Here is what “Mad Man” has wrought. (Never underestimate the power of a media-beloved period cable drama featuring beautiful people in beautiful clothes, no matter how few people actually watch it, to influence decision-making at a broadcast network.) “The Playboy Club,” a tale of mob intrigue set in the original Chicago bunny hutch, premiered on NBC on Monday; “Pan Am,” a sparkly and highly appealing international adventure series set around the late airline, takes off Sunday night on ABC.
What these series have obviously in common is that they take place in the pre-psychedelic early 1960s, sometimes called “swinging,” before the Kennedy assassination, the Summer of Love or the Days of Rage, between the introduction of the pill and the rise of Women’s Lib — a time of hope and change, of the future shaking off the past but not yet shut of it. “Playboy” and “Pan Am” concern women in uniform, working for commercial icons of the era, who at some time during their shift will be called on to serve a drink, smile prettily, or be polite to someone who doesn’t deserve it — and who are using what only looks like subservience as a path to self-empowerment and self-knowledge. (This proto-feminism is a little hard to buy in the former case, easy to credit in the latter.) But the three dramas are otherwise all quite different.
“Pan Am” is also very much like a type of movie that flourished around the time the series is set, in which three or four young women set off together into the wider world; indeed, “Come Fly With Me,” from 1963, the year “Pan Am” begins, is about stewardesses working for an airline that looks very much like Pan Am. But where the point of those films was, largely, finding the love that leads to marriage, the women of “Pan Am” are out for something more. (Indeed, the only marriage-minded character so far is pilot Dean, played by Mike Vogel.) Beneath their company-mandated girdles beat wild, modern hearts.
Even comical, on-the-make co-pilot Ted (Michael Mosley) senses the change: “I’ve hit on enough of these girls to know that they’re not like normal women…. They’re mutations…. They just had an impulse to take flight.”
We get a bohemian rebel (Christina Ricci as Maggie, whose intelligence and temperament are established early by the line, “That’s Hegel, not Marx” and by her disinclination to wear the girdle); a runaway bride (Margot Robbie as Laura); a free-spirited Frenchwoman (Karine Vanasse as Colette) — though I suppose all Frenchwomen are free-spirited in the American imagination, or were in 1963, anyway — and a spy (Kelli Garner as Kate). Yes, a spy, “beautiful, educated, trilingual.” It’s that kind of show.
Like “Mad Men,” “Pan Am” is about glamour, but unlike “Mad Men” there’s no critique attached: This is not a story of manufactured desire and empty illusions. The glamour in “Pan Am” may indeed be manufactured — doubly manufactured, given the re-created places and planes — but it’s not empty: The show says, yes, this is as good as it looks, and it looks very good — though anyone who has flown anywhere in the last, oh, 30 years, may find it difficult to believe, or to remember, that air travel ever was this gracious, customer-friendly or fun. (We are assured, by network communiques, and a little extra research, that it was.)
The digitally re-created Pan Am “Worldport” terminal — production designer Bob Shaw worked on the “Mad Men” pilot and on “Boardwalk Empire” — looks dreamy and pristine and gleams as spotlessly as heaven, and the show as a whole has a sort of airbrushed creaminess that suits the time and the material. The women’s uniforms have been made, network sources say, more intensely, blue-ly blue. The music swings, or it swells, to push you on, or to lift you up. I am almost ashamed to say how well it all worked it on me, but when Maggie told Kate, as they took off for London, “Buckle up, adventure calls,” I was ready to consider a new career.