Of all the odd topics to choose for a review: a TV series that lasted only 14 episodes before its cancellation over a decade ago. A mere blip on the 75-year television timeline. Why bother?
Please bear with me. I loved this program then, and I still love it now, every time I bring it back to life within the mechanisms of my DVD player.
So, what’s the appeal? We’ll get to that shortly. First, though, here’s brief bit of historic background to set the stage for the program itself….
As the 1950s came to a close, the dawn of the Jet Age swiftly and forever changed how we travel by air. The world seemed to shrink by half with drastically shorter flight times, and more in-flight comforts for passengers. The jet engine — a faster, more powerful successor to the piston engine driving propeller planes — was first developed for Air Force use in the years immediately following the end of World War II. The very first commercial jet put into service by a civilian airline was the Comet 1, a 36-seat plane flown by British Overseas Airways (BOAC). It flew for the first time on July 27, 1949.
Three years later, BOAC instituted a 9,000-mile jet route from London to Johannesburg, South Africa, which included stops in Rome, Beirut, and several African cities. The most striking aspect of the plane was its speed. While the common DC-3 prop plane achieved a cruising speed of about 180 mph, the Comet reached 480 mph, and was also quieter and relatively vibration free. However, after a series of accidents — some due to metal fatigue — the Comet was grounded, only two years after it began the London-Johannesburg route.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., an intense competition between the two biggest aircraft maufacturers, Douglas and Boeing, resulted in both companies moving steadily closer to getting their respective first jetliners in the air.
In 1958 alone, a new “first” in jet aviation made headlines every few months:
May 31 — The Douglas DC-8 maiden flight (without passengers) took off from Long Beach, California, and after attaining a speed of 600 miles per hour, successfully landed at Edwards Air Force base in the Mojave Desert.
August 25 — Pan Am’s Boeing 707 made its first test flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico to New York City.
October 4 — BOAC instituted the first transatlantic service from London to New York.
October 26 — Pan Am made the first transatlantic flight from New York to Paris (with a stop in Newfoundland for refeueling) with a record 111 passengers. Pilot Samuel Miller became a celebrity.
December 10 — National Airlines was the first to offer domestic jet service, with leased 707s.
January 25, 1959 — American Airlines began domestic jet service, using its own fleet of aircraft.
August 26, 1959 — A new Boeing 707–320, with a greater fuel capacity, enabled Pan Am (led by its visionary founder and president, Juan Trippe) to make the first non-stop New York — London flight, solidifying the airline’s status as the leader of international passenger jet flight. Pan Am stewardesses became unofficial American ambassadors, to be held in the highest esteem.
The arrival and immediate popularity of jet flight changed the world in countless ways that we take for granted now. Long-distance air travel for tourists and business professionals had been made not only practical, but desirable — even glamorous.
So, about this TV series Pan Am…It takes place in 1963, when the Jet Age was still in its infancy and such a mode of flying was new to most travelers.
My attraction to the program is probably due to combination of its several facets: the series’ exciting depiction of that new era, which brought us the birth of the “jet set”; the way it depicts the polished shine and style of our culture in the early 1960s (sanitized and glorified, of course, by our collective nostalgia); the sheer quality of authenticity among the smallest of onscreen details comprising every day life in 1963 (when for instance, men wore hats); the weaving of fictional stories against the backdrop of true-life events; and, last but not least, the gorgeous and talented cast.
Add a number of romantic entanglements, worthy of any nighttime soap (however brief these “romances” may be), story arcs involving international intrigue at the height of the Cold War, sprinkle a dash of humor, and you’ve got what sounds like a winning formula to me — not perfect, perhaps — but at the very least, a vastly enjoyable guilty pleasure.
Here’s a promo ABC aired before the series premiere, to whet the viewing public’s appetite:
The series was created and set into motion by some of the most talented and successful individuals in television at the time. Jack Orman, one-time writer and executive producer of ER, created Pan Am and served as main writer, while two episodes — including the pilot — were directed by Thomas Schlamme, former co-producer/director of The West Wing.
