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john doyle: television

It would be nice to report that Bomb Girls (Global, 8 p.m.) is terrific television. Can't be done. It's arch, unsubtle and numbingly obvious.

The six-part miniseries arrives on a giant wave of publicity. The sort of gee-whiz coverage that often accompanies a big-budget Canadian production, a giddiness that causes people to forget to ask, "But is it any good?" What happens is, the premise is promoted, the lead actors are promoted and everybody is just peachy-keen to talk it up. The quality of the content doesn't seem to matter.

The very, very soap-opera series is about the lives of Canadian women who worked in munitions factories during the Second World War. It plays heavily on the idea that these women went quickly from being stay-at-home wives and moms to working women doing dangerous work. The sexism they faced. The danger in their daily toil. The romance and the heartbreak.

Meg Tilly plays Lorna, the factory's tough-minded shift boss overseeing a motley crew of women who deal with countless personal issues while working and worrying about the men in their lives who are at war overseas. Tilly is a commanding presence and a small number of the characters are deftly drawn, but Bomb Girls is horribly overblown, feels like it was written for simpletons, and is clumsily directed. The idea is first-rate but the production has all the emotional heft and subtlety of some horrible 1950s musical about perky gals helping out with the war effort and falling for unsuitable men.

In many ways Bomb Girls is just an unsophisticated victimization fantasy – women have to give up so much in order to work, men are awful and, sometimes, other women can be really mean and spiteful. All shocking news to viewers, no doubt.

The dialogue has a unnervingly forced sound, as if everyone was trying way too hard to sound like characters in a 1940s movie. "Get your girls in order and get your big, flapping face outta here!" Lorna is told by a guy whose instructions seem to be that he must sound like Jimmy Cagney at all times. A serious problem is the spouting of exposition at every opportunity, as if the viewer needed to be reminded during every scene that the production is set in the 1940s. At one point a female character says of the solders going to war: "Let's face it, as soon as those hunks of heartbreak set eyes on the first khaki-wacky English lass, they forget we exist." Jiminy. "Hunks of heartbreak" and "Khaki-wacky English lass." It is a tribute to the actor that such stuff can be spoken.

With period drama, the best strategy is to allow the setting to emerge organically from the characters and situations. Here the 1940s setting seems entirely constructed from comic-book versions of the period. Nothing gels. The writing, acting and direction wobble this way and that, never finding a compelling rhythm.

There is little to recommend in Bomb Girls, but that little should be noted. The production does look gorgeous. The production design is exceptional, the costumes are striking and the overall visual impact is startling. Jodi Balfour is very good as Gladys, the rich girl defying her family by taking a job in the munitions factory. And Anastasia Phillips is truly excellent as Vera, a strong woman who becomes a victim, but not of the snarling men.

There was tremendous potential with Bomb Girls. The idea is fine and the execution of the look is extraordinary. But the strained mimicking of melodrama from the 1940s and 1950s sinks it. Pity.

Also Airing Tonight

Nova: Deadliest Volcanoes (PBS, 8 p.m.) is all about "sleeping giant" volcanoes and when they might explode. Scientists who study the issue are interviewed. There is much speculation about the horror that might ensue when they do erupt. It's something to worry about if you're in the vicinity of Japan's Mount Fuji, the volcano called "The Sleeping Giant" under Naples or the Yellowstone "supervolcano" in the United States.

If you want to indulge in more awe at nature tonight, there is also Mystery of the Super Flood (CBC NN, 10 p.m.), which solves "one of the Earth's strangest geological riddles" – it explains how a colossal flood created bizarre landscapes near Seattle and how the theory of a flood was the subject of derision until it was proven correct by events in Iceland. It is unclear whether the giant flood is expected to happen again.

Check local listings.

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