September 25, 2011



Disclaimer:  Network pilots now in circulation are not necessarily in the form that will air in the Fall.  Pilots are often reedited and rescored, and in some cases even recast or reshot.  So these critiques shouldn’t be taken as full TV pilot reviews, but rather as a guide to the general style and content of the new shows coming your way.
PAN AM –  Sunday 10PM on ABC:  If Nothing Else Is On…
Visually, PAN AM is a treat.  Just to be clear, this is the primetime series set in the mid-1960s that doesn’t feature Don Draper or Playboy bunny tails.  While no series could possibly surpass the fetishistic accuracy of Mad Men (even though the Pan Am pilot is set in 1963, one of the songs on the soundtrack was composed for the Doctor Dolittle movie in 1967–it would give Matthew Weiner a coronary), Pan Am has a sleek, elegant look filled with terrific period detail; watching it, you feel like those plane sets could actually take off.  With Tommy Schlamme behind the camera (he’s done all of Aaron Sorkin’s shows, among others), Pan Am also moves rapidly and absorbingly through its mid-air paces.

In the dramatic region, the show hits more air pockets.  The script is by Jack Orman, who was showrunner of ER for years and has more recently written for Men Of A Certain Age, but who has less of a track record as a series creator.  The storylines are what one of the old Airport movies would have been like if no planes ever crashed:  mostly, a lot of tangled stewardess romances.  So we get the gorgeous Laura (Margot Robbie) who ran out on her own society wedding to make a life for herself; Laura’s sister Kate (Kelli Garner), who’s always been jealous of Laura and none too thrilled she has to share the spotlight with sis again; Colette (Karine Vanasse), who’s French and unlucky in love; and Maggie, played by the cast’s biggest name–Christina Ricci, in her TV series debut–but the sketchiest character, a political liberal who puts on stewardess garb for the sake of world travel.  (At least initially, the 2 pilot characters don’t make much impression.)  Strangely mixed in with these suds is a story about one of the girls being recruited by an intelligence service to carry on mid-air espionage (John LeCarre it’s not).
There’s certainly potential to make something more of Pan Am‘s premise; a bit of dialogue toward the end suggests that behind their Barbie-doll exteriors, we should see these stewardesses as indicative of the new directions women will take as the 1960s unfold.  For now, though, it’s pretty weak, uncompelling stuff.  While it’s understandable that ABC wasn’t interested in tackling the subtle, difficult tone of a Mad Men, at this point Pan Am doesn’t even have the vitality of The Playboy Club‘s melodramatic pilot.  Luckily, the show’s visual glamour and brisk pace should keep it aloft for a while as it tries to find itself.
ABC has given Pan Am a good spot on the runway, following Desperate Housewives on Sunday nights.  While it certainly won’t touch NBC’s football in overall 18-49s–assuming there’s football this fall–it should appeal to the Housewives audience (the promos will look like a dream), and although Mitch Metcalf’s Sunday projection shows it losing a chunk of that crowd and falling behind the aging CSI: Miami in the timeslot, it has a chance to do better–if it can figure out its own aerodynamics.
Read more about TV’s new shows at THE SKED PILOT REPORT.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."