesses who run the gauntlet of male chauvinism to fulfil their dream of seeing the world.
But creator Jack Orman (ER) seems to think that jet-setting, romance and workplace conflicts aren’t enough to hold our attention, so stewardess Kate (Kelli Garner) is also embarking on a career in espionage. This involves some risible on-board antics with passport switching and a passenger with a fake Russian accent. (Only the appearance of Austin Powers himself could have made this less believable.) It turns out that her colleague Bridget (The Tudors’ Annabelle Wallis) has also been sucked into the I Spy universe and has now gone AWOL. So Bridget’s boyfriend, newly promoted captain Dean Lowrey (Mike Vogel), has to fly the new Clipper Majestic from New York to London while pining for his lost love.
Dean’s plight would have been more involving if Vogel wasn’t such wooden performer. I’ve just noticed that he also played a character called Dean in a show called Grounded for Life from 2001-04. After watching his cheesy cockpit banter with Ted (Michael Mosley) and Sanjeev (Kal Parekh) I think Pan Am should ground all its male characters for the duration of the series and leave the field clear for the ladies.
Ricci is, nominally, the star of this ensemble drama and the one who gets her face on the front cover of this week’s Radio Times. But so far her feisty purser Maggie hasn’t had a lot to do apart from stick a fork into an amorous passenger, who was clearly intent on enjoying all the perks of the Mile High Club. The team’s Euro glamour and authentic French accent is provided by Canadian Karine Vanasse, who plays the unlucky-in-love Colette.
The actresses who made the strongest impression in these opening instalments were Garner and ex-Neighbours star Margot Robbie, who plays her younger sister Laura. Their mixture of sibling rivalry — Laura’s an unwilling Life magazine cover star — and solidarity in the face of an overbearing mother was one of the more believable storylines here.
A new series doesn’t need a cast of household names — John Slattery and January Jones were the only actors I’d heard of when Mad Men started. (Yes, there was a time when Jon Hamm was just another name.) Ricci is an accomplished screen actress who clearly hasn’t been cast in Pan Am just to provide eye candy. Playing doe-eyed and compliant isn’t in her nature, so I’d expect her to shine in Maggie’s battles with authority and rise above what’s so far been a patchy script.
Pan Am pushes the boat out with its exterior and street scenes in a way you rarely see in Mad Men. I’m sure it’s much cheaper and easier to keep a period drama indoors, where you don’t have to worry about outfitting dozens of extras or digitally removing buildings that are not in period. But I want a show about 60s air travel to have a bit of panache and Pan Am duly delivered with an aerial shot of midtown Manhattan — with its iconic headquarters right in the middle.
Was it believable that Maggie would have been shuttled out to the airport by helicopter for this high-profile flight? It made for good drama and reflected the show’s ethos of reaching for the sky. I hope the scripts and the acting improve over the next few weeks, but I’ll probably watch anyway. If Pan Am proves too classy or successful it will end up going Sky-wards in a couple of years time — just like Mad Men.