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Culturebox: Pan Am

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Pan Am
Sumptuous fluff about American dominance.
By Troy Patterson
Updated Friday, Sept. 23, 2011, at 7:08 AM ET

Still from "Pan Am." Click image to expand.Considered as an exercise in mile-high modernism, Pan Am (ABC, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET) comes up like a pair of black aces. The show is a light Cold War-period drama about stewardesses serving coffee, tea, and the free world, and it is, by critical consensus, the best-looking thing on network television. Even viewers unimpressed by the show's substance acknowledge its fine style. In the first shot, a plane taxies to its terminal--to the weightless temple of Worldport--and the Earth of Pan Am's impeccable logo, painted on a tailfin, eclipses the sun rising above Idlewild. This moment and many more are alive to buildings and machines, attentive to swizzle sticks and pencil skirts.

One does dread risking pretension when scrivening about the telly, but the show begs comparison with un incomparable spectacle de Jacques Tati. Play Time, his 1967 masterpiece, transformed Orly Airport and other Paris venues into a comedy about tourism and architecture. But where Tati held up the glass walls of his sets as mirrors reflecting a new society, the ABC show cutely capers. This columnist--who developed a thing for stewardesses during a pubescent viewing of the Jerry Lewis-Tony Curtis adaptation of Boeing Boeing--has argued that stories about them find their most natural expression in farcical forms. Pan Am's easy whirl fits the bill, when its chatter is snappy and also when it's not. Critics have noted that Play Time frequently reduces dialogue to the level of background noise, and the same goes here, sometimes unthinkingly. What is this diverting, well-acted, over-scored nonsense about? What do you suppose a viewer is fantasizing, in 2011, when she is watching escapist fluff about an American airline and all-American dominance?

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Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.

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