World on Fire season 2 review: War drama struggles with its USP
In its second season, the BBC's sweeping World War Two series remains immersive, but its structural issues are more prominent than ever.
When World War Two drama World on Fire first aired on BBC One back in 2019, it was sold on the premise that it would be an all-encompassing look at the period – that it wouldn't just focus on a select group of soldiers or a small area in which the fighting was taking place, but would instead traverse the globe and tell a variety of stories.
At the time, creator Peter Bowker told RadioTimes.com that he had plans for six seasons of the show, telling the story of the conflict in its entirety. Then, the world shut down.
With a long gap ensuing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the show's second season is only just arriving four years later, with the new instalment featuring stories taking place in England, Germany, occupied Europe and North Africa.
The only problem is that in those four years, we've already seen series and films set in England, Germany, occupied Europe and North Africa during this exact period. And it turns out the series's selling point is also its greatest curse.
World on Fire season 2 picks up where the first season left off, with Harry now having managed to help his wife Kasia escape Poland and got her to safety back in England.
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Meanwhile, Lois is now working alongside her friend Connie in the Manchester ambulance service, while getting over the deaths of her fiancé and father and struggling to form a bond with her daughter, and Stan is stationed out in North Africa working with the sappers of the Indian army and fighting the Italians.
The first thing to note is that, from a technical stand-point, this is once again a thoroughly well-made drama, featuring an exceptional cast who are all operating at the top of their game.
Jonah Hauer-King, who recently garnered a great deal more attention as Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid, makes Harry a sympathetic figure that we root for against all the odds, and Lesley Manville continues to excel as the icy yet well-meaning Robina.
Julia Brown's Lois remains a stand-out and newcomers to the series such as Mark Bonnar and Ahad Raza Mir successfully fill in the spaces left by the likes of Sean Bean and Helen Hunt, who are not involved in this second season.
The series also looks phenomenal, with the stunningly realised production design helping to immerse you in the world and soak up the atmosphere, which appears to be a large part of Bowker's intention with the show as a whole.
The problem is with the pacing and the show's narrative structure. Across the first two episodes which have been made available for press, there's a distinct lack of progress for either the characters or their stories, in part due to the lack of time available to dedicate to each of them.
In trying to show every aspect of life during the war, in its second season the show continues to spread itself too thinly, creating mini-narratives in which not enough happens to any one of them to have an effect within an episode.
Maybe this will change when looking at the season as a whole, but shouldn't viewers expect to see some movement within an hour's worth of TV?
Of course, one of the major upsides of this series is its educational content, with the show exploring aspects around the war in North Africa and the Indian army's involvement, both of which have not been as prominent in the cultural zeitgeist as the Normandy landings or the evacuation of Dunkirk.
However, given the sheer glut of World War Two content of late we have still already seen a lot of what the series covers in other projects to great effect, and very recently at that.
Each of those other series and films may have had their own problems, but they all felt as though they had a more distinct USP than World on Fire, which continues to feel like 'World War Two: The Series'.
After so many dramatisations of this period of history, it feels as though we are at the point where we need more of a distinct take on events, with a specific story to latch on to.
As in season 1, the most obvious choice here would be the intertwined plotlines of Harry, his mother Robina, and his two love interests, Kasia and Lois. A quasi-love triangle may not be the most revolutionary of stories to follow, but at least it has an emotional core and a clear sense of purpose.
In comparison, a new storyline focused on Gregg Sulkin's fighter pilot feels underdeveloped and aimless two episodes in, despite Sulkin's impressive work in the role.
The truth is, if you were a big fan of the first season or are an avid connoisseur of World War Two dramas, then you'll still almost certainly find a lot to like here, not least in the immersive nature of the piece.
It's just that for the rest of us, a series such as this needs a strong USP – and attempting to do everything may not cut the mustard.