Like “The Playboy Club,” “Pan Am” chooses a potentially sexy setting through which to view the early 1960s — back when international travel was both rare and exotic — as the glamorous backdrop for a soap. Both shows have their problems, but despite some appealing elements, ABC’s is simply all over the map — a weird mix of espionage thriller, sudser and coming-of-age drama. The image of stewardesses walking in synchronized step makes for an arresting promo, but this bird is a hollow shell whose pilot, anyway, never gets off the ground.
Christina Ricci is the biggest name on the manifest, but she blends (indeed, nearly disappears) into an ensemble of young flight attendants eager to travel the world — for awhile, that is. “With a face like that, you’ll find a husband in a couple of months!” one of them gushes to Laura (Margot Robbie), whose Grace Kelly cheekbones grace the cover of Life magazine.
There are, to be sure, some interesting elements regarding the era’s sexual politics, from the stews being forced to weigh in like cattle to a tryst between one, the French beauty Colette (Karine Vanasse), and a businessman who turns out to be married. Ah, the good old “Coffee, tea or me?” days.
Still, series creator Jack Orman (“ER”) seem to be trying to pilot this ship in all directions at once, with one of the stews (the appealing Kelli Garner) using her job as cover for spy work on behalf of the CIA. There might be an entertaining show just in that — an update of “I Spy,” or “Alias 1960” — but it has to share screen time with all the rest, in what makes for an ungainly hour.
It’s an attractive cast, certainly, and director Thomas Schlamme — working from Orman’s script — knows how to but give the material a swingin’, kinetic vibe. It’s also hard to go wrong with period songs like “Mack the Knife” and “Around the World (in 80 Days)” filling the soundtrack.
Even so, the disjointed, choppy approach leaves this meticulously outfitted production looking overdressed for the occasion, and while there are enough moving parts to potentially turn up something interesting, turbulent takeoffs seldom bode well for the rest of the trip.
In a way, “Pan Am” and “Playboy Club” have fed off each other promotionally, being lumped together as part of the larger “What ‘Mad Men’ hath wrought” analysis. And the ABC show does enjoy a more logical lead-in, potentially getting a lift from “Desperate Housewives'” farewell year. Sooner or later, though, a series has to fly solo, and with its engines whirling so frantically, about all “Pan Am” can do initially is spin around in circles.