“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.