'Harley and the Davidsons': TV Review

Courtesy of Discovery Channel
A lot of revving, but this baby rarely truly purrs.
9/5/2016

Discovery's three-night miniseries sacrifices drama and nuance for pure hog-hero worship.

If you visited the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee and were told to set aside six hours (including commercials) for a company-produced orientation film introducing you to the brand and its history, what you'd get would probably look and feel a lot like Discovery's Harley and the Davidsons, a three-night miniseries kicking off Monday.

A big swing into the scripted space by Discovery's current administration, Harley and the Davidsons is actually a step down in star power and compelling storytelling from 2014's Klondike, the network's last big scripted play, but it should appeal to its target audience.

Starting in 1903, Harley and the Davidsons chronicles the initial teaming of brothers Walter and Arthur Davidson, plus Bill Harley and their journey over the next 30-plus years to launch a motorcycle company and turn it into a globally beloved brand. Bill (Robert Aramayo, recognizable as young Ned Stark from Game of Thrones) was the engineering genius. Formerly adrift and lazy, Arthur (Bug Hall) brought inspiration and vision. And Walter (Game of Thrones favorite Michiel Huisman), introduced having his ranch appropriated by a big railroad, contributed daredevil spirit and passion.

The story of the first generation of Harley-Davidson carries through all three nights, culminating in a third hour that features both ludicrous aging makeup on the three leads and the introduction of Walter Junior (Sean Scully), meant to convey a long-term future in a miniseries that's relatively limited in focus. Harley and the Davidsons shows some of the technological evolution of the company's bikes, illustrates the niche the company carved out and tracks the weathering of World War I and the Great Depression.

Writers Evan Wright, Seth Fisher and Nick Schenk have three main characters who, interestingly, actually become less distinctive and individualized as the miniseries progresses. Walter, Arthur and Bill start off as people, but they're soon subsumed by the grander ideology of Harley-Davidson and the even grander ideology of the American Dream, and those two ideologies are the stars of the second and third nights. The performances from Huisman, Hall and Aramayo also start off with their own quirks and approaches and blur into respectful and respectable square-jawed determination.

A few pieces of adversity or human failings are introduced and then pushed aside as the Davidsons and Harley dedicate themselves so wholly to their business endeavor that I found myself wondering why the writers bothered introducing their three wives at all, other than that the spontaneous generation of Walter Junior might have seemed creepy if we didn't get 30 seconds of Walter wooing a barmaid who I only know is named "Emma" from the press notes. Emma is the least developed of what the notes just call "The Wives," but only barely. Annie Read's Anna Jachthuber gets a health scare and to ride a proto-motorcycle once, while Essa O'Shea's Clara is introduced as a crusading journalist who leaves an earlier fiancé because he wanted her to quit her job after marriage and then subsequently never mentions her job again after marrying Arthur. The only other female in the miniseries pops up in the third episode, is played by Jessica Camacho and might as well be named "Composite Character" for all the effort put into fleshing her out.

It's not that a miniseries about three men and their company needs women for equality, but the outside relationships forged by the characters might help make them feel like humans rather than cogs in a corporate ethos. Another thing that might have helped there is a clear delineation of the forces working against Harley-Davidson, but instead the miniseries has a couple one-dimensional villains who do little more than twirl [figuratively] their [literal] mustaches in George Hendee (Philip Brodie) and Randall James (a perplexingly wasted Dougray Scott). I'm not sure of the sins committed by Hendee and James other than the nerve to support motorcycles produced by other companies. In Harley and the Davidsons, it doesn't matter exactly what the Harley-Davidson way is, so long as you realize it's the right way and everything else is the wrong way.

Structurally, Harley and the Davidsons is a steady string of test races in which the fate of the entire company is at stake and whatever advancement or innovation Arthur or Walter or Bill want to make in that moment will either be validated for the world to see or will go up in flames. And when I say "steady," I'm not exaggerating to say that there are between six and 10 of these races, all with an identical structure purpose, each hampered again by the lack of well-developed adversaries, so you aren't rooting against somebody, but rather you're just waiting for the barely motivated villain of the moment to throw his hat to the ground in frustration, because as you might have heard, Harley-Davidson is still thriving, so even in the moments that things are bleakest, you could probably open up your window and listen for the familiar Harley rev from a nearby street.

Directed by Ciaran Donnelly and Stephen Kay, it happens that the races in Harley and the Davidsons are very well done despite their dramatic repetitiousness. They're visceral and intimate, putting you right in the track's muddy splash zone. It's a struggle to distinguish one race from another, other than a Motordrome tragedy that concludes the first night, a pivotal wood-track event that was actually significantly gorier and more horrifying than the way it's treated here.

Showing that Newark Motordrome race in its true body-tossing, motorcycle-flipping nastiness might have been a goal in a more warts-and-all portrait of this time, but that's not what Discovery and Harley and the Davidsons are going for.

This is hog hagiography, pure and simple. It's three nights of American vehicular heroism, men who got tough when that's what the going required of them, who never listened to the word "No" and who aimed for the far horizon and supported our boys in uniform and honored their employees and didn't cheat on their unseen wives and visited ailing relatives at hospitals at least twice and drank to excess in a way that was never problematic and encouraged the advancement of racial minorities and practiced every other virtue you could possibly hope for. Anything more complex or nuanced might have made Harley and the Davidsons into a better miniseries, but I have no doubt that this is much closer to what any viewer willing to dedicate six hours to a motorcycle miniseries will want. It should come with a link to the Harley-Davidson gift shop.

Cast: Michael Huisman, Robert Aramayo and Bug Hall
Writers: Evan Wright, Seth Fisher and Nick Schenk
Directors: Ciaran Donnelly and Stephen Kay
Airdate: Sept. 5, 6 and 7, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Discovery)

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