In addition, Nancy Hult Ganis, credited as one of the executive producers, was a Pan Am stewardess from 1968 to 1976. She helped develop the show and conducted extensive research for the series. She also advised the actors, props department, production designers, and costumers in making details for the show as accurate as possible.
The cast was comprised of young actors offering varying degrees of experience and TV recognition at the time, with the star attraction going to Christina Ricci, who first caught the attention of the movie-going public as Wednesday Addams in the Addams Family feature films. Here she plays Maggie Ryan, an energetic, restless, and somewhat rebellious former diner waitress with a major crush on President Kennedy. She’s accompanied by Kelli Garner as Kate Cameron, and Karine Vanasse as the French Colette Valois. Last but not least is Kate’s younger sister Laura, played by a young, wide-eyed former Australian soap actress named Margo Robbie (adopting an American accent and who has — not to put too fine a point on it — made a meteoric rise in Hollywood in the decade since this series).
Then there are also the two pilots who somehow find themselves assigned the same flights as our four heroines more often than not: Michael Mosley as Ted Vanderway, and Mike Vogel as Dean Lowrey.
While we see quite a bit of everyone on the job in mid-flight, each episode offers multiple storylines centering on the stewardesses and pilots during their “down time,” usually at stopovers in exotic locales around the world.
The series was produced by SONY and aired on ABC, with the first episode alone costing a reported $10 million.
The premiere episode aired on September 25, 2011, cramming quite a bit of story into the first sixty minutes, beginning with a breathtaking, pre-title sequence following Maggie’s rush through Manhattan to make a last-minute flight assignment, and Laura’s anxiety attack moments away from her wedding ceremony, as compassionate Kate helps her make a spur-of-the-moment, life-altering decision.
We also meet Colette, whom we deduce has been having a fling with one of the regular Pan Am passengers, but is shocked to see him board the plane with his wife and son (she hadn’t known about them).
The first episode also includes Kate being recruited by the C.I.A. to serve as a messenger for the agency— after all, it has been reasoned, a stewardess who travels the world with the Pan Am pedigree during the Cold War would be a sensible choice for making simple but important and highly secretive errands. She reluctantly agrees (although she’s given little choice), but in time we see the errands become far more involved, and even dangerous.
In London, as Dean searches for his elusive girlfriend Bridget (also a Pan Am stewardess), Laura learns more about what will be expected of her, and why Bridget has mysteriously disappeared for the time being:
Pan Am often brought real-world situations into the lives of its characters (and vise-versa), creating unexpectedly profound moments. In the episode “Ich Bin Ein Berliner,” the crew arrives in Berlin for a company promo junket, corrolating with President Kennedy’s famous speech. Colette, however, feels uneasy from the moment they arrive; as a child, she had lost her entire family when the Nazi’s overran Paris.
Moments before Kennedy’s speech, the throng in the streets make it impossible for the crew to get a good vantage point, so they join a mad rush of people up the stairs of an apartment building across the street to get a bird’s eye view from a higher floor. But for Colette, the dash up the staircase triggers harrowing flashbacks to her family’s failed attempt to escape the German invasion.
Later, upon meeting German officials at a reception, her lifetime of well-hidden anguish and bitterness finds its release valve. And it is a breathtaking moment:
She later explains to Kate that the US government shouldn’t try to erase the German’s shame over the war. “I came to Germany to forgive,” she says, “but I still hate them. And I don’t know how to stop.”
Other flights and adventures take the crew to Paris, Rome, Monte Carlo, Rio de Janeiro, and even an emergency stop in Haiti due to a hurricane and an ill passenger, where they fend off gun-toting rebels.
In the Rio episode, Maggie and Laura do some shopping, where they confront a vendor selling some dodgy merchandise — then find themselves in hot water with the cops.
