Monday, September 26, 2011

Pan Am - The Series

OK - we're on week 4 of the new Pan Am series. I started this review after the first episode but didn't finish it, so now I've got more data to review. They seem to be trying very hard and, with the fourth episode, appear to be trying to respond to criticism.

Warning: lots of "spoilers" below...

Overall I'd give it about three Pan Am Globes out of a possible five... the design and effects are outstanding and the plots are OK, but the writing and acting are not very good. A lot of the details, mainly associated with the cabin crew and service, are very good, but the aviation and operational details were not very good in the first episode, although they have made some progress in the subsequent episodes. The music, however, is great, although it still has some room for improvement as well.

I've seen reviews on the internet sceptical of some of the details, such as the inspections and the weigh-ins of the stewardesses in the first episode, but I've heard from many actual former Pan Am crew that those details were totally realistic and accurate.

One of the best things about this new TV show, however, is that it has publicized the stories of many of the real Pan Am alumni who lived the real-life version of the story. It is always fascinating to hear from the wonderful people of Pan Am who made up "the world's most experienced airline".

The show really missed an opportunity, however, to show how Pan Am was a huge, well-oiled, highly professional machine in its prime, maintaining the highest standards ever set in the airline industry and setting the example for all other airlines to follow. The true story is 100 times more exciting and dramatic than the fictionalized version, as is often the case with TV and history.

The worst parts of the whole show are the pilot characters. They look about 11 years old - no way old enough to be crewing a 707 in 1962 - and they acted about the same age. The pilot characters were clearly an afterthought and it showed, and it seriously marred an otherwise very good effort. The aviation detail wasn't good either - the Idlewild tower calls the aircraft at the gate to tell the crew their purser is inbound, then the 11-year-old 707 captain calls Gander Control to track down his girlfriend. It would take very little tweaking to make those scenes realistic and more effective, rather than stupid-sounding.

The most recent episode (#4, 16 October) made an effort to bring some realism to the pilot characters, and the effort was appreciated, but this first effort mostly missed the mark. In episode three, the crew flies to Rangoon, Djakarta, and Hong Kong, with the 11-year-old captain shooting the famous "Hong Kong Curve" IGS (the rare Instrument Guidance System) approach to runway 13 at (now closed) Kai Tak airport. That approach was considered the toughest in the world, especially at night and bad weather, so its inclusion in the Pan Am TV show was a really nice touch and would have been the highlight of the series thusfar if they writers hadn't had the first officer bitching at the pilot all the way through the approach. You'd have to be an amazing idiot to deliberately distract an 11-year-old pilot flying the Hong Kong Curve at night in bad weather. If I had a First Officer who carried on like this guy did, in a dangerous night IFR approach, I would not fly with him again, and might complain to the company about him. The writers and producers, had they wanted to make this scene more realistic, and dramatic, could have just watched YouTube videos of airliner approaches to get an idea what its really like.

There was some Navy plot line in episode 4, with the stewardesses meeting a couple of supposed Navy pilots by the pool in Rangoon. Not an unrealistic scene, except the so-called "pilots", an Ensign and a Lieutenant Junior Grade, were not wearing wings, which was very odd. The Navy "pilots" bantered with First Officer Ted Vanderway, himself a former Naval Aviator, which segways to a flashback illustrating how test pilot Vanderway was disqualified following a mishap with an experimental aircraft for which he was blamed. This provided more back-story how he had wanted to be an astronaut and his father got him the job at Pan Am.

Again, Vanderway is shown bobbing in the waves following the crash of his aircraft, and later before the FNAEB (Field Naval Aviator Evaluation Board, pronounced Fee-Nab) being grounded for causing the crash. Vanderway is shown not wearing any wings - a huge technical error - but wearing (only) the National Defense Service ribbon. The National Defense Service medal was not re-authorized (after Korea) until 1966, so military members would not have been wearing it in 1963. This was another, minor-but-avoidable, error that marred an otherwise-technically-good effort. The FNAEB scene itself was not well written - the writers should have found someone with firsthand experience to help with the dialog, as they should be doing with the Pan Am pilots cockpit exchanges.

