Monday, September 26, 2011

"Pan Am'' Loses Lift

What hath "Mad Men'' wrought? A silly, pre-feminist romanticization, set in the early 1960s, called "The Playboy Club,'' and a stylish but wafer-thin TV series called "Pan Am,'' also set in the early 1960s and named after the late, lamented Pan American World Airways, which folded its wings in 1991.

Of course, "Pan Am'' - an hour-long fiction series that airs Sunday nights on the U.S. network ABC - has almost got to be romantic. It is set in 1963, when people of means took airplanes and most other people walked, drove or took the bus. Flying was actually fun then, and it wasn't accessible to everyone, so it had a certain snob appeal. Moreover, in that pre-feminist era, there were few good jobs for women. Before women could become CEOs and entrepreneurs and race-car drivers and professional basketball players, a job as a globe-trotting flight attendant - "stewardess'' back then - was considered glamourous. "Stews,'' as they were called, saw the world, met guys and wore snugly tailored, sexy uniforms.

Half a century later, in a largely wised-up era, it's hard to see it all in quite the same light, even though we know the show isn't real. It's fiction, after all, not a documentary. Still, as my wife and I watched the series premiere last night, her lip curled ever so distinctly with disapproval. It's fair to say she has no wish to see women go backward, even in make-believe. "Pan Am's'' retro time-travel might be easier to ignore if the show's writing and acting were first-class, or even premium economy. But even though "Pan Am'' has creative connections to engaging shows such as "ER'' and features recognized performers such as Christina Ricci (as one of the stews), the new show quickly loses what lift it achieved during its quick-step introduction.

The period details - hair, clothes, ciggies, cocktails - are usually right, and the proceedings have an initially pleasing glossy look. But a little of "Pan Am's'' devotion to fashion without substance goes a long way with viewers like us. We tuned out about halfway in, before the subplot about Cold War espionage really took off.

This was just episode one, to be sure. Maybe "Pan Am'' will fly with audiences looking for "come fly with me'' escapist entertainment. I worked a few years ago with some young guys who thought the skinny tie, ring-a-ding-ding style of the perfectly named Rat Pack was cool, too, so you never know.

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