Feminist dilemma beneath the gloss

Last updated 12:53 29/11/2012
Pan Am
GIRDLES ON: Christina Ricci, left, and Kelli Garner star in Pan Am.

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Pan Am (Saturdays, 9.35pm, One) has an unholy fascination with girdles. The restrictive undergarment got more mentions in last Saturday's first episode than the ostensible subject of the plot, the maiden flight of the new Clipper Majestic.

The show opened with a schoolmarmish supervisor slapping the rear of a comely new stewardess as she asked, "Are you wearing your girdle?".

By the end of the hour, though, I understood the significance: Pan Am is all about smooth surfaces.

The show looks amazing as it faithfully recreates the early 1960s era of glamorous jet-setting. The costumes have been replicated flawlessly, the aircraft interiors were shot inside a life-size version of a Pan Am 707, and the international locations - a Bambina-clogged Roman street, a London pub - look convincing.

The stewardesses are the stars, and with talent like Christina Ricci as rule-defying Maggie on board, that seems promising. But the show is more concerned with what these women represent rather than who they are.

At the end of the episode, chauvinistic first officer Ted looks at them and marvels: "That is natural selection at work. They don't know they are a new breed of woman. They just had an impulse - to take flight."

In this reading, Pan Am is a feminist soap and the stewardesses are brave pioneers. But it remains to be seen how the show will reconcile this with squeezing them into girdles and treating them as true-to-the-era trolley dollies. It's the same dilemma some women of the era had, of course, and so should be the most fertile ground for plot developments.

The show seems to be flinging a few plot strands at the wall to see what sticks. Maggie lives in Greenwich Village and knows her Marx from her Hegel, French Colette discovers that her affair from Rome has shown up on a flight to London with his wife and son, and Kelli Garner's Kate is recruited as a spy by the CIA because she fits the profile: "Beautiful, well-educated, trilingual."

Also crammed into that first hour were the evacuation of exiles from the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, a bride fleeing from her wedding, and a failed marriage proposal - a jet set whirlwind.

A pilot episode overloaded with plot exposition is hardly rare, but the character traits and personality types are trowelled on with network television heavy-handedness.

Budding spy Kate is joined in the cabin crew by her younger sister, the wedding-fleeing Laura. She is instantly the object of envy among the crew, after landing on the cover of the latest edition of Life magazine, representing the new face of Pan Am. Kate spells out the dynamic between them to her CIA contact as 4H club (young farmers) and beauty queen, which already feels stereotypical.

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"People have underestimated me my entire life - and they have been wrong." The redundant second half of that sentence is typical of the way a network show tends to hammer viewers with the obvious, and tell rather than show.

Collette delivers a speech that could be taped to the show runner's wall: "Tomorrow, another plane takes off to someplace new. Banished, yesterday's mistakes. Their only traces a touch more wisdom."

The show is on a stronger footing when it lets the glossy surfaces speak silently. The best moment in the episode was the final scene, when Maggie, Colette, Kate and Laura strode confidently through an airport. At first, the camera tracked just their legs and dangling Pan Am bags, as if seen from a child's eye. As they marched single file on to the aircraft, we saw a little girl gazing wistfully at them, dazzled by glamour, enchanted by the promise of airborne liberation.

COMING UP Sunday's final will answer the most pressing question of the year: who will win New Zealand's Got Talent? (Sunday, 7.30pm, TV1.) The big hit has spawned another series and rival, The X Factor NZ. My money is on JGeeks, figuring that the 91-year-old and 11-year-old singers will split the all-powerful old lady vote.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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