Perhaps you thought those infamous Kennedy-era advertisements about how a job as a stewardess was a gateway to boundless adventure, thrilling romance, and social liberation were just an elaborate marketing ploy. But according to ABC’s new retro-aviation soap, Pan Am, being a stewardess actually is all of those things—as well as a stepping stone to a lucrative career in trans-Atlantic espionage. You may also be operating under the assumption that working as a flight attendant in the 1960s meant you would be subject to the same kinds of workplace sexism infecting the rest of the laboring classes in America. Not so: On Pan Am, women run the show, and exceptionally good stewardesses are treated like NBA free agents. You may even have thought that flight attendants were not principally in charge of the evacuation of exiles from Cuba after the Bay of Pigs. Again, Pan Am begs to differ.
There’s a Forrest Gump-like optimism about American history that undergirds nearly every scene Pan Am‘s pilot episode. But the show’s extravagant, aggressive joy about the friendly skies sometimes makes even that pinnacle of historical romance seem like a Lars von Trier film in comparison. Pan Am follows the dramatic social, sexual, and occasionally top-secret exploits of the maiden crew of a Pan Am clipper. In the space of the pilot episode, for instance, a French flight attendant named Colette (Karine Vanasse) has her heart broken by a married man/passenger; new flight attendant Laura (Margot Robbie) finds herself accidentally on the cover of LIFE; Laura’s sister, Kate (Kelli Garner), conducts a covert operation for the C.I.A. while dealing with jealousy issues over her sister’s newfound celebrity; and the dashing captain (Mike Vogel) pines for a lost love. But despite all this turbulence, everything turns out okay back on the jetway, and Pan Am wastes no opportunity for any of its characters to revel in the almost psychotic ecstasy they get from flying planes, staying in fancy hotels, or serving cocktails to traveling businessmen.
For the first few minutes of the pilot, any good Mad Men viewer—appropriately pickled in cynicism—will likely be a little put off by all the good vibes and bad lines that surround and support Pan Am like a well-made girdle. But by the end of the episode, even the most Draperian naysayer will be hard-pressed to resist the aesthetic of enthusiasm that defines director Thomas Schlamme’s walk-and-talk camera work (which recalls his work on the original utopian dreamscape, The West Wing), the luscious panoramas of clean jets in flight, and the ultra-sincere performances of leads Christina Ricci, Margot Robbie, and Kelli Garner.
But even with every actor on screen grinning until their jaws threaten to snap, there’s still a small sparkle of menace throughout. Anton Chekhov famously said that if a pistol is hung on the wall in act one, it ought to go off by act two, and the same should be said of Ricci. I can’t imagine a world in which that actress’s character is not hiding something sufficiently macabre behind those giant, Edward Gorey-esque green eyes. Ricci aside, though, the show’s very concept could be a bit unsettling for viewers of this generation. Beholding the basically security-free airports and casual cabin atmosphere of olden times, it’s hard not to think of a certain recent 10th anniversary. Perhaps it really is guileless nostalgia, but in 2011, the concept of setting a series in an airplane is fraught with built-in anxiety. This is not to mention that the series begins in 1963, the year that Pan Am 214 catastrophically crashed in Maryland. It’s, literally, a disaster waiting to happen, and it will be interesting to see exactly how this buoyant period piece handles that particular event, especially after Mad Men so memorably dealt with the 1962 crash of American Airline 1 in its second season.
Pan Am, like its evil stepsister, The Playboy Club, exists largely because of the desire for 1960s nostalgia awakened by Mad Men. While the acclaimed AMC series has created a potent cultural sensation and even lent its name to a line of suits and dresses made by Banana Republic, it still has rather abysmal ratings. Shows like Pan Am are a clear attempt to tap this juicy but underdeveloped market. The networks seem convinced that the key to this ostensible ratings bonanza lies in keeping the product fetishism and va-va-voomy outfits while starkly reversing the grinding depression, bald sexism, and capitalist critique that anchor Mad Men. So it makes sense that Pan Am is all smiles right out of the gate. There’s no need for a show like this to swan dive into despair, but a little turbulence never hurt anybody.