Pan Am: TV Review

"Pan Am" (ABC)

Christina Ricci makes her series-regular debut in the sexy new soap set during the Jet Age.

This is revisionist feminism of the strangest sort.

Christina Ricci stars in ABC's "retro" series about flight attendants, the men they sleep with, and yes, CIA spies.

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. 

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.

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Oh, and don’t get married because then Pan Am doesn’t want you either. Kind of a bummer if you think about it, but how cool is it that you get to fly to Europe and sleep with pilots?

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.

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But Pan Am is not interested in that kind of show – one that could mimic the nostalgia of Mad Men up to and including the part where progress is hard won and sexism will not be easily defeated. (We've watched Peggy from Mad Men take four seasons and lots of sacrifice to get where she is.)

Instead, Pan Am wants to revel in the cool blue stewardess outfits, the retro hipness of Pan Am itself and “the jet age” in particular, while giving viewers the romantic entanglements of said stewardesses with their male pilots and co-pilots.

The attempt, as it were, to add some gravitas to the fetishism of hip nostalgia (as opposed to going under the surface) comes in the form of one flight attendant asked to be a spy for the United States government.

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To which the natural response should be, “Hmm, didn’t think you’d choose that option.” And then maybe some really loud laughing.

Pan Am focuses on pilot Dean Lowrey (Mike Vogel), who is super excited to fly planes and hop in and out of bed with his top stewardess, who he wants to marry because he’s a Good Guy and a Fly Boy. But she’s an international CIA spy, which he never figures out, so forget it.

Looking to salve his wounds, possibly, is Maggie Ryan (Christina Ricci), who’s a little boho, like Don Draper’s first girlfriend, and yet also particularly keen to be in the rarified air of the Pan Am stewardess. (Although you can’t look at Ricci without thinking, ‘What in the world are you doing in this?’).

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Central to Pan Am is the plight of two sisters. Kate Cameron (Kelli Garner) is the oldest who busted out of the grip of their staid parents. And now she’s being recruited as an international CIA spy because Pan Am stewardesses have the perfect cover – they can fly all over the world without suspicion (except they’re outfitted in eye-grabbing blue). Anyway, you never get the sense from Garner’s performance that Kate pull off stealthy spy work. Not ever.

Her sister Lauren (Margot Robbie) is an aw-shucks type who runs away on her wedding day to be a stewardess like big sis, only she’s getting notoriety as a newbie because someone at Life took her picture for the cover on how cool the jet age is.

There’s also a French stewardess who has some affairs and mostly sexist co-pilot who wants to have affairs. He gets to utter these jaw-droppingly bad lines that are supposed to show the empowerment of stewardesses: “Look at that table over there,” he says, pointing to the Pan Am stewardess posse at a bar. “That’s natural selection at work, my friend. They don’t know that they are the new breed of women. They just had the impulse – to take flight.”


See, that’s the problem with Pan Am trying to go retro. It’s glamorizing the stewardesses because they’re hot and they aren’t their mothers. They are flying off to Paris and England, sleeping with pilots and stuff. This is revisionist feminism of the strangest sort.

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.

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.