Review: Pan Am 1×1

About as exciting as a very long plane flight

In the US: Sundays, 10/9c, ABC
In the UK: Acquired by BBC2

Again, stop me if you’ve heard this one before

There’s a lot of talk about people harking back to the ‘easier’ times of the 60s, to wanting to once again enjoy a time when sexism, racism and homophobia were acceptable. When women know their ‘place’ and that was too look pretty and not do much.

That, apparently, is the appeal of Mad Men. And why there are now two other shows set in the 60s, vying for our attentions: The Playboy Club and now ABC’s Pan Am

Of course, this is cobblers. Mad Men is successful because it allows us to look back and condemn those times and because it actually has good writing, good acting and good characterisation. And while Mad Men has certainly helped to get these two shows on our screens, American TV has been making ‘period pieces’ like this for years, whether it’s Swingtown, Band of Brothers, John Adams, Life on Mars or Bonanza.

Like Mad Men, these new 60s shows also allow us to look back at the 60s and condemn, yet while The Playboy Club has decided to tread the dark path of the crime drama while showing us a certain amount of the sleaze at the Chicago Playboy Club and what women’s lives were like at the time, Pan Am has gone light and fluffy when doing the same, trying to show us a world in which the air hostess was the height of glamour and empowerment and a job to which apparently any intelligent woman would aspire, whether it was to get away from her own life or because she’s a secret CIA agent.

Yet, despite all the things that Pan Am could and should have ripped off from Mad Men, even with the help of West Wing producer Thomas Schlamme and a cast that include Christina Ricci, it’s gone for possibly the worst option: it’s picked up on Mad Men‘s pacing. Pan Am is about as exciting as an eight-hour flight across the Atlantic.

Welcome to 1963: a time when only a lucky few could take flight, experience a global adventure or gain a front-row seat to history. Those lucky few flew Pan Am, the largest, most prestigious airline in the world. More than Coca-Cola, Elvis Presley or the transistor, Pan Am exported American culture to the world abroad and brought that world back to American shores.

The jet age has arrived and Pan Am’s Clipper Majestic is about to embark on its inaugural flight with Captain Dean Lowrey at the helm. Dean, who has recently been made captain wouldn’t trade this moment for anything in the world. Step by step, Maggie Ryan has climbed her way up to a better life, to greater opportunity. As Purser of Pan Am’s new Clipper Majestic, she’s at last riding high; determined not to fall. Kate Cameron left her sheltered life in East Granby, Connecticut to brave the intrigue of a wide new world. Now, she must brave even more intrigue in becoming an international agent for the CIA.

In running off on her wedding day, Kate’s sister, Laura Cameron, left her past and future, following her older sibling to the skies of Pan Am; a bold move, but one with serious personal consequences. Born and raised in France, Colette Valois has an innate understanding of international affairs. But in affairs of the heart, she’s still a wanderer, a searcher, a soul traveling a confused sea. First Officer and Co-Pilot Ted Vanderway, a former Navy test pilot, finds the commercial skies every bit as turbulent as he struggles to overcome past mistakes and prove his worth as an aviator.

Join our crew as they travel to intoxicating cities such as Paris, Berlin, Monte Carlo and Rome and bump into history along the way. Through their eyes we revisit an era nearly half a century ago.

So, buckle up; adventure calls. And thank you for choosing Pan Am.

Is it any good?
Well, if looking good was all that was needed, Pan Am would be ruling the airwaves right now. With Thomas Schlamme directing and copious amounts of money spent on sets, costumes and almost-perfect CGI to recreate the 60s, it does look perfect. It certainly knocks the lower-budget The Playboy Club for a loop in comparison.

Yet it is even more clearly a piece of fluffy escapism than The Playboy Club and even less about female emancipation. From The West Wing-esque incidental music to the soap opera-lite relationships on board the plane to the CIA agent air hostess, this is a show that is a 60s tourist, rather than a 60s native, trying to show us the highlights as we’d like to remember them, rather than because they are in any way realistic.

From scene to unconvincing scene of interminable boredom, we get introduced to characters who in no way ring to true as human beings, let alone to the era. We meet them, they talk in West Wing style as though their job was the most important thing on earth, and not once is it possible to believe them. Instead, we just have to watch the pretty pictures and marvel at how well they’ve visually recreated an era over 50 years ago. Ooh yes, they’ve remembered to call JFK airport Idlewild. Well done.

Acting is almost acceptable but uncharismatic. The plot is almost non-existent but revolves around a disappearing purser who has to be replaced at the last moment. There’s so little of actual interest in this show beyond its visuals, it’s amazing. 

So, ultimately, this is a show in which a bunch of people with not especially interesting backgrounds have to spend a good percentage of their time handing out drinks in a big metal tube in the sky, while emoting to one another, usually with the help of a Lost-style flashback to fill in the background details (here’s hoping for a similar crash). It’s a journey of self-discovery, don’t you know? That’s the painful metaphor. But you won’t really get any idea of what it was like to be an air hostess, a pilot, a CIA agent or even a woman during the early 60s from this show. And you won’t get any real drama from it either.

Don’t get on board.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.