Pilot rapid-fire review: Pan Am

The next couple weeks are going to be insane. There are so many new series debuting and unfortunately, there is only so much time in the day for me to write about television while balancing my “real” life. You know, the one I spend on Twitter. ANYWAY, I’m going to try to touch on each new series once it airs a pilot, but these posts probably won’t be too long or too in-depth unless they really need to be. And if certain things debut together, I’ll probably talk about them together.

When I heard that Sony and ABC were making a series built around Pan Am airlines set in the 1960s, I was intrigued, but also somewhat confused. Much like NBC’s similarly-positioned The Playboy Club, I wasn’t entirely sure what Pan Am would actually be about. I understood the initial reasoning to ape on the critical and awards successes of Mad Men and its retro-period feel, but I didn’t expect that a broadcast series could match Mad Men‘s brand of thematic and character storytelling. Mad Men is not a plot driven series, it’s one powered by characters and theme and I didn’t really expect that a broadcast version of Mad Men could work because it would focus too much on plot and “hey look, it’s the ’60s!” instead of those other things like character and theme. And worst of all, I wasn’t sold on any kind of plot-driven story that needed to be told in the 60s.

The Playboy Club basically proved all my assumptions right. It’s all style, no substance and after only one episode, there are no characters to care about or any plot that appears interesting. It just exists — for no reason.

Pan Am, on the other hand, feels like the best version of a broadcast television drama set in the 1960s that’s possible today. Unlike The Playboy Club, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it also doesn’t rely too much on frothy quirk that defines so many of ABC’s long-running drama programs. Pan Am‘s pilot sets up a a few moderately intriguing plots and most importantly, invests most of its time in the establishment of its lead characters. Good drama pilots don’t always need to provide whirlwind arcs or developments for their lead characters, they just have to establish the personalities well enough that the audience can see where things are headed in the next half-dozen episodes and relate to the characters in a basic way. The Friday Night Lights and Lost pilots don’t give the audience dozens and dozens of details about their sprawling casts, but they work well with shorthand expectations and stereotypes and provide paths for future beats.

Although Pan Am is nowhere near the quality of those two series, the pilot does the same kind of things with its character introductions. Each of the four female characters’ personalities and recent histories are presented and explored in a solid, succinct way. We know two or three things about each of them and there are loads of potential for more. Best of all, Jack Orman’s script doesn’t rely on the kind of typical, hackneyed pilot exposition that asks characters to explain their entire backstory to those around them. Instead, Pan Am just shows us a few visual clues and we’re off. Christina Ricci’s character is obviously going to be part of the “social movement” story, but she doesn’t actually spout off about organic food or class inequality here. We just see the kind of world she comes from. Karine Vanasse’s Colette is the love-sick romantic of the group, but instead of having her cry about finding a man, the pilot sticks her in a precarious situation that reflects her said desire to find love. The characters are still simple and easily understandable, but exposition-light introductions are always welcome in pilots. The male characters played by Mike Vogel and Michael Mosley are less interesting and more boilerplate, but neither is obnoxious or boring like the few males on Playboy Club.

There’s one primary reason why the characters feel so alive and real is the structure of this pilot. The flashback is dangerous when in the wrong hands (hello, The Event), but it can also be a great tool for those who use it purposefully. Thankfully, Pan Am is much more the latter than the former in this regard. Each flashback gives us a quick, but useful look into the lives of these characters and again, Orman and director Thomas Schlamme do a nice job of showing us instead of telling us. The flashbacks also allow the episode to feel like four different series at one time and each of the ladies is part of their own genre of sorts: Spy thriller (Kate), romance (Colette), socially/politically conscious “issue” (Maggie) and coming-of-age tale (Laura). The series is going to have to make sure it balances all of these different elements in future episodes, but at least in the pilot, Pan Am manages to pull a half-dozen different kinds of stories under its shiny, nostalgic umbrella.

Finally, Pan Am finds a nice balance between tackling the “issues” of the time and being fun. Playboy Club wants to make big, sweeping (and incorrect) statements about the ways in women’s roles changed during the 1960s and it fails to do so because its intended thematic concerns are in direct tension with how the plot of the pilot actually plays out. Pan Am doesn’t spend as much time talking about how empowered these women are — though it does visually represent their general impact on people like the little girl who watches them move through the airport — but at least it positions them as “different” because of their jobs. It’s much easier to believe that a flight attendant who gets to travel the world and maybe become a spy is empowered than it is seeing the same improvement in social standing for women who serve drinks in slutty costumes. Pan Am doesn’t smack the audience in the face with any of this like Playboy Club does. The women are important and will surely represent larger events and movements of the 1960s as the story moves forward, but we already know that and so there’s no reason to hammer it home repeatedly.

Nothing about this pilot is groundbreaking or innovative, but Pan Am is most certainly the most well-made, confident pilot of the new season and that really shows in these opening 43-odd minutes. It’s not Mad Men, but the good news is that it doesn’t really try to be (again, unlike The Playboy Club).

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2 thoughts on “Pilot rapid-fire review: Pan Am

  1. Strong review. It will be interesting to see where this show goes. One minor correction: I believe Laura’s story is the coming of age tale you refer to in the review, and Kate’s is the spy thriller. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.

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