Although the plot suggested First Officer Vanderway was not really responsible for the mishap but was blamed because of service politics and big defense contracts, it is highly, highly unlikely that Pan Am would hire a pilot grounded by the Navy, innocent or not. That plotline, however, is more believable than the scenario where a 20-something pilot convinced Juan Trippe in an elevator to make him a 707 captain without the requisite experience or seniority, just because "he represented the new generation". Oh Please...

The second and third episodes were a little better than the first and fourth, set in Paris and Berlin and developing the stewardess characters a little more. The scenes showing the strong emotions of the French girl, apparently orphaned during WWII, towards the Germans in 1963 was very realistic and very touching and probably the best effort of the series to date. The "spy angle" was, I thought, pretty well played throughout the series, with the stewardess-spy struggling with the general stress and uncertainty of being a part-time secret agent. For all those who think this angle is unrealistic: think again.

Various people told me they were sceptical of the whole "espionage and intrigue" plot angle, where two of the stewardesses are used as an agent by the CIA and MI6. But if anything, that story is probably understated. Pan Am was the "chosen instrument", heavily involved in government-sponsored intrigue from the days of their earliest air-mail contracts, when the famous Pan Am flying boats were fitted with secret lockboxes to transport sensitive government secrets and Pan Am captains were issued classified orders, transferring them to active duty in case of national emergency.

By the 1960s, Pan Am operated the Pacific Missile Test Range, where top secret nuclear missile tests were conducted, and managed the civil reserve air fleet, a sizeable reserve of commercial aircraft available to be mobilized wholesale for strategic airlift, or selectively for more confidential and sensitive missions. No other organization in the world had Pan Am's access to as many destinations around the world, or the ability to rapidly transport sensitive cargoes between them. It is certain - and confirmed by Pan Am's employees - that "secret missions" such as those portrayed in the TV show really did take place.

Pan Am producer Nancy Ganis was a Pan Am stewardess in the 1960s so she has nearly perfect perspective for the stewardess characters - but it doesn't look like she has much of anyone from the other parts of the airline advising her on the rest of the Pan Am story. She mostly needs some input from cockpit crew, on the dialog, on the characters, and on the technical aspects. It looks like she may have gotten a little bit on the "Hong Kong Curve" episode, although not nearly enough.

I think they missed an opportunity by not starting the series a little earlier - maybe a little before the advent of the 707, with the main characters flying the Boeing 377. They could have used the introduction of the 707 as a plot device, as well as various other historical events involving Pan Am from the early postwar period. They could still do it with flashbacks, and I hope they will. I also hope they will bring in more Pan Am characters than the so-far-introduced pilots and stewardesses, which could make the series a lot more realistic and believable.

It would have been a much better story if they had used Pan Am itself as a plot device, instead of a setting for a pretty simple and limited plot line surrounding the escapades of the flight crew who seem to always fly together. In reality, a crew might make one trip together, then never see each other again, unless they made an effort to schedule trips together.

The best television series are able to integrate the real history, making the drama that much more compelling. I really hope "Pan Am" will try to do as much of that as possible.

This review is pretty disjointed and "all over the place" but unfortunately I just don't have the time any more to write about Pan Am as much as I would like but I do plan to continue to talk about the "real history" as the series unfolds, and I do hope it will be a success and continue on the air for a long time to come. Nancy Ganis: if you read this drop me a line - I'd love to help!


Nick Jacobs said...

I've always wanted to be a flight attendant, it looks like so much fun!

Konstantin B. said...

Looking past the obvious young-ness of the pilots, what was the likeliness of a communications officer name Sanjeev to be flying?

CW said...

The President of Pan Am in the late 60s was Najeeb Halaby, so I'd say it was at least 100%.