ABC's Pan Am Flies Me to Blue Moon

Sarah Anne Lloyd, 2011.

As TV premieres now begin pouring in from all sides, this week's TV Dinner ran into a bit of "choice exhaustion" in whether to feature a returning titan (Boardwalk Empire, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), a halfway promising upstart (The New Girl, Terra Nova) or just something unashamedly vacuous to easily rail on about for a thousand words or so (H8R, Hart of Dixie, pretty much anything premiering on CBS this fall). In the end, a selfish urge for Blue Moon Burgers drove this week to profile ABC's similarly sky-affectionate Pan Am.

The Cuisine: Blue Moon Burgers seems to be doing well for itself in a tough economy, bringing its fresh ingredients and local charm to a new Capitol Hill location earlier this year. Not just satisfied with expanding its brick and mortar, Blue Moon has also been slowly branching out its menu to broaden its appeal.

Unfortunately, Blue Moon's relatively new (at least newly promoted) create-a-burger option lacks the exciting, experimental side of DI(sorta)Y burger joints like Lunchbox Laboratory and BuiltBurger or the glutton-enabling chutzpah of cholesterol giants like Fatburger and Burger Madness. What Blue Moon does have is an admirable commitment to offering quality, organic beef and the promise of new monthly features including a new specialty burger, a new side order, a new milkshake, and a new local beer every month.

I ordered the Code Blue, which stood as the burger joint's resident bruiser at two patties of beef, four strips of bacon, peanut butter (stop screaming), sweet red onions, and special sauce. Minus what might very well be a thick layer of hydrogenated oil, that all seems notably conservative compared to say, Burger Madness's 15-patty pile-up, but you have to keep in mind that Blue Moon's patties are thick, formidable, and don't stack at all as well as lesser competitors' tiny hockey pucks of meat. The Code Blue is a real gutbomb, but one kept thoroughly grippable by a stout brioche bun.

Another one of Blue Moon's strengths come from its ability to please much more than carnivores with a death wish. Crispy tater tots act as just one of the regular sumptuous sides offered by Blue Moon, with deep fried pickles and chili cheese fries rounding out the "lighter fare." Fans of Beecher's Flagship cheese will be excited to hear that Blue Moon offers their white cheddar as a possible addition to any burger. The most relieving feature for certain diners has to be Moon's gluten-free buns, delivered straight from Greenwood bakery Wheatless in Seattle; this combined with a number of delicious vegetarian options at least seems to make Blue Moon one of the best burger joints for those travelling with special dietary needs. Still, Blue Moon can make one helluva all-American, hefty classic cheeseburger when it comes down to it.

The Entertainment: Burger jones aside, an unavoidable reason that Pan Am is featured this week is that it prevents me from feeling too much of an obligation to NBC's positively execrable-sounding Playboy Club. With this estrogen-focused, 1960s-set Mad Men cousin out of the way, TV Dinner will feel comfortable to move on to other, less derivative fare: or maybe not.

Thematic similarities aside, Pan Am does at least have a few promising points of departure (THAT WAS THE LAST ONE, I SWEAR) from its stuffy, scotch-inhaling adman forefather's shadow. The show follows the surprisingly action-packed lives of a handful of stewardesses for Pan American World Airways as they assist in humanitarian missions, provide sensitive intelligence for the United States government, and bring sexually repressed tax accountants their martinis. Pan Am is a bit more forward with the first two, but a rigorous, unforgiving scrutiny of the women's images and behavior while on the job is no less harrowing.

That leads to probably the most comely of Pan Am's obvious divergences from Mad Men: the promising idea of spending the majority of the show in the tight, drama-hemorrhaging space of international flights--although it's one that you sense the show wants to get away from as quickly as possible, with the pace it spits flashbacks at you. That leads into what's probably the show's most fundamental contrast: Pan Am has no singular protagonist. Don't fear some lame "Dawn Draper" stand-in, as Pan Am favors a stricter ensemble-based approach, with certain stewardesses already shifting wildly different tones to the show; one moment we are following a stewardess coming to terms with a regrettable love affair, the next we are watching one engage in international espionage. n this regard, Pan Am is actually a bit more like Lost than Mad Men, which is at the very least a less daunting bar to reach after the drama's controversially abstract ending.

Perennial indie darling Christina Ricci also shines with a performance that seems miles ahead from her mostly dead-eyed and monotone castmates. In what I can only interpret as a brash challenge to rival primetime hipster-wrangler Zooey Deschanel, Ricci has brought her scrappy bohemian swagger all the way back to the year 1963 to charm the whiny, tweed proto-hipsters in Greenwich Village (they were just called "bums" then!), causing a sort of ingenious paradox of pseudo-intellectual fawning across multiple generations. At least I think that's what her primary storyline consists of--she seems very much secondary to the pilot episode, showing up for a sarcastic jab or two before she changes clothes in the back of a cab (empowerment!) and is promptly shoved back into the periphery of the plot.

Finally, the soundtrack can get aggressively tacky, even by TV standards, with the score swelling comically in the show's many bits of melodrama--which becomes especially jarring whenever Pan Am takes itself into a cocktail bar or a hotel lounge, the soundtrack suddenly loosens up and reels off some Bobby Darin. Like many other elements of the show, including an especially shouty Bay of Pigs rescue scene that came out of absolutely nowhere and practically demanded affection for two characters we've learned basically nothing about, there's a discordance that makes it tough not to step back from. However, with only one episode under its belt, it's entirely possible the show can smooth into its ambitious scope.

The Pairing: Although both Blue Moon and Pan Am have both started as technically solid examples of their respective crafts, both of them struggle in finding quite enough unique character to stand out too far in a market flush with competitors. However, with the promise of variety and an eagerness to please all sorts of tastes, the two are definitely worth checking out. Blue Moon might have its myriad elements organized a little better at the moment, but Pan Am is still in its infancy, and could shape up to be ABC's new flagship drama--or at least fill the horrifying, soulless void Desperate Housewives will leave behind.

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