Have You Been Watching.. Pan Am

PAN AM: Saturday 26th November, BBC2, 10pm

*I will not mention Mad Men, I will not mention Mad Men, I will not mention Mad Men, I will not mention Mad Men, I will not mention Mad Men*

..Who the hell am I kidding, Pan Am is no Mad Men and Joan has more intrigue and sex appeal than this lot put together. Apart from Christina Ricci’s character maybe, you know she’s the designated firebrand because she sticks it to her boss occasionally and has an interest in politics. Yet unfortunately, like many other things in Jack Orman’s drama, you can see her strings very clearly. Which is a shame because Pan Am has a solid concept – it’s just in too much of a hurry to let it breath.

After five episodes we’ve got the cast (or should that be crew?) and themes pretty much nailed down. Thanks to Matt Weiner, everyone knows how much social norms shifted during the sixties and after centuries of being trapped in the kitchen, women were quite literally – excuse the pun – spreading their wings. This was demonstrated in the pilot by the uber-honeyed Laura, who fled her wedding and ran away with her sister to join an airline. That airline is of course Pan Am, where the average flight is a far cry from the world that modern long-haul travelers know. Every stewardess is a stone-cold hottie who had to be unmarried and weighed-in regularly to make sure they weren’t letting themselves go. In a world where only the rich could afford air travel, planes were essentially flying gentlemen’s clubs and the staff needed to come up to scratch. There is something intoxicating about this heady mix of good-looks and glamour, but while it’s good to see a show dominated by female for once, Pan Am has much less to say than it thinks it does.

“They’re a different breed of women, they just don’t know it” says one of the pilots in the first episode and in terms of clunky exposition, that’s just the iceberg. Characters are queuing up to tell us how they feel, with little left to the imagination. Essentially, there is too little mystery and the audience often feels like it’s being set-up for a message.

The beauty of Mad Men was the way it ruminated so brilliantly over the months, allowing us to accept characters as real people, yet this effort from ABC (which the Beeb couldn’t buy the rights to fast enough) can’t wait to start shoving flashbacks in your face. The wedding one was quite helpful, but most of the others come far too soon. Flashbacks are a fine tool if used correctly, but they are most potent when they reveal a new side to a well-known character. Here the producers have rolled them out early in a bid to create a structure rapidly and yet because we don’t know these characters, they can be pedestrian at times.

What the hell is going on with that whole secret agent storyline as well? It does absolutely nothing to suspend disbelief when you see Kate getting her weekly assignment from a ubiquitously good-looking contact, almost like a schoolgirl getting homework for the weekend. How the hell have none of her colleagues noticed what she’s been up to either? It’s certainly stressing her out a bit. Last week she went mental at her sister for no real reason. It’s almost as if someone wrote *argument ensues* in the screenplay and didn’t bother filling in the details.

Elsewhere the two-dimensional mini-arcs and textbook romances make belief very difficult to suspend, with even the historical references feeling shoe-horned. But the biggest thing that Pan Am lacks is atmosphere, nuance or any of that good stuff that grows organically with a good show. With a team that have ER and The West Wing on their collective CV, this should be a lot better. Let’s it starts to perform as well on screen as it looks on paper..