Three new TV series set in the past: Only two are a blast

An East German soldier (Jonas Nay) is turned into a Cold War spy in "Deutschland 83." | SundanceTV

A trio of new period dramas hit TV in the next few days.

They unfold in Germany during the Cold War, 18th century England and the United States in the midst of the Space Race.

One is great, one is good and one is meh. Have a look:


Don’t let the subtitles scare you: This gripping German drama — the first series in the German language to air on a U.S. network — is well worth it, even if you don’t spreche Deutsch.

Set in 1983 against the backdrop of a very hot Cold War in divided Germany, this spy saga centers on a young East German soldier, Martin Rauch, wonderfully portrayed by fresh-faced actor Jonas Nay.

Martin is reluctantly recruited by the Stasi secret police to go undercover on the other side of the Berlin Wall, where he must pose as West German First Lieutenant Mortiz Stamm and nark on NATO’s military secrets.

In a refreshing twist on the traditional spy story, Martin’s motivation to go undercover in enemy territory isn’t political as much as it is personal. His mother needs a kidney transplant, and Martin’s anything-for-my-country aunt is using that — rather cruelly — as the carrot on the stick. (Martin is promised that his mom will get the operation if he does the Stasi’s bidding.)

The eight-part series from American author Anna Winger (“This Must Be the Place”) and her German showrunner husband, Joerg Winger, mines some of the same subject matter and ’80s angst as FX’s superb thriller “The Americans.” But it never feels like a poor man’s version of that show. If you’re a fan of one, you’ll almost certainly be a fan of the other.

“Deutschland 83” transports us to a different place than we’re used to seeing on TV — a treat that’s increasingly on the menu at SundanceTV. The cable net has brought some remarkable foreign series, like “The Returned” and “The Honorable Woman,” to U.S. audiences.

“Deutschland 83” captures the rhetoric, propaganda and hysteria that both sides trafficked in during this incendiary chapter of the Cold War. News footage of President Reagan slamming the Evil Empire may seem silly now but no one was laughing back then, especially not the folks in Europe who would literally feel the fall out from a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.

The drama makes the most of these high stakes while having fun with its storytelling and soundtrack. Partygoers at Martin’s East Berlin home dance to Nena’s “99 Red Balloons,” a tune Martin later hears at the West German military base. “This song is playing everywhere,” another soldier remarks, underlining the fact that people aren’t that different on either side of The Wall. What is different is the environment, and it’s entertaining to see Martin react to the colorful capitalism of the West. Suffice to say he’s a fan of hotel toiletries and room service.

Martin’s occasionally bumbling attempts to play James Bond feel authentic, making him all the more sympathetic as a man-child who’s nothing but a pawn in a deadly government game. The net result is a captivating drama with interesting things to say on multiple levels, even if those things are said in subtitles.

“Deutschland 83” airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. Central/11 p.m. Eastern on SundanceTV.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

“Deutschland 83” slideshow:

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This new drama also is set in the ’80s. The 1780s.

PBS in conjunction with the BBC has resurrected one of “Masterpiece’s” earliest hits nearly 40 years after Captain Ross Poldark first captivated audiences with his swarthy charm.

The latest incarnation stars a well-cast Aidan Turner (“The Hobbit”) as a Redcoat who fought in the American Revolutionary War and returns to England with a sexy scar and high hopes. These hopes are immediately dashed when he finds out his dad is dead, the woman he loves is engaged to his cousin and his land has gone to pot. Welcome home, soldier!

Poldark, however, is no quitter. He begins to rebuild his life in beautiful Cornwall, where he’s hell bent on reopening his abandoned copper mine, being an all-around stand-up guy in a village full of jerks, and spending more time shirtless than “The Bachelor.”

Based on a long-running series of novels by Winston Graham, this seven-part series has a “Downton Abbey” feel to it, except when it comes to pacing. “Poldark” can feel a tad sluggish during the many sad violin moments peppered throughout the first four episodes I watched.

But like “Downton Abbey,” there’s a welcome cheekiness here, coupled with a real sense of being in a faraway place in a bygone era.

The most interesting storyline revolves around Poldark’s conflicted love life — a soapy, sexy narrative likely to appeal to fans of the Starz series, “Outlander.”

“Poldark” may not be a great show but it is a good one, made all the better by the stunning scenery and a charismatic lead character.

“Poldark” airs Sunday at 8 p.m. Central/9 p.m. Eastern on PBS.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

“Poldark” slideshow:

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I’d resist the all-too-easy urge to say this ABC drama about the wives of the Mercury Seven astronauts never takes off if it weren’t such an apt description of this mediocre series.

Based on the nonfiction book by Lily Koppel, the 10-episode season is set primarily in the ’60s during the throes of the Space Race. (Like many a space mission, the launch was repeatedly delayed — rarely a good sign in television.)

These seven women traveled from obscurity to the limelight at Mach 1 speed when their military husbands were chosen to be America’s space pioneers. Some handle the insta-fame better than others. John Glenn’s wife, Annie (Azure Parsons) initially shies away from the press because she stutters. The insular Louise Shepard (Dominique McElligott), Alan’s wife, struggles with having her private life being made public, especially the not-so-pretty parts.

Each of the women has her own set of issues, which the show addresses in an unoriginal, wife-of-the-week-type format.

Lip service is paid to the cultural turmoil going on during the time, from the changing role of women and marriage to the plight of African-Americans. (A particularly sappy scene in the second episode has one of the astronauts giving a patronizing pep talk to the black son of a hotel maid. It’s meant to be a feel-good moment but it comes off as fake and hokey.)

This is not a four-quadrant show. My hunch is it will appeal to older women who lived through that era (it has some nice nostalgic touches). Men and certainly millennials of both genders are bound to be bored.

The series’ focus falls right in the wheelhouse of ABC, a female-skewing network, but it ends up being a liability overall. When compared to their husbands’ heroics, the women’s lives just aren’t that interesting — at least not the way they’re portrayed here. They ping-pong back and forth between being catty and supportive of one another, making Jell-O dishes, posing for magazine covers and watching with bated breath as their significant others risk their lives on TV.

I was left wanting more astronaut, less wife.

“The Astronaut Wives Club” airs Thursday at 7 p.m. Central/8 p.m. Eastern on ABC.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

“The Astronaut Wives Club” slideshow:

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