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PBS’s ‘World on Fire’ a widescreen view of wartime

Zofia Wichlacz and Jonah Hauer-King in the "Masterpiece" World War II drama "World on Fire."
Zofia Wichlacz and Jonah Hauer-King in the "Masterpiece" World War II drama "World on Fire."Dusan Martincek / © Mammoth Screen

There are stretches — such as right now — when you’re acutely aware of living in historic times. You know that this dramatic, trying moment will make it into the textbooks, and possibly change the course of global history, just as it is profoundly altering each of our lives. Every day, the news is big and bold, and so are the fears of cataclysm and the urge to take care of loved ones.

That’s the world reflected in the new PBS “Masterpiece” series “World on Fire,” an epic ensemble piece set against the early years of World War II, beginning in 1939. The German campaign, so efficient and aggressive, is making its way across Europe, with resistance efforts and the resulting clashes erupting unpredictably. Everyone is on edge, saying goodbye to the way things are as the Nazis approach, including the show’s loosely interrelated set of diverse characters spread throughout Poland, England, France, and Germany.


And that’s the gist of “World on Fire,” which was created by Peter Bowker; it’s an ambitious and broad look at the onslaught of war and the ugliness — as well as the occasional heroism, but mostly the ugliness — that it ushered in. If I were judging the show, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on WGBH-2, solely on scope and generalized impact, it would probably get an A. It provides a strong sense of life during wartime, the way melodrama can become a pointless luxury, and the dystopian realities that can ensue.

But the seven-episode show is built on so many smaller stories, it sells a few of them short. The broad canvas stretches a little too thin. There’s a gay love story in the mix, for example, between a doctor and a Black jazz saxophonist in Paris, and they remain cardboard cutouts throughout. Their plot amounts to little more than set-up — perhaps to be plumbed more thoroughly next season, perhaps not. It’s too bad, because some of the stories do add up to something a little more dramatically engaging. And every single scene featuring Lesley Manville, who plays a wealthy British snob named Robina whose notions of class and race aren’t as different from Hitler’s as she thinks, is a gem.


The central character is Robina’s handsome son and heir, Harry (Jonah Hauer-King), who’s seeing a girl named Lois (Julia Brown). The icy Robina is repulsed; Lois’s father (Sean Bean) is a bus conductor with a debilitating case of PTSD from his service in World War I. Harry is committed to Lois, though, even as he leaves for a new post in Poland to work as a translator. Ah but Harry is young, gets swept up in the apocalyptic chaos, and finds a Polish girlfriend, Kasia (Zofia Wichlacz). Will Harry bring her home when he decides to return to England?

Meanwhile, the series also follows a number of other characters, including Kasia’s family, Lois’s brother, a couple in Berlin who fear Nazis might take their epileptic daughter in the name of genetics, the aforementioned doctor and musician, and a reporter — Helen Hunt’s one-dimensional Nancy Campbell — whose radio broadcasts essentially form the miniseries’ narration. The world is spinning out of control in “World on Fire,” and, at moments, so are the many story lines.


Starring: Lesley Manville, Jonah Hauer-King, Helen Hunt, Julia Brown, Sean Bean, Blake Harrison, Ewan Mitchell, Brian J. Smith, Zofia Wichlacz


On: WGBH-2, premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.