It’s 1963 and we’re on board for the flight of a brand new plane from New York to London, carrying aboard a glamorous group of stewardesses and pilots.
It’s hard to evaluate Pan Am in isolation, it is just too easy to label it the good girl to The Playboy Club’s bad, and the two of them are too obviously the offspring of the more grown-up Mad Men. I adore Mad Men, but both the new shows have something that it doesn’t – pace. Mad Men is a very slow burn, which makes it all the more satisfying when things eventually come out, but requires a lot of patience as many episodes don’t on the surface seem to have anything happening. Pan Am and The Playboy Club both introduced more characters, relationships and stories than Mad Men does in a season.
While The Playboy Club is about behind closed doors, Pan Am is the more public view of the period. Pan Am stewardesses are all literally women of the world – they are well educated, speak multiple languages, move comfortably between different cultures and appear on the covers of magazines. They have a freedom that other women in the sixties wouldn’t even be able to imagine. Although it’s not perfect of course – they must be beautiful, perfectly made up, wearing their girdles and can only fly until they’re 32 or married. But it’s a start.
Unfortunately despite it all sounding pretty good on paper, I just didn’t really warm to the show. The style of it is all quite cold and perfect, sharp lines, uncluttered sets and over use of blue screen. The characters are all a bit Barbie and Ken, pretty and plastic, all having their little melodramas with perfect hair. The only character I felt any connection with was Maggie, but that was almost entirely down to the fact that she’s played by Christina Ricci, who actual injects some personality and spark into the role despite getting very little screen time. The use of flashbacks felt extremely heavy handed and the mystery of the missing stewardess was just a bit boring, rather than intriguing.
This is what Mad Men would be if it were on a network channel instead of being on cable – it’s the contrast between depth and surface. Mad Men is all about depth, with complex but real characters, and addressing issues by not talking about them. Pan Am (and The Playboy Club) meanwhile are all about the surface – everything is shiny and polished and beautiful, even the difficult period issues are seen as challenges that can be overcome by our heroes and heroines. It just all felt a bit artificial to me.
Pan Am will be shown on BBC2 in November
TV Fanatic: Without a doubt (and with good reason), you can expect comparisons between Pan Am and that other 60s show, The Playboy Club. I’m in the enviable position of reviewing both, but Pan Am reaches farther and aims higher, and that’s a good thing. It’s smart, sexy, just a bit irreverent.
CliqueClack: One episode in, and I am officially hooked. Everything that The Playboy Club is not, Pan Am manages to be. Not that TPC was all that bad, but the airline drama is a considerably more complete show.
The Guardian: Pan Am is altogether more glossy: an escapist drama for austere times.