Review: “Pan Am” is Great, But in a Totally Different Way Than “Mad Men”

Mike Vogel as Dean

Let me cut to the chase: the ABC show Pan Am is a lot better than NBC’s The Playboy Club, the “other” TV show debuting on broadcast television this fall that’s set in the 1960s. It’s better acted and much better written.

But the really interesting part about the show is the “point” it’s making — and that has to do with how Pan Am is different from Mad Men, cable’s low-rated critical darling that, at least in part, inspired both of these network shows.

Because it is different. Really, really different. Pan Am and Mad Men are both set in the 1960s, and they’re both brilliant, but they’re brilliant in completely different ways.

Mad Men, set in a somewhat cynical ad agency, made the audacious choice to have its central characters mostly endorse and celebrate the misogynistic, homophobic, and racist attitudes of its day. Even the show’s sympathetic main characters don’t question these attitudes (for the most part).

It’s hard to overstate just how bold and subversive a decision this was, especially for television, which tends to like its “good guys” really, really good. But Mad Men forces its audience to face that uncomfortable truth that most of us don’t really question most attitudes of our era, even those attitudes that are, in retrospect, outright horrible.

Pan Am, meanwhile, tells the story of a very diverse group of 1960s flight attendants and pilots working on Pan Am Airways, the iconic, now-defunct company that basically created most of what we now take for granted in modern air travel. One flight attendant (Margot Robbie) is a runaway bride, determined to “see the world” rather than get tied down to the life of a traditional mother. Another (Christina Ricci) is a Bohemian rebel who pretends to be straight-laced in order to also see the world. And one more flight attendant has been recruited to work as a spy/courier, given all the important people who make the trans-Atlantic flight she works.

Christina Ricci and Margot Robbie

Then there are the pilots, like cocky (and hunky) Dean (Mike Vogel), an upstart in a world of former military pilots.

And yes, the regressive 1960s social attitudes are on full display here (some flight attendants talk openly about only taking the job to land a husband — they can’t keep working unless they’re single anyway).

But unlike Mad Men, Pan Am is making a very different point about the mid-1960s: this show openly celebrates that era’s sense of optimism and promise, and the supremacy of the United States of America. That sense of optimism permeates the show, from the smiles of the flight attendants and their spotless white gloves, to the show’s bright lighting and bouncy music.

Obviously, not every American felt such optimism and promise in the 1960s, but it’s hard to deny that the country as a whole didn’t feel it. After all, this was a nation that was literally shooting for the moon. And this series definitely shows the sense that massive social changes are afoot in society, mostly for the better.

In other words, Pan Am revels in just how different the world of this show is from our current Age of Complete and Total Pessimism, when it feels like everything is getting worse or coming apart. The amount of legroom on the planes is the least of it. Indeed, what you see on Pan Am is far more shocking than anything you’ll see on the supposedly more prurient The Playboy Club.

Pan Am is bright and splashy, and some are going to dismiss it as “Mad Men lite” — Mad Men for a mass audience. In a sense, that’s true. But there’s a subtle, cheekily subversive commentary that goes along with all the pretty pictures and pretty people, and it just may make this show one for the ages.

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