Retro-drama Pan Am featuring Margot Robbie has a strong premiere in the US on Sunday with 10.9 million viewers, even improving on its Desperate Housewives lead-in and beating CSI: Miami’s 10th season premiere.
US critics are all commenting on the glamorous look of the series, that takes viewers back to the golden age of jet-setting. But they sound like they are having trouble with the depiction of stewardesses as little more than decoration. Has Mad Men set the bar too high?
Like “The Playboy Club,” “Pan Am” chooses a potentially sexy setting through which to view the early 1960s — back when international travel was both rare and exotic — as the glamorous backdrop for a soap. Both shows have their problems, but despite some appealing elements, ABC’s is simply all over the map — a weird mix of espionage thriller, sudser and coming-of-age drama. The image of stewardesses walking in synchronized step makes for an arresting promo, but this bird is a hollow shell whose pilot, anyway, never gets off the ground.
NY Daily News:
At least twice the show has all four women, dressed in their crisp, bright blue Pan Am uniforms, stride together through an airport. They’re twice as colorful as everyone else and they walk like they own the joint. They’re selling glamour, and to a large extent, they’re also buying it. It can be argued whether “stewardess” was one of the takeoff ramps for women’s liberation, but these women believe it. They may have to get weighed in, and they may get sent home if they don’t wear their girdles, but they see their job as a way to explore the world and leave traditional rules and roles behind. That said, “Pan Am” makes it clear stewardesses – they were not yet “flight attendants” – are still treated in many ways as ornaments. There’s little sign here that any of these women, however bright and talented, will aspire to become, say, a pilot.
See, that’s the problem with Pan Am trying to go retro. It’s glamorizing the stewardesses because they’re hot and they aren’t their mothers. They are flying off to Paris and England, sleeping with pilots and stuff. This is revisionist feminism of the strangest sort. It’s less about independence than about natural selection and how awesome that is. It takes sexism and somehow makes it aspirational. And no scene reflects this more than the closing one, where four of the stewardesses are strutting in slow motion, all swivel-hipped and breezy as the cut a swath through the terminal and get set to board the plane, like models on a runway. Suddenly the camera looks back and focuses on a young girl of four or five, in awe of what she sees.
If only for the costumes and ’60s music, “Pan Am” is amusing to see at least once, but if it has any instructive benefit at all, it’s as a mood indicator for these times, not those. There have been plenty of series set in earlier times — “That ’70s Show” was set in the Carter administration, “M*A*S*H” took place during the Korean War. But usually period shows pick through the past to meditate on the present, whether it’s examining generational rites of passage or critiquing the Vietnam War at a safe remove. “Pan Am” doesn’t say much of anything about the current state of the nation except that our best days are behind us.
Like “Mad Men,” “Pan Am” is about glamour, but unlike “Mad Men” there’s no critique attached: This is not a story of manufactured desire and empty illusions. The glamour in “Pan Am” may indeed be manufactured — doubly manufactured, given the re-created places and planes — but it’s not empty: The show says, yes, this is as good as it looks, and it looks very good — though anyone who has flown anywhere in the last, oh, 30 years, may find it difficult to believe, or to remember, that air travel ever was this gracious, customer-friendly or fun. (We are assured, by network communiques, and a little extra research, that it was.)