Roush Review: Ambitious 'World on Fire' Rarely Ignites With Dramatic Surprise

World on Fire
Review
Dusan Martincek / © Mammoth Screen 2019/PBS

"Every war's different, until it’s the same," barks Sean Bean (Game of Thrones) as a pacifist father, shell-shocked since the Somme. Passing out peace pamphlets in Manchester, England, he's swimming against the tide: With the invasions of Poland and France, Nazi aggression has stirred the winds of warfare in 1939 and 1940 Europe.

The ambitious seven-part Masterpiece series World on Fire covers a lot of ground in its first season, but it still can't help feeling like every World War II drama you've ever seen. With a gaunt Helen Hunt on hand as an exposition machine of an American radio journalist, clinically reciting the latest dire headlines, Fire rarely ignites with dramatic surprise.

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The series follows civilians living in WWII-era Europe.

Still, it's likely to satisfy an audience willing to wallow in old-fashioned heroics with the occasional modern flourish — an interracial gay romance, for instance, and a spunky heroine (Julia Brown) whose streak of independence and pride keeps her from being just another war bride. Although when she entertains the troops as a songbird, does her playlist have to be so on the nose ("After You've Gone," "Easy Living," "All I Do Is Dream of You")?

As Lois Bennett, working-class daughter of the aforementioned pacifist, Brown is easily Fire's greatest asset, especially once she unconventionally spurns her posh lover, international translator Harry Chase (sad-eyed matinee idol Jonah Hauer-King). The women generally come off best in this story, including Harry's other conquest, Kasia (Zofia Wichlacz), a waitress in Warsaw who stays behind to join the resistance and becomes a remorseless assassin.

World on Fire Sean Bean

(Credit: PBS)

Feckless in love and aimless in life, burdened by a cold snob of a mother (Lesley Manville, elevating the cliché), Harry eventually rises to the noble occasion at Dunkirk. Other tense sequences include a daring escape attempt from a hospital in Nazi-occupied Paris and a wrenching subplot about a family in Berlin trying to shelter their epileptic daughter from Hitler's "mercy killing" program of euthanasia.

By the cliffhanger end of the first season — unlike the recent Sanditon, we're promised a second — no one emerges unscathed by the horrors, losses and changes they've endured. And the Blitz hasn't even started yet.

World on Fire, Series Premiere, Sunday, April 5, 9/8c, PBS (check local listings at pbs.org)