'Pan Am' review: ABC's sunny period pies flies high

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pan-am-review.jpgTwo network series debuting this fall take place in 1963 and are clearly inspired, at least in part, by "Mad Men." Viewers have already weighed in on "The Playboy Club" at NBC, and the verdict was not a very favorable one.

I'm hoping that's not the case with "Pan Am," which premieres on ABC Sunday (Sept. 25). It's not only a much better show than "The Playboy Club," but it's also one of the better new drama pilots premiering this season, period.

Stylish, well-produced and just plain fun, "Pan Am" is kind of like "Mad Men's" sunnier, more optimistic cousin. Which is not to say the show is in "Mad Men's" league dramatically; in terms of tone, though, it takes a much brighter view of the possibilities of the early 1960s, for women in particular and America in general.

It centers on four stewardesses working a transcontinental flight on a brand-new Pan Am jet. Kate ( Kelli Garner, "My Generation") has been flying for a few years, but her younger sister Laura ( Margot Robbie) -- who with Kate's help ran away from her wedding -- is only in her first month on the job, although she's already made the cover of Life magazine. Bohemian Maggie ( Christina Ricci) is also a veteran, slightly rebellious but happy to have a job that lets her travel the world. Colette ( Karine Vanasse) is French, worldly and taken aback when a passenger she had an encounter with in Rome a few months earlier boards the flight with his wife and son.

They're joined on the crew by Dean ( Mike Vogel, "Cloverfield"), an earnest young pilot who's just been bumped up to captain, and co-pilot Ted ( Michael Mosley, "Scrubs"), who, it would appear, is in it for the girls.

At first blush, the characters are more types than fully rounded people, but each of the four women and Dean also have pieces of their back story filled in via useful flashbacks to the recent past. Their performances, too, are all pretty solid and hint at greater depth to come.

Creator Jack Orman ("ER") also throws in a little intrigue, with Kate being recruited for a little Cold War espionage work, with this flight being her first test. Far-fetched though it may be, it's a wrinkle that could serve the show well -- you'd figure there's only so much to wring from the interaction between pilots, stewardesses and passengers.

Like "The Playboy Club," "Pan Am" is selling both nostalgia (for a more optimistic time, for a time when air travel was considered glamorous) and the idea that the job these women are doing was an early salvo in the battle for liberation. The nostalgia part works -- even for someone who wasn't alive to experience it firsthand. Given what air travel is today, it's a little hard to get your head around how spacious and welcoming the Pan Am clipper's cabin looks, and man would it be nice if it were still that way.

The feminist argument is a little tougher sell -- we learn in the pilot that flight attendants had regular weigh-ins, that girdles were part of the uniform, and that they were aged out at 32. But it's a lot easier to see why a woman in the early '60s would see a career as a stewardess as a way up (the women of Pan Am were also college-educated and at least bilingual) than, say, serving drinks at a men's club.

"Pan Am" is also great to look at thanks to typically strong direction from Thomas Schlamme ("The West Wing," "Sports Night") and great production design. It's definitely a flight worth booking.

"Pan Am" premieres at 10 p.m. ET Sunday on ABC.

Photo/Video credit: ABC