First Flight: Pan Am (ABC, 2011)

I wish the sun really looked like this.

I wish the sun really looked like this.

Though I don’t usually pay any mind to the new live action drama series that come on with every new season, I suppose there are a number of eccentric reasons that ABC’s Pan Am caught my eye.

The film Catch Me If You Can (starring Leo DiCaprio) is one of my favorite movies and had a fair bit in common with Pan Am – 1960s style, air travel-based intrigue involving classic Cold War era  “G-men” and that delicious blue logo. Yes, I like blue far too much to be allowed and the particular shade of blue that graces the show’s shiny globe-shaped title as well as the stewardess uniforms is probably scientifically geared to swell the flow of endorphins through my system. Additionally, glamorizations of the 1960s have begun catching my attention (due to an upcoming project of mine), so I’ve been thinking of the era a lot and I’ve been jumping at the chance to see anything that might pass as research. But, of course, Christina Ricci also played a big part in making sure I caught this show’s premiere; I adore her and will watch just about anything she’s in (and I’m sure most of you feel the same about America’s Dark Sweetheart).

So, I guess I’ll begin by saying that I was not disappointed. You’ll hear complaints going around about really crappy green screens and CGI planes (and, really, it’s all true; the special effects are pretty weak) but the writing, characterization and acting are all looking rather top notch in the first episode and the practical effects like physical set design, costumes and props are all on point as well, keeping the suspension of disbelief afloat so long as we’re not in the air.

The five stewardesses in question – Maggie, Laura, Kate, Colette and Bridget – are all pretty interesting (and easy on the eyes), but of course what makes their characters is how they react to the situations in which they find themselves.  I had hoped to see more of Maggie (Ricci) during the premiere, but it seems she’s probably been given the most solid position of the five and only appeared in scenes where she was supposed to display her “sure-footed, strong young single woman” attitude, which, in itself, is pretty interesting – especially when paired with Ricci’s famous “smart, cute brunette” looks – but compared to the craziness going on in the lives of the other four, her role makes me sort of hope that something unexpected and wild is coming in the character’s near future. Still, her high intelligence, professional carriage, invaluability to the company, responsibility as purser and caring nature make her the total package of not only modern womanhood, but also of personage. And when the least interesting character has all of that, it can mean good things for the rest of the show.

Laura (Margot Robbie) is a young newbie to Pan America’s stewardess program; unsure of how to conduct herself but eager to live the jetsetting life, she’s just about starstruck by the new experience, which is made all the more pressured by the fact that a candid photo of her in her new blue digs has unexpectedly graced the covers of TIME magazines worldwide. Her blond, mousy persona is cute enough, but not particularly deep; she’s basically there to act as the audience’s avatar, walking us through our own unfamiliarity with stewarding and air-travel. Her shining moment, however, was the flashback revealing that she ran away from home, escaping an unwanted “fairy tale wedding” being forced on her by her overbearing mother, to follow in her “cool” older sister Kate’s footsteps as a Pan American stewardess.

Next up is the French stewardess Colette Valois (Karine Varnasse) who seems every bit the sexy Frenchwoman stereotype, but Varnasse pulls off the role with a fair bit of grace and class, so Colette doesn’t come off as some sort of trollop. Moi, j’aime les Français, so I was glad to see a soeur on the show. Unfortunately, Colette’s in a bit of  a jam when she discovers that her recent fling is actually a married man with a son.

And now for the bomb. The aforementioned sister Kate (Kelli Garner) has what seems like the most on her plate; in addition to having to deal with her younger, prettier sister inadvertently muscling in on her territory, Kate’s been scouted by the CIA due to her intelligence and versatility as a globe-trotting Pan Am stewardess and her first assignment (no training wheels) is to surreptitiously exchange the forged passport of an enemy spy flying to London for a less-believable forgery so as to have him detained at customs, right under the noses of her fellow crewmembers, other passengers and, of course, the scary foreign target himself without being noticed or caught.

While all the varying storylines are pretty interesting, it’s the one revolving around Kate that I found the most engaging and I suspect may compose the bulk of the series’ return factor unless the others get into some adventurous shenanigans as well. Leaving aside Maggie and Laura’s stories, which were both rather simple and have therefore pretty much already been explained, it was a bit heart-wrenching to watch Colette deal with the fact that her lover was already a family man. While suddenly meeting his wife and young son on the flight was little damaging enough that a bit of cold professionalism allowed her to put the matter (and the man) behind her, his wife’s sudden friendliness and the admiration of his little boy put Colette in a bit of an awkward spot.

While the first act (on the ground in New York) set up the story with a great deal of energy and liveliness and the second act (in the air on the way to Heathrow) provided all the tension and suspense, it’s certainly the third act (in London) that drops the real bombs and piques my appetite for more with some promising story threads and great writing (naturally in the form of mouth-watering quotes. Yes, I’m easily manipulated).

As the flight lands and Colette parts with her secret lover’s family on seemingly amicable terms, the wife feigns leaving her purse onboard just for the stinging opportunity to tell Mlle. Valois off in private. It hurt to watch and seemed a perfect example of 60s forced feminine composure on both sides.

As for Kate, it was particularly interesting/nerve-wracking to watch her finally fulfill her mission despite the target’s sharp eyes and cold demeanor (significantly moreso than watching her warm up to her sister) as well as seeing the flashback in which she’s unexpectedly contacted by the CIA. As a bit of a scaredy-cat myself, I doubt highly that I could have achieved her objective so smoothly (by which I mean would have pissed myself or started crying from fear at the very thought). But the real trip starts after the ship lands in London and Kate discovers that the scary target is actually an MI6 agent working with the CIA and that her “assignment” was merely a test of her skills – a test she has passed. As she’s officially brought on board as an agent in the Cold War, Kate learns that she was recommended for the job by the agent she’s replacing – the fifth stewardess, Bridget who, while appearing in several flashbacks, has been conspicuously missing since the start of the episode.

In a 90s sitcom-esque fashion, the pilots (Dean and Ted) and stewardesses all end the day gathering in a British pub to touch base and shake off the stress of the day’s adventures and it’s here that the episode hammered the final nail into my coffin with a pair of brilliant quotes. Fresh from her romantic tumble, Colette  summarizes the jetsetting life while also turning the last page of her finished chapter with, “Tomorrow, another plane takes off to someplace new. Vanished, today’s mistakes; their only trace a touch more wisdom.” Meanwhile, trying to vocalize his opinion of the Pan Am ladies as vanguards to a new age of evolved femininity, co-pilot Ted gives us, “D’you think that the first man to crawl out of the primordial ooze knew he was different? No. He just had an impulse that there was more to life than primordial ooze. See that table over there? That is natural selection at work, my friend. They don’t know that they’re a new breed of woman, they just had an impulse…to take flight.” 

With young, lovestruck pilot Dean’s fruitless search for Bridget making it rather clear that something is wrong and Kate’s sudden discovery that she’s taking over her friend’s dangerous mission, it seems sure that the mysterious Bridget – whose oft-mentioned temporary disappearances are finally explained – has been killed in action…until the very end of the episode, when she appears in the bar window to gaze longingly at Dean before silently climbing into  a black car that drives away.

All-in-all, quite enjoyable and I’m looking forward to the promise that this series holds. Episode 2 was a good bit more tame, as to be expected, but hopefully le troisième brings the action back up to cruising altitude.

(Yes, I’m posting my review of episode one on the day episode three is set to air; I have time-management issues, sue me.)

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