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Mourning the Death of ABC’s Pan Am

June 29, 2012

Pan-Am-ABC-PosterInspired by the success of Mad Men, AMC’s mega-hit advertising drama set in the early 1960s, the major networks saw their chance to cash in on the retro-TV trend. The Fall 2011 television line-up brought viewers two new 60s-inspired television shows: The Playboy Club (NBC) and Pan Am (ABC). Both were as stylized as Mad Men, but neither were as successful: The Playboy Club was cancelled after only three episodes aired, though Pan Am was able to finish out its season before its demise. I didn’t catch any of TPC before its cancellation so I can’t comment on its quality, but I was a big fan of Pan Am.

For those of you unlucky enough to miss it the first time around, Pan Am is the story of four Pan Am stewardesses and two pilots in the beginning of the commercial jet age. Maggie (Christina Ricci), Colette (Karine Vanasse), Laura (Margot Robbie) and Kate (Kelli Garner) are all young, fresh-faced, and trying to make a career for themselves out of the limited opportunities available for women in the early 60s. They are expected to be well-educated and well-spoken, thin, beautiful, solicitous, worldly and pleasing. Speaking out of turn, refusing to wear a girdle, and getting married are not tolerated. Still, becoming a stewardess allows them to live on their own, travel the world, and experience life before they are expected to “settle down.”

Each of the young women is on her own path. Colette will be a stewardess until she marries and has children. Maggie will be a stewardess as long as they’ll have her, as it’s a better place in life than she ever thought she’d reach. Laura has just rejected the perfect husband and life in the suburbs that her mother planned for her and is figuring out her new life plan. And Kate has been drafted by the CIA to be a courier and is slowly sinking deeper and deeper into the life of a spy.

Pan Am was a very pro-woman show. The main characters were all women, career women, and while they did talk of men and love, most of their conversations revolved around work and life and their hopes for the future. It definitely passed the Bechdel test. It showed women at the edge of a social revolution, forging new paths for themselves and rejecting the lives that were expected of them. As one of the male pilots remarked in the first episode, “They’re a new species of women and they don’t even know it.”

Pan Am

It’s true that at times during the show’s 14-episode run, it seemed a little lost. One week it was a spy thriller, the next it was a soap opera. But I think if the writers and network had stuck with it, they would have figured out what kind of show they wanted it to be. Unfortunately, the audience just wasn’t there. It started with 11 million viewers for the pilot and dropped to 3.8 million by the time the last episode aired in February. ABC announced in May that the show was over, but hope remained that Amazon might pick it up for its streaming video service. However, last week it was announced that the show was officially dead.

There is no word yet on whether Pan Am will be released on DVD, but I hope it is. There is definitely an audience that will miss the show, full of nostalgia for the great airline-that-was, the time, the history, the cultural changes, and the fabulous accessories.

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