fb-pixelWith a focus on World War II, TV series are remaking history - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

With a focus on World War II, TV series are remaking history

Rafferty Law (left) and Samuel Jordan in "Masters of the Air."Apple TV+

World War II has been the setting for many TV shows over the decades, including action dramas like “Combat!” and miniseries such as “Holocaust” and “The Winds of War.” Oh, and cartoonish comedies like “Hogan’s Heroes,” although I know nothing! about why they were made.

In recent years, World War II has been getting some renewed attention on TV, fitted with contemporary emphases on big-budget production design, moral inquiry, and timely parallels. We’re going back over a war that was fought against fascism, among other evils, revisiting a time not too long ago when the nation was clearer on its identity as a democracy.


The current resonance has been irresistible for some screenwriters, and we’ve gotten everything from “World on Fire” on PBS “Masterpiece” and “Transatlantic” and “All the Light We Cannot See” on Netflix to the Hulu miniseries remake of “Catch-22″ and the frightening alternate histories of Amazon Prime’s “The Man in the High Castle” and HBO’s “The Plot Against America.” Those dangers and fears that almost consumed Europe and threatened the United States in the 1930s and ‘40s, they linger.

Even “All Creatures Great and Small,” the PBS “Masterpiece” series that’s the TV equivalent of a gentle lullaby, has entered wartime, with two of its central characters now serving. World War II was not ridden with ambiguities in the way most wars are, and it fits neatly into the show’s simple, sincere approach, as we see all the town’s young men line up to fight against Nazi Germany. In some ways, the treatment of the war in “All Creatures Great and Small” lines up with “Masters of the Air,” the third miniseries in the trilogy that began with “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” and that’s now running on Apple TV+. Both are old-school tributes to the Greatest Generation and those who fought against Hitler, men and women battling mightily for their beliefs.


I suppose one of the attractions of portraying the air attacks over Europe is our sophisticated CGI, which makes “Masters of the Air” into an adrenaline rush, as well as a dizzying and nauseating affair. Like a video game, the series spends a lot of time in the sky amid shooting and the dropping of bombs, the crew lurching about in an effort to keep control. But unlike “Top Gun: Maverick,” another recent bit of air fare, the recipients of the attacks are clear: Nazis. “Hunters,” the pulpy, audacious two-season Amazon Prime series, also focuses on its target, giving us vigilantes tracking down Nazis who are regathering in 1970s New York, while flashing back to events during the Holocaust. It’s a revenge drama that addresses generational trauma and the complexities of the slogan “never again.”

One of the more recent additions to the WWII TV canon is the potent miniseries “A Small Light,” released last year and available to stream on Disney+ and Hulu. It follows Miep Gies — a fantastic Bel Powley — and her cohort in Amsterdam, who helped hide Otto Frank, his family (including daughter Anne), and four others in a secret annex during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Miep and her activist husband, Jan, aren’t trying to be heroes; their disgust drives them. Ultimately, the series is asking viewers to think about what they would do if their neighbors were being robbed, humiliated, and shipped to death camps. Would you do what Miep and Jan did?


Apple TV+’s “The New Look,” which premieres on Wednesday, also invites viewers to look within, as it tells the parallel stories of fashion designers Christian Dior and Coco Chanel in Paris during the German occupation. Would you make dresses for a company whose clients include Nazis? Would you help a Nazi if he helped you get a beloved relative out of a camp? Many of the best TV shows do that — challenge the viewer to think, to imagine themselves in similar situations, to question their own moral bearings.

Ken Burns’s three-part documentary series “The U.S. and the Holocaust” spends 6½ hours looking closely at the moral bearings of this country, charting exactly what we did while the Jews of Europe were being systematically rounded up and murdered. Aired in 2022, the series shows the variety of responses from this country, some shockingly cool, as well as the kind of fear-mongering by public officials that continues to this day.

“All the Light We Cannot See” has been given a mediocre four-part adaptation, one that oversimplifies the people in a Nazi-controlled French town. The evil becomes almost caricature-like, while the goodness is too good to be true. Let’s hope an upcoming adaptation of a bestseller set in those times has a more layered, persuasive take. In May, Peacock is premiering its six-part miniseries “The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” set in the death camps. Fingers crossed. The more we get to look back in horror and regret, triggered by powerful and powerfully told stories on TV, the better.


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