PBS Returns to WWII, Where the Hell of War Isn’t Always a One-Way Street

You wouldn’t say that World War II is public television’s happy place. You can say it seeded many notable programs for PBS, and two more arrive this Sunday.

Sofia Helin and Kyle MacLachlan in ‘Atlantic Crossing.’

Atlantic Crossing, an eight-part Norwegian series that airs at 9 p.m. ET on Masterpiece, dramatizes the real-life wartime relationship between Crown Princess Martha of Norway and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The first four episodes will be preceded at 8 p.m. ET by the British documentary series My Grandparents’ War, in which four well-known actors — with a lot of help from researchers and experts — dig into the details of their grandparents’ lives during those terrible years.

Then at 10 p.m. ET, once these shows have put everyone in a World War II mood and probably got us humming “I’ll Be Seeing You,” PBS will rerun World On Fire, another British World War II drama that first ran in the U.S. last year. (Footnote: A second season has been commissioned, but Covid-19 has delayed production.)

Atlantic Crossing is the showpiece here, and at times it straddles the line between intense wartime drama and high-end soap opera.

To briefly summarize the latter, Crown Princess Martha (Sofia Helin) develops a close friendship with Roosevelt (Kyle MacLachlan). Exactly how close is never spelled out, just as it was never made clear in real life. Suffice it to say FDR comes across as congenitally lecherous, a fact to which his wife Eleanor (Harriet Harris) some years earlier had become reluctantly resigned.

Martha’s husband, Crown Prince Olav (Tobias Santelmann), has no such tolerance for his wife’s possible attraction to another man, and the tension between Martha and Olav builds the emotional foundation of Atlantic Crossing.

The war itself also plays a prominent role, of course, particularly in the early episodes when Olav, Martha, their three children and the rest of Norwegian royalty must quickly navigate a perilous escape from the invading Nazis. (Another footnote: The first two episodes are mostly spoken in Norwegian, with subtitles. After that, it’s mostly in English.)

Olav spends the rest of the war in London, helping rally the fragmented and exiled yet determined Norwegian forces.

Martha and the kids settle in Washington, which is considered safer. When she makes friends with Roosevelt, she also becomes the invaluable voice who can directly remind the very busy president how desperately Norway needs American aid.

It’s a fascinating political and moral dilemma. How close to the president is too close? Is there a specific point at which a personal relationship cannot coexist with the mission?

As these questions suggest, Atlantic Crossing slips into melodrama from time to time. Some real-life scenarios have been tweaked to enhance the intrigue, though the general narrative seems accurate.

That narrative includes a stock portrayal of the war, with the amoral Germans brutalizing everyone who isn’t them.

Mark Rylance.

The Nazis also come off that way in My Grandparents’ War, which devotes one episode each to the grandparents of Helena Bonham Carter, Mark Rylance, Kristen Scott-Thomas and Carey Mulligan.

All were involved in the war in some way, and most did not speak of their wartime experience. As a result, seemingly routine details of their wartime lives come as revelations to these grandchildren. Watching the grandchildren react to discoveries and flashpoints feels similar to watching the subjects in Henry Louis Gates’s PBS genealogy series Finding Your Roots.

The specific wartime experiences vary widely. Scott-Thomas’s grandfather was a naval captain. Both of Rylance’s grandfathers were Japanese prisoners of war for almost four years. Bonham-Carter’s grandfather was a Spanish diplomat who for one miraculous, intense week approved hundreds or thousands of exit visas that enabled Jews to get out of Europe with their lives.

Perhaps the strongest common thread among all these men, and women to the extent they come into the story, is perseverance. They did what seemed necessary and right, and did not consider their conduct heroic.

Here again, it is a given that the Germans and Japanese had to be defeated, because they would have shrouded the world in darkness. The POW photographs and stories are chilling, and it’s not hard to understand why Rylance says his grandfather was a forgiving man who could not forgive his Japanese captors.

Interestingly, though, there’s something else in the Rylance segment. Toward the end he briefly speaks with a Japanese war historian who notes that besides dropping nuclear bombs on two cities full of civilians, U.S. planes also killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese with firebombing raids on Tokyo.

She doesn’t argue moral equations. She makes a point on which Rylance elaborates, which is that in war, both sides inflict whatever pain they can. That’s how it works. There isn’t a “clean” war any more than there is harmless nicotine.

That’s a fascinating insertion in a series of programs reinforcing the sense that almost no story in wartime feels ordinary.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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