Considered as an exercise in mile-high modernism, Pan Am (ABC, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET) comes up like a pair of black aces. The show is a light Cold War-period drama about stewardesses serving coffee, tea, and the free world, and it is, by critical consensus, the best-looking thing on network television. Even viewers unimpressed by the show's substance acknowledge its fine style. In the first shot, a plane taxies to its terminal—to the weightless temple of Worldport —and the Earth of Pan Am's impeccable logo, painted on a tailfin, eclipses the sun rising above Idlewild. This moment and many more are alive to buildings and machines, attentive to swizzle sticks and pencil skirts.
One does dread risking pretension when scrivening about the telly, but the show begs comparison with un incomparable spectacle de Jacques Tati. Play Time, his 1967 masterpiece, transformed Orly Airport and other Paris venues into a comedy about tourism and architecture. But where Tati held up the glass walls of his sets as mirrors reflecting a new society, the ABC show cutely capers. This columnist—who developed a thing for stewardesses during a pubescent viewing ofthe Jerry Lewis-Tony Curtis adaptation of Boeing Boeing—has argued that stories about them find their most natural expression in farcical forms. Pan Am's easy whirl fits the bill, when its chatter is snappy and also when it's not. Critics have noted that Play Time frequently reduces dialogue to the level of background noise, and the same goes here, sometimes unthinkingly. What is this diverting, well-acted, over-scored nonsense about? What do you suppose a viewer is fantasizing, in 2011, when she is watching escapist fluff about an American airline and all-American dominance?
The series opens in 1963—the height of the American Century, to use a term coined by Henry Luce in a Life editorial, one arguing that the United States should export democracy, lead the world, and do whatever comes after fulfilling Manifest Destiny. As it happens, Life features prominently in the Pan Am pilot. The lead character, Laura Cameron (played by Margot Robbie), has wound up on its cover in her uniform, rendered a star of skies overnight at random, by fate, as if plucked from the counter at Schwab's.
Laura has been on the job for all of three weeks, after fleeing the imminent prospect of a loveless marriage in her wedding gown. When she was fresh out of stewardess school, a photographer snapped a portrait of her with the brand-new Pan Am Building—the elongated octagon at 200 Park Avenue—in the background, and that's the cover of the Life magazine on stands in the episode, right next to Harold Hayes' Esquire. In the pose, Laura looks off and up with confidence, her chin set at an angle recalling WAC recruitment ads and Soviet propaganda posters. The cover line reads, "Welcome to THE JET AGE." Laura might as well be a figurehead, a beauty on the prow of a spaceship.
She looks great on paper, but her supervisor, as strict as a school mistress in a boarding-school B-movie, shows displeasure with the angle of her hat, the absence of her girdle, the tear in her stockings. Everyone is always encouraging Laura to keep up appearances. When it was apparent that her premarital cold feet were getting frostbite, her mother instructed, "Just smile through it, dear." When Laura, feeling butterflies, boards her first trans-Atlantic flight, her sister and crewmate Kate (Kelli Garner) says sardonically, "Smile through it, dear." Laura has a nice smile you see.
Kate's own storyline finds her spying on behalf of Western interests. In a flashback—its soundstage artifice made digestible, delicious even, because of the show's overall stylization—a rugged spook recruits her to keep her ears open. "A Pan Am stewardess can travel all around the world without suspicion," he purrs, and Kate steps into a plot suggesting a Graham Greene entertainment as written by Holly Martins. The third member of the crew is a sexually liberated Frenchwoman named Colette Valois (Karine Vanasse). She's free to move about the cabin, if you know what I mean, and soon has an unhappy reunion with a one-night stand who turns out to be married. The fourth is supposed to be Bridget Pierce (Annabelle Wallis), but she has suddenly disappeared without explanation. She makes a few appearances in flashbacks, which inform us that she's sophisticated, enigmatic, thrillingly pretty, and, like Kate, has connections in the intelligence community.
From the perspective of the pilot—Dean Lowrey (Mike Vogel), who is also Bridget's lover—she's vanished like Ilsa Lund. Her disappearance spoils his first flight in the captain's seat, where he nonetheless manages some friendly-rivalrous banter and Top Gun homoeroticism with first mate Ted Vanderway (Michael Mosley). In a flashback, Dean and Bridget share a ripe moment on a tarmac in Cuba, immediately after the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Bridget halts on the airstairs, her wet hair swept away from her oval face by the wind off the propellers, as Dean proposes marriage. This is one of a few instances where Pan Am goes over the top and then, sensing turbulence, ascends to a higher cruising altitude of pulp.
Back in the present at Worldport, with Bridget AWOL, a boss spins the rotary dial to call the downtown hovel of Maggie Ryan (Christina Ricci), that little boho minx, and she scurries to fill in for Bridget. At the Pan Am Building, she heads to the highest helipad in the world. There is a very fine CGI view of the liftoff: The building is a brazen monolith, grand and central; the whirlybird lifts; the "camera" pulls back and scoops up a view of the southern tip of Manhattan. No one could fail to think about more recent events involving air travel and the New York skyline. The past isn't even past, and a future absence is present.
The show goes heavy on symbols, notably that logo, designed by Ivan Chermayeff, an important author of graphic identities. The icon is a thing of streamlined control, a cordial stamp of global security, a promise of new connections. In the imagination, the straight lines of latitude or longitude on its textless version sometimes meet at one's own, sometimes at MIA, and sometimes in Panama. The airline was founded to thwart a German-controlled airline trying to obtain landing rights in the Canal Zone; in its infancy it won a U.S. mail-delivery contract despite not owning any proper planes. From its founding, Pan Am was an agent of American imperialism, representing the military-industrial complex at its least objectionable and most efficient. Flip back to the issue of Life dated Oct. 20, 1941, the one with its cover overwhelmed by another Pan Am beauty, a seaplane shot by George Strock. Inside there is a "Close-Up" of President Juan Trippe. The dek: "Pan American Airway's Young Chief Helps Run a Branch of U.S. Defense." The story assesses and marvels, and it does some cautious cheerleading. "By its U.S. critics, Pan Am … is naturally viewed as a dangerous monopoly," it reads. "On the other hand …"
Pan Am was essential to the Allied victory in World War II, and Trippe, as the master of an amazing traffic network, was a chief engineer of the post-war age. He hired the Harvard architect Edward Larrabee Barnes to oversee a cohesive visual expression of his corporate concept, including, controversially, the largest commercial office building in the world, a behemoth once much loathed. Later, Trippe dictated changes in the 747 to Boeing, then overspent on a huge fleet of them. Then came a recession and the airline's decline. The 1988 bombing of Pam Am Flight 103—targeted by terrorists partly for its symbolic value—was the last blow. Bankruptcy came in '91. The trademark now belongs to a company in New Hampshire, which licenses it to this show. A spokesperson for Pan Am Brands recently told the Nashau Telegraph, "We found that while the airline business was tough, there was really such a strong affinity for the brand itself." The brand presents an antique way to see the world. The cool of Pan Am is a cover for a fanciful trip to a happy hegemony. Also, the show, while playing in the living room, looks good with your Danish furniture.
Next time, series creator Jack Orman and his team should set a show at Lever House—a soap-salesman opéra bouffe about corporate multinationalism and International style, with secretaries bathing in sunshine and window washers licking the glass.