PBS (Sundays, 9 p.m. ET)
British minis are like trains: The longer they get, the slower they go. This Masterpiece Theatre seven-parter—based on author Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant trilogies—starts with promise, in an intriguing time and an unusual place. World War II is just beginning, as an English teacher (Kenneth Branagh) and his bride (Emma Thompson) arrive at their home in Bucharest. There, with fellow expatriots—a few reporters, some twitty professors and a ne’er-do-well sponger named Prince Yakimov (Ronald Pickup)—they gossip and worry about war as the Romanian Prime Minister is shot, as Jews are arrested and as British civilians plan sabotage against the Germans. At the start it looks as if we will have an eventful ride on this TV train.
But pretty soon the scenery all starts to look alike; you get tired of staring at the same faces hour after hour; the slow klunketa-klunketa rhythm of the thing starts to lull your brain to sleep; and nothing happens. A clumsy cat kills itself. Germans go to the Brits’ favorite bar and sing Nazi songs until, in retaliation, Thompson sticks a hairpin in a fascist fanny. The Nazis take over Bucharest, and everybody gets out except Branagh, the professor, who decides for no good or noble reason to stay. Then the Brits go to Greece and stay there until it is taken over. Then they go to Egypt and worry about the Germans winning there. Still, nothing happens. Only one person—Emma Thompson—brightens things up; she does a fine job playing the ideal woman—graceful, strong, patient, pretty, smart and silent in her suffering. Without her, this would be nothing but a long, long journey to nowhere.