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The Suffering of Civilians During WWII on 'World on Fire,' the Latest "Masterpiece Theater" Entry
April 4, 2020  | By David Hinckley  | 2 comments

War doesn't victimize only people wearing uniforms, a sadly well-documented fact that gets another expansive dramatization in the new PBS series World On Fire.

World On Fire, a British production that aired in the U.K. last fall, premieres here on Sunday at 9 p.m. as part of the spring Masterpiece Theater lineup (check local listings).

Set in the early part of World War II, it tells dozens of stories over a half-dozen continents, tying them together with common threads and characters like Nancy Campbell (Helen Hunt), an American radio reporter stationed in Berlin before the U.S. and Germany go to war.

Having a journalist in the mix enables writer Peter Bowker both to insert a current events narrative and to get a third-person perspective on the individual stories he's telling.

Campbell takes a tough approach to the job and to life, which accurately reflects what women reporters had to do in a media world where they were inherently disrespected.

While Sunday's opening episode doesn't introduce all the characters, we meet a couple of those whose stories will become central.

Harry Chase (Jonah Hauer-King, top) works as an interpreter at the British embassy in Warsaw, where he has taken up with a young Polish waitress named Kasia Tomaszeski (Zofia Wichlacz, top).

It's a tragic against-all-odds love story, our sympathy enhanced by the fact Kasia is desperate to get her family out of the Nazi line of fire, and mitigated by the fact Harry has a serious girlfriend back in London.

That would be Lois Bennett (Julia Brown), who works in a factory and has the talent to become a professional singer, except that this war thing is making those sorts of dreams far more complicated.

The first episode walks us through some of the obstacles that ordinary people like Kasia face in simply trying to protect their physical safety. It also illustrates how the brutality of the invading Germans has both the desired effect of intimidation and the unintended consequence of inspiring a resistance.

Meanwhile, in a subplot not always featured in World War II dramas, Nancy Campbell's nephew, Webster O'Connor (Brian J. Smith), falls in love with black saxophonist Albert Fallou (Parker Sawyers).

Between the gay and the interracial aspects of that relationship, they've got everything to fear as the Germans slowly take over continental Europe. Webster being a surgeon, a valuable profession in wartime, buys them no consideration.

The World On Fire universe expands as the show moves along, with these characters serving as recurrent threads. The first season doesn't go too far into the war, ending more than a year before the U.S. got involved, but we can see how its tentacles are inexorably closing around the globe.

While the production evokes the era well, the nature of the story makes it darker than many period pieces. The tones and colors seem subdued, in keeping with the cloud that was increasingly throwing the world into shadows and darkness.

If World On Fire has melodramatic aspects, it's an intense story, heightened by the fact we know that the war won't be over for another five years.

With luck, we'll get to follow the characters further, and the initial sign is good. The show has been renewed for a second season.

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Excellent first episode. An epic saga unfolding.
Apr 7, 2020   |  Reply
Turned this off at about 30 minutes - the point of view and location jumped around so much that the narrative and context were completely lost. Have no intention of continuing to watch this mess.
Apr 6, 2020   |  Reply
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