I can imagine last year at the Emmy's when Mad Men won for the third year in a row that all the networks execs were sitting around thinking, "We need to get us a Mad Men!" What came out of that thought is ABC's Pan Am, but their sweet '60s nostalgia lozenge isn't anywhere as easy to swallow as the original.
I can just see the ABC executive who decided this show was a good idea leaning over his desk with a well-chewed cigar in his mouth saying, "What are the kids into today? They're into the '60s, see. Let's just take a show and put the '60s in it. They'll love that!" But, see, that's not what the kids really want. It's sort of like one of those nightly news stories that tells you about the "dangerous new sex game" that kids are into, but the kids aren't really into it at all. And still, they did the '60s all wrong.
The '60s of Mad Men, while it is total vintage eye candy, still allows all the darkness to burble up just below the slick mid-century modern surface. Both Pan Am and NBC's even more horrible The Playboy Club don't allow this to happen. Their shows are all surface, all bright interiors and kitschy costumes with nothing underneath. The bright hope of nostalgia has sanded off all the edges. It's not the real '60s, it's the '60s as a pavilion at EPCOT center. It's not the real Pan Am, it's one of Don Drapers ads for the airline, with smiling cartoon versions of stewardesses that are too good to be true.
Yes, Pan Am is about the life of stewardesses in the exciting new world of the Jet Set age. Watching the pilot (the first episode, silly, not the guy who flies the plane) it seems like the creators dreamed up the concept before they thought of the story. So, we look at the lives of stewardesses: one is a runaway bride, one is French, one is Christina Ricci, and one is a spy. Yes, a spy! Cut to our cigar chomping network executive, "But what will the stewardesses do? I got it! (SNAPS FINGERS) Spies! Kids love spies!" So, yes. Spies.
There is some promising stuff on Pan Am—some excellent and pretty actresses, the retro design, that gorgeous stupid pilot guy—but its fundamental problem is that instead of bringing history to its characters, it's bringing its characters to history. Sure a Pan Am flight really rescued the Bay of Pigs prisoners but did we have to use the occassion for a silly Casablanca-esque proposal on the runway while the woman's hair is swept up in the wind of the propellers. On Mad Men we saw the characters deal with JFK's death, not Don Draper pitching at the Book Depository on the day it happened. Adding some Cold War tension to the proceedings wouldn't be a bad idea, but don't make one of the stewardesses a spy in the damn war! It's just too far-fetched.
What would be best for the show would be showing some realistic(ish, this is TV after all) stories about this "new breed of women" the show talks about. Instead of talking about it, show us. No one ever told us Peggy Olsen is a "new woman" she just proves that she is, week after week. So let's wrap up this silly "Bridget the missing stewardess spy" storyline and get back to something a little juicier, something that's just below the surface. I'm telling you first hand, that's what the kids really want.