Like most period dramas on television, the Canadian series “Bomb Girls” (which premiered on ReelzChannel last night and airs Tuesdays at 10pm) doesn’t inhabit its timeframe so much as it wears it like a habit. Set during World War II at a Toronto factory that manufactures bombs, it takes a setting specific to its moment in time — a workplace in which women were recruited to do jobs that were before the fighting the domain of men — and layers on swing music, pretty costuming and issues of race, gender, nationalism and class that all managed to nearly intersect with our four main characters.
It’s a tendency that never fails to be a little jarring, like having a series set in 2002 that starts off with a character in mourning for someone lost in 9/11, listening to “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World while watching the Utah Winter Olympics and wearing a “Monsters, Inc.” t-shirt. Our lives don’t come into contact with all the events happening around us, no matter how important they are in the bigger picture, and so having them filter through a limited amount of characters can’t help but feel artificial. In “Bomb Girls,” one character’s anti-Italian due to her sons fighting in the war and clashes with an immigrant colleague, while another forms a tentative relationship with a black coworker despite the fact that their being seen together angers others. One is, as far as the show seems willing to express it, a closeted lesbian, while another is the local rich girl leading the others in battles for a better workplace situation while dealing with a sexual double standard with regard to her fiancé.
Co-created and written by playwright Michael MacLennan, “Bomb Girls” is the kind of show that makes you appreciate the way “Mad Men” has preferred to have its touches of history be mainly local or less well-remembered — water balloons dropped on a Manhattan civil rights protest, or the Richard Speck murders in Chicago. But despite its tendencies toward era-abuse, “Bomb Girls” is a ripely enjoyable melodrama that does make use of an interesting and defining time for women.
Working out of patriotism, economic necessity or a mixture of both, the four main characters are constantly made aware of the fact that they’re considered second-rate workers despite their skills, and that they’re expected to return happily to keeping house when the war is over. But employment allows the girls independence and opportunity, freedoms that threaten the established gender order in ways that alarm some of the men — the shift matron tells her scolding husband that they can actually afford the fancy pork roast she serves for dinner thanks to her salary, while another worker saves up to be able to buy a home of her own rather than assume one will be provided for her by a spouse.
“Bomb Girls” has for one of its stars Meg Tilly, sister to Jennifer Tilly and a notable screen presence in the ’80s and ’90s, when she appeared in “The Big Chill,” “The Two Jakes” and “Agnes of God,” for which she received an Oscar nomination. Tilly took a 15-year break from acting, but here nabs the most interesting and complex character, a housewife who married young and raised three grown children, and who suddenly has a life away from home, with responsibilities and respect. She loves her husband, who was wounded in the first world war and carries some emotional trauma as well, but yearns for more, and finds herself unexpectedly attracted to the handsome, younger factory worker Marco (Antonio Cupo). While the younger girls shoulder broader feminist struggles, her storyline is poignantly specific, as she channels her sexual confusion into trying to get Marco fired under the guise of his being a possible traitor. The moments between the two of them are both soapy and vividly alive, following no easy formula.