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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Pan Am: The Complete Series

Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly viewing of one of the many things I have in my DVD library.  This week, it's my latest attempt to tackle a TV series with Pan Am: The Complete Series.  This is originally dated in my notes at March 10, 2013. 

Well, it's been a while since I've been able to sit down and put fingers to keyboard to bang out a Fishing in the Discount Bin.  I've been all caught up in moving.  I'm in a new town now.  I've just finished unpacking, and I think the last thing I still have to do is call the cable company and get my cable TV hooked up.  So I've had no TV to watch for the past week.  Which is good, because for a month or so, I've had Pan Am: The Complete Series lying around, and I finally had a chance to watch it.  Just finished binge-watching it over the past week, so what better way to get back into the FitDB groove than with Pan Am

I was really tickled when I was perusing the new DVD releases and saw Pan Am: The Complete Series had been released.  The super-special edition DVD release of a short-lived TV series seems to be going the way of the dinosaur, as lots of companies are realizing that it's cheaper and easier to just stick that stuff on Netflix.  But, until I get me a smart TV or embrace gathering around the computer monitor, such services are closed to me.  Besides, I'm just not happy unless I have new DVDs to clutter my shelves.

Pan Am was one of the most heavily-hyped new TV series of the fall of 2011.  It boasted one of the most expensive pilots ever produced at that time.  And it was dismissed by most critics as a knock-off of Mad Men.  I've never seen Mad Men, so I really can't speak to that.  Set in the swingin' 1960s, it followed the lives and loves of Pan Am flight attendants as they traveled the world, getting into all kinds of shenanigans.  I fell for the hype, and I tuned it in.  Plus, it starred Christina Ricci, who's been one of my top celebrity crushes for a really long time now.  Get her in a flight attendant's uniform...it's fetish-tastic! 

Speaking of Ricci, let's start with her character, Maggie Ryan.  A purser for Pan Am...that means she's the head flight attendant.  Very open minded, very liberal...you can tell that as the 1960s goes on, she's destined to become a hippie.  Sadly, though, because of her constant questioning of authority, she's not above telling the little white lie here or bending a rule there in order to get her way or get ahead.  This does go on display when we get the episode that features her origin story.  Small town waitress, desperate to get out, she hitches a ride with a trucker and eventually gets a job in a college admissions office.  She gets a degree by taking the place of people who've dropped classes.  So while she never gets the official piece of paper, she does get the equivalent education.  And she eventually gets her job at Pan Am by bluffing and saying she knows Portuguese. 

But our entry into this world is in the pilot episode and the character of Laura Cameron, played by Margot Robbie.  In the pilot episode, we see she's fresh out of training and on her first flight crew.  In flashbacks in the pilot, we see that she suffered from a panic attack on her wedding day, and realizing that she doesn't the life of a small town house wife, runs off with her sister to become a Pan Am flight attendant, see the world, and prove herself as an independent woman.  Most of her story arcs in the show are of the "small town girl in the big city" variety, as she goes through something of a coming-of-age.  She begins to dabble in her artistic side, and shows a flair for photography.

But she happens to be on the same crew as that sister she ran away with, Kate, played by Keli Garner.  She's already been a Pan Am flight attendant for a year or two before her little sister runs off to join her.  She is a little resentful of her little sister, as she feels that her baby sister was always doted on, while she's left to fend for herself.  Kate was also the black sheep of the family, as she always was a little more defiant and was the first to leave home and town.  Now, with Kate, as we see in the pilot, she's just been recruited by the CIA to be a courier, as flight attendants travel the world and are rarely questioned.  (The real Pan Am flight attendant who served as a consultant and co-creator of the show says it totes happened all the time back in the day.  Honest.)  So a lot of her plot lines tend to devolve into junior James Bond stuff as she's called upon to do far more than a courier probably ever had to do. 

And the fourth who fills out our crew of flight attendant is Colette Valois, played by Genie-award winning French Canadian actress Karine Vanasse.  Hailing from France, Colette probably had the potential to be the most complex character of the show.  As we see in the pilot, she appears to be a bit of a heartbreaker, with quite a few romantic dalliances.  But we quickly learn that she grew up in Nazi-occupied France, and she was left orphaned when her parents, who were part of the Resistance, were killed in the war.  One episode features a trip to Berlin, where it brings up all kinds of bad memories about her childhood, and she still have some very bad feelings about the Germans.  Her biggest plotline, though concerned a romance with the plane's pilot.

