Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks – executive producers behind not just one of the best war dramas of all time, but one of the best dramas full stop, 2001’s Band of Brothers – have reunited for another Second World War epic. This time their attention is fixed on the sky, namely the 100th Bomb Group, nicknamed “The Bloody Hundred”, a squadron of pilots in the US air force based in Suffolk.
The cast is almost as impressive as the big stars behind the camera. Oscar-nominated Elvis star Austin Butler leads a troupe including man-of-the-moment, Saltburn actor Barry Keoghan, Olivier and Tony-winner Anthony Boyle, the BBC’s new Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa, and Fantastic Beasts star Callum Turner. All signs point to this nine-parter being unmissable prestige television, just like its predecessors – I could barely wait to watch the first two episodes, which are streaming from today.
But instead, Masters of the Air is the first big TV disappointment of 2024.
You wouldn’t know it from the opener alone, which sets up the series’ no-prisoners tone succinctly as the group head out on their first mission. Inevitably not all the planes make it back to base, each casualty a scene of high-octane misfires and emetophobic nightmares (vomit-averse viewers beware, for a gang of pilots, this lot are very prone to motion sickness). Parachutes are deployed at an alarming rate and bombs are dropped without hesitation. It’s nail-biting stuff… the first couple of times.
The problem with setting a drama mostly within the confined spaces of planes is twofold. First, the episodes become very formulaic and predictable – perhaps I’m being flippant, but there’s only so many times I can watch the fleet head out to Europe, for something to invariably go wrong, and then see them (or at least some of them) fly back. This is not a show you can binge without getting bored – thankfully, Apple is releasing episodes on a weekly basis.
The second issue is more practical. I couldn’t hear a bloody thing they were saying. While Keoghan is sporting an accent so New York (pronounced, as he would have it, “Noo Yolk”) it borders on parody and Butler still hasn’t shaken his Elvis Presley Mississippi drawl, the lads spend most of their time communicating via voice-distorting oxygen masks. Thank God for subtitles.
Masters of the Air certainly shares the same DNA as Band of Brothers – it could easily have been released in almost the exact same form (give or take a few CGI explosions) back in 2001. For some, that might be a good thing, but look at the world around us: war isn’t an abstract concept as it was pre-9/11 when Band of Brothers was filmed.
Twenty-three years later, the horrors of air strikes are all too real to be presented as entertainment without nuance, as Masters of the Air far too often does. One particular scene, in which Turner’s Major John Egan shags a Polish stranger amid the Blitz, is particularly shameless (most of the women, of which there are few, are introduced as nothing more than romantic interests for the main male characters). At one point, the drama ventures into the idea that regular German citizens might be victims of their tyrannical leader too – before swiftly doing away with that idea by portraying them as evil brutish thugs.
I wanted to like Masters of the Air so much. And there is a lot to like – the acting is top notch, the world-building immersive and the storytelling (what little there is of it) is succinct. But it’s too old-fashioned to compete with today’s prestige TV. What’s more, it’s not even trying to.
‘Masters of Air’ is streaming on Apple TV+ now, with new episodes every Friday.