Of the numerous themes and plot strands thrown at us during the pilot for ABC's big '60s melodrama, the one that stuck with me was the representation of gender. One of the last scenes in the episode sees two pilots talking stewardesses over drinks, one of them telling the other how the Pan Am ladies are 'above' ordinary women, like goddesses of the skies. So much so that it looks like its every little girls dream to become a stewardess when they grow up. But through the pilot we see how 'regular' most of these women are, all experiencing the same struggles and personal entanglements that everybody else experiences, even in 2011. Okay, maybe not the secret intelligence stuff, but same difference.
Pan Am's pilot is relentlessly confident in its approach to the characters, the time period and the visual beauty of the world its set in. Everybody is going to come to it with knowledge of Mad Men, but Pan Am almost immediately creates its own little bubble that, while superficially similar to its AMC precursor, manages to feel fresh and exciting. I think this is mostly down to the breezy hopefulness of everything. Mad Men is all about people restrained by glass ceilings, hidden behind suburban walls, and folks hiding their true selves, and while I love that about Mad Men, Pan Am develops a clever distinction which makes it fun and irresistible to a network audience. Compare this to The Playboy Club, which seems to desperately want to be Mad Men, Pan Am takes its basic inspiration from that series while simultaneously crafting its own identity.
The pilot almost separates its ensemble into six-minute segments. We see fresh-faced newbie stewardess Laura flee her wedding day and pursue a legitimate career. There's the exotic Colette discovering her lover is married (something about her French accent just increases her vulnerability), and there's pilot Dean struggling to get his potential-fiancee to open up about the secret that is clearly distracting her. The most fascinating subplot involves Kelli Garner's Kate, who is working as an agent for US intelligence, with Pan Am stewardesses making a great cover for international espionage, since they travel all over the world for legit reasons. There's something about ambiguous spies in 1963 which is inherently awesome, and that scene where Kate was stealing the passport was ridiculously intense.
The only surprising factor is how little Christina Ricci is used, since she hasn't got her own story just yet. Considering I assumed she was the show's lead, it feels a little strange. But that's the one potential negative here, since the writers clearly have a perspective and a narrative drive for these individual storylines. I feel like I already have a handle on most of the characters, and I'm intrigued to see where their stories will go. At the same time, there's the overarching mystery of what happened to Bridget.
Pan Am is my favorite pilot so far this season, with little clumsy exposition and some wonderful characterization straight from the get-go. This show feels like something special. A
Guest stars David Harbour (Roger Anderson); Jeremy Davidson (Richard Parks); Annabelle Wallis (Bridget Pierce); Will Chase (John); Veanne Cox (Miss Havermeyer); C.J. Wilson (Howard); Kate Jennings Grant (Judith); David Pittu (Paul); Hope Allen (Evelyn)
Writer Jack Orman Director Thomas Schlamme