As Jack Orman explained in an interview before the show’s premiere, “In a lot of ways, 1963, there was still a lot of ’50s sensibility, and the ’60s in earnest, as we know them, hadn’t quite happened yet so we wanted to start at a time where we could travel our series and our characters through a tremendous arc of change, so ’63 was in the summer of 1963, you had Kennedy’s trip to Berlin. You had Martin Luther King’s speech. You had certainly in November the Kennedy assassination and yes, the Beatles, you know, came in February of ’64, and because we’re a global show, because Pan Am only flew internationally, our characters and our show get a global perspective of that time so we do have a brush with history as an element to this show. But when we do it, again we kind of tell it on the ground so to speak from our characters’ perspective and without the benefit of history. They’re just living it.”
One storyline everyone was looking forward to was to focus on the Beatles’ first arrival in America (aboard Pan Am, of course). Before the series even premiered, both Orman and Ricci expressed their enthusiasm for that proposed episode.
“I do confess that I’m looking forward to writing the Beatles episode,” Orman said, “because that’s very specific to Pan Am. They came over on a Pan Am airplane. If you see those pictures of them landing, Pan Am’s everywhere so it’s great when you can actually tie a very specific cultural event to your franchise.”
Ricci agreed. “Yeah, I think we’re all looking forward to it. I can’t wait for that episode.”
The series’ debut episode received its highest rating of 11 million viewers, but the numbers fell steadily afterwards. ABC panicked. In a 2016 interview, Margot Robbie explained, “As soon as it went on-air, they were like, ‘No, we didn’t get the ratings we want — let’s get a whole new crew of writers and make it more like ‘[Desperate] Housewives,’’ And you’re like, ‘What? That’s so not what the show was going to be...After the fifth episode, you see this abrupt change in content. If they’re rehiring writers, it’s obviously not doing well.”
Veteran writer-producer Steven Maeda (Lost) was brought in as the series’ new showrunner. As he explained in an interview just before the mid-season break, “They wanted to serialize and embrace the soap aspect of it. We jumped in with both feet. It was tough the first couple weeks but a lot of it was moving things along. We have to come up with a new script every eight days. The iconography of the show and identity are so strong.”
His attempt to put a positive spin on the changes was nothing if not admirable. “What we tried to do is to embrace the soap side, emphasize the entanglements. Rally the core audience. But it works and we’re all happy with the show. I feel creatively it’s working right now. For me, the show is good with having fun with the era, the entanglements, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.”
He admitted that the mix of soapy romance and spy stories was not easy to pull off. “I thought it was great, but it was hard to play the glamour of the spy world without making it too dangerous. We’re not Alias…Should we have the chance to be renewed we will focus and expand beyond the stewardess world. We have lots of stories to tell about the characters. We already started doing backstories, like with Maggie.”
Still, the ominous signs that Pan Am was in danger of cancellation were not lost on the producers. The 14th episode, taking place on New Year’s Eve, 1963 (and airing on February 12, 2012), ties a few loose ends in the existing storylines, and gives the characters both a sense of closure and the opportunity to welcome the new year with optimism and hope — regardless of what awaits them.
Alas, during the 2011–2012 mid-season break, production on the series halted, and ABC formally canceled the series in May, 2012.
Pan Am could be thought of, perhaps, as a beautiful failure of a television series. But with today’s many limited series achieving great creative and popular results (we used to call them miniseries back in the day), it could be considered a successful entry in that limited-series genre. In the end, though, it wasn’t given enough time to find its way.
“It should not have been on network television,” Ricci said in a 2018 interview. “I think if that had been [on] a cable show or streaming, they would’ve been able to do so much more. Making a show about that period of time and having to be so PC, it doesn’t make sense, because there’s no substance there.”
Ricci also echoed Robbie’s frustration over the changes made in the show when it was barely off the ground, so to speak.
“I think that was definitely the struggle: What were we making? We couldn’t make a Mad Men-type show for our network, so it was, like, ‘Are we making Desperate Housewives? If not, then what are we even doing?’ And I think that was very confusing for a lot of people involved.”
In any case, I for one will continue to re-visit Pan Am every once in a while, to take another vicarious trip back in time to that exciting new chapter in American culture and way of life. Click a button on Amazon.com, purchase the DVD set, and you could do the same.
Until next time…
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