I love to fly. I always have. I love the romance of taking wing above the world — I almost always try to sit by the window, to watch the landscape pass underneath in miniature, my own real-time Google Earth — and some hours later, as if by magic, either arriving in a far-flung destination or returning back home.
Which is to say, Pan Am is a show built for people like me, people who can actually slog through the security lines and baggage fees and rude passengers and cramped seats and pre-fab snack boxes of today’s airline travel and still call it “romantic” with a straight face. Because, at its core, Pan Am is a show that not only lovingly recreates the golden age of air travel, but believes in the romance of it, in the idea that a young, single woman under 32 and living in 1963 New York could truly find herself by strapping on a girdle, slipping on a powder blue uniform and cap, and serving martinis to a crowded cabin of Don and Betty Drapers. And if she also happens to be an operative in international espionage, so much the better!
Tonight’s series premiere opened to a jaunty rendition of “Around the World” as we glided through a gleaming Pan Am terminal, where everyone travels in their Sunday best and X-ray machines, metal detectors, and body scanner are still appear to be the stuff of science fiction. The newest issue of Life magazine had just hit stands, and on it beamed Pan Am stewardess Laura (Margot Robbie), who just started a few scant weeks ago and appeared to be more embarrassed than anything by her sudden fame. (She didn’t pose for the shot, see, some photographer just happened along and snapped it; apparently, Life magazine was the Kennedy-era TMZ.)
At her daily weigh-in — an airline practice I’m told held well into the 1980s — an officious minder smacked Laura on her keister to check for her girdle, and then scolded her for a rip in her stockings. The elegant (i.e. French) Collette (Karine Vanasse) swooped in and promised to lend her an extra pair. “Not too dark!” said the minder, sternly. “This isn’t
the Playboy club a cabaret!” And with that, the episode officially acknowledged that The Early ’60s Were Kind Of A Sexist Drag For Women. Moving on!
As the other stewardesses gushed over the Life cover, Laura’s sister, Kate (Kelli Garner), encountered a man in a black hat — so we know he’s mysterious! — while buying some gum. Turns out, he’s a spy, as is Kate. Her first assignment on her flight from New York to London: Switch out the Visa of the man in seat 3D with an expired version so he can be detained at customs. If you’ve already read EW’s Fall TV Preview, you know that this sort of thing actually happened during Pan Am’s heyday, but I still think it’s pretty ballsy to make Cold War intrigue the central plotline for the pilot. It’s kind of like tuning into Mad Men to see Roger Sterling meeting with the Feds about slipping pro-America propaganda into ads running in countries flirting with Communism. Sure, that could have happened, but it’s not my most immediate association when I think “1960s-era Madison Ave. advertising” — or “1960s-era international airline travel.” I’m not saying Pan Am‘s spy games aren’t working; if anything, they give it some needed gravity (pun intended). I’m just wondering if they run the risk of overshadowing the rest of the show.
NEXT: Marx, Hegel, and the mystery of the missing “purser”