Transatlantic has a fascinating historical basis, but a tendency to tell rather than show and a sometimes oddly sunny disposition conspire to undermine its drama.
This review of the Netflix series Transatlantic Season 1 does not contain spoilers.
Transatlantic, a Netflix limited series based on the true story of the Emergency Rescue Committee’s activities during World War II, is a surprisingly bright show. And I don’t mean tonally, although it does have an oddly and sometimes unwelcome comedic slant at times.
No, I mean literally bright. Almost every scene is lit to a striking, almost unreal degree, as though the light and heat of a thousand suns is being beamed in through every window.
I don’t know if I could necessarily call this a criticism. Most people probably won’t notice, or mind even if they do. But I noticed it constantly, and it distracted me from the overlong but otherwise well-intentioned and well-constructed drama.
Transatlantic Season 1 review and plot summary
About the ERC. In 1940, Varian Fry, an American journalist, ran an office in a Marseille hotel. Through it came various Jewish or otherwise anti-Nazi artists, free-thinkers, and creatives who were at risk from Hitler’s lumbering war machine.
The job of the ERC was to secure these people passage out of Europe to less fascistic climes so that their art and ideas could continue to enrich humanity, even as it was being darkened by the horrors of the Holocaust and those who remained self-serving enough to see it as a business opportunity.
Our POV character through most of this is Mary Jayne Gold (Gillian Jacobs), an American expat who spends most of her time and her father’s money trying to relocate the refugees camped on Marseille’s beach. Fearful of a housewife’s life in Chicago utterly devoid of meaning, Mary uses her feminine wiles – she’s very attractive, which doesn’t go unremarked upon by a single man she meets – and virtually bottomless coffers to help out Fry (Cory Michael Smith) and the rest of the ERC.
When Mary isn’t pretending to be married to certain refugees, she’s working on a legitimate romance with Albert Hirschman (Lucas Englander). There’s also a romantic component to Fry’s character arc, though it’s with a man, fellow ERC associate Thomas (Amit Rahav). Fry being gay was a point of contention during the original release of Julie Orringer’s book, apparently confirmed as accurate by Fry’s own son in a letter to The New York Times.
Things run the risk of becoming a little soapy when these characters all move into a well-appointed villa with a smattering of real-life artists and public intellectuals while a plan is devised to spirit them away from the Nazis.
Is Transatlantic good or bad?
This fascinating historical basis adds a lot to Transatlantic, which is “inspired by” Orringer’s book The Flight Portfolio and was co-created by Anna Winger (Deutschland 83) and Daniel Hendler. And the efforts of the ERC, through a mismatched team of well-meaning outcasts and sympathetic movers and shakers, remain the show’s focus throughout, giving it a distinct tone and vibe from a lot of other World War II-era dramas.
You could argue, even, that the whole thing’s a bit too light, that sometimes the stakes aren’t properly felt, mostly because they’re usually expressed in dialogue rather than depicted through drama. But there’s enough low-key heroism here for Transatlantic to remain engaging, even if it can sometimes feel a bit longwinded or – this in a bit of a whisper – a bit daytime TV.
Is Transatlantic worth watching?
There’s a lot to like in the margins of this one, including a damning portrait of capitalist ambition from then-neutral America – represented by a mustachioed Corey Stoll – and an interesting exploration of Jewish identity that doesn’t linger on the conflict’s atrocities long enough to be heavy and off-putting. There’s an intelligence to the material that doesn’t always come across in the execution, which can be heavy-handed and verbose. The show’s periods of relative downtime are often more illuminating than its showier tension-building.
Fans of period dramas will undoubtedly find lots about Transatlantic to like. However, its sunny disposition can sometimes be a little weird, and the tendency of supporting characters to overdo an explanation gets grating quickly. Lengthy speeches about the importance of art and artists got an eye roll from me, as broadly agreeable as the sentiment might be, and I’m just not sure the show has enough about it to really do its factual basis justice. Mileage may vary.
What did you think of Transatlantic Season 1? Comment below.
You can watch this series with a subscription to Netflix.