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Stiff upper lip

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

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 doctored ordered for home-entertainment right now.

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NBC Universal Media


NBC Universal Media

Television

Been there, seen that?

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist may be another foray into the “Glee-verse”

NBC’s latest musical drama, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, reflects the network’s attempt to achieve Fox’s Glee-like success with a modern, TV update to the musical. But lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place.

The network’s previous attempts include Smash, Rise, and Perfect Harmony. Smash aired for two seasons. NBC canceled Rise and Perfect Harmony after only one each. Zoey’s chances depend on whether audiences hunger for more “glee.”

Jane Levy (perhaps best known for ABC’s Suburgatory) plays Zoey, a clever but meek software coder vying for a promotion in a high-tech company. After experiencing an earthquake during an MRI, she suddenly has the ability to “hear” people’s innermost thoughts expressed through impromptu musical numbers. Initially in a panic, Zoey seeks counsel from her cross-dressing neighbor Mo (Alex Newell), who helps her interpret the messages behind the songs.

Zoey uses her new talent to dispense advice to her work crush, Simon (John Clarence Stewart), and her boss, Joan (Lauren Graham). The ultimate and predictable benefit is that Zoey can now communicate with her father (Peter Gallagher), who suffers from a medical condition rendering him unable to speak or move. Veteran actor Mary Steenburgen plays Zoey’s mother. As Zoey resigns herself to her new empathic ability, she finds creative ways to help people with their unspoken issues, only to discover that helping people is not simply a “one and done” matter.

A musical’s success relies on good song selections and performances. Glee veteran Newell and Skylar Astin (Pitch Perfect) exhibit their vocal bona fides. Gallagher, Steenburgen, and Graham bravely offer respectable musical numbers as well.

But man does not live by song alone. The show’s writing must match, if not exceed, the contagion of the melodic earworms. Zoey’s, modeled after Glee’s format, contains the same not-so-subtle promotion of the liberal worldview with Newell’s LGBT character. Viewers willing to overlook Hollywood’s left-leaning agenda will probably enjoy Zoey’s, with Levy’s humble and compassionate portrayal of a reluctant “song-whisperer.”

Glee appeared during a time of musical famine on the networks. Its combination of ’80s, ’90s, and modern music provided viewers with a nostalgic hour of air-drumming (or toe-tapping) fun. Glee’s rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” in its first episode gave it a better than 50 percent chance of success. Whether NBC can mine that same ground with Zoey’s is unclear. Will Glee fans flock to the show or check it off as “been there, seen that”?

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Eric Liebowitz/ABC


Eric Liebowitz/ABC

Television

Cookie-cutter courtroom drama

New TV series For Life has a premise full of promise, but it needs lifelike characters and stories without an agenda

On its surface, it’s hard to imagine a timelier TV series than ABC’s newest prime-time show, For Life. Law and Order may boast that it’s ripped from the headlines, but this new inspired-by-a-true-story legal drama feels as if it owes its existence to the campaign trail.

Part of Donald Trump’s pitch to black voters at the State of the Union Address on Feb. 4 came from his administration’s backing of reforms to mandatory sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders.

Isaac Wright Jr. was once caught in the net of such a law. Serving a life sentence under New Jersey’s “drug kingpin” statute in 1991, he spent his time in a maximum-security prison studying the law. Wright eventually used his legal skills to overturn his own conviction. But in the meantime, he represented fellow inmates, winning freedom for some and reduced sentences for others. 

ABC had to be blessing the day it got this premise before John Grisham did.

But that’s all exterior. Pop the hood and you find overly oiled machinery that differs little from a dozen other courtroom dramas rolling off the broadcast assembly line in the last few years.

Perhaps it’s because Wright himself is an executive producer on the series that he and co-producer Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson seem so intent on making Wright—here named Aaron Wallace—a noble figure. Perhaps he is, but they’ve forgotten that Aaron also needs to be flawed to be interesting. One reason the Bible lives so large in the imaginations of even unbelievers is because it only portrays one figure who is without sin. Everybody else flounders in realistic humanity.

For instance, you would expect a character who ran a nightclub where traffickers pushed massive amounts of cocaine might have at least cut a few corners. Or maybe he was unobservant. Or maybe his business partner took exceptionally effective pains to hide his tracks. But at least in the first few episodes, For Life doesn’t treat this as a question worth exploring. We are to take it on faith that there was nothing at all to Aaron’s conviction. 

As we saw in the case of first-time offender Alice Johnson—who received the same penalty for a similar conviction until Trump commuted her sentence—convicts need not be innocent in every respect to receive unjust punishment. 

That said, those few signs of life, like when the African American Aaron makes the utilitarian choice to join forces with a white supremacist gang leader, are promising. Less so are several ill-fitting LGBT side plots. The stories of those like Isaac Wright, with corrupt prosecutors in aggressive pursuit, shouldn’t have to share the spotlight with an irrelevant agenda.

For Life, which airs on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern, is a good idea. We can only hope that the execution improves.

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