Getting on an airplane these days ranks somewhere between a root canal and a tax audit on the list of life's least enjoyable experiences. But ABC's sleek retro drama "Pan Am" transports us back to a time when airline travel was not a chore, but a privilege -- when the sky truly was the limit. That nostalgic sense of wonder, along with gorgeous cinematography, a promising subplot full of Cold War intrigue, and a dash of mile-high romance, makes "Pan Am" a smooth flight indeed.
Set in the late-Camelot year of 1963, "Pan Am" follows a group of the airline's beautiful stewardesses (the "It" girls of the era) as they jet around the globe, catering to passengers' every whim while (literally) broadening their own horizons. Sure, they had to submit to demeaning weigh-ins and girdle checks to earn their wings. But as star Christina Ricci notes, being a Pan Am stewardess "allowed these women to have a freedom that they weren't really given at that time. They were able to see the world and to be in charge of their own lives in a way that women weren't necessarily able to do."
Watch our exclusive interview with "Pan Am" stars Christina Ricci and Mike Vogel:
Ricci stars as Maggie, a rebellious beatnik who is the go-to stewardess for the Pan Am brass -- despite her history of uniform violations. She's joined onboard by Laura (Margot Robbie), a rookie stewardess who ran out on her own wedding day to fly with Pan Am; Kate (Kelli Garner, "My Generation"), Laura's headstrong sister who moonlights as an international spy; and Colette (Karine Vanasse), a bubbly French bon vivant who's getting a head start on the free-love era.
Together, the ladies work together to give their passengers the kind of warm, personal service that's unheard of these days. Executive producer Nancy Hult Ganis says the stewardesses back then were like "hostesses at a dinner party." (And she should know: Ganis was actually a stewardess for Pan Am in the late '60s.) "We would become friends with our passengers. We would know them by name." Executive producer Jack Orman ("ER") adds that the show's portrayal of air travel "almost feels like science fiction right now. You go through no security. There's a lounge. They are having martinis. It's a lot of fun… and it was real."
[Photos: Meet the Cast of 'Pan Am']
Executive producer Thomas Schlamme ("The West Wing") directed the show's pilot, and he consciously tried to evoke that feeling of excitement we used to get when boarding an airplane. Back in the '60s, he says, "people were coming onto airplanes and feeling something that we don't feel anymore. We take it for granted in a very different way." And the first episode of "Pan Am" really emphasizes that Jet Age romanticism, pairing a swinging jazz score with lovingly crafted shots of gleaming aircraft taking off and landing. It's almost enough to make you forget your most recent ten-hour layover.
Manning the cockpit is hotshot pilot Dean (Mike Vogel, "Blue Valentine"), whose JFK-esque good looks have put him on the corporate fast-track. "He jumped the line," Vogel says of his character, who gets to take a brand-new jet on its maiden voyage. "He got promoted early, and he's one of the new hires that are going to take the airline into the next decade." Vogel himself had a leg up on the role: He's a pilot in real life. (He downplays his aviation skills, though: "There's a massive difference between a little Cessna and a 707.")
But "Pan Am" isn't all head-in-the-clouds wish fulfillment. Kate's spy subplot reflects the tense international politics of the time. She gets recruited by an American intelligence agent who sees her job as the perfect cover. "A Pan Am stewardess can travel all around the world without suspicion," he observes. Orman says the espionage element is rooted in historical fact: "The Cold War was at its height at that time period, and Pan Am was an international airline. They had a very cozy relationship with the State Department." (We even see a flashback of a Pan Am crew evacuating Cuban prisoners during the Bay of Pigs.)
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Beyond the Cold War backdrop, "Pan Am" is packed with fun little details that reflect the time period. (At one point, Laura is baffled by a high-tech gizmo: a Polaroid camera.) But like NBC's "The Playboy Club," the '60s setting and retro fashions have critics accusing "Pan Am" of copping "Mad Men's" style. The producers shrug off the criticism, though. "Television is just execution," Schlamme says. "It's not the time period it takes place in. So it happens that they're both set in the '60s. It is a great time period." (And for the record, "Pan Am" does a much better job of establishing its own style and tone than the shamelessly sexed-up "Mad Men" clone that is "Playboy Club.")
If nothing else, with its weekly flights crisscrossing the globe, "Pan Am" serves as international travelogue eye-candy. Orman hints at where we're headed in future episodes: "We land in the Far East in one episode, then Berlin the episode after that, and Paris the episode after that." Exotic locales, friendly stewardesses, Cold War espionage… we can't believe we're saying this, but "Pan Am" might actually have us looking forward to getting on a plane every week.
"Pan Am" premieres Sunday, 9/25 at 10pm ET on ABC.
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