Pan Am and the Mad Men-ification of Primetime

"Yes, but will they clean your windshield and check your oil?"

As a Mad Men expert (bold claim, backed up only by the fact that I wrote a book about it, currently sandwiched between The Bionic Book: The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman Reconstructed and The Buffyverse Catalogue, so nyah), I approached both Pan Am and the other sixties-set network show The Playboy  Club with apprehension. Cynical due to the surface replication of Mad Men‘s shiny surface but certain to lack in the existential depth department.

I haven’t watched The Playboy Club and don’t think I will: the clips I have seen feature an ersatz Don Draper in Eddie Cibrian, who isn’t a tv-dinner version of John Ratzenberger let alone Jon Hamm.

I just watched the pilot of Pan Am and offer my immediate impressions (spoilers ahead in the very next sentence for those who haven’t seen it).

After my initial apprehension, I heard from my wife (who watched the episode before I did and cannot keep a plot point secret to save her life) mentioned an espionage angle I hadn’t expected. This piqued my interest as I believe the advance of technology has killed the spy genre because, frankly, there is no way to make the loading of a progress bar as a file downloads exciting no matter how many beads of sweat appear on the hacker involved. The Rube Goldberg-esque tech of a sixties spy still had an air of dexterity and cleverness that laptops and cell phones simply cannot replicate.

Having watched the first episode (which I cannot bring myself to call a ‘pilot’, for obvious reasons), I am now back to my original apprehensive state: the spy angle would provide an interesting undercurrent to the jet-setting drama, but if it is going to drive the entire series then I am going to check out early. If I wanted Airport meets The Saint then, well, I’d set up two televisions and watch concurrent DVDs of both. Impractical? Yes.

A few stray thoughts:

Set design: Mad Men has wisely kept to interiors and when outside have chosen timeless settings that won’t betray the time. If Pan Am is going to try and recreate European cities from fifty years ago, they’re going to need more Los Angeles backlots than I believe are in existence.

Christina Ricci: not the protagonist it seems, perhaps brought in for marquee value. Underused in the first episode, I can only hope she steps into the spotlight and is allowed to develop her character, which was wafer-thin first time around.

Karine Vanasse: a Quebec-born actress playing a French character with a little Charlotte Gainsbourg around the eyes. It pleases to see a non-American character in a series ostensibly about burgeoning internationalism.

Pilots: do they all want to bang stewardesses? Maybe it’s true but that doesn’t make it interesting.

Sex: never well-served on network TV and possibly the most desperate attempt at Mad Men-type daring.

Thomas Schlamme: celebrated TV director known for the long single-take walk-and-talks of The West Wing and Studio 60 who has apparently sublimated his own style for the sake of what feels like a committee-sanctioned template courtesy of Matthew Weiner and his colleagues. If he continues to direct, I’d hope to see more of the visual flair but maybe he needs an Aaron Sorkin script to fire his imagination.

Script: takes on a huge amount of set-up and confuses with many flashbacks. There was a lean to pat lines of dialogue (“Buckle up! A world of adventure awaits!”) and an overreach with a Hegelean Dialectic reference in the first ten minutes.

In the end, if Pan Am can find it’s own rhythm and not try to serve too many masters, it could be an entertaining airborne melodrama. If, however, there is a hostage-taking storyline within the first season, I will follow the sage advice of Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57 and “always bet on black”. Whatever the hell that means.

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