The embers from World War II burn so brightly that there are an endless number of ways to revisit it. So even if “Home Fires” is the “Masterpiece” equivalent of “small ball” — similar in tone and look to, say, “Call the Midwife” — the outbreak of the war, against the backdrop of a small British village, provides an extremely fertile environment for soapy doings. Although the spine of the maiden six-episode run deals with the Women’s Institute, and its members finding their roles on the home front, that’s merely the hook, which, like many of these productions, methodically reels you in.
The central and showiest struggle pits the amiable but strong-willed Frances Barden (“Downton Abbey’s” Samantha Bond) against Joyce Cameron (Francesca Annis), a classic upper-crust snob, accustomed to running roughshod over the women who pass through her orbit in the bustling hamlet of Great Paxford. Yet as the story begins in August 1939, tensions are running high, and Frances, eager to use the institute in ways that will support the war effort, manages to politically outflank Joyce, whose influence nevertheless remains formidable.
How the women will help, of course, is only one thread in a dense latticework that includes a local doctor (“Upstairs Downstairs’ ” Ed Stoppard) and his family; an abusive husband; a mother positively devastated at the thought of her son going off to war; a new teacher hiding a secret; and sundry romances, illicit or otherwise, all magnified by the threat of bombs raining down as months pass and Great Britain enters the fray.
If it’s all rather familiar (the material is adapted by Simon Block from a book by Julie Summers), it’s nevertheless beautifully played, and notable for how unglamorous everyone looks, in a way that you would seldom see in an American production. As the stakes rise, so does the intrigue, from a bookkeeper coerced into covering up war profiteering to a conscientious objector whose unwillingness to fight leads him to be labeled a coward and shunned by those fearing for sons and husbands in harm’s way.
Looking ahead, “Home Fires” — which will lead into another handsome and more showily ambitious period piece, “Indian Summers” — also ends on a moment of such grace and quiet power that it could easily function as an ending, while setting the stage for future seasons to come. The war, after all, dragged on six years, and it’s not farfetched to see this series doing the same.
Unlike the Brits who stood on the front lines and behind them during this period, “Home Fires” might not be “Masterpiece’s” finest hour. But all things being equal, it’s still pretty damn good.