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Fighters, Flak, Frostbite and Follow-Ups: Apple TV’s “Masters of the Air”

In today’s vast and dizzying entertainment landscape, it’s easy to forget a time when there weren’t 15 million TV shows to binge on, most of them worthwhile.

One wonders, in fact, if 2001’s fabulously successful Band of Brothers — and its 2010 follow-up, The Pacific — helped kick off this era when streaming is as good as theatrical movies, and sometimes better.

One also wonders if the brand-new Masters of the Air — another high-profile, one-season show about real-life soldiers in World War II — can possibly match the sky-high standards set by its predecessors.

Carrying over some of the same creative team from Band and Pacific, the nine-part miniseries debuted on Apple TV+ last month; responses to the first two episodes have been mixed, with critics generally liking the show and ordinary viewers venting disappointment.

For once, I find myself agreeing with the critics.

Set in 1943, Masters tells the true-life story of “the Bloody 100th,” a Britain-based wing of American B-17s that was so nicknamed because of their appalling casualty rate.

The show focuses on two young flyers, Gale Cleven and John Egan, who arrived in England with the similar nicknames Buck and Bucky. Egan is played by the charismatic Callum Turner, who had the lead in last year’s Boys in the Boat, while Cleven is played by the equally magnetic Austin Butler (Oscar nominee for 2022’s Elvis).

Complaints start there, and I have to agree that Butler’s acting leans too heavily on handsome poses while staring wistfully into the middle distance. (One online reviewer quipped that the actor must now be convinced that he actually is Elvis Presley.)

And indeed, this is emblematic of the show’s whole approach, which — particularly with its reliance on CGI — is a little too glossy and superficial. The dialog is often thin and trite; and — a frequent gripe among online reviews — the British RAF is caricatured as pompous, weak, and cowardly. That is nothing short of outrageous, given their valiant sacrifices over Egypt and in the Battle of Britain, to name just two instances.

Regarding this dismal misstep, however, it might be best to hold our fire till the other seven episodes play out; I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers had something up their sleeve to prove the American boys wrong in their stereotypical misjudgment.

And as for the digital images: Precious few of these 80-year-old aircraft are still airworthy — or even in one piece; without computers, I can’t see any other way to manage the dense, rapid and terrifically exciting takeoffs, landings, bombings and dogfights. Plus, there are just enough scenes of actual aircraft (mostly on the ground) to help offset this.

I also loved how the writers manage to cram into these episodes nearly every aspect of World War II aviation: landing gear, oxygen, payload, gremlins, flak, flight formation, takeoff checklists, G.I. chow (including those bountiful “last suppers” on mission day), airspeed, gun turrets, fighter attacks, superstition, injuries, navigation, engine fire, visibility, air sickness, post-run interrogations, ground crew (no medals; no sleep), chaplains, crash-landing, high-altitude frostbite and of course, the famed Norden bombsight.

As you can no doubt tell, I found both episodes entertaining, smart and suspenseful, with solid editing and handsome cinematography. While Masters of the Air may not quite rise to the stratospheric heights of its two forbears, I for one am really looking forward to the other seven episodes.

Let’s see if they can hit their target as well as those brave American boys in the sky.