By Ken Tucker
Updated September 25, 2011 at 12:00 PM EDT

David Caruso needs his trademark sunglasses to look up at the bright sky and glimpse CSI: MIami‘s new Sunday-night competition: the sleek airliners of Pan Am; it’s a new series that is, to use a word that would have been employed during the era in which the show is set, kicky — fun, with the promise of something more.

West Wing director and Pan Am executive producer Thomas Schlamme directed a dreamy vision of what it was like to be a stewardess circa the early 1960s, and his smooth visual storytelling did a lot to cover up clunky dialogue and corny plot twists such as a married passenger boarding a flight containing the gamine stewardess (a pert Karine Vanasse) he’s been having an affair with. Kate (Kelli Garner) is helping out the CIA with a little espionage, even as the Bay of Pigs mess is dragged in to lend some heavy seriousness to a series that really wants to be lighter than air.

The most engaging co-star is Christina Ricci, playing a rebellious stewardess with a working knowledge of Marxism (you can practically see her beatnik black turtleneck beneath her stew uniform; and Ricci’s wide dark eyes suggest evenings spent pounding bongos while reciting protest poetry). In general, Pan Am juggles romance, espionage, and comedy in subplots that will take a while to get sorted out. Right now, the show doesn’t seem to know exactly what it wants to be, and is experimenting with tone, and seeing what works and what doesn’t. That’s the kind of attitude that, if the tinkering is done right, could lead to an interesting series.

Pan Am — along with The Playboy Club, which has already landed with a resounding flop in the ratings — suggest the deep yet almost inexplicable envy that broadcast networks have of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men. The period drama has a persistent allure for network programmers, despite the fact it hasn’t really worked for them, ratings-wise, in a long time (pace Swingtown, Homefront, American Dreams), and that if Pan Am were to only get Mad Men-sized ratings for ABC, it’d quickly do a death spiral into cancellation.

The show could certainly do without dialogue that tries to articulate what it wants us to believe about it — that back then, the career of stewardess led to, as one of the horny pilots says without a trace of believability, “a new breed of woman… they just had an impulse to take flight.” Puh-leese. What Pan Am is selling is fantasy, or an envious reminder of what life used to be like up, up, and away — yes, kids, there really used to be roomy seats and attentive service. (But then again, you were wearing suits and ties or dresses to fly, not sweat pants and t-shirts with Starbucks stains on them.) I’m intrigued enough to watch again to see how the show shakes down, what proportion of romance vs. spy story it will settle upon. Are you?

Twitter: @kentucker

Be sure to read Adam B. Vary’s complete recap: ‘Pan Am’ premiere recap: Come fly with me