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Television Review

‘Pan Am’ drama lifts off in a cloud of nostalgia

From left, Christina Ricci, Kelli Garner, Karine Vanasse, and Margot Robbie play stewardesses in 1963 on ABC’s new series “Pan Am.’’ From left, Christina Ricci, Kelli Garner, Karine Vanasse, and Margot Robbie play stewardesses in 1963 on ABC’s new series “Pan Am.’’ (Patrick Harbron/ABC)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 23, 2011

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Usually an actor is dubbed “eye candy.’’ But in the case of “Pan Am,’’ the new ABC drama set in 1963, the entire show is a piece of eye candy - retro candy, like an old red Atomic Fireball or a handful of Good & Plenty. This is one very pretty series, from the pointy Cadillac convertibles and broad Life magazine covers to the pristine plane interiors and sky-blue stewardess uniforms with sparkling white gloves.

Everything on “Pan Am,’’ which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Channel 5, is brightly lighted and happy, with plane flights as a symbol of the unlimited American promise of the early 1960s. “The Jet Age’’ was dawning, and the only way to discover the great wide world was to actually go see it. Now, airlines have shed any vestiges of glamour, planes have become weapons, and our global culture is just a click away. But “Pan Am’’ is all about the innocent nostalgia of Camelot, with a cast of gorgeous stewardesses who don’t mind being objectified and serving as their airline company’s seductive icons.

And “Pan Am’’ is truly nostalgia - a selective look back at the past in its idealized form. The reality of the time was, of course, a lot grayer, which is what “Mad Men’’ is all about - infusing the myths of the 1960s with reality, putting some truth in advertising. “Pan Am’’ is the very image that “Mad Men’’ seems to be trying to poke with holes, by baring the ugly boozing, the institutionalized sexism, and the smoking (which, with ABC being Disney, will not be the case on “Pan Am’’). “Pan Am,’’ created by Jack Orman and executive produced and directed by Thomas Schlamme, is pure fantasy. Even a scene in which a Pan Am jet is flying Bay of Pigs survivors out of Cuba is romanticized with a spontaneous marriage proposal.

Ultimately, “Pan Am’’ is light enough to fly away. This is an escapist soap opera that brings together an attractive cast and puts their characters through very familiar melodramatic paces. Laura (Margot Robbie) leaves her fiance at the altar to become a stewardess; French-born stewardess Colette (Karine Vanasse) discovers that her American lover is married; and pilot Dean (Mike Vogel) is involved in a secret affair. Christina Ricci is the biggest name in the cast, but the nature of her plotline as the capable stewardess Maggie is vague in the premiere. In the next few weeks, presumably, we’ll learn more about her.

The show veers into the historical with the Bay of Pigs scene, but the writers should avoid too many real references lest they come off like “American Dreams,’’ which never met a piece of history it didn’t want to milk for plot points. Big International Events seem out of place in such a glossy context. So does a plot involving stewardess Kate (Kelli Garner) and her recruitment by the government to serve as a spy. The presence of the Cold War espionage seems pretty absurd on “Pan Am,’’ given the atmosphere, which is featherweight and mostly forgettable.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

PAN AM

Starring: Christina Ricci, Kelli Garner, Karine Vanasse, Mike Vogel

On: ABC, Channel 5

Time: Sunday, 10-11 p.m.