Before what would become known as the modern era of “prestige” television, HBO, Showtime, and other similar premium channels were already offering TV programs of a higher quality. Throughout the ’90s and the early 2000s, shows like The Sopranos, OZ, Six Feet Under, and The Wire dominated television and left a distinct impact on pop culture that can still be felt to this day. Among those giants, was the oft-forgotten and under-appreciated Band of Brothers miniseries, produced by none other than Steven Speilberg, Tom Hanks, and Gary Goetzman. The groundbreaking show recounted the journey of “Easy” Company, a regiment of Parachute infantrymen during World War II. Band of Brothers went on to win 7 Primetime Emmy Awards and in the process, spawned a series of companion pieces: 2010’s The Pacific and now, Masters of the Air on Apple TV+.
Masters of the Air is again executive produced by Spielberg, Hanks, and Goetzman. However, it was conceived and written by John Orloff and John Shiban. Orloff returns as one of the original Band of Brothers writers and adapts this show from the 2007 book Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany by author Donald L. Miller. Audiences follow the actions of the 100th Bomb Group, a B-17 Flying Fortress unit in the Eighth Air Force that earned the nickname of the “Bloody Hundredth” in WWII. In keeping with the tradition of the previous entries in this “trilogy” of sorts, AppleTV’s Masters of the Air enlists some of today’s most sought-after talent both in front and behind the camera.
The show’s directing crew, featuring Cary Joji Fukunaga (No Time to Die), Dee Rees (Mudbound), Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Captain Marvel), and Tim Van Patten (Game of Thrones), speaks for itself. Austin Butler (Elvis) stars as Major Gale “Buck” Cleven, who is best friends with Major John “Bucky” Egan played by Callum Turner (The Boys in the Boat). The two actors have great chemistry with one another and their on-screen friendship powers the emotional core of the show. Barry Keoghan (Saltburn) plays Lt. Curtis Biddick and finally gets to act in a role where he’s both well-adjusted and not unhealthily obsessed with anyone. Anthony Boyle (Tetris) also stars as Lt. Harry Crosby. While he’s not perhaps as well known as his co-stars, Boyle manages to stand out the most, particularly towards the end of the series. The same goes for newcomer Nate Mann as Major Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal.
Ncuti Gatwa (Doctor Who) also makes an appearance in Masters of the Air as 2nd Lt. Robert H. Daniels, one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen who belonged to WWII’s famed regiment of all-Black U.S. military pilots. Ncuti makes the most of his limited screen time in the sky and on the ground. Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise as the actor has proved to have infinite charisma. However, the true standout from the Tuskegee airmen is up-and-comer Branden Cook (Tell Me Lies) as 2nd Lt. Alexander Jefferson. Cook is the only Tuskegee airmen that gets to share a scene with Butler’s Buck and he manages to hold his own against the established actor, leaving quite the impression.
For the most part, Masters of the Air manages to be a thrilling war drama that recounts the actual events of the Eighth Air Force airmen who continually went on bombing runs, despite knowing that death would be very likely. This is not a limited series that is doing anything particularly unique or new within the confines of the war genre, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. The writing, particularly in the back half of the show, really grounds the narrative in fascinatingly human ways. Characters are not only brave and noble, but they’re also allowed to be flawed in the shadow of being hailed as American heroes. It makes for a more interesting story and gets the viewer further invested in these airmen and their shared brotherhood.
Masters of the Air is not without its missteps though. This miniseries takes its time reeling the viewer in enough to build an emotional connection with each of the main airmen. Part of what made the two previous entries so compelling was the depth given to the lead characters and their shared camaraderie and banter while in the heat of battle. Masters of the Air, of course, takes place mostly in the sky and when the characters are up there, there’s just too much going on to really feel the chemistry between the team during their missions.
No doubt this frenetic environment inside the B-17 bombers is true to what WWII airmen actually experienced but there is no quiet before the storm in Masters of the Air, only the thunder and the lightning. No breaths that the characters can take which would allow them the space to connect stronger to the audience. This can make the show’s aerial fights blend into one another as none of the pilots outside of the leads get to particularly stand out or pull the spectator into the scene with them.
Comparatively, in Band of Brothers and The Pacific, even before the soldiers started fighting abroad, audiences were allowed to be with them stateside in the first episode. Band of Brothers depicts the soldiers’ home lives and their time at basic training where they bond. The Pacific explores why several of its leads have personally decided to enlist in the war. None of that foundation is laid in Masters of the Air before it jumps into the fray with the airmen of the Eighth Air Force. Thankfully, the show’s writing does eventually find a great rhythm with its characters. Still, one can’t help but wonder how much more memorable Masters of the Air would have been if it had taken a page out of its predecessors’ book and taken time to build up not just the leads, but the supporting cast as well.
Fans of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ two previous miniseries (or Saving Private Ryan) will definitely need to see Masters of the Air. While not quite reaching the heights of what came before, it has all the trappings of those shows and will feel familiar enough at the start to keep one watching until it decides to kick into full gear. At the same time, those who aren’t huge on war dramas, or are only watching this for particular actors, might not find enough here to stay invested and stream the entire 9-episode series. Though, for what it’s worth, when Masters of the Air does get going, it soars so high it’s almost enough to make one forget it took so long to get there.