An interesting if familiar premise — focusing on a group of London flatmates, cutting between then and now, beginning in 1965 — “White Heat” hardly merits the name, proving more plodding and cliched than anything else. Perhaps that’s because the characters are initially no more than types, rather arbitrarily thrown together, which leaves the mystery regarding what drove them apart less tantalizing than it ought to be. For all the good drama BBC America has swept onto U.S. shores, this one brings to mind the kind we Yanks cancel after about four episodes.
Admittedly, this might be one of those programs where the cultural references resonated more strongly at home. “White Heat’s” premiere is framed against the death of Winston Churchill, for example, which doesn’t possess quite the same visceral impact for an American audience as, say, the Kennedy assassination would.
Nevertheless, the program’s shortcomings run deeper — or actually, shallower — than that, hinging on a group of seven students who take up residence in a place owned by Jack (Sam Claflin), a rebellious free spirit who advocates open love and harbors no love for his country’s imperialist adventures.
The introduction comes through the eyes of Charlotte (“Upstairs Downstairs’?” Claire Foy), who is eager to embrace this newfound freedom, and is played in the present day by Juliet Stevenson. The elder Charlotte arrives at the flat of a deceased friend — whose identity won’t be revealed until series’ end — and seems quite wistful about what took place 40 years ago.
Created by Paula Milne, the show invites structural comparisons to “Once Upon a Time in America,” along with various U.S. series that employed a flashback device (“Reunion,” “My Generation”), without really cracking the nut much better than those shows did. And while one can admire the level of ambition associated with filtering a character-driven drama through key events of the last half-century, that only works if the characters merit investing one’s time. Alas, nothing in the opening rises to that level, including Charlotte’s predictable interaction with her parents.
Unfolding over six episodes, “White Heat” liberally uses music from the era to create an atmosphere, but initially, anyway, is far more notable for style than substance. By that measure, the title does prove half right: Nothing here is especially hot, perhaps, but compared with the best period dramas currently on TV, it is pretty pallid.