'World on Fire': TV Review

World on Fire STILL - H 2019
A soggy knot.

PBS' sprawling World War II drama stars Sean Bean, Lesley Manville and Helen Hunt as ordinary citizens involved in the European front.

On the classic 1980s sitcom Designing Women, lead character Charlene Frazier (Jean Smart) was known for her coquettish virtue and moony nostalgia. She often looked wistfully into the past, longing for the joyous days of Elvis (her own past) and the heart-wrenching years of World War II (her parents' past.) In fact, the show featured at least two extended dream sequences set in a canteen during the war, Charlene conjuring up her real-life friends as stock characters — cigarette girls, USO singers, Nazi-shooting colonels, etc. The CBS comedy satirized this romanticism but also reveled in it, indulging in the starry-eyed fantasy of war-as-passion that WWII re-enactors still carry on today with ersatz army uniforms and fresh victory rolls.

I thought of Designing Women frequently while watching PBS' ambitious seven-part World War II drama, World on Fire, the network's latest British acquisition for Masterpiece. (The series, from writer Peter Bowker, initially aired on BBC in the U.K. and has already been picked up for second season.) Tense but mawkish, the show follows the lives of numerous loosely connected Europeans and Americans during the first year of war, dabbling in secret marriages, shamed pregnancies and forbidden love affairs in between the occasional battle sequence. Like misty Charlene Frazier, World on Fire adapts modern tastes and social politics to draw a sentimental vision of bloodshed.

Simultaneously fast-paced and sluggish thanks to its overwhelmingly sprawling cast and subplots, the series can be imagined as a map of Europe with several intertwining lines connecting various cities. In our home base of Manchester, England, we're introduced to Douglas (Sean Bean), a bus driver and pacifist still haunted by the horrors of the First World War. His aggressive son, Tom (Ewan Mitchell), signs up for the British navy in lieu of going to jail for a petty crime, while his level-headed daughter, Lois (Julia Brown), wastes away in a factory pining for a posho boyfriend who's serving as a translator in Warsaw. She soon joins the war effort as a singer entertaining the troops. 

Unbeknownst to Lois, however, impulsive Harry (Jonah Hauer-King) has fallen for a local waitress (Zofia Wichlacz) who's more interested in joining the Polish Resistance than living in domestic bliss with him in England. Instead, she sends her little brother home with Harry, who dumps the poor kid with his harridan mother, Robina (Oscar nominee Lesley Manville), a woman so gratuitously cruel and supercilious that her dialogue strains credulity. (For example, if you hadn't already figured out she's mean, Bowker has Robina point out that the razor her son is shaving his face with is the same instrument the boy's father used to end his own life.) Their kids may be blander than battlefield rations, but at least Bean and Manville share chemistry as emotional foils (one porous, the other poison).

Meanwhile, in Berlin, brassy American war correspondent Nancy Campbell (Oscar winner Helen Hunt) flouts Nazi intimidation to help her neighbors, the Rosslers, hide their daughter's epilepsy from Germany's new eugenicist policies. She's the closest thing the show has to a hammy, platitude-armed superhero: At one point she quips, “You don’t have to explain, Herr Rossler. She’s a dead Nazi. That’s good enough for me." In another scene, she flagrantly holds a knife to a Nazi Party officer's genitals as if she were in a deleted scene from Inglourious Basterds.

In Paris, Nancy's expatriate nephew Webster (Brian J. Smith), a doctor, falls for a French African jazz musician named Albert (Parker Sawyers) and is gutted when Albert is arrested for the crime of being black. Over the course of the season, each fraying plot thread gets entangled with another, resulting in a knotted storyline where Webster ends up treating wayward navy man Tom, and the Rosslers' soldier son goes around shooting things in Poland. (Given its geographical sweep, World on Fire includes many scenes performed in subtitled Polish, German and French.)

While not as dopey as recent British World War II soap The Halcyon or as dark as speculative alt-history drama SS-GB, World on Fire still lacks the technical finesse required for a war drama to stir the senses. The writing leans heavily on shocking brutality and drippy melodrama to drive the action, trying to squeeze tears out of us with crazed Nazis and noble suffering. When Harry asks his mother why she won't visit his love child, she cries, "Because it would break my heart, you foolish boy!" His face crumples: "When did you grow a heart?!" Later, she commends him for this insult. "It was witty, at least," she admits. If dialogue were actually effective, would it need to compliment itself?

The world wars are trending content right now. With the rise of fascism and strongman leaders across the globe, entertainment like the Oscar-winning 1917 and HBO's The Plot Against America exist not just to shed light on the past, but to reflect current political uncertainties. World on Fire is desperate to connect the then and the now, portraying every woman as a strident protofeminist and endowing every character with the wisdom of a 21st century therapist who has specialized training in trauma and oppression. (Sorry, I just don't buy that this many people in the 1940s were sensitive to the pain of refugees, veterans with PTSD or persecuted queer folk.) Worst of all, World on Fire doesn't teach me anything about the Second World War that hasn't been explored countless times in other formats.

Cast: Sean Bean, Lesley Manville, Helen Hunt, Julia Brown, Jonah Hauer-King, Zofia Wichlacz, Brian J. Smith, Ewan Mitchell, Johannes Zeiler, Victoria Mayer, Arthur Darvill, Eryk Biedunkiewicz, Parker Sawyers
Writer: Peter Bowker
Executive producers: Peter Bowker, Damien Timmer, Marcus Wilson Helen Ziegler, Lucy Richer

Premieres Sunday, April 5, 9 p.m. (PBS)