The first and most forceful thing that struck me about Pan Am is the extent to which the show looks like a product of the era it’s about. The colors are incredibly bright. If a scene isn’t set at night, even if it’s someone running away from her theoretically-perfect wedding, everything gleams. There isn’t a bit of dirt or grit anywhere. The characters barely even sweat when they’re flying exiles out of Cuba (without, of course, the recognition that these might be the same types who stormed the beach in the Bay of Pigs fiasco). Roses glow on night tables. Even rainy London looks fantastic. I harp on this not because it’s bad — the show is lovely to look at — but because if there’s a case to be made for period stories reflecting actual nostalgia for the period at hand, Pan Am‘s lushness would be it.
Is a better show than The Playboy Club? Almost certainly. Christina Ricci is always a delight to watch, whether she’s changing in the back of a cab or bossing her coworkers around, and I hope the show has a meaty and specific storyline in store for her other than lusting after a profoundly dull pilot who’s in love with one of her colleagues. And Kelli Garner’s really wonderful as a stewardess who springs her Barbie-like sister from a stifling marriage, only to find said sister eclipse her as the face of Pan Am, and in fact, an entire age. I really appreciate that the show refrains from just making her jealous, giving her a mission and purpose. The world may open up for a pretty girl who becomes a Pan Am stewardess and gets a chance to travel and see the world. But it really opens up for a woman who’s asked to spy for her country.
That said, I think Pan Am has the same problem that The Playboy Club does: an insecurity about the idea that their basic setup is interesting enough to engage an audience. Working at The Playboy Club is pretty interesting totally on its own. Introducing a new generation to transatlantic travel opens up all sorts of conversations about female independence, sexual norms, and cross-cultural exchange. And while The Playboy Club‘s a mess, Pan Am‘s gender politics actually feel much more conventional. That final scene of the little girl watching the Pan Am stewardesses, in all their regulated beauty, walk through the airport and seeing them as goddesses bothered me just as much as the voiceovers declaring Playboy Bunnies the luckiest women in the world. At least The Playboy Club‘s events give lie to that argument. Pan Am just makes embodying a corporation look grand.