Pan-Am: Mad Men with Wings – without story or characters

Pan Am-bien

When ABC announced they were making a 60s “period drama” of Pan-Am – the former American airline which suffered a tragic demise after a terrorist bomb took down one of their planes over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 – it was compared in previews to the critically acclaimed AMC series, Mad Men.  While that show is also set in the 1960s, the story revolving around an advertising agency, the period aspect of the show has always been used to enhance the story line, Pan Am relies on this as the basis of the show.

At Sterling Cooper (Draper Price) the Civil Rights movement, Kennedy assassination and equal rights for women are all used as ways to develop the overall plot and for character developments, not as the entire show itself.  Pan Am does try to suggest some history for the characters – be it two sisters on the same flight crew, one of whom ran from her wedding and was then used as the cover girl on Life magazine, the other who is jealous of that fame and is herself helping a government agent, or a flight attendant who is confronted with her lover bringing his wife and son onto the flight – but this is not the focus of the show. All that the new ABC show is interested in showing is the differences between then and now. From the excitement over a new plane even the pilots are showing, the new Polaroid camera that a couple of passengers are eager to show off (“It develops the picture right inside it!”), the pilots and flight attendants walking through the airport to the awe of impressed passengers and people smoking on a plane – the entire hour seemed to be based around things that happened in the 60s that would not occur in the present day.  Apparently Pan American Airways did not have a coach section either, as all of the flight part of the show focused solely on the first class cabin.

It is hard to judge new shows based solely on their first shows – there is a lot of introduction and back story that happens in order to give exposure to all of the characters and themes the show hopes to follow – but Pan Am seemed particularly clunky and awkward at this process also.  Everyone was asking to be reminded of other people’s names and there were flashbacks a la Lost, only without the intrigue (indeed this being on the same network as Lost – the plane that relayed the message to the captain about the missing stewardess was “Gander Oceanic” – Oceanic 815 being the flight from the previous show and Gander being a synonym for looking for something that is Lost).  The score of the show, composed by Blake Neeley, was clearly designed to give it a grandiose feel – reaching crescendos on both the take off in the opening montage and the “heroic” escape from Cuba during the Bay of Pigs – but the music ended up just being distracting rather, as opposed to adding to the mood of the show.

To be fair, Pan Am did one good thing with its opening show.  Sundays were becoming jam-packed: Breaking Bad is reaching the climax of another fantastic season; Boardwalk Empire returned this Sunday, along with The Simpsons and Family Guy; Dexter is back next week with the promise of the show taking a new direction.  With so much to choose from on one night of television, it is almost a relief to be able to check out from Pan Am.