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'Pan Am:' What the Critics Are Saying

Most compare ABC’s new Christina Ricci-starrer to "Mad Men" or "Playboy Club."

Pan Am - Christina Ricci - Episode Still - 2011
ABC

Pan Am premiered on ABC Sunday night, starring Christina Ricci, Kelli Garner, Margot Robbie and Karine Vanasse.

What do the critics have to say about the retro show, set in the '60s and featuring the lives of stewardesses? (Before they adopted the more PC label flight attendant.)

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"ABC’s Pan Am, along with its Charlie’s Angels and NBC’s woeful Playboy Club, seem to have been created to capture the nostalgia of AMC’s Mad Men (now a winner of the best drama Emmy four times in a row, which no doubt piques the copy-cat nature of the industry) while increasing the audience about ten-fold," writes The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman.

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"But Pan Am seems most intent on making the idea of the ‘60s and stewardesses and 'the jet age' more glamorous than real. It has neither the exactitude of the times nor the talent of the writers to get at the issues, ala Mad Men, that illuminate the issues of the day. It only has the magazine ad dreams of the times – girls don’t have to be their mothers; they can also be modern women who get weighed at work and dumped at 32 for being too old," he adds.

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"If the writers of Pan Am really wanted to get at the issues that are festering under those issues, they should have at least tried. There’s certainly fodder at hand. We’ve come a long way, baby, but we’ve got a long way to go. We may have the freedom to not be our mothers anymore as the early 1960s begin to reshape the national consciousness, but – now this is a drag – so many of the men we meet haven’t got the memo yet," he goes on.

"It’s less about independence than about natural selection and how awesome that is. It takes sexism and somehow makes it aspirational. And no scene reflects this more than the closing one, where four of the stewardesses are strutting in slow motion, all swivel-hipped and breezy as the cut a swath through the terminal and get set to board the plane, like models on a runway. Suddenly the camera looks back and focuses on a young girl of four or five, in awe of what she sees," Goodman writes.  "That’s what she wants to be when she grows up is the point… And somewhere, both Peggy and Joan on Mad Men have a cry over progress."

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Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times writes, "As a premise Pan Amsounds foolhardy, a knockoff that can’t possibly live up to the original, like a network trying to copy “The Sopranos” with a series about a ring of car thieves in Indianapolis… The difference is that “Pan Am” romanticizes the past, whereas Mad Men, on AMC, takes pleasure in slyly mocking antiquated mores."

"Mad Men, which returns for a fifth season next year, is unquestionably a far better show, but Pan Am, like The Playboy Club, which began on NBC this week, may be a more accurate reflection of our own insecurities," Stanley continues.

"Viewers may not see anything particularly fresh about this show’s foursome of stewardesses, however. The Pan Am heroines represent the dawning of the women’s movement, and they are not fully formed characters so much as stick figures borrowed from a Rona Jaffe novel," she adds,

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"ABC is the home of Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives and The Bachelor,so the emphasis on “Pan Am” is not traffic control or air safety," Stanley goes on. "If only for the costumes and ’60s music, “Pan Am” is amusing to see at least once, but if it has any instructive benefit at all, it’s as a mood indicator for these times, not those. There have been plenty of series set in earlier times — “That ’70s Show” was set in the Carter administration, “M*A*S*H” took place during the Korean War. But usually period shows pick through the past to meditate on the present, whether it’s examining generational rites of passage or critiquing the Vietnam War at a safe remove."

Erik Adams of The Onion's A.V. Club gives the movie a B+ and writes, "Obviously, Pan Am is not the first pop-culture product to make this point, and the pilot contains traces of previous chronicles of those a-changin’ times—both successful (Mad Men) and unsuccessful (NBC’s atrocious 1999 miniseries The ’60s). But it is unique in filtering that era through the eyes of a flight crew for Pan American World Airways, an airline which, nearly 20 years after its final flight, still stands for the optimistic promise of the jet age.

"But unlike the bunnies of NBC’s similarly themed The Playboy Club, there’s actually a sense that the characters of Pan Am are more than jaunty hats and attractive Life cover models. On the plane, their roles are rigidly defined; off the plane, they can be who they want, where they want (flight schedule permitting)."

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In the New Yorker, Nancy Franklin writes, "Two new dramas that may—may—have potential are ABC’s Pan Am and NBC’s The Playboy Club, even though they can’t, by any stretch, be called original. Both are the direct spawn of Mad Men—shows set in the early sixties that aim at conveying the changes of the era which led us to where we are now. The new shows are more concerned with hitting their marks and getting the sociology right than with character, but Pan Am has a bit of style to it, and a note of darkness, and the formula might just work."

"The framing of the show’s first episode is more clever than its contents: it opens jauntily, in a daylit airport, with a scene in which a pilot touches his cap to salute a small boy who is looking up at him in wonder, and it concludes with one in which a stewardess turns to smile at a little girl who is looking at her through a window with the same fascination. Voilà—women’s liberation is here!" she adds.

But still, Franklin says, "The show makes me think of the difference between Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the movie version: Pan Am feels like a watchable version of something whose core has been removed."

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