Friday, October 14, 2011

Pan Am: A Trip Down Nostalgia Lane

As I noted in my last post, I'm trying really hard this year to enjoy fall for what it is, but today's gray and rainy day isn't helping much. Neither is trying to nurse away a bug that's been going around my family, but at least I've managed to keep awake more today than yesterday and as a result, I've been watching a bit of TV. One of the pluses I gave to fall in my last post was the return of old favorite TV shows and the beginning of new ones. Once again, I defer to my friend for a more inclusive run-down of the fall line-up, while I've checked out only two new shows - CBS's Unforgettable and now ABC's Pan Am.

At age 22, Laura realizes she doesn’t want to give up on her chance for adventure by getting married, so she runs out on her wedding day and decides to become a Pan Am stewardess like her sister Kate. Meanwhile, Kate is using her travel through Pan Am as a cover for couriering packages and messages for the CIA. Maggie, who has aspirations to change the world, bridles at the downsides of being a stewardess, such as wearing a girdle, the check-in before each flight to ensure stewardesses meet the ideal weight, and male passengers becoming too handy after drinking on the plane. Collette, a French woman orphaned by the Nazis, finds out that the passenger she was having a dalliance with is married and has a son, after which she becomes flirtatiously involved with their captain, Dean. Dean meanwhile is reeling from being abandoned by his girlfriend Bridget, a former stewardess and, unbeknown to him, Kate’s predecessor as spy. Rounding out the cast is Ted as the roguish co-pilot and Sanjeev as the navigator. (This may be a bit surprising to anyone who's seen the show, but I like the character of Ted. He’s basically a jerk, which makes me not like him, but he also shows glimmers of redemption here and there, which makes me think that he has the most room to grow as a character. However, I do not like that the third episode was starting to show a spark between him and Laura. She’s just emphatically said NO to settling down and getting married, and she shouldn’t be swept up into a new relationship with a guy who has plenty of issues of his own.)

Originally, I was on the fence about checking out Pan Am, but now that I've seen the first three episodes, I have to admit I’m surprisingly pleased with the show thus far. Yes, it is clearly banking on the popularity of Mad Men with the era but the creators didn't just set a show in the 1960s and think that was enough to gain an audience. It's not a silly piece of fluff about a by-gone era's style, although it is fun to see the differences from then and now, including hair styles, fashion choices, and
the cost of items, and there's that extra touch with the use of period music, such as "Mack the Knife." There's also lovely scenery and ambiance as the crew flies to and stays a while in a different city each week - so far visiting London, Paris, and Berlin. And, ah, doesn’t it make air travel look so nice? Everyone on the plane has room to spread out and have a good time, and in none of the scenes in the airport do we see anyone having to take off their shoes or be patted down like a criminal in order to travel from point A to point B.

But as I said earlier, the show is not just a love song to a past era. It also has good writing, characters, and plots, and it addresses deep issues, such as family relations, the past, spying, wars, politics, etc. So far there has been a lot of flashbacks so that we see what brought the characters to where they are now, and I for one love a good back story to my characters so I appreciate this added depth. The show's also filmed in a cinematic way, feeling more like a polished movie than the sort of rushed jobs that some TV shows get.

There's one scene in particular that illustrates this cinematic feeling and that is very poignant. As a bit of background, the beginning of the pilot had showed some images of people in the airport, including a little boy looking out the window in awe at the airplanes and then getting a nod from the pilot Dean. That same episode then ended with a little girl looking out the window in awe as the four main stewardesses board the plane with style and grace, and Laura turns back and gives her a encouraging look, similar to the pilot’s in the earlier scene. It felt like a nod to a future of even more barrier breaking for women and their career choices, where they could too could have the world, but without the limitations the stewardesses have (must be pretty, young, thin, and unmarried). In an
interview, feminist icon Gloria Steinem asked about the disastrously bad idea and already canceled show The Playboy Club, “Are they aggrandizing the past in a nostalgic way, or are they really showing the problems of the past in order to show we have come forward?” With Pan Am, it seems to be a little of both, but in this particular moment of the little girl looking out of the window in wonder at the stewardesses, the scales tip a little more towards the latter.

With any new show, there’s some gaffes in back stories and/or characterizations as the show finds its footing. In Pan Am's pilot I found that the actors playing Kate and Laura looked so much like sisters that it was hard to tell them apart. I probably wasn’t the only one to think so, as in the following episode Laura is suddenly a blonde. (Or perhaps it wasn't confusion between the characters, but the creators suddenly realizing there wasn’t an obligatory blonde on the show?) It would be one thing if it was explained that she colored her hair or the change was not acknowledged at all, but the show takes it a step further by pretending she was always a blonde. In fact there are three separate slips to indicate this is so: 1) Laura shows a childhood drawing to Kate of the two of them with one red-headed girl and one blonde girl, 2) someone at the airport specifically says “red-headed Miss Cameron” to distinguish that a phone call came in for Kate, and most egregious of all, 3) in a flashback scene to her wedding day, Laura has blonde hair even though in the pilot, the flashback scene of her wedding has her with red hair. I don’t know why this irked me so much but it did. It was probably a good idea going forwarded to change her hair color (although to be honest, she looked better with red hair) to avoid confusion, but to pretend like this was always the case when anyone with an internet connection can go back and see that she was a redhead in the pilot, it seems almost insulting to the viewers as though they would not pick up on the obvious change.

That’s a little thing though. The major downside with Pan Am is that there is little room for diversity in the show. Given the time period and the corporate setting, there will be little to no chance of bringing in non-Caucasian characters without specifically having to make race a topic. There is Sanjeev, but he's given very little screen time and honestly, given the time period and the setting, it seems odd to find him there. This is an unfortunate downside to any period piece.

Overall though, so far I'm intrigued and impressed, and I'll keep tuning in for at least a few more weeks to see where it goes.

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