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Television

Review: Struggle. Sacrifice. Cooperation. PBS drama ‘World on Fire’ shows how to win a war

Sean Bean is a father advocating for peace in the World War II drama "World on Fire."
(Ben Blackall)

If you have been able to open your eyes, take your hands from your ears and stop screaming, you will have surely encountered the metaphorical descriptions of a world at war, a battle in which each of us is called upon to do our bit (most constructively, oddly, by doing nothing at all) and sacrifice personal interests for a greater good.

You may have heard, too, that nothing of this scale has happened since the Second World War — hopefully you have heard of the Second World War, though that is no longer a sure thing. It seems an apt time, then, for the PBS showcase “Masterpiece” to premiere “World on Fire,” a character-filled naturalistic melodrama set in the first year of that war. (That leaves a lot of titular fire left to burn, but a second season has been commissioned.) You’re in the army now.

The series, which begins Sunday, opens in 1939, and focuses on a web of characters tied together by blood, marriage, romantic attraction, work and stunning coincidental encounters.

From slapstick comedy to snooty stoicism, British television is a soothing escape from troubled times. Plus all those great accents.
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Helen Hunt plays an American journalist broadcasting from Berlin in the "Masterpiece" series "World on Fire."
(Dusan Martincek)

Helen Hunt plays Nancy, an American journalist broadcasting live from Berlin, throwing shade at the Nazis under the eye of an official minder; she supplies a kind of historical chorus as well. Her nephew Webster (Brian J. Smith), a doctor working in Paris, is in love with Albert (Parker Sawyers), a jazz saxophonist, who (I think) is also the cousin of Connie (Yrsa Daley-Ward), the musical partner of Lois, to whom we’ll get in the next sentence. Nancy is friends with Harry (Jonah Hauer-King), a British translator working in Warsaw, and a man with a textbook rich and emotionally distant mother, Robina (Lesley Manville), and two emotionally affectionate girlfriends: Kasia (Zofia Wichłacz), a Polish waitress, and Lois (Julia Brown), a London factory worker and aspiring pop singer.

Lois’ father, Douglas (Sean Bean), is a bus conductor, a World War I veteran and committed pacifist who spends his off hours advocating for peace; her brother Tom (Ewan Mitchell) is a carefree ne’er-do-well who may be called upon to care more and do better. Kasia has a brother, too, Grzegorz (Mateusz Więcławek), who goes to defend Danzig from the Germans, and ... then other things happen. (This is not a complete accounting.) Even the characters who seem remote from one another are likely to cross paths sometime in the course of the seven-episode season.

Factoring out modern language and frankness, the series’ interlocking stories are quite in the spirit of any number of films made during the war itself, in which characters face What Must Be Done and become better for it. It runs close to corny at times, and yet, notwithstanding the odd manipulative moment, one feels the decisions are being made by the characters and not the writer, Peter Bowker (“Viva Blackpool”).

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Zofia Wichłacz and Jonah Hauer-King are in love amid war in "World on Fire," a new presentation of the PBS series "Masterpiece."
(Dusan Martincek)

Though war is the glue that holds these stories together, the reagent that intensifies the drama, it is not the series’ main subject. “World on Fire” lacks the patriotic cant the subject often brings out. In or out of the action the characters act from motives that are distinctly personal and immediate; the national, or multinational, project is never the point.

And because this is a war story, about 10 minutes in, I was seized by the sudden consciousness that some of these characters, some of whom I had already begun to like, might well be dead before the end — a very current sort of thought, as one might find oneself reckoning projected fatality rates against a list of one’s Facebook friends. Yet, as a group portrait of people mostly trying to do the right thing, and often succeeding, when it’s hard to know what the right thing is, the series is more reassuring than distressing, in spite of the fact that at any given moment most every character is in a state of romantic turmoil, family crisis or physical danger.

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Big scenes and effects — firefights, bombing raids, strafings, mass movements and the like — are expertly done, immediate and suspenseful and shocking, staking you to the moment. The occasional false notes — nearly everything involved with music knocked me right out of the dramatic reality, but that is a subject I know something about — only reinforce the fact that the show is so successful. It’s true that not every story line gets equal attention or succeeds equally well, and it does take a little while for authentic characters to emerge from artificial scene-setting. But emerge they do, and my growing desire to peek at the end — as a TV critic, I have that power — was a sign that I had become deeply invested in their fates. If “World on Fire” is rarely surprising, it’s not full of bad surprises, either, and there is something comforting in the deft way it satisfies dramatic expectations: Expect the expected. (And, of course, we won that war.)


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