The Pitch: It’s 1940 in Marseilles, and while America is doing its best to stay neutral as Germany marches across Europe, there are Americans (as well as others) trying to make a little bit of a difference in the French port city.
Specifically, there’s trust fund baby Mary Jayne (Gillian Jacobs), who’s using her family’s wealth to help fund journalist Varian Fry (Cory Michael Smith)’s Emergency Rescue Committee, a group dedicated to getting refugees out of Europe, especially artists, thinkers, and anyone else with whom Hitler has a specific beef. It’s dangerous work, and arguably treasonable, but that doesn’t stop those scraping by and trying to stay free from seizing what happiness they can…
The Germans Have Outlawed Miracles: Given its setting in time and space, not to mention the frequent discussion of visas and papers, Transatlantic draws up immediate comparisons to casablanca, one of the greatest films ever made — and while the new Netflix drama shouldn’t be anointed for that level of sainthood at this point, those comparisons are favorable ones. For what the two projects have in common, beyond the obvious, is wit, and the intelligence to remember that even when humanity is living through incredibly difficult times, we remain humans, with our own passions, fears, and problems.
The seven-episode limited series is co-created by Anna Winger, who might be most familiar to American audiences as the creator of Netflix’s Emmy-winning limited series Unorthodoxbut is also behind the critically acclaimed deutschland series. (This is important information for at least three people I know personally: Hi Jay, Bronwen, and Dad!) Germany 83/86/89 took a similarly microcosmic look at life during historic moments (in that series’ case, the Cold War and Iron Curtain), an approach which goes a long way towards making the drama feel relatable and relevant.
Part of what makes Transatlantic so compelling is that while the show isn’t afraid to get as dark as its circumstances require, it’s also not afraid to embrace the occasional moment of levity, from funny misunderstandings to romantic drama to even an unexpected musical number. It’s immediately easy to engage with this narrative — the baddies are clear and the good guys virtuous, even when circumstances push them towards some difficult decisions — and thanks to the breathing room provided by a seven-episode run, character relationships are allowed to deepen as the tensions get higher.
Just Another Blundering American: Production-wise, Transatlantic leans a little hard on digital landscapes at times, but otherwise the details are well-rendered, and the cinematography isn’t afraid of color. Especially eye-catching is the crumbling French villa co-opted as a headquarters for the ERC, which at times is transformed by the artists in hiding there.