High-flying show aims to lift American spirits

What better escape from America's troubled present than the blue-globes logo of yesteryear? Yes, Pan Am is back. Not at your local airport, but as the subject of a new ABC TV drama series that starts in the US today.

The 60s are all the rage on American TV. There's Mad Men, dealing with cynical advertising executives and adored by the critics, whose fifth season is scheduled to begin next northern spring, while last week Playboy Club - set in Hugh Hefner's Chicago establishment - opened on NBC.

Neither, though, is such an unabashed wallow in nostalgia as Pan Am.

The capers on Madison Avenue play off the prejudices and crassness of the era, while Playboy Club comes across as far-fetched and a bit seedy.

Pan Am, however, is a golden-hued paean to the past, recreating the legend of an airline that in its heyday set the standards for the Jet Age, an international ambassador for an America that, back then, the world by and large still loved.

The show's pedigree is evident from the credits alone: the director is Thomas Schlamme of The West Wing fame, while the producer, Nancy Hult Ganis, once worked as a Pan Am stewardess (as flight attendants were known in those more glamorous times).

The promotional clips promise future episodes of "passion, jealousy and espionage" six miles up, and the first one, featuring the inaugural Pan Am Clipper flight from New York to London, and one of the stewardesses agreeing to an assignment on the side for US intelligence, does not disappoint.

But sin and skulduggery are not really the point. Pan Am is above all escapism to happier times.

"Declinism" is punditry's favourite topic, and recent days have only added to a sense of national drift: news of a surge in the poverty rate, fresh evidence of a dysfunctional political system, a stock market freefall amid fears of recession, and a pervasive sense that the balance of power is tilting irretrievably to Asia.

Not so back in the early 60s. The White House was a 20th-century Camelot and opportunity seemed boundless. While Pan Am was projecting the American dream to five continents, Mao was inflicting famine and cultural revolution on China. The civil rights and women's movements may have been in their infancy, but a youthful new president convinced everyone that in the US, the generational torch was indeed being passed.

In those days flying was expensive but fun. Pan Am's New York hub was still called Idlewild, departure lounges felt like cocktail bars, you could buy a ticket and board a plane at 15 minutes' notice, and today's bleak security gauntlet was undreamed of. Back then, the journey was part of the thrill of travel, to be relished as much if not more than the arrival.

The stewardesses with their pearly teeth and switched-on smiles were fashion models of their day. The series lovingly recreates that vanished Pan Am, of wholesome, curvy girls in their trim, blue twill suits cut a fraction below the knee, with spotless white gloves and matching handbags. "On boarding, the passenger is met by the international beauty and grace known as the Pan Am stewardess," says the show's trailers.

Apart from the airborne Mata Hari, one of the girls is a closet bohemian, while another is a beauty queen and runaway bride seeking to escape the tedium of married life.

Schlamme says he wants to give Pan Am a patriotic feel, "as if to say, this is what we were able to do in America - and we still can."

Things didn't end well for the real Pan Am. But on the small screen, at least, the good times roll once more.


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