Thursday, 25 October 2012

TV review: Pan Am

I am quite aware of how ridiculous it must seem, to be reviewing a TV show that only lasted one season before getting cancelled earlier this year.

However, I have only just discovered Pan Am and I thought the chances that other people had heard of it at all weren't high so I was safe to do a review without too much ‘ last season…’ eye rolling.

Pan Am, named after the iconic Pan American World Airways, follows a group of stewardesses and pilots living the glamorous life of Pan Am employees in the swinging 60s.  All the ingredients for a successful drama are there from episode one. The 60s had so much going for it as a decade for screen drama. Women's liberation, the Cold War, the breakdown of the traditional class systems to be replaced by an idealised meritocracy and the rise of the working woman. It's all there in Pan Am, perfectly exemplified by the 20-something girls taking charges of their lives, not prepared to settle just yet for marriage and children, but preferring to assert their independence and take to the skies.

The four stewardesses who make up the core team in Pan Am are led by Maggie (Christina Ricci), the purser and also the rebellious at-home-bohemian who is enjoying life to the full. Karine Vanasse plays the subtly chic and world-wise Colette, the only non-American on the team. Laura (Maggie Robbie) is the newest recruit, having run away from her picture-perfect wedding to join her sister Kate (Kelli Garner) in her life as an independent woman. But behind the perfect eyeliner their stories are so much more. Colette lived through the horrors of Nazi-occupied France, co-pilot Ted is intensely angry and unable to deal with the changing class system and Kate is drafted into the CIA and slowly drawn deeper and deeper into Cold War espionage.

Maggie, Kate, Colette and Laura. Exemplary Pan Am stewardesses.

With the benefit of comparison, I can say the Pan Am similar to Mad Men in its seductive portrayal of a way of life that has vanished. Both shows portray an extremely glamorous lifestyle of beautiful men and women, cigarettes before they killed you and endless consumption of alcohol. Both shows weave real life events into their plots. Both shows are set in the same decades where liberation was taking off but blatant sexism was still the norm. Hidden behind the immaculate world of the stewardess is daily weigh-ins, unwanted advances by drunk lecherous passengers and of course the absolute divide between the men-only profession of pilots and the subservient feminine sphere of the stewardesses. Though I would say from my years of travel, this gender divide in the aviation profession still exists today.  

A draw-card of period dramas is of course, the costuming, and Pan Am does not disappoint. The uniforms for the stewardesses are perhaps among the most flattering ever devised. To say nothing of a pilot’s uniform. The immaculate grooming required by the girls in their professional life is brought across into the outfit perfection of matched gloves and shoes for their off duty hours. Suitcases are packed with rich colours and sweet sundresses with the occasional glimpse of New York boheme-style pants and sweaters. I might want to own most of the outfits, though I could give the corsetry a miss.

A selection of Christina Ricci's perfect looks. 
Want them all. 

The sets, on the other hand, are a little bit advertisers dream. New York, London and Monte Carlo are cartoonishly colourful as if plucked from a childhood dream of what it must be like to live in a big city. I can accept that the aircraft and hotels may be perfect and pristine. However, when the girls travel to Jakarta, there is no attempt at realistic depiction. There may be dirt on the streets, cockfights in the bars and crowds of people, but any real suggestion of poverty or struggle is firmly left to the documentaries. No beggars, worn clothes or street kids on this show. 

Because we all pack this way when we only have one suitcase.

Pan Am is a show that is an easy to digest but not too fluffy blend of drama, tension, human relationships and pretty things. I suspect its audience would be entirely female and I would never make a guy friend sit down and watch it. Not enough explosions or slashings. Or Don Draper, the great alternative masculine must-have. For me, the focus of Pan Am on young women taking charge of their lives is infinitely more positive and engaging than many of the terrific if intense drama that have hit our screen over the last few years. Perhaps I am a little prejudiced because of a once-held dream to be an airline hostess. But if I can’t fly for Pan Am, I don’t want to fly for anyone!

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