Pan Am

HENRY COOKSEY looks for his nearest emergency exit.

ABC american television christina ricci culture henry cooksey Mad Men pan am Rob Young TV

Saturdays, BBC 2,  9.45pm and 10.25pm


Given the quantity of exports carried by plane each year, it’s surprising that planes don’t make the best exports themselves. In ABC’s newest output, what was touted as something to match 15-time Emmy winner Mad Men, takes off in style, but falls short on substance for fuel.

Pan Am, launched with much fanfare in the USA, is based on the lives of those who worked for the country’s biggest airline. Starring Christina Ricci (Maggie), Michael Mosley (Ted) and Margot Robbie (Laura), it has been praised for its image, which would pass even Pan Am’s strict requirements.

Don’t forget your sick bag

It was inevitable, given their similar eras, that Pan Am was going to be compared closely by critics to Mad Men, and the differences between the two are in their treatment of the ‘American dream’. Mad Men poised itself against it, showing you the cynic’s view of those who built it, whilst Pan Am gets caught up in the sort of sentiment that could cover up the show’s plot inadequacies.

Billed by its creators as a “period drama”, it qualifies the first word by trying to crowbar as many possible elements of the era into one episode, from an unintentionally comic account of the Bay of Pigs incident to European Cold-War intrigue through contemporary music. Its only notable omission is the smoking and drinking scenes that would have been commonplace at the time.

The second word, however, is less creatively fulfilled. Without giving too much away, the sources of ‘drama’ in the opener range from the mundane (running away from a wedding) to the superficial (spy intrigue and an argument between sisters). The tension created around these is by far disproportionate to the gravity of the plot, and is interspersed with little more than emotive music and the recurring theme of the girdle.

There are, however, certain areas where the show is a triumph. It has been beautifully shot, with images of a dream-like New York and a number of flawless in-flight sequences, but the highlight arrives with a stone-cold moment of realization as Collette is told to keep a drawing “to help remind you not to sleep with other women’s husbands.”

There’s no doubting that Pan Am will gather a fan base, and, as a series, it is of a much higher quality than some. Yet it still leaves something to be desired: intellectual content. Don Draper reads ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ and there is inescapable depth to Hugh Laurie’s House. Issues raised in these first episodes seemed clumsy, for example a drunken passenger’s pass at one of the stewardesses which evaporated far too quickly to properly justify the incident within the plot. It remains to be seen how well these will develop in the rest of the series.

Want to escape work for the American dream? Pan Am is for you, but I won’t be flying with them again.