TV Review: ‘Harley and the Davidsons’

Discovery's new miniseries about the founding of Harley-Davidson hopes that the viewer comes in already loving motorcycles

Michiel Huisman, Robert Aramayo, Bug Hall, Stephen Rider, Jessica Camacho, Daniel Coonan, Annie Read, Wilson Bethel, Dougray Scott, Gabe Luna, Alex Shaffer, Essa O’Shea, Sean Scully.

Harley and the Davidsons” is a superhero origin story, and like so many superhero stories these days, enjoying it requires an a priori love for the source material. In this case, the superhero is not any particular founder of Harley-Davidson, or even Harley-Davidson the company. It is the motorcycle itself — roaring to life in a shed in Milwaukee in 1903. There are characters and locations here, but they are all sideshows. Indeed, at a crucial moment in the second installment, the dramatic climax comes when Bill Harley (Robert Aramayo), Walter Davidson (Michiel Huisman), and Arthur Davidson (Bug Hall) find their first bike off the factory line and lovingly start it up again. When all else fails, it is rapture for the motorcycle that holds these men together.

Harley and the Davidsons” is not good, exactly, but it is a very specific kind of successful; it is a love letter to American motorcycling that will find its way to many passionate viewers. The miniseries is far too flat and uncritical to be anything except a romantic snapshot of a sliver of American history, but it manages to be filled with, and to build itself around, the pure passion so many enthusiasts have for their machines. Character, chronology, and the creation of a sense of setting are all subordinate to the miniseries’ first goal, which is to have fun with motorcycles. As a result, the racing scenes are depicted with great affection, the antique engines are reproduced with astonishing care, and the wild and free shots of Walter riding a Harley-Davidson through Wisconsin farmland are scored with thrilling intensity.

Everything else is kind of a mess: The story never fully makes sense, and the characters are rarely fleshed out. It’s hard to begrudge the motorcyclists their fun, but “Harley and the Davidsons” is a historical production that doesn’t feel authentic in any capacity — whether in the depiction of the era, the virtue of the characters, or the objective stance of the filmmakers. It’s so sympathetic to Harley-Davidson and its three creators that it could be a paid advertisement for the brand. (It’s reportedly not.)

The leads are all capable enough, and the journey of each founder — as he discovers what he’s good at, finds a wife, and produces children — has a light, fluffy appeal. But the production is simply less interested in flesh-and-blood creatures than it is in what its motorcycle engines can do. Given that the miniseries enthusiastically examines the careful construction of machines, it’s ironic how slapped together the story’s construction is — from each founder’s family life (lots of disapproving older brothers) to the seemingly endless politics of the racetrack, which features at least three separate eras of rivalries. “Harley and the Davidsons” is a mishmash of myth-making — racing stars, makes and models, brotherly spats, and epic brawls — that is less a history than a brand narrative.

To its credit, the show chooses who it wants to include in its history, and it opts for a broad, inclusive lens, gathering under its umbrella many different types of people who are interested in motorcycles. That includes the findings of actual historic record, including Eddie Hasha (Gabe Luna), the “Texas Cyclone” — a half-Mexican, half-Scottish rider who raced early models of the Harley-Davidson machine — and William Johnson (Steven Rider), an African-American racer and officially licensed Harley-Davidson dealer. There’s also Jessica Camacho, who stars as a fictionalized composite of early female riders of color.

What the miniseries also has going for it is the pure passion that people have for their motorcycles — a passion that can fill in the series’ gaps in time, information, and, to be frank, quality. When Bill Harley meets Anna (Annie Read), the woman who would become his wife, she rides his newfangled bike around the block before they even go on a date. The essential idea — startling in its optimism — is that motorcycles are for everybody.

Though the program never quite manages to convey what is so peculiarly beautiful about riding a mile a minute on a big motorcycle, it makes a good case for discovering what all the fuss is about.

TV Review: 'Harley and the Davidsons'

Miniseries, 3 episodes (3 reviewed): Discovery, Mon. Sept 5, 9 p.m. 120 mins.

Production: Executive producers, Dimitri Doganis, John Goldwyn, Ciáran Donnelly.

Cast: Michiel Huisman, Robert Aramayo, Bug Hall, Stephen Rider, Jessica Camacho, Daniel Coonan, Annie Read, Wilson Bethel, Dougray Scott, Gabe Luna, Alex Shaffer, Essa O’Shea, Sean Scully.

More TV

  • Ariel Winograd'TOD@S CAEN' film premiere, Los

    Viacom International Studios Signs First Look Deal with Ariel Winograd (EXCLUSIVE)

    MADRID  — Adding to a powerful and still growing talent roster, Viacom International Studios (VIS) has clinched a first-look deal with Argentine writer-director Ariel Winograd whose latest movie, “The Heist of the Century,” has just become one of the biggest Argentine openers in history. The multi-year pact takes in the development and production of not [...]

  • William Bogert Dead: 'Small Wonder' Actor

    William Bogert, Who Appeared in 'War Games,' 'Small Wonder,' Dies at 83

    TV, film and theater actor William Bogert, who appeared in a recurring role on 1980s sitcom “Small Wonder” and in films such as “War Games,” died Jan. 12 in New York. He was 83. On “Small Wonder,” which ran from 1985 to 1989, Bogert played Brandon Brindle, the Lawsons’ neighbor and Harriet’s father who became [...]

  • Editorial Use OnlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    TV Ratings: NFL's AFC, NFC Championship Games Down From 2019

    The NFL’s AFC and NFC championship games made for a blockbuster Sunday of football for CBS and Fox, but viewership of the games that determine the contenders for the Super Bowl was down from 2019 levels. CBS’ AFC championship in the 3 p.m. ET afternoon slot delivered 41.1 million viewers as the Kansas City Chiefs [...]

  • Medici TV Show

    Vuulr Online Rights Market Makes Global Expansion at NATPE

    Singapore-based Vuulr, an online content marketplace for film and TV rights, is expanding from regional to global operations. The move was announced ahead of NATPE, one of the oldest face-to-face TV rights markets, this week launching its tenth edition in Miami, Florida (Jan 21-23). The Vuulr platform is free to use for buyers and for [...]

  • What to Watch on TV This

    What to Watch on TV This Week: ‘Picard' Premieres and 'Shrill' Returns

    Welcome back to Tune In: our weekly newsletter offering a guide to the best of the week’s TV. Each week, Variety’s TV team combs through the week’s schedule, selecting our picks of what to watch and when/how to watch them. This week, “Star Trek: Picard” beams into existence on CBS All Access and “Shrill” returns [...]

  • SAG Awards 2020: What You Didn't

    SAG Awards 2020: From Charlize Theron to 'Parasite,' What You Didn't See on TV

    Brad Pitt made a crack about his marriages. Robert De Niro got political. And Jennifer Aniston talked about appearing in a commercial for Bob’s Big Boy. Those were just some of thing that happened on stage at the SAG Awards that were broadcast on TNT/TBS on Sunday night. However, Variety was inside the Shrine Auditorium [...]

  • Edges Unknown

    TCB, Cineflix, All3Media Announce Sales Ahead of NATPE Miami

    Miami’s NATPE market kicks off on Tuesday, but deal announcements are already landing. London-based TCB Media Rights has sold 130 hours of content to Latin America, Cineflix and National Geographic Latin America closed a deal for four titles, and Discovery Latin America picked up popular makeover format “10 Years Younger” from All3Media. TCB’s 130 Hours [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content