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Pan Am sells a pleasant fantasy

September 26, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
I've flown a couple of times as an adult but I don't remember it being nearly as much fun as the passengers seemed to be having on ABC's new show Pan Am.

The show, which debuted Sunday night at 9 p.m., is about four young women in the early 1960s who seek freedom and adventure as Pan Am stewardesses. The back stories are pretty typical for a show of this type. One stewardess is having an affair with a married man. When he brings his wife and son onto the plane, stewardess Collette must show the little boy the cockpit and discuss her eyelashes with her lover's wife and get the man a martini. Two of the stewardesses, Kate and Laura, are sisters. Laura is an ingenue who ran away from her own wedding so she could be a stewardess; big sister Kate is embarking on a career as a spy for some government agency and tampers with a passenger's passport so he will be detained at customs. Christina Ricci was the only actress on the show I recognized and her character Maggie didn't seem to have much to do yet.

The early 1960s costumes and settings were all so pretty to look at that they made up for the soapy, slightly cheesy plot lines. But it was the passengers I was really fascinated by. They smiled while they boarded the airplane and they wore suits and dresses and gloves and hats. Their seats were roomy and their stewardesses served them food and offered a round of champagne on the house to one lucky passenger. They chatted happily with each other about where they'd been and where they were going and seemed to expect only good things.

Compare this with the modern airline passenger's experience of standing in a long line with a surly crowd wearing sweatpants and sneakers, all waiting to be frisked and questioned about the contents of the shampoo bottle or wrapped package in their carry on luggage. Aboard the plane, our modern passenger will be crammed in like a sardine between, on one side, a large, smelly man who jabbers on his cell phone about the intimate details of his marriage or business deals and, on the other, a mother with a screaming baby whose diaper needs to be changed. As the passenger closes her eyes and tries to tune out the background noise, she wonders if the airplane will be hijacked by terrorists or shot out of the sky by the U.S. Air Force.

I'm sure the Pan Am of 50 years ago had surly passengers with grabby hands, screaming children and lots of cigarette smoke, so it couldn't have been the paradise it is depicted as on TV. But I think audiences might be willing to buy into the fantasy version of 1963 offered on the screen. Who wouldn't want to be a passenger on a plane where everyone looks good, is enjoying himself and has hope for the future? If only we could transfer some of that optimism from 1963 to 2011.


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