Period pieces might not be at the point of achieving dime-a-dozen status on the television landscape quite yet, but it’s fair to say that there are more of them now than there were 10 years ago. The fault for this can be set squarely on the metaphorical shoulders of Mad Men, of course, which are no doubt still smarting from the slings and arrows they suffered for having indirectly ushered in Pan Am and The Playboy Club last season. Despite those two notorious failures, however, let’s not forget that there are still several strong series flying the flags of bygone eras, including Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey, and… Magic City? Well, I liked it, anyway.
The latest addition to this ever-expanding genre is Bomb Girls, a Canadian drama that debuted in the Great White North in January but has now found an American home on Reelz. Set in World War II, the series revolves around the lives of four employees of Victory Munitions: Betty (Ali Liebert), Gladys (Jodi Balfour), Kate (Charlotte Hegele), and their boss, Lorna (Meg Tilly). When a network’s first foray into original programming is Steven Seagal’s True Justice, it’s only reasonable to expect that there are going to be permanent scars on their reputation, but—and maybe we can blame Canada for this—Bomb Girls is a surprisingly satisfying addition to the Reelz lineup.
Like so many series set in the past, the best part about the show is how it looks, offering a glimpse of history that’s rarely less than eye-popping, but set design and costuming will only keep viewers satisfied for so long. Unfortunately, given that it’s the first episode, it’s to be expected that the character development in “Jumping Tracks” quickly establishes everyone with only the barest of traits, ostensibly setting them up for gradual growth in upcoming episodes. For instance, all we really learn about Betty is that she’s a mouthy blonde whose temper is about as quick as her judgment, while the only two things that make Kate memorable at the moment are that she’s arrived at the munitions factory after having escaped the clutches of an abusive father and, oh, yes, she’s got the voice of an angel for some reason, which unexpectedly fills the factory during a somber moment.
Far better served is Gladys, who earns more screentime than any other character, possibly because her story has the potential to be the most interesting as well as the most scandalous. As the well-to-do daughter of grocery store tycoon Rollie Witham, Gladys might come from money, but she’s making a point of doing her part for the war effort despite her parents’ decided disapproval. Indeed, Gladys goes so far as to pointedly comment within earshot of her mother, “Well, Hitler’s coming: Someone in this family needs to fight him.” Given her movie-star looks and fancy attire, most of the other girls at the factory—the ones that aren’t swooning over her silk stockings, anyway—are quick to mutter things behind Gladys’s back like, “First broken nail, she’s out of here,” but it’s already evident that she won’t be backing down anytime soon. Less certain, however, is how she’s going to handle the fact that, in addition to being engaged to the equally well-to-do James Dunn (Sebastian Pigott), she finds herself so smitten with a soldier boy named Lewis (Adam Butcher) that she not only has a quickie with him before he ships out but ends up accepting his proposal as well.
Ah, but what of Lorna? Having retired from acting for the better part of two decades, it’s been so long since Meg Tilly’s had any role of note—those three episodes of Caprica in 2010 don’t really count, do they?—it’s high time viewers were reminded that there’s more to the Tilly family’s acting repertoire than a breathy voice and heaving breasts. (Not that Jennifer doesn’t utilize those attributes spectacularly, you understand.) Although Lorna first seems to be the tough boss who doesn’t take any guff from her girls, there’s far more to her life than her employees know: With a husband whose service in World War I left him a paraplegic, she’s become the breadwinner for her family, and the trials that she’s been through have toughened her up considerably. Not so tough, however, that she doesn’t almost break down when she mistakenly believes at one point that her supervisor has come to tell her that her husband has died. (In fact, he’s come to pawn off the duty of telling another employee that her husband has been killed, but he actually smirks at her reaction, saying, “You gals always think the worst…”)
Some moments in Bomb Girls feel a bit predictable, like the guys and gals getting together at a dance, but others go in directions that are completely unexpected, such as the revelation that there’s a peephole from the men’s locker room into the girls’ shower. Rather than going the obvious Porky’s route, the scene eschews any sort of comedic bent, instead turning into an unexpectedly dramatic confrontation between Lorna and Marco (Antonio Cupo), an Italian-born factory worker whose father has been sent to an internment camp. As for the inner workings of the factory itself, let’s just say that there are a few moments that will remind viewers just how different assembly lines were in the 1940s, including one that’s decidedly hair-raising. (I’m going to go ahead and apologize for that joke now. You’ll understand why later.)
If you can’t stifle yourself from saying “gimme a break” when Gladys leaves her lip prints on a shell and whispers, “Go get ‘em,” then Bomb Girls probably isn’t the show for you, but it looks good and, at least based on the first episode, it goes down easily.
- I hope we see more interaction between Lorna and Gladys’s mother. Their decidedly different personalities and backgrounds made for a delightfully awkward scene.
- Ah, World War II: when men were men and soldiers could still get laid by pleading, “But I’m shipping out tomorrow!”