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A stiff upper lip

World on Fire is just what we need to watch in a crisis—almost


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A stiff upper lip
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If there’s one thing that frustrates me in this time when we could all use some good storytelling, it’s how little of what some call “binge-worthy” is edifying to the mind or soul.

Yes, I’m looking at you Tiger King.

Stories of petty, wretched people going to war over, what: Who’s less of a hypocrite as they feed their egos by collecting big cats as trophies? Cackling over what’s essentially a long-form Jerry Springer show with a true-crime narrative superimposed?

Sure, it’s addictive. So is meth. And if you cringed your way through what is, reportedly, the most popular show in the country right now, you won't need any more evidence that neither is good for you.

What this moment really calls for is some grand tale of stiff upper lips and resilient spirits.

So it would seem like the perfect time for PBS Masterpiece to swoop in with a sprawling, ambitious wartime drama like World on Fire, premiering Sunday.

We’ve had no shortage of stories set in World War II in the last few years. But World on Fire is different in how often it follows storylines away from battlefields and political leaders. These are the people whose lives change when leaders on the front lines make big decisions.

Sean Bean has made a career out of playing noble leaders like Boromir in Lord of the Rings. But he’s wonderful here as a working-class pacifist whose mind World War I shattered. His two young adult children love him, but they don’t respect him. His daughter, especially, feels he’s wrong to want Britain to stay out of the conflict. With the luxury of hindsight, we know she’s right. But we also understand why her father is committed to peace at all costs.

The show also focuses on little-explored elements of the war that have nothing to do with military strategies.

An American journalist in Berlin, played by Helen Hunt, reports on troop movements and battles. But she also starts investigating a story about Nazis euthanizing German children with Down syndrome and other disorders. Her friendship with the parents of a girl with epilepsy brings a little-seen level of nuance to the German people. Plenty of the locals Nancy meets are evil. But others are scared and desperate, keeping quiet in the face of atrocities in the hopes of protecting their families.

The plot can veer to the soapy at times. Coincidences build upon coincidences as major characters cross one another’s paths in unlikely ways. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a British show if it didn’t include some tough, old battle-axe in the mode of Downton Abbey’s Violet Crawley dropping wry witticisms like the Luftwaffe drops bombs.

But for all the melodrama, compared to many other streaming, cable, or even broadcast series, there isn’t much skin or sex to speak of. For example, when an unmarried girl conceives a baby with her soldier boyfriend, the act is implied, not shown. But Christian viewers will want to be aware that even with restraint elsewhere, we do see one unmarried couple lounging and kissing in bed on several occasions. The couple consists of two men. And while the violence is relatively low for a war-time drama, there’s considerably more language than past PBS productions.

It's a shame, because without these drawbacks, World on Fire would be just what the doctor ordered for home-entertainment right now.


Megan Basham

Megan is a former film and television editor for WORLD and co-host for WORLD Radio. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman’s Guide to Having It All. Megan resides with her husband, Brian Basham, and their two daughters in Charlotte, N.C.

@megbasham

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