Pan Am (BBC 2)

Rachel Cooke is baffled by a glossy new programme that sacrifices story for style.

There is something very, very weird about Pan Am (Saturdays, 9.45pm) - not least its title. Couldn't they have come up with something a little less Ronseal? Imagine if Matthew Weiner had decided to call Mad Men after an agency: J Walter Thompson, say, or even a collection of initials. But no. It's impossible to imagine.

Weiner has created one of the richest and most beautiful series on television, whereas the people behind Pan Am - it's written by Jack Orman, previously of ER - have only come up with some wannabe. It looks seductively gorgeous but it sounds mighty tinny. Ersatz is the word. Its creators have put concept - ah, the heady glamour of 1960s air travel! - before narrative and the result is peculiarly whiffy. Two episodes in and already one senses Orman floundering about in search of decent and convincing storylines.

Part of the problem is the nature of air travel. In 1963, flying to Paris from New York was obviously a much more pleasant experience than today, not least because one was not yet required to remove one's coat, shoes, belt, bra, knickers and so on in the security line. Still, what happens on a plane journey is mostly pretty boring, then as now. Drinks are served, and tiny meals, and people sleep, fart and flick through magazines (in this case, Life, natch).

In 1963, of course, stewardesses were supposed to be fabulous objects of desire - the first episode kicked off with the Pan Am girls standing in line to be weighed and have their girdles checked - but you can't do a sexual harassment storyline every week, can you? And even if you did, to be historically accurate, you can't always have the girls fighting back, as Maggie the purser (Christina Ricci) did in episode two ("I'm not included in the price of your ticket," she said, smoothly stabbing her attacker with a serving fork).

Yes, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963 but ideas take an age to filter down; it wasn't until 1970 that American women began campaigning seriously for equality in the workplace. It would be barmy to suggest that the kind of girls who wanted to work for Pan Am were proto-feminists.

Anyway, I'm rushing on. We need to talk about the characters. Basically, there are six: four stewardesses and two pilots. The pilots, Ted and Dean (Michael Mosley and Mike Vogel) are as bland as baby food. Dean looks like he has come straight out of an old episode of Beverley Hills 90210.

The women are more spicy. Maggie likes to test her superiors. Colette (Karine Vanasse) is French and rather - you know - ooh, la la! (What I mean is that she is not averse to sleeping with passengers.) Laura (Margot Robbie) and Kate (Kelli Garner) are sisters, with the psycho mother from hell. When they walk through the airport, the director has these four synchronise their movements so that their nyloned legs and turquoise Pan Am overnight bags swing in perfect time. They look fabulous, naturally, but this daffy co-ordination is also a sign of the series' inordinate preoccupation with appearances.

By far the strangest thing about Pan Am is that Kate, having been recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency, is now working as a covert operative (she carries dinky parcels from one continent to another and hands them over at the sound of a password). Crikey. As a solution to the problem of plotlines, this seems way over the top: it's like using jackhammer to crush a ladybird.

Beside this, such ludicrous details as the fact that her sister works in the same crew and that their mother - desperate to persuade Laura to leave Pan Am and return to her dullard fiancé - clandestinely books a ticket on their flight to Paris start to pale into insignificance. Is Kate now going to carry cyanide as well as aspirin in her carry-on? Will her mascara wand be revealed to contain a secret camera?

I don't know. All I can tell you is that, lavish budget or no, this is going to go down as the looniest travel drama since the BBC's ill-fated Triangle, in which Kate O'Mara - another purser with googly eyes - attempted to sunbathe on the freezing-cold deck of a Felixstowe to Gothenburg car ferry.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 21 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of the Fourth Reich