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!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Holiday Blues

So this weekend I was spending my days working. Irene left our town a hell of a mess, and I had yet to muck the water out of the corners of the garage and clear the brush. Since I had to check for flooding on the garage floor (luckily it was just seepage at the edges), I figured now would be a good time to clean the entire garage out and throw out a bunch of crap I brought home from the office when I started to work from. Anything not on legal hold went in the garbage.

I’m working my way over to the little alcove where I keep the lawn tractor, the generator, and bags of patchmaster, grass seed and birdseed. The garage would be a large rectangle except that a quarter of it on one side is taken up by a the space for the laundry room and a half bath, but this does not stretch the whole way across the garage, hence the roughly 10 ft by 8 ft alcove.

Now we do have a rodent problem, living as we do at the edge of the state forest, so I have glue traps, snap traps, and live traps all over the damn place. I haven’t caught a mouse since June, so I figured they were out enjoying nature’s bounty in the woods. Imagine my dismay when I find that the bag of birdseed has a giant hole in it, and seed is spilled all over the floor. Damn mice.

I continue to put things on the new shelving unit I just put together, and my son comes out to talk to me. We were bantering about something when I glance ahead to the tractor’s alcove and I see something. Biting back the first ten curse words I think of, I yell for my son to get his little butt back in the house. “Why?” he asks. “Just get back in the house,” I yell, “there’s a … skunk in the garage”. The ellipsis stands for the slight break in my cadence where I censored out the word “fucking” in my mind before talking to the boy. Though I think he heard me yell after he got inside “get out of here you furry bastard”.

But the skunk seemed, if not unconcerned, only minimally perturbed by my presence and ambled over to the wall opposite the wall with the seeds, where he slid behind some plywood sheets I had leaning against the wall. Wonderful. “Get my car out of the garage,” yells my wife. “I’m not driving the kids in to the first day of school in a skunkmobile!”. Yes, dear, thank you so much for your concern about my welfare.

I continued to clean up, then went inside for lunch and to watch Ming practice cello. “Is the skunk gone?” the kids ask when I go back out. “I don’t see or hear him,” I reply. So I continued organizing, setting out recycling, and doing other things. Then it came time to put the generator back in the alcove. As I approach, something scuffles from under the mower deck to hide behind the plywood again, and he’s baaaaack. Fuck.

So. In the immortal words of Chernishevsky, what to do? I’m really not enthused about getting him out, but there is no way my wife is going to let me wait for animal control to get here in a few days. So I get the most powerful flashlight I have and shine it down the tent formed by the wall and the plywood. The skunk gives me a look that seems to say: “Watchoo lookin at?” But I have to do something, right?

My wife expresses the opinion I’m being a chickenshit and am only dealing with a possum. My daughter comes out, peers down the plywood tunner and starts jumping up and down. “I see black and white! It’s a skunk! It’s really a skunk!”. Yes, kid. Get back inside, kid.

So. Well. Yes. I have a long pole, more than 15 feet long, I use to clean hard-to-reach gutters. It seems really long and unwieldy on the top of a stepladder, but now it doesn’t seem nearly long enough, you know what I mean? So. At the back of the alcove, right next to the breaker box, there is a door to the outside. I open it, thinking that every egress is an opportunity for the skunk to run in the right direction – out. But the fuzzy fucker hunkers down behind the plywood. There is a sheet of plexiglass there, too, and only the front half of the skunk is hidden, the business end is sticking out behind the plexiglass. At the end of the alcove wall the garage opens out into the second bay, there is a row of shelving units at a right angle to the wall he’s hiding behind. I can see him making a break for it, making a sharp left turn at the end of the alcove, and me with an entirely new problem on my hands. Since I don’t need him running from his current hiding place to that one, I begin pulling some of the plywood sheets out. Every time I do it spooks the skunk and it jumps until it hits its head on the remaining plywood sheets. Making it even jumpier. Just what I needed.

Once I’ve pulled some plywood out and blocked the shelving unit off with a makeshift wall of plywood sheets, so he has nowhere to run but straight ahead for a good 20 feet, I go outside with my pole. And, yes, I poke the skunk in the ass with a stick. A very looong stick. Nonetheless, it does not seem quite long enough to me, and I consider that while there may have been dumber things that I have done in my life, but I can’t seem to recall them at the moment. However the skunk simply lifts up his butt and rides the stick like he’s sliding down a banister. So I lift him up. Hey, now he’s a real pole cat, right?