Rounding out the cast were the token males, Captain Dean Lowry, the pilot of their plane.  The youngest pilot in Pan Am's history, touted by some as the airlines "face of the new jet age."  Again, most of his plotlines tend to be his romantic entanglements, as one main story arc has him having an affair with the mistress of a high-ranking VP.  As the series winds down, he hooks up with Colette.  And his first officer and best friend is Ted Vanderlay, the typical conservative, womanizing, wisecracking sort that most picture a typical man of the 1960s to be.  But again, he had the potential to be a complex character, as we were treated to an origin story for him.  We saw that he was a Navy aviator...a test pilot who was drummed out of the service when the experimental aircraft he was piloting went down, and it was wrongly attributed to pilot error.  Because of this incident, he missed the astronaut program by *this* much.  He comes from money, but rather than get his family to put in a few good words and get him his own captaincy in Pan Am, he's out to make it on his own.  He got a good character arc, too, as the series wound down.  He started dating an old childhood friend, and despite all his charm, can't get her into bed.  He eventually finds himself falling madly in love with her, and proposes marriage, and she accepts.  But then, after Maggie telling him that his fiance hit on her at a party, Ted confronts her and finds out that the main reason he's never been able to get her into bed is she's a lesbian.  Ted's fiance admits that their marriage would be a sham, but hey, it would be open and they could sleep with whichever women they wanted to.  Ted, however, doesn't want to be involved in this, and tries to break things off, as he's fallen in love with Laura. 

Get it?  Good.

I remember watching the pilot episode for the first time.  The way TV works, it's very rare to identify a director's style.  But the pilot episode was directed by a very famous TV director named Thomas Schlamme, a frequent collaborator of Aaron Sorkin's who directed a buttload of episodes of The West Wing.  And watching that pilot, I remember thinking, "Wow, this does look and kinda feel like an episode of The West Wing."  So it's neat that a director's style can survive in television.  Double-checking with Wikipedia, I see Schlamme came back to direct the fourth episode, and that's it.  But he was on board as an executive producer for the bulk of the show. 

So, let's see here...stand out episodes.  Probably one of the best episodes has to be the one where there's a medical emergency on their flight, and so, with no options, they decide to make an emergency landing in Haiti.  Apparently, at this point in history, Haiti is embroiled in a civil war.  So we've got Colette and Ted venturing out into the war zone looking for a doctor, the passengers start to freak out over the whole situation, and Dean is doing the math in his head, wondering if they can take off, because a recent hurricane has washed out a good section of the runway.  It really is good, because in the middle of all the soap opera stuff, we're treated to high adventure. 

And, really, that's what wound up being the series downfall.  It could never figure out what it wanted to be.  Did it want to be a prime time soap, as we saw the lives and loves of this flight crew?  Did it want to be a spy thriller, as we followed the adventures of Kate?  Did it want to be political satire, as Maggie commented on the happenings of the day?  It tried to be all at once, and never really found its footing.

But luckily, though, it didn't end on a cliffhanger.  The producers must have seen the end was nigh, and while most plotlines were wrapped up, the door was left open just a crack for things to continue.  At the series end, Kate, having been made to do far more than the average courier, gets the offer to officially join the CIA and become a full-blown secret agent.  Maggie kind of starts to turn into a "dark Kate," as she's recruited by a corrupt pilot to assist in his smuggling operation.  Colette discovers that she has a long-lost brother, and Dean, who got grounded for six months because of the Haiti thing, resolves to help her find him.  And as for the Laura/Ted/Ted's lesbian fiance triangle, Ted tries to break it off with his fiance, but she reveals that, the one awkward time they did have sex, she got pregnant.  Since the old fashioned mentality still reigns in the 1960s, Ted resolves to go through with the sham marriage to be a father to his child, and the series ends with him working up the nerve to tell Laura. 

Did I mention Kate's romance with a Yugoslavian diplomat?  That was, like, her biggest story arc in the show and I felt it was worth a mention.  Worth a mention because it was probably her most complex story arc, as she eventually gets torn between her CIA duties and her love for this guy, because she's eventually given the task of trying to turn him into a double agent. 

And that's Pan Am.  It was fun, it was frothy, but never found its path.

Oh, and for some reason, the ladies spent a lot of time in their underwear.  As  I said, fetish-tastic! 

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