Stories of wartime are romanticized in ways that aren’t always obvious to anyone who didn’t serve on the front lines. This goes for stories about life on the homefront, too. But while PBS’s new “Masterpiece” series about British citizens on the brink of World War II, “Home Fires,” has its fair share of soaring violin music and sweet tableaus, it surprisingly delves deeper into a well of stories that, despite having been told before, feel revitalized.
“Home Fires” follows the lives of British women living in a more isolated rural area of England on the brink of World War II. The pilot opens with an argument: Some women believe that until the war is over, the Women’s Institute, a volunteer organization, should stand by and wait to reopen after peace is restored. Others believe that they have a duty to help. One woman calls for a vote of no confidence in the president, who then immediately resigns. A few loyal supporters follow her out the door — but enough remain to keep the doors of the Institute temporarily open.
Typical war dramas involve husbands, fathers and sons enlisting and leaving weepy, worried wives and mothers — but that isn’t what this story focuses on. It focuses on those women who aren’t defined just by their relationships to men. They have their own community and ways of contributing to the war effort, and their own struggles, too. They are just as strong and just as vulnerable as the men are, but they must try twice as hard to have their efforts at aiding the country be validated.
It’s difficult for a show centered around women to avoid portraying them as catty or one-dimensional when they are in competition with each other, but “Home Fires” avoids this pitfall. It realistically depicts the tensions that grew out of class differences; for example, several of the supporters of the Institute’s old president turn their noses up at women who live on farms and don’t wear pearls to meetings.
It helps that the cast is well prepared and comfortable in their rapport, with actors such as Samantha Bond (“Downton Abbey”), Daisy Badger (“Shelter”) and Claire Rushbrook (“My Mad Fat Diary”) inhabiting their characters with a confidence that makes for believable interactions.
Though it is a relatively cozy show — calming color schemes and perfectly coiffed hair included — it doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of this time period. One of the women wants to join the workforce, knowing that her family is tight on money, but her husband sees no reason for her to do so. She serves him breakfast after he tells her that they aren’t having that discussion again, and when he notices she isn’t eating, she quietly tells him there was only enough for one. He smashes everything off the table and tells her she is welcome to it — if she gets it on her hands and knees. When a mother asks a doctor to fabricate a note for chronic asthma for her son so he can’t be drafted, the doctor grimly informs his secretary that she won’t be the last parent to do so.
Yes, this is a show in which making jam serves as a patriotic call to action and a sign of hope, but it is also a show that won’t shy completely away from portraying the time period’s desperation in a way we’d sometimes rather not face. “Home Fires” doesn’t just fill a void for period dramas, a genre with a pretty niche audience; it handles its subject matter with sensitivity and dexterity, making for genuinely fun viewing.