Pan Am: Surreal yet Compelling

This post contains spoilers from the first three episodes of Pan Am (ABC – Sunday 10:00 PM EST)

I’ve broken from my usual writing about politics and world affairs to comment on music, today I’ll wade into the territory of network television.

Set in the early 1960s, the new ABC series Pan Am follows the lives of a group of stewardesses (not flight attendants yet) traveling the globe on one of Pan Am’s top of the line international jets.   But the story gets complicated, one stewardess, Kate, works for the CIA.  She’s not a full blown agent, but recruited to run errands — make deliveries, exchange messages and the like.   Yet she is a vehicle for a lot of cold war intrigue, bringing politics and the Cold War at its height back into American living rooms.

So you have gorgeous women (each with their own personality quirks), hot shot pilots, jealousy, romance, rivalry and espionage set in the early sixties.  Isn’t that enough to get you to check it out!?   But it’s more than that.   The series does something that is very difficult to pull off — it uses a kind of soft surrealism to blend together an unlikely mix of characters and situations into a compelling and very entertaining show.

Two of the women, Kate and Laura, are sisters.  Laura left her would be husband at the alter to ultimately join Kate in her career, with her drop dead beauty earning her a cover of Life magazine.    Their mom, who has already appeared (bringing the would be groom to Paris to try to win Laura back) finds this life style dangerous and strange.    Done wrong, that kind of story line would be corny — oh yeah, she leaves the groom at the alter, becomes a stewardess with her sister and gets on Time?   But within the surreal framework of the show it’s perfect.   It works.

Collette, from France, is an intriguing and very likable woman seems to have a kind of ‘old world’ wisdom and perspective that plays off the brimming optimism and idealism of the Americans.    She already was confronted by the wife of a man she had slept with (without knowing he was married), in episode three we learn of her past.    Set in Berlin Germany as the crew took reporters to see John F. Kennedy’s Ich bin ein Berliner speech, it’s revealed her parents were killed in the war and she can’t get over her hatred of the Germans.    In a surreal scene at an embassy party for the President (who had left by then) she starts making accusatory statements to Germans she meets.   She then apologizes, says she’ll make up for it and asks to the pianist to play the German national anthem and sings in perfect German “Deutschland, Deutschland ueber alles.”    She isn’t trying to honor the Germans by doing this!

Maggie and Kate

It’s surreal because a pianist would not have played it, especially once the words of the “forbidden” first verse were sung.  She would have been stopped and kicked out.   Yet somehow they pull it off; in the context of this show, it works.   Another stewardess, Maggie (a free thinking woman with drive and courage), has a crush on the President and spends the whole show trying to get to meet him.  She finally sees Air Force One and tells Laura that she can’t make the return flight and to tell the crew she’s sick.    She gets to the tarmac and when stopped she pleads for a chance to shake the President’s hand.   When that doesn’t work she informs the Secret Service that she has a box of Cuban cigars as a gift for Kennedy.

Impressed by the cigars the agent tells her to wait, and heads to the plane.   The President appears atop the plane’s entrance, somewhat in the distance (it’s dark we can’t see features) and waves at her — close to what she wanted, and she’s enthralled.

Gender issues of the early 60s (before ‘women’s lib’) will clearly be covered by this show.  Maggie’s already gotten in trouble for mocking the “weigh ins” required of stewardesses  (can’t have any chubby unattractive women serving Pan Am!) and even stabbing with a fork a first class passenger who tried to assault her.   He backs off, but it’s clear that if he complains Maggie will lose her job (while he risked nothing for what would now be considered a crime).    The pilot settles him down with some expensive scotch and an apology, but instead of being thankful that her job is not in danger, Maggie steams over the injustice of it all.

Dean (the captain of the airplane) and Collette as he notices she's not herself at the embassy party.

The show is only three episodes old.  So far more emphasis is placed on the women — who are the stars — but the Captain (Dean) and first officer (Ted) are integral parts of the story lines as well.   We’ll see how it develops, but at this point it’s got me hooked.

Pan Am started regular transatlantic flights in 1958, and the show is set in that golden era of flight when service was a premium, especially on international flights.   Given the historical allusions — we’ve already had the Bay of Pigs and JFK’s Berlin speech — those of us who enjoy Cold War history will find that part of the show interesting.   This week Maggie helped an East German spy defect, though it got her in some trouble.   It also clearly shows the Machiavellian nature of Cold War intrigue — the key is to combat the Soviets without risking a ‘hot’ war.  One reviewer suggests that this is “TV for old people,” and being 50 it might well be that there is a nostalgic allure to it.   I’m OK with that!  Anyway, I’ve always liked airline movies (I keep waiting for George Kennedy to show up to do mechanical work).

Another complaint is that it’s “too happy.”  So far the dramas are not the kind of tragedies that hit shows like “Desperate Housewives” (another rather surreal hit that preceeds it on ABC), but that’s OK.  It’s a fun show, and it captures the optimism of the era just before Kennedy’s assassination and the subsequent horrors of Vietnam.    So for the first time in a long time I’ve found an hour long network drama that I plan to watch regularly!

Pan Am suffered financial collapse in early December, 1991 — the same month that the Cold War would end with Mikhail Gorbachev’s announcement that the Soviet Union was breaking up.   In that sense the subject matter is doubly fitting: the Cold War era was Pan Am’s era.

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