ABC hopes drama 'Pan Am' takes off

The cast of “Pan Am” (from left), Karine Vanasse as Colette, Michael Mosley as Ted, Margot Robbie as Laura, Mike Vogel as Dean, Christina Ricci as Maggie and Kelli Garner as Kate, will debut tonight at 10. “Pan Am” is a globe-spanning melodrama set in the Kennedy presidency.

Bob D'Amico

LOS ANGELES -- ABC's new high-flying drama "Pan Am" follows a group of young flight attendants during the early 1960s.

It was a time when you could carry more than three ounces of a liquid, didn't have to go through security to get on board and could smoke until the cabin looked like a Tule fog.

"I actually worked for Pan Am in the late '60s to mid '70s, and it was such an amazing adventure and fun," said executive producer Nancy Hult Ganis. "I always thought they would make great stories. It was percolating under the surface for a long time and then the opportunity presented itself about five years ago."

"Pan Am" stars Mike Vogel, Kelli Garner, Margot Robbie, Michael Mosley, Karine Vanasse and feature film star Christina Ricci. The show examines the upside of being a stewardess in the early '60s -- from international travel to romance. But the standards were strict. The women had to be college-educated and speak several languages.

The series also looks at the negatives, including sexual harassment and the strict physical standards imposed on the women.

Ricci is approaching the role with a sense of excitement and freedom. She tries to remember that this was an era when flying was such a big deal that men wore suits. As for the negative elements, Ricci said the good outweighs the bad.

"The job allowed these women to have a freedom that they weren't really given in a regular sort of role in life at that time," said Ricci. "Yes, they did have to pass through the girdle checks and grooming checks. But by going through those things and having met the education qualifications and all of these other things, they were then allowed to travel freely and see the world in a way that other people didn't get to see.

"They got to be in charge of their own lives in a way that women at the time weren't necessarily regularly in charge of their lives."

Ricci is convinced that anyone who watches as little as five minutes of the show will realize there's a real misconception about stewardesses of that time period being nothing more than pretty.

Setting the series in the early 1960s allows for an examination of those social questions.

"Pan Am" executive producer Thomas Schlamme said that just because his series is set in the same time period as "Mad Men" doesn't automatically mean it will be identical: It's all about how well the stories are executed, not when they are set.

The time period -- back when the biggest threat to the United States was the Soviet Union -- opens up opportunities for stories dealing with international espionage. The stewardess played by Garner is recruited for spy missions during her travels to London, Paris and other European cities. "We actually have done some research on this. I think that the Cold War was at its height at that time period and Pan Am was this international airline," said executive producer Jack Orman. "They had a very cozy relationship with the State Department. On a show that can go anywhere in the globe at the time, it's an aspect."