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Nostalgia or cautionary tale, will Pan Am take flight?

The empowerment of women. The exploitation of women. It just kept coming up here.

ABC was the last network to present its wares. And at the entrance to the area where the press conferences unfolded, ABC put up some props – a faux airport boarding gate staffed by two young ladies wearing Pan Am uniforms. The screen beside them looked like it was announcing flight times, but it actually announced the list of ABC's new fall shows.

Of those, Pan Am is the big one. That's why it got special promotion here. The series has "tested well," as networks say when a show gets great reviews from focus groups. All networks make the same claim about many shows, but Pan Am has also sold very well in the international market. That, not 12 people in a room in New Jersey, indicates a strong future for the show.

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What is it? It's a glossy drama set among the pilots and stewardesses of the Pan Am airline in the early 1960s. Like The Playboy Club and Mad Men at its beginning, the show is really about the sixties. Specifically, the innocence and optimism of that period. Or, as others might see it, especially women, the backward and reactionary attitudes of that time.

Handsome pilots and pretty stewardesses having adventures is the gist. Most of the focus is on the stewardesses. Christina Ricci is the nominal star, playing "a rebellious bohemian, Maggie, who turns into a buttoned-up professional for work so she can see the world." That's ABC's description. Actually, ABC's official synopsis is downright giddy – "Passion, jealousy and espionage ... They do it all – and they do it at 30,000 feet. The style of the 1960s, the energy and excitement of the Jet Age and a drama full of sexy entanglements deliciously mesh in this thrilling and highly original new series."

Indeed, deliciousness abounds. Everybody smiles like it's going out of style. Except for the stewardess who has a one-night stand with a married man after a flight to Europe and is then obliged to serve the man, his wife and child on an ensuing flight. There's a strong whiff of humiliation for that young woman. And then viewers see the cringe-inducing treatment meted out to the flight attendants, especially the mandatory weigh-ins and checks that they are wearing girdles. They frown, sort of, through that.

So, what is this thing? Is it nostalgia for that misogynistic past? Is it a cautionary tale about how it used to be for women asking viewers to remember how far women workers have come?

"It was part of the irony of the profession," co-creator Jack Orman said about those weigh-in scenes that had women journalists here shaking their heads. "It was a coveted position at the time for young women. They needed to be college-educated and speak several languages. They were really pioneers. The fact that they had to be subjected to girdle checks and weigh-ins adds a certain realism, but also a dramatic push." He also described the show as "sweeping and epic and wish-fulfilling."

Fine, but it's still creepy to see educated young women treated as eye candy and smile through it.

Christina Ricci, sensing a backlash from critics, decided to tell us how she saw her character: "In reality, the job allowed the women to have a freedom they weren't given in a regular role in life at that time. These stewardesses were looked at as these glamorous symbols. It's something that we have so much pride in welcoming these passengers on the plane and they have so much pride in travelling."

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Just to be sure that we all understood that Pan Am is just, you know, a TV show, another producer chimed in with, "Our show is escapism at its best."

Ricci also told us that she had talked to former Pan Am stewardesses, who told her they only had great memories of the 1960s and their time travelling the world when there were few opportunities for women. "What this really sends is a message that these women were really free and in charge of their lives," she said.

Well, there you go with the empowerment thing again. A few days earlier, we'd been told that Playboy bunnies were empowered by earning lots of money at the Playboy Club.

The fact is, as a critic pointed out to Ricci, these characters travel the world and have some degree of independence because they're in tight skirts serving coffee and liquor to people while smiling fanatically. How might modern women who grew up in the feminist movement appreciate or warm to this portrayal?

There wasn't an answer because, really, it remains to be seen how viewers, male and female, will respond.

Still, it's a testament to the power of TV drama that it can ignite such discussions.

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One producer, Nancy Hult Ganis, was actually a Pan Am stewardess herself, and pointed out. "Some of the biggest feminists in the women's movement were former Pan Am women, including Patricia Ireland, who was one of the first presidents of NOW."

This assertion only leads to another question that viewers might well ask: "Did they become feminists because of their experience as stewardesses? Women viewers will be pondering that one when Pan Am airs (starting on Sept. 25, ABC, CTV).

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