“Ich Bin Ein Berliner”

Posted on October 10, 2011

The third episode of Pan Am left us disappointed but also pleasantly surprised. We’re negative Nancy boys, so we’ll start off with the disappointment.

Christina Ricci continues to be something of a non-character.  We originally  thought it was a good idea to keep her in the background for the first hour or two of the series so that the lesser-known actresses could get their footing, but now we’re wondering if the writers simply don’t know what to do with her. With this episode, she was given her biggest storyline yet and both it and her performance left us supremely let down. Compare her giggly, wide-eyed fan girl turn here with her introduction in the first episode, where she was presented as a far more cynical character; living in the Village, sleeping with a beatnik, and getting reprimanded for violating the airline’s girdle rule. Granted, the other 3 women in the cast aren’t exactly working with finely drawn, minutely detailed characters either, but Ricci’s Maggie is a series of bad lines and contradictory actions and we’re only on the third episode.

Further disappointment came with the use of historical events to provide dramatic fodder. We’re not against this in theory, but it’s a trap for period shows because the writers too often think they only need to reference the event, provide some newsreel footage or a television recording in the background and voila; instant gravitas. We just had the Bay of Pigs used as a backdrop when these characters were introduced to us and now we’ve got Kennedy himself (or a vague silhouette of him) driving the action of the stories. One of the great strengths of this show is that it can plausibly drop its characters practically anywhere in the world, so the temptation to be in Berlin on such a momentous occasion may have been too great for the writers to pass up, but it really only gave us one decent character moment and we could have had that without bringing Kennedy into it at all.

And it has to be said: the production team is simply going to have to do a better job of faking its European locales. If CGI isn’t in the budget, then they need better sets and much tighter shots. The scene of them walking down the crowded streets of Berlin was laughable, both because it clearly wasn’t any city in Europe and because the huge crowd never looked like more than 20 or so people.

But we can’t say we didn’t enjoy the episode, despite its faults. The spying stuff continues to be great fun, against all reason. Realistic? Not by a long shot, but you know what? Neither is James Bond. Dropping Kate smack in the middle of the Cold War and right on the edge of the enemy line was a great use of the locale and the character. Having her come face to face with her German counterpart once again serves to teach her that this isn’t a game and there are serious consequences if she screws things up. Granted, her actions here would almost certainly get her cut loose from any further spy activity and if she continues to let her stewardess world and her spy world overlap like that it’s only going to make the other stewardesses look kind of stupid. We were convinced that Collette, who is by far the most intelligent and sophisticated of the four women, was going to figure things out this episode.

But Collette had her own story to tell and even though it’s a path well trod in movies, it’s kind of exciting to see a character like this on a network television show. Not that we’re cheering on her prejudicial take on Germans, but it speaks well of the show that they’re willing to explore the characters in this manner and have them do or say things that, while understandable given their experiences, paint them in a less-than sunny and perfect light. In other words, the show is still a frothy bit of entertainment, but with more nuanced undertones than we would have expected or thought possible. Of course it helps when you give the more talented members of the cast something to do and Karine Vanasse’s performance as she sang “Deutschland Uber Alles” was beautifully rendered. Of course, like Kate’s actions this episode, we don’t see how she wasn’t fired because of it, but we wouldn’t have much of a show if she was, so we’ll happily accept the conceit.

Now if only they could figure out a way to showcase Ricci’s talents we’d have a near-perfect show. So long as they don’t Kennedy it up too much.

[Screencaps: tomandlorenzo.com]

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