Pam Am, the new ABC serial drama that follows a group of flight attendants in the 1960s, left me with an overwhelming feeling this past Sunday afternoon while I was getting to know it; a distinct yearning that I couldn’t quite pin down until around episode 3… I would rather be watching Mad Men.
Despite a wonderful set of scenarios that touch on women’s rights issues of the era, as well as a Cold War spy plot line, the show continually misses the mark. Instead of peaking viewer’s interest with high impact drama and socially relevant dialogue, it cops out at almost every opportunity by taking the road well-travelled by every cliche soap opera before it. While the series does have a winning formula – hot chicks in tight-fitting clothes, drama and espionage, all set in a world about to go through great social reform – formula is truly all it is.
Where are they going wrong?
Let’s start small, with the odds of a brown-American working in the cockpit of an American airliner in 1963. They’re very low. Chances of such an occurrence are probably akin to seeing anyone born in a Muslim nation operating a US airliner today. The “Sanjeev” character, who is surely the least significant member of the cast, is the show’s token ethnic. Given one or two lines an episode and literally tucked into the background of the cockpit, he is simply there to prove just how inclusive ABC’s programming can be.
Many of the show’s faults can be attributed to the fact that fictionalizing something for film or television involves making it more digestible to the general public. Pan Am’s big screw up comes in the form of trying to make the production appeal to such a broad range of viewers that the majority of the show’s events come out in a sweepingly generic way. Any moments of interest, such as French-Canadian actress Karine Vanasse’s character, Colette, trying to make her way up a large flight of stairs but nearly falling over the bannister because of intense flashbacks to her childhood in Nazi-occupied France, are drowned out by the dazzling monotony of the rest of the episode.
Christina Ricci, the former indie/oddball film star who’s been idolized since The Addams Family, surprises by not being much of a character at all. “Maggie Ryan” is supposed to be some sort of revolutionary who always speaks her mind, but all that ends up coming out of her is occasional sarcasm and frequent lovable smiles. I sat there for five episodes waiting with baited breath for Maggie to do or say something interesting; the moment never came. Then I remembered Black Snake Moan and realized that maybe it’s not her fault, it could just be the writing. But why would she take on a continuous role that was poorly written for her? Oh right, money. When their careers reach a dip in success, film stars often flock to any television project that bears a near-assured chance of success; just look at Gary Sinise.
Money is the bane of Pan Am’s existence. While it can be argued that most media is only out there to generate profit, people expect more from television today (reality TV being the very large exception). Alas, it feels as if the only reason Pan Am exists, much like this season’s The Playboy Club, is to capitalize on Mad Men’s success. Heck, I’m starting to feel like even Mad Men is only out there to capitalize on it’s own previous success at this point.
As a friend’s mom puts it, “Mad Men has turned into watching someone move Barbie dolls around, imagining how cool it would be to see [blank] character ‘do this’ in the sixties…” regardless of what impact it has on the plot and/or character development. And that’s exactly what Pan Am is, a bunch of Barbies stuffed into a plane and put into various “intriguing” scenarios with near total disregard to intellectually satisfying storytelling. Or for that matter, fun storytelling. I’m sure the actual plot is going to be well-crafted, but that’s just because of Pan Am’s well-paid, notable screenwriters Nancy Hult (Akeelah and the Bee) and Jack Orman (ER… and, uh, JAG), who also created the show.
Whether or not Pan Am will keep you interested for an entire season may solely boil down to just how medicated you are when you sit/lay down to watch it.