If you hadn’t already guessed from the title (and the ‘wing’ pun above) it’s set in the early sixties and focuses on the trials and tribulations of four air stewardesses on the aforementioned airline.
This, apparently, was the golden age of air travel, and boy does it looking spiffing. Everyone is beautiful: glossier than a magazine ad and twice as colourful. The planes gleam in the sunlight like diamonds on the neck of a stunning young débutante: we’re generally supposed to be swept up in how glamorous and exciting it all is.
Now despite my grizzled appearance I wasn’t actually around in the sixties but I’m fairly sure they looked nothing like they’re portrayed here. For one thing, I’m certain they weren’t nearly as clean. I remember the eighties as being pretty grubby and if you follow the advances in plumbing and cleaning technology backwards, we can safely assume the sixties were filthy.
And not in a good way.
The obvious inspiration for this show, Mad Men, also puts forward a very glamorous version of the sixties but the key theme of that show is how appearances are deceptive. What is advertising, after all, if not distorting appearances to make you desire things? So while the ‘Mad Men lifestyle’ may look very alluring, there’s a solid thematic underpinning for that ultimately undercuts it. Not so with Pan Am.
But it’s not entirely fair to compare two programmes just because they’re both set in the same decade. It’s like comparing Blackadder Goes Forth to Downton Abbey.
It’s probably better to focus on what Pan Am does have: bright, escapist visuals and four rather likable female leads. The fact that it is quite female-centric certainly makes a refreshing change from most television drama: though it’s a shame that’s the case. The show also does a decent job of developing these women as individuals while acknowledging they live in a very sexist environment.
It’s hard not to root for Christina Ricci’s character when she stabs a drunk passenger who’s trying to grope her or gives some sass to the women who checks the stewardesses to make sure they haven’t gained any weight- someone who, in the modern world, would be given their own hectoring ‘lifestyle’ show on Channel 4 rather than being limited to squeezing cabin crew’s flabby bits.
Unfortunately the show doesn’t really have the courage to see it’s premise through: or at the very least doesn’t quite have enough faith in it. Four young woman getting to fly around the world at a time when that was incredibly rare, leaving behind their families and homes to become someone different with every flight, while trying to get one over their sexist employers: that seems like it should be more than enough to be getting on with.
However the producers clearly doesn’t think so: choosing to wrangle in a rather convoluted espionage plot where one of the stewardesses is a spy and another one has disappeared in mysterious circumstances.
Now let me be clear, I’m all about your high-drama Cold War spy films: The Warsaw Pact, Hunt for Red October, Spy Hard with Leslie Nielsen, Cars 2…Bring it on baby, I love it. But it’s really not necessary here- it’s just tacked on: you can almost hear a cigar-chomping executive going “but this is just ‘Broads on a Plane’! Make it exciting. Put guns in it. Guns and spies.”
The problem is that the spy distraction stops the show from fully developing the characters: it does two things badly instead of one thing well. What you’re left with is a frothy, insubstantial little thing that looks great but doesn’t have a lot going on upstairs.
Which, co-incidentally sounds a bit like something a 60s pilot would say while slapping a stewardess on the bum.
PAN AM is on BBC 2 on Saturdays at 9pm. You can watch it on iPlayer here.