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October 6, 2015

TCA Report: 'Pan Am' Panel Talks Espionage, Sexism and the Joy of Flying

by Laura Prudom, posted Aug 7th 2011 4:15PM
Nostalgia is a potent cocktail, and two new shows are hoping to capitalize on audiences' fondness for the swingin' sixties this fall: NBC's 'The Playboy Club' and ABC's 'Pan Am'. Of the two, 'Pan Am' has a little more meat on its bones -- while 'Playboy' is frivolous and soapy, 'Pan Am' is concerned with character backstory, probably due to the involvement of Jack Orman (executive producer of 'ER') and Thomas Schlamme (director of 'The West Wing').

Pan Am TCA panel
Though on the surface, the jetsetting series seems to have a lot in common with AMC's 'Mad Men,' the producers insist that the similarities stop at the time period. "TV is just execution," Schlamme pointed out. "It has nothing to do with 'Mad Men,' we just hope our show is executed in a good way. They are both set in the sixties because it's a great time period -- I hope there will be shows set in the seventies, in the 1880s, wherever we can tell good stories."

Check out more highlights from the Television Critics Association panel after the jump.

Executive producer Nancy Hult Ganis worked as a Pan Am stewardess in the seventies and admitted "I always thought [the experience] would make great stories." The opportunity to develop the series presented itself about five years ago.

"It was a time where we were treated as if we were hostesses of a dinner party, and it was a moveable feast," she reminisced. "We would become friends with our passengers, we would know them by name, we would help them plan their trips, deal with any concerns about currency ... it had a quasi-diplomatic core." Because there was a lack of entertainment and the flights took longer, she observed that it became more about providing an experience than simply getting a person from A to B, and Ganis pointed out that 80 percent of Pan Am crews came from all over the world, employed from 70 different countries.

"It opened the world to us, it helped us understand and appreciate those different cultures and customs," she recalled. "There were a lot of funny fish-out-of-water moments as we learned to navigate through those worlds ... it informed us the way my education never did."

As with last week's 'Playboy Club' panel, many critics seemed fixated on the notion that, since the sixties were a time of repression for women, the show might somehow be offensive to modern women -- the panel vehemently disputed that.

"[Being a Pan Am stewardess] was a coveted position at the time," Orman reasoned. "They had to be college educated, they had to speak a number of languages -- that they're subjected to girdle checks and weigh-ins adds a certain realism. I think female audiences will like this."

Series star Christina Ricci added, "There is this misconception [that the stewardesses were repressed], when in reality the job allowed women to have a freedom that they weren't given in life at that time. By going through the [checks] they were then allowed to travel freely and see the world the way other people never got to do. I think the show sends a message that these women were really free and in charge of their lives ... in a way that many people envied."

"For me, the series could just as easily be called 'the best years of our lives,'" Schlamme opined. "For those people in that moment, they were just having the best time, [not feeling victimized]. Yes, they did have one foot in the fact that they were weighed, but they also had one foot in the fact that they saw the world the way few people ever did."

Pan AmProducers were enthusiastic about having such a rich time period to mine from (the show begins in 1963), planning to tackle the political climate of the Kennedy administration versus the Eisenhower era, the Cold War, the growing unrest in the civil rights movement, and Pan Am's close relationship with the state department for espionage purposes. They also hope to tackle the emergence of hijacking later in the series, since that didn't occur until the seventies.

"The espionage is certainly a big element" of Kelli Gardener's Kate, according to Orman, since the Cold War was at its height in that period. "There's problems in her personal life and her professional life as a result of the espionage -- we certainly weave it in."

A critic pointed out that the show appeared to be very "white," but Schlamme admitted that they have every intention of "making an event" out of tackling the hire of the first African American stewardess later in the season, since that occurred in the mid-sixties.

One of the main draws for the executive producers was the chance to make flying seem "glamorous" again. "There were no wait times, there were lounges where they served you Martinis ... the fact that you got to go on a plane was part of the trip, not something you wanted to get through," Orman reasoned.

"There was a time where these airlines were competing for who had the shortest wait time -- where you could turn up five, ten minutes before the plane took off and buy your ticket," star Mike Vogel laughed. "Under the standards that we fly in now, you can't even fathom that, people getting on an airplane and enjoying the experience."

'Pan Am' premieres Sunday, Sept. 25 at 10PM ET.

For more TCA coverage and TV news, follow Laura on Twitter: @LauinLA

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