Eventually, he gets tired of the ass lift and the banging of plywood sheets, so he runs for it. As I predicted, he made a hard left, fortunately well clear of hiding places because of the plywood. He runs right across the open bay where my wife’s car was, to the other wall, and down to the end of the garage in the corner formed by the long wall and the little bit of wall that frames the garage door. That little bit of wall is only 18 inches wide. He’s in a corner only 18 inches from the freedom of an open garage door, and once again he hunkers down. There is a large, thin box leaning against the wall there, and in the corner is some road salt and a post hole digger. He ensconces himself behind the post hole digger.

Once again I resort to trying to lift and flip his ass out of the garage with the pole, but skunk hair is deceptive. They only look fat like badgers because they are the Persian cats of the weasel world. Their bodies, at least of adolescent ones like this one, are built like ferrets. So he kept doing rolls around the pole every time I got his ass in the air. Then he turns to run behind the box – towards me and the shelving unit. “Wrong answer, shithead,” I yell as I poke him in the nose with the pole. Back he goes to the corner. The post hole digger is in my way, so I dash forward to do an even dumber thing – grab the digger – which puts me about 18 inches from fuzzy junior there. Fortunately, he was facing me.

With the digger gone, we resume the pole dance until I get fed up. I give him a sharp poke to keep his head down and run to get a shorter, thicker pole - a 1 inch dowel about 7 feet long. Fortunately, he’s still cowering in the corner. Now I try to use the two poles like a pair of chop sticks to lift and toss this little piece of stinky tofu into the bushes. Nothing doing. Now we’re doing the two pole dance, and I am not enjoying the show.

Fed up with this new source of irritation, he runs for the shelter between the box and the wall again. Did I mention about our mouse problem? Did I mention about the variety of traps I have along the wall where mice are likely to run? Did I mention some of them are glue traps? Big glue traps, because once a mouse got its back stuck to a small one and walked away glued to a plastic sheet and I had to chase the damn thing around the garage like a demented mammalian turtle? So. Big glue traps. And the running skunk plants his two front feet firmly in a glue trap. Too close to the edge for me to grab the trap and flip it outside without getting bitten. Oh yes, did I mention that the local paper carried a story about a rabid skunk last week? If you are paying attention, you are probably making up the same bit of doggerel that popped into my head at that moment: “how do I get the skunk unstuck without getting fucked?”

Like a human who has just stepped in dog shit, the skunk picks up one leg and shakes it, with what I swear is a look of disgust. Unfortunately for the skunk, he puts that foot right back into the glue trap to pry the other leg off, so for a moment we have the skunk doing the stick / unstick / stick routine like a demented grape stomper. Finally he gets himself free and heads back to the corner where he cowers. Now I figure I’d better give him some cover to get him comfortable enough to move 18 FUCKING INCHES out the door to freedom. So I dash back to the (firmly shut) door to the house open it up and holler for my wife. She comes down expecting the worst. Not yet, but the night is still young.

Now, I want her to hand me a cat carrier to give it a tunnel to hide in. But she refuses. Refuses. A man in my position, and she refuses. Something about cat carriers costing money, why don’t I use this cardboard box? Well, because I can aim the carrier away from me as I toss it, but the box had a big open lid and the skunk could jump anywhere as I’m throwing it out the door – including backwards onto me. But, you know, I’m not in the strongest negotiating position here, trying to squeeze the skunk with two gargantuan chopsticks and getting a lesson in skunk agility instead. So she tosses me the cardboard box and I go to war with the army I have, not the army I want.

I get the bright dead to leave a gap between the box and the door, and I catch my first lucky break of this while affair. As I poke it in the ass once again, it runs, not into the box, but between it and the door. I give the box a mighty shove with the pole as the skunk rolls over onto its back and power slides onto the driveway and under the bushes. You have not seen a man hit a garage door switch as fast and hard as I hit that one, standing there, pole in hand, in case the skunk decided to double back. But he didn’t.

Afterwards, my wife says “I was robbed.” “Robbed of what?” I ask. “Of the maximum entertainment value of the situation. I didn’t even have to use this brand new jug of tomato juice”. And indeed, she had a gallon of the stuff sitting on the kitchen table. Thanks for the vote of confidence, babe.

And that, friends, is how I spent my Labor Day.

How was yours?