World War II drama "World on Fire" premieres on PBS April 5 - Catholic Courier
Zofia Wichlaz as Kasia Tomaszeski in the World War II drama “World in Fire,” airing on PBS. Zofia Wichlaz as Kasia Tomaszeski in the World War II drama “World in Fire,” airing on PBS. (Photo courtesy of Mammoth Screen)

World War II drama “World on Fire” premieres on PBS April 5

NEW YORK (CNS) — The sprawling limited-series drama “World on Fire” must have sounded good on paper, and it gets off to a strong start. But over the course of its seven hours, it doesn’t always sustain its promise.

This “Masterpiece” presentation, which first aired on the BBC in April 2019 in time to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II in Europe last fall, premieres on PBS Sunday, April 5, 9-10 p.m. EDT. It will continue in that time slot through Sunday, May 17, though broadcast times may vary, so viewers should consult their local listings.

As might be anticipated in a program about the global conflict’s first two years, the show contains a high level of violence. This takes the form of hangings, rape, euthanasia, suicide as well as other types of physical and psychological trauma.

Add to those elements adultery, racism and other bigotry, a gay romance, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy and some crude language, and it’s clear this is an offering exclusively for adults.

British playwright and screenwriter Peter Bowker created and wrote this high-gloss soap opera. It takes viewers to Manchester, England, Warsaw, Berlin and Paris — and onto the fabled beaches of Dunkirk as the Nazi army steamrolls its valiant, but outmatched opponents in the late spring of 1940.

Among the first characters to whom we’re introduced are upper-class Brit Harry Chase (Jonah Hauer-King) and his factory worker and singer girlfriend, Lois Bennett (Julia Brown). We meet them as they’re protesting against a rally by fascists sympathetic to the Nazi cause in pre-war Manchester.

Five months later, 20-something Harry is working as a translator along the Polish-German border, where he falls for waitress Kasia Tomaszeski (Zofia Wichlacz). Still in love with Lois, however, Harry consults Berlin-based journalist Nancy Campbell (Helen Hunt) about his quandary.

Far removed from her “Mad About You” years, Hunt plays the mature radio broadcaster with the clear-eyed urgency the part requires. Nancy’s daily dispatches serve as narration and anchor viewers in the ever-changing plot lines.

One of these involves Nancy’s neighbors, Uwe (Johannes Zeiler) and Claudia (Victoria Mayer) Rossler. They’re struggling to save their epileptic daughter Hilda (Dora Zygouri) from government-mandated euthanasia.

How viewers of faith respond to “World on Fire” will largely depend on how they weigh its characters’ moral failings against what they do to redeem themselves. Harry provides a good case study. As his mother, Robina (Lesley Manville), says, he’s “big on gesture but small on consequence.”

Desperate to save Kasia once the Nazi invasion begins, Harry marries her, and they intend to flee to England. But Kasia ultimately opts to stay behind and join the Polish resistance, entrusting her younger brother Jan (Eryk Biedunkiewicz) to Harry’s care.

When Harry returns to Manchester, he takes up with Lois again without missing a beat or mentioning his marriage. While this makes it difficult for viewers to maintain sympathy with him, we encounter a far-different Harry once he’s a leading a British infantry unit on the road to Dunkirk.

As his second in command, Sgt. Stan Raddings (Blake Harrison), says, Harry is prone to pick up “waifs and strays.” And his care of shell-shocked soldiers they encounter on the road is admirable and touching.

Beyond the moral dilemmas it presents, the series’ high body count and pervasive tragedies also prove challenging.

“World on Fire” excels, however, in its quiet moments — as when the traumatized infantrymen strike up a haunting, improvised version of “Bye, Bye, Blackbird.” Its sobering descriptions of how the extremes of war can convert people into unrecognizably hardened or terrorized versions of themselves is also commendable.

Grown viewers who become fans of the show shouldn’t be confused or alarmed by its cliffhanger ending. “World on Fire” will return for a second season.

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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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