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.