'Band of Brothers' arrived twenty years ago when the idea of blockbuster, or prestige television was reaching its zenith.
You had shows like 'The Sopranos' effectively taking crime cinema and packaging into hour-long episodes, while 'Sex and the City' became a cultural phenomenon that's lasted until today. Betwixt Tony Soprano's ducks and Carrie Bradshaw's handbags was 'Band of Brothers', a miniseries that featured babyfaced and pre-fame names like Michael Fassbender, Tom Hardy, and James MacAvoy. It even had military movie stalwart Captain Dale Dye in there, and a cracking behind-the-scenes documentary from Ron Livingston, one of the show's main stars.
Much like 'Band of Brothers', 'Masters of the Air' peppers its cast with knowns and unknowns. While Austin Butler and our own Barry Keoghan may have the name recognition to most audiences, Callum Turner, Belfast native Anthony Boyle, and Stephen Campbell Moore both are stalwart actors who have the kind of old Hollywood edge that makes a show like this work. Indeed, 'Masters of the Air' is often accurate to a fault - both in its dialogue, and how some of it plays out. There's more than a few scenes of the horrors of the war where one gunner cradles another with a "Don't you die on me!", not to mention the excited yelps of "Two o'clock high!" when German fighter planes zoom into view.
Compared to 'Band of Brothers' or 'The Pacific', there's far less ceremony when pilots and planes are downed. For one, the up-close-and-personal nature of how the battle sequences were staged in both shows is replaced with high-flying cinematography meshed with soaring orchestral moments as the bombers duck and dive over Nazi Germany. The list of directors for the nine episodes include Cary Joji Fukunaga of 'No Time To Die' fame, Dee Rees of 'Mudbound' fame, and Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who previously directed TV shows like 'The Affair' and 'Billions'. The final episode of the series is directed by Tim Van Patten, who wrote one of the finest television episodes ever made - 'Pine Barrens', from 'The Sopranos'.
Beyond the wealth of talent in front of and behind the camera, what 'Masters of the Air' does so well is provides the grandiose scale for something like this. The air sequences are stunning and would no doubt like just as immense on a cinema screen or a laptop screen, and for all of the sometimes clunky dialogue during them, they're still hugely effective. Likewise, the cast assembled grasp the kind of bravado and performance that their roles require. Austin Butler's movie star looks aren't out of place, nor is the gusto and guts with which others like Barry Keoghan play it. It's all deliberately old-fashioned, and meant to brush up against modern sensibilities.
Beyond all that, 'Masters of the Air' feels like it's come at a decisive moment in television. The show's production budget was somewhere in the region of $250 million, and it looks like every penny of it went on screen. When you see how streaming services are now under increasing pressure to reduce costs and drain losses, 'Masters of the Air' is the last show outside established media franchises to have this kind of scale and spectacle. It may even be that those inside the respective tents are feeling the same squeeze too.
If there is something that 'Masters of the Air' leaves out, be intentionally or not, is the mental anguish and impact that pilots must have suffered. Their planes are blasted apart in mid-air yet, as Butler's pilot roars at his co-pilot, they had to sit there and take it. Though there are a few scenes here and there that touch upon the muted rage, it's never anything beyond a surface-level acknowledgement. Of course, it may just be that these fliers simply refused to broach it. Compare that with 'Band of Brothers', which centred an entire episode on a single soldier who suffered from hysterical blindness, and it feels as though 'Masters of the Air' lost some of the subtler edges of the experience.
Nevertheless, 'Masters of the Air' is a rollicking, decidedly old-fashioned, sometimes naff, blockbuster of a show that's already passing into history. Enjoy it while you can.
The first two episodes of 'Masters of the Air' are available on Apple TV+ from January 26th and runs week to week until March 15th.