So, I’ll admit it: the nearly-cancelled ABC show Pan Am is a guilty pleasure of mine, even though many of my aviation-minded friends have long since written it off as a substandard evening soap. Cobblers, I say. I enjoy it, even if it’s clearly been written by a high school English student. But it’s still missing the je ne sais quoi that has made AMC’s Mad Men a cultural phenom, and left Pan Am veering dangerously close to a long, illustrious parade of first season failures. Or should I say first half season? A season finale after 14 episodes isn’t even a full season.
Ladies, let’s stop walking before we run into the green screen.
Of course, these certainly are modern times. Ratings are no longer the marker they once were. Averaging an estimate 8 million viewers would have gotten the show outright cancelled a mere ten, fifteen years ago, but we live in the era of DVD sales, Netflix, and DVR. The ratings are no longer an accurate picture of a show’s success, now that viewers have clearly told networks they’re not going to be chained to the remote by a show’s timeslot. Ratings are now adjusted for DVR and online viewing, and DVD sales, international releases, and syndicated reruns now figure more heavily into determining a show’s success. Although ABC is no FOX (where animated hits such as Futurama and Family Guy returned to the network following success in syndication and DVD sales, and the critically acclaimed but hardly watched Arrested Development is slated to be the networks newest phoenix).
I digress. Let’s examine what Mad Men has that Pan Am seems to lack:
- Smoking – Pan Am, of course, is on ABC, which, being owned by the Disney Company, which does not allow smoking. So we’re clearly looking at a revisionist version of history here, one that Mad Men isn’t shy about bringing front and center (although ironically the actors in Mad Men are smoking herbal [and not the herb you’re thinking of] cigarettes because California, where the show is filmed, prohibits them from smoking nicotine cigarettes in their workplace) – and it’s not just about the cigarettes, although Mad Men forces us to examine why we’re conditioned to think smoking is so damn cool (hint: it’s advertising). Pan Am actually allowed smoking onboard by both pilots and stewardesses (provided it was out of view of passengers and while seated), but the lack of light ups in the show seems to make the entire portrayal disingenuous.
- Shop talk – Aside from being a period drama, Mad Men is a complete deconstruction of the advertising industry during its “Golden Age”. There’s plenty of learning to be done at Sterling Cooper about the mechanics of an advertising agency, what each department does, how the process flows, and what exactly “Client Services” means (hint: it involves prostitutes). There’s none of this on Pan Am, aside from some brief mentions of weigh-ins (yes, that actually happened), and some brief mentions of a Captain’s responsibility to know what cargo is loaded on his aircraft, there’s no sense that the writers actually know anything about running an airlines. Nostalgia junkies and aviation geeks flew the coop after realizing there was none of this to be had.
- A side note about historical accuracy – for frame of reference, the Pan Am of 1963 was tiny by today’s standards. There were only seven daily Pan Am jet departures from New York Idlewild (it wasn’t named for JFK until after his assassination in November of that year), and a couple of other flights that operated less than daily. Only two of those departures were in the morning, so the throngs of people portrayed in the series is unlikely, considering the 707 was then configured to carry around a hundred people, and was rarely ever full. The aircraft was also portrayed with flight attendant jumpseats, which were not introduced for several more years – standard practice at the time was to block passenger seats for stewardesses to occupy during takeoff and landing.
- Mise-en-scène – Aside from a few sweeping scenics of well-dressed hotel and airport lobbies, Pan Am all but fails in the design department. The cadence of Mad Men is almost poetic. In the episode “Flight 1” which deals with the crash of an American Airlines jetliner, Don meets the head of Mohawk Airlines (one of the predecessors of today’s US Airways) at a Japanese restaurant to tell him the agency is “ending their relationship” with the airline. Pan Am might have left it there, but Mad Men beautifully punctuated the scene with the ‘60s one-off hit “Sukiyaki”, a poignant Japanese pop song about the end of a relationship, by a singer who later died in a jetliner crash.
- Characterization – Mad Men’s characters have deep flaws: Peggy is an idealistic hypocrite, Don is an alcoholic rake, Betty is an icy woman-child, but we find a way to love them and root for them in spite of their problems. We cheer when Peggy gets a promotion, Don lands an account, or Betty cracks a smile, because we feel invested in the character’s wellbeing after getting juicy, tantalizing tidbits out of them every episode. The actors on Pan Am (Christina Ricci and Karine Vanasse are notably capable) seem hampered by the cartoonish way in which their characters are written – poorly devised archetypes needed to deliver a certain type of line or support a certain type of story, but never given enough of their own to stand on to make the audience either care about them, or even be able to distinguish them from everybody else on the show (which already shouldn’t be difficult, as the six principle characters evidently have the world’s best buddy bid).
That about sums it up, folks. Although I certainly hope Pan Am will stick around for another season (keep downloading those episodes on iTunes, kids!) there are some serious First Class upgrades that need to happen before the show can achieve Mad Men’s cultural zeitgeist status. We’ll see if ABC pulls the plug.