WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 10 p.m. on ABC/7

REASON TO WATCH ABC's big, beautiful valentine to the once-great airline.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT I know it sounds a bit bizarre, but in Camelot -- the U.S.A. circa early 1963 -- there once was an airline named Pan Am that was as prestigious and powerful a corporate symbol as IBM or Disney. As legend has it, the stewardesses were all brilliant, the pilots rock stars, and the terminal at Idlewild an eye-popping architectural wonder. Visualize all that, then cue to a Bobby Darin hit -- say, "Beyond the Sea" -- and . . . welcome to "Pan Am."

The opener tells the stories of several of these stewardesses: Maggie (Christina Ricci), Kate (Kelli Garner), her sister Laura (Aussie newcomer Margot Robbie) and Colette (Karine Vanasse), and the pilots with whom they are involved, while en route to Paris, such as Ted (Michael Mosley).

MY SAY Poor "Pan Am" has been compared in the press to "Mad Men" so relentlessly that you almost expect to see Don Draper strolling through the terminal in the opening shots. But forget all that, or some of all that. More relevant cultural forebears are old gems like "That Touch of Mink" or "Boeing Boeing" with maybe the slightest hint of "Airport." Producers Jack Orman ("ER") and Tommy Schlamme ("The West Wing") want to evoke, even capture, a long-ago era, and they do so in spectacular style. These are the best looking 44 minutes of television on the air this week -- with the possible exception of that other New York-filmed period production, "Boardwalk Empire."

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But in exchange for the eye candy, "Pan Am" demands your patience. The narrative juggles flashbacks with "present time" -- 1963 -- as you learn some of the back stories of our heroines, which slackens the pace. "Pan Am" is also heaping a lot of airplane food on our trays, including elements of espionage, the Cold War, the proto-feminist movement, and even Cuba as the Clipper makes its way to Paris. Is this ride worth it? So far, yes.

BOTTOM LINE A gorgeous production, though the story sometimes keeps it on the tarmac. Still, a must-ride.