Glamour, travel, espionage, politics and sex: the pilot episode for ABC’s Pan Am delivers the goods and then some. I’d love to review Pan Am on its own, but I can’t help but compare it to the pilot I watched last week of NBC’s The Playboy Club. Both are sexy female-centric network dramas set in the 1960s, but one of these things is not like the other.
Pan Am gets every detail right from its take-off, inspiring the same flurry of excitement you feel before a big trip. Buddy Greco sings Around the World as we are treated to a visual feast of 60s fashion and a behind-the-scenes look at the insane rules flight attendants had to adhere to during that era. The music—from Bobby Darrin to The Sonics—is carefully chosen and keeps the show authentic and exciting throughout.
The Playboy Club is also visually stimulating, but something about its whirlwind colors and fancy camera tricks makes it feel too modern, and the music kills the authenticity completely: instead of using genuine tracks from the era, we get CSI-style ominous keyboard sounds, or, at best, an original 1960s song performed by Bunny Mother Carol-Lynn (played by the gorgeous Laura Benanti).
While The Playboy Club’s cast is made up of beautiful and capable actors, the material falls short. Instead of teasing the viewers playfully, the script assaults us—or rather, stabs us in the neck with a stiletto—only a few minutes in. The characters are, so far, all one-dimensional. There’s the gorgeous newbie trying to make it in the city (Amber Heard) and the slick womanizer clearly ripped from Mad Men’s Don Draper (Eddie Cibrian). Instead of allowing the characters’ actions to speak for themselves, the writing tells us exactly what to think.
By contrast, Pan Am gives us just enough information about each character to leave us wanting more, slowly revealing back story through flashbacks that happen all around the world. Kate (Kelli Garner) seems to be on a secret spy mission while her sister Laura (Margot Robbie) is on the cover of Life magazine after running away from her wedding to travel the world. Maggie (Christina Ricci) is a beatnik at heart, and Collette (Karine Vanasse) is having an affair with a man who turns out to be married…or something more. Throughout it all, we wonder what happened to Bridget (Annabelle Wallis), the stewardess who has gone missing.
While the bunnies at The Playboy Club have been presented thus far as fluffy-tailed pawns in a man’s world, the Pan Am women have clear opinions and the power to choose their own fates. As one pilot says to the other, “They don’t know they’re a new breed of woman. They just had an impulse…to take flight.”