It’s impossible to talk about “Pan Am” without bringing up AMC’s “Mad Men,” a show to which the new ABC drama owes both thematic and aesthetic debts. “Pan Am,” like its critically acclaimed big brother, offers a sweeping vision of the 1960s, this time through the lens of stewardesses for the eponymous airline. The show blatantly lays its thesis statement out — viewers looking for the kind of subtext that makes “Mad Men” what it is should stay away. Not being “Mad Men” is no crime, though, and while “Pan Am” smells a bit like escapism, it is sleek, well-done and fun escapism.
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Superficially, it’s easy to dismiss “Pan Am” as “Mad Men” for a network audience. There are stylistic echoes of “Mad Men,” but this show is brighter and more expansive. (It does, after all, take place in the sky.) Christina Ricci (“Monster”) and Kelli Garner (“My Generation”) fairly gleam as they walk through airport terminals. We get shots of Rome, London and a helicopter flight across New York. The visual trappings of “Pan Am” are sumptuous and provide as good a backdrop as one can ask for.
But “Pan Am” is not as dense or as deep as “Mad Men,” preferring breadth over depth with every scene. There are a lot of different plots flying around (as it were), including some Cold War espionage to go with the soapy stuff you’d expect. To the show’s credit, though, it never gets too confusing. Here, too, “Pan Am” distances itself from “Mad Men.” Don Draper is shrouded in mystery for most of that show’s run. In this pilot, we get flashback sequences that lay out a lot of backstory. Nothing is alluded to that doesn’t get shown — but there’s still the right amount of intrigue.
“Pan Am” traffics in character archetypes, but it’s not a problem here. The cast is a talented one, and there’s something to be said for well-executed convention. Garner shines in the pilot, even though her “good at my job but everyone notices my sister because she’s gorgeous and now we work together” material is by no means original. Margot Robbie (of the Australian show “Neighbours”), who plays said sister, is in fact gorgeous but can also act, playing up with deft touch her character’s desire to be something more than a trophy wife. The male actors aren’t given very much to do except be square-jawed, which they succeed at. Christina Ricci is much too talented an actress to waste on the broadly comedic supporting material she’s given here, but she is very likable.
Some parts of the pilot do fall a little flat. The “oh my god we’re flying” takeoff scene, complete with majestic string music, is overwrought. The end of the episode, featuring a little girl looking up in awe at the stewardesses, is cute but predictable. A character unsubtly says, “They don’t know that they’re a new breed of women. They just had an impulse to take flight.” Fourth grade writing lessons still apply here: Show, don’t tell.
None of the elements in the pilot are slam dunks, but there are no flops either. There’s a little bit of everything, and a lot of style. “Pan Am” isn’t “Mad Men,” but it’s not trying to be. It’s fun, stylish and has just enough substance to latch onto. For a network “Mad Men” ripoff, that’s excellent.