A&E // 2004 // 396 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // July 6th, 2005
"I'm an American citizen! I have a right to be on that flight!"
Airline is a reality television/documentary series documenting the passengers and employees of Southwest Airlines. This is one of the most aggravating reviews I have ever had to write, simply because watching a show based on trepidation and conflict in airports makes my teeth grind. At times, watching it feels akin to actual airline travel, and airline travel is one of the most masochistic forms of bureaucracy devised by humankind to punish us for our collective sins, whatever they may be.
Okay, in all seriousness, Airline is kind of cute. But, boy, does the subject matter make me hostile.
Airline: The Complete Season 1 is a two-disc set containing all 18 episodes from the first season of the A&E reality show. Focusing on crews in both Los Angeles and Chicago, Airline highlights the interpersonal relationships between Southwest employees as they try to keep one step ahead of angry customers, as well as explore their own personal aspirations throughout the course of their daily work.
Alternating between airport hubs, Airline highlights the barrage of angry, bewildered, confused and disoriented customers as they stumble from delayed flight to delayed flight, drink too much alcohol in the airport, excrete bodily functions seconds before boarding a flight, and other such embarrassing and aggravating scenarios.
Sounds fun, eh?
Right off the bat, Airline accomplishes two things: It makes you never want to fly Southwest Airlines, and it makes you feel incredibly anxious and stressful, kind of like standing in a line at the airport for long periods of time can make you feel. Odd, that.
I guess the creators of the show are really trying to pass Airline off as "zany," like the unpredictable circus that is human behavior. "Always a crazy day at the airport!," you can almost hear the producers pitching the network. Yes, it is hard working at an airport, where an impenetrable wall of scheduling conflicts, weather delays, blank-faced staff and befuddling bureaucracy separate increasingly alarmed passengers from their loved ones and homes. I really can't understand how this qualifies as "entertainment," at least in the strictest sense. It just tends to make me angry.
Not surprisingly, Airline started off as a British reality television concept. It is a well-established fact that the British have an inherent ability to queue for staggering lengths of time and accept it with serenity, so a series about rowdy Americans standing in line for 72 hours, crapping their pants and losing their minds (both literally) probably resonates as wryly hilarious in the British comedic psyche. To an American, this show resonates the same way a crowbar resonates when you smash yourself in the face with it, which is hardly at all.
Airline isn't all bad, really. I am unduly hard on the show. Yes, it has the misfortune of centering on an incredibly ornery subject matter, but it does do a good job of highlighting the interpersonal relationships between the Southwest staff, their ability to solve problems and handle crises, and the delight they take in their work, be it a good day or a bad day. You do get to be rather fond of the Southwest employees, who clearly love their jobs, their co-workers, and the amount of fun they have every single day (How, lord only knows.) Like any reality television show, the secret formula that keeps people coming back every day is the cast themselves: the chemistry and conflicts between ordinary, everyday people thrust into extreme situations. Despite the constant barrage of angry customers, the employees seem to love their jobs, and their enthusiasm is infectious. One flight attendant in particular, on a flight with traveling penguins from Sea World, phrases it perfectly: With the birds running down the aisles playing with the children, he remarks that most people have to sit in an office all day, the suckers. There are times watching Airline when you definitely agree with that sentiment, and the airline industry seems like a marvelous industry to work in. Of course, somebody usually craps their pants while boarding the plane, and you come crashing back to reality.
There is definitely a perverse enjoyment hidden in the overhead compartment of Airline, a smug self-satisfaction watching the absurd situations that airline staff need to deal with on a daily basis. From airline staff who habitually misplace underage children flying alone, to baggage handlers who somehow manage to tear open a bag containing a wedding dress, drop it to the ground, and drive over it repeatedly with the baggage car; from passengers trying to scam their way into free tickets over any minor infraction, however insignificant, to the drunk passengers...ah, the drunken passengers. Why they even build bars in airports is beyond me, since Southwest seems to deny passengers boarding on a daily basis for consuming alcohol. Of course, they turn around and serve it aplenty on the flight, to the customers who managed to stay sober in the mind-crushing numbness of the airport terminal, the place where you actually would need a stiff drink. Anyway, regardless, watching a cranky, tired, menopausal housewife of 50 tear the souls straight out of confused and bewildered airport staff, leaving passersby reduced to quivering piles of goo, has its charms. You have to be a special kind of person to enjoy it, but the more time you spend with it, the more it has its charms.
Visually, the show is underwhelming. Shot entirely on hand cameras, the fidelity of the transfer is lacking in quality compared to most television these days, with a penchant for graininess and nasty digitized blocks of compression. Colors are washed out; black levels are choppy, and so on. Not the best-looking presentation, but considering the subject matter, it gets the job done, emphasizing the show's spontaneity and "documentary" feel. The audio, on the other hand, is quite nice, a simple Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo presentation that keeps dialogue and ambient noises tucked effectively in the front, while blending the whimsical soundtrack into the background. The mix is quite balanced, with perfect clarity to dialogue, even amidst the rush of airport noises, jet engines and angry customers. Bass response is marginal, but the material requires nothing in the way of oomph.
Nada on extras. Even a "cast bio" to get to know the airline staff would have been appreciated here.
Though the show is not without its merits, the idea of Airline is much more compelling than the actual presentation. Southwest as an organization come off as both ludicrous and caring, balancing procedures, rules, regulations, and policies on the customer's heads while at the same time expressing genuine desires to keep the customer happy at all costs. This inherently baffling contradiction is why so many people lose their minds in airports, and the feeling of bewilderment translates when watching the show.
Airline does not work for me simply because it spends so much time focusing on petty, vindictive, emotional, idiotic, and downright stupid people hollering and threatening to sue the airline for any infraction, however minor; like failing to stop their flight from departing while they sneak out of the security area to have a smoke for 10 minutes. It feels too much like actually traveling at airports: the total bureaucratic nightmare of airline check-in employees, the cramped seating, the layovers and standbys, the drunk passengers, and the never-ending barrage of asinine people who seem to congregate around departure gates for no other reason but to annoy the few competent people (like me) that have mastered advanced travel techniques like holding their passport and ticket at the same time when approaching the check-in desk.
Aargh. That isn't entertainment to me. That's anxiety.
An airport is one of the worst places in the entire world to actually spend time in, so making a reality television show based on airports is like creating a reality show about dentists and root canals. If a target audience exists, it sure the heck isn't me.
Airline may have been doomed from the start, at least conceptually; but they make the best go of it as humanly possible and that is to their credit. If you can stomach the circus of human despair and misery, and the sheer amount of unbearable airport anxiety, beneath all the anxiety lays a half-decent television show full of humor and heart. Seriously.
Not guilty, as long as you stock up on Dramamine.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 396 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated