If you go into Pan Am thinking that you’re going to get a period piece like Mad Men with philandering men and the struggle of independence for women then you’d only actually be half right. It is indeed a period piece but it separates itself from Mad Men in many ways. The main male characters are nowhere near as sleazy and there are some who could be consider straight up good citizens. The same can’t be said for Mad Men but then this isn’t exactly a bad thing. While Mad Men has been successful I don’t think anyone wants to what the exact same show set on an aeroplane rather than an ad agency.
Part of the reason I think Pan Am works on a different level than Mad Men is that it isn’t so much of a character drama as Mad Men is. For the latter, you’ll see Don drink and sleep around, Betty will struggle to do something (although generally it will be completely unrelated to parenting), Pete will toe the line and boarder on ruining his own career for money and power and Joan will saunter down the hall way. The point is that Mad Men deals with an ensemble cast with in different storylines living their own lives and doing whatever comes naturally to them.
This is essentially why Pan Am works on a different level, however. It has an ensemble cast, much like Mad Men, but the cast will generally all be involved in the same story. There will be a flight to another country or American city and there will be an event in that city. Or at least that’s how the first three episodes have seemed to work. The flight will obviously involve all of the stewardesses and the pilots but even after they land the story will generally focus on a large number of the characters. It seems much more plot driven in that story is driven by actions of the characters rather than the personal problems of the characters. In episode 2, Maggie Ryan (played by Christina Ricci) is accosted by a male passenger. By season 3 this is completely forgotten in lieu of her chasing after President Kennedy. If this was Mad Men, and a similar situation did happen between Joan and Greg, you can bet it would be part of some personal drama that would continue throughout the season.
That isn’t to say that Pan Am doesn’t have overarching storylines or that the characters aren’t as emotionally developed. The characters do have a lot of issues which aren’t resolved in one episode. Maggie struggles to work under authority, a character trait that’s bound to get her fired sooner or later (she already starts the series grounded). French stewardess, Colette (played by Karine Vanasse) struggles to overcome her hatred of Germans due to growing up in occupied France, and Sisters Laura and Kate (played by Margot Robbie and Kelli Garner respectively) have to deal with flying together. This is especially irritated by the fact that Laura ends up on the cover of Life magazine before her first flight. Laura has her own personal storyline dealing with the fact that she ran away from her wedding to be a stewardess and Kate’s personal storyline is about being a courier for the CIA.
Yes, you read that correctly.
See, this is another area where Pan Am seems to separate itself from the likes of Mad Man. It is far more political than Mad Men ever was, whether it’s the spy storylines and the pressure of the Cold War or Kennedy’s speech to the German’s bringing up fresh hatred in the heart of Colette. In other shows, the political issues are a sort of white noise in the background but Pan Am really keeps the political issues right at the forefront. The show never quite lets you forget that there’s the Cold War is going on in the background. Perhaps writer Jack Orman is trying to say something about the height of Pan Am and the Cold War. Anyone who knows their history is aware of the arms race and the space race between the Russians and the Americans, but maybe there’s also something to be said even about the leaps in flight alone. Experiments into space and missiles probably went a long way in helping to develop the propulsion systems in jet engines and how to create much smoother flights. Not to mention that the Cold War was a time when entire parts of the world were closing themselves off being contrasted with the inherent openness and freedom that comes with flying. On the surface Pan Am is about flirty stewardess on a plane when flying was new and fun but underneath that there’s a very real and potent point.
Pan Am has a lot of do with spectacle too. This is to be expected with a television show about flying but there’s so many times that the show seems like it’s a film. Certain scenes and images simply seem cinematic. It’s as though the directors are trying to create an iconic image with every single shot. This is especially true of the first episode but it’s equally true of the rest of the show. From the take off in the first episode to Kennedy’s speech in the third, Pan Am wants to capture your attention. It’s a little bit like flying. It takes you on a journey with these characters but on that journey it wants you to look out your window and see something you’d otherwise never see. As strange as some of the storylines are, the show certainly makes feels like it’s trying to be something special.
On the whole, although comparisons to Mad Men will be inevitable, it’s rather unfair to compare the two. Although they’re from the same time period they’re completely different television shows. Each show has its own theme and flavours to expose the viewer to. Even if you’ve ever watched an episode of Man Med and didn’t like it (although if that’s true, what’s wrong with you?), I’d still give Pan Am a chance. It’s got a very iconic image and some very ambitious, though strange, storylines. The use of flashbacks and flashforwards are very interesting too, so even the choice of narrative can be very stylistic at times. Whether it’s for the style, the political plots or simply just to see the stewardess fawn about the plane, I’d recommend Pan Am. It’s worth watching.