Monday, September 26, 2011

Pilot Review: Pan Am

Pan Am (Sundays at 10:00 on ABC)

If there's one new show this season that seems to be able to hold up against the cable networks' offerings, it's Pan Am. The plot is purely escapist and slightly soapy, but it's in no way cheesy like its 1960s NBC counterpart The Playboy Club and not (yet) as deadly serious as its 1960s AMC counterpart Mad Men can be. It's pure fun and adventure, but not without conflict or a message.

We are introduced to the four main stewardesses (not flight attendants) through a series of comings-and-goings in preparation for the maiden voyage of a new transcontinental Pan Am flight. First up is Maggie (Christina Ricci in her first regular series gig), a pseudo-bohemian who was recently suspended for not wearing her girdle aboard a flight. Then there's Colette (Karine Vanasse), a French woman who had a torrid affiar some months earlier with a passenger whom she has just learned is married. And finally there are sisters Kate (Kelli Garner) and Laura (Margot Robbie). Kate has been flying for months and was recently recruited by an intelligence agency to provide Cold War intel. Laura is a runaway bride who just finished flight training and is ready to live life for herself for once, starting with gracing the cover of Life magazine as the face of Pan Am. They are all unique and well-rounded women, each having a particular backstory while still promising interesting future arcs.

The pilot is smart in its setup that way. We meet each of these women and get to know them well, especially considering how short each character's vignette is. Knowing their pasts makes us immediately care about their futures, and the defining traits displayed in their backstories intrigues what will eventually follow throughout the course of the series. No one is treated any better or worse than the other in this first episode. Everyone is on an equal playing field, and the performances reflect that: it's a universally well-acted episode. It's beautifully shot and costumed, and it's paced well. There's a hint of adventure and joy in every moment.

The only stumbling block so far is the addition of the male characters. The pilot (Mike Vogel) and co-pilot (Michael Mosley) are simply window dressing thus far, and their screentime is the only lagging bit of the hour. But it's nice to see a show about women being women, owning a show where they are not treated like whores or catty bitches. Following the anti-feminism of The Playboy Club and the misogyny of Prime Suspect, Pan Am lets its female characters be sexy without being suggestive and poised without being hard as nails.

All in all, you can't ask for much better in a pilot episode than what Pan Am delivers. It's visually stimulating and entertaining, with some great performances and a central conceit that offers nearly endless opportunities for stories. It's a delight, from beginning to end.

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