Close this search box.

Masters of the Air: Series Premiere Review

Austin Butler in Masters of the Air

The pedigree behind a World War II show like Masters of the Air is intimidating, but the series premiere shows it has the potential to clear the runway.

I’ll say this for the series premiere of Masters of the Air (split amongst two hour-long episodes), AppleTV+ newest prestige limited series: it manages to effectively craft a number of varied, pulse pounding action set pieces. Before the first half is even halfway over, no less than three plane-based dramatic scenes take place, with a major mission taking up the bulk of the second half. The first episode, written by John Shibhan and John Orloff and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, runs the risk of making its characters unknowable as it soars into the season – this is a cast made up exclusively of young, handsome but interchangeable white men whose faces are mostly obscured whenever they’re in their planes. Thankfully, it has charismatic actors like Austin Butler, Callum Turner, and Barry Keoghan to anchor our sympathies whether they’re on the ground or in the air.

For those unfamiliar, Masters of the Air has a lot to live up to, being the latest iteration of a series that started with the acclaimed Band of Brothers in 2001 and continued with The Pacific in 2010. It’s also based on Donald L. Miller’s novel of the same name. As with those previous series, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg return here as executive producers, and it’s evident that they, along with the writers and director, bring the same attention to detail that they executed in Saving Private Ryan and the aforementioned series to Masters of the Air. Detail in the settings and circumstances, but detail in the moods of the characters and what they’re up against.

One detail that stood out to me and feels accurate to the tragedy of any modern war: almost every soldier we meet in both episodes is just a kid, barely older than their mid-20s. This isn’t necessarily something brand new to war stories, of course, and with so many films and TV series about the various facets of World War II, I wonder how Masters of the Air will distinguish itself beyond its setting.

The show opens introducing us to the friendship between John “Bucky” Egan (Turner) and Gale “Buck” Cleven” (Butler, doing his gravelly Elvis voice without the southern twang) before they ship off overseas. I get the feeling their relationship will be central to the remainder of Masters of the Air because the rest of the cast simply doesn’t leave as much of a lasting impression yet. They have memorable moments, especially in the mission scenes, but it’s harder to remember who’s who after their air masks are off and they’re relaxing between missions. I was a little surprised when Barry Keoghan’s Lt. Curtis Biddick unremarkably appears in the second half of episode 1, as if he had been in the background all along.

Barry Keoghan in the series premiere of "Masters of the Air"
Barry Keoghan in the series premiere of “Masters of the Air,” premiering January 26, 2024 on Apple TV+. (Apple TV)

As with every season and series premiere, episode 1 has to introduce the characters, and the major storylines for the season. But unlike Band of Brothers and The Pacific, I would imagine that general audiences are less familiar with the Allied force’s aerial exploits in World War II than with the major battles fought on the ground in the east and west. Masters of the Air begins before D Day, in 1943, so perhaps the series will build towards this fleet’s involvement in that. Curiously missing from both episodes, but hinted at in an unmissable moment in the (excellent) opening credits sequence, is the involvement of the Black airmen contingent of the Air Force. How much will we see of them going forward?

The second half of the series premiere picks up shortly after the fallout of the failed mission in episode 1, as Bucky, Buck, and Curtis Biddick deal with how they’ve let their squadron down. It also widens the scope of the English base where the majority of the show will likely take place, by briefly shifting its focus to the maintenance crews that kept the planes running. I don’t know how much Masters of the Air will return to Ken Lemmons (Rafferty Law) or anyone else on the ground crew, but I wouldn’t be opposed to learning more about their significance to the war effort.

Perhaps the best scene of the entire series premiere comes early on in episode 2, where our main trio, and a few other airmen, convene at a pub and discuss the differing strategies between the British and American air forces. Whereas the Brits prefer to run their bombing raids at night and indiscriminately destroy, the Americans lean towards precision runs during the day, in spite of the increased danger it presents.  The scene allows John Orloff, who wrote the episode, to simultaneously endear us more to the characters and increase our knowledge of what’s at stake beyond the general threat of the Nazis.

But the centerpiece scene of episode 2 comes in the form of another air mission, when the fleet conducts a bombing run over Norway. It’s relatively simple, compared to the flight scenes in episode 1, in that the dogfighting is short-lived and there aren’t any major hiccups. Yes, Biddick’s plane gets hit, forcing him to detour and perform a crash landing, but the drama is slightly diminished since it’s piloted by Keoghan, wearing a bit of plot armor. Regardless, the visual effects of all the airplane sequences throughout the series premiere, along with Fukunaga’s direction, continue to impress, so I can’t get too mad about the air sequences. Apple clearly threw as much money as possible into Masters of the Air, and it shows.

We learn more about Buck’s childhood in episode 2, specifically his father’s drinking and gambling addictions. We also get a too-brief glimpse at Bucky’s jealousy over a girl at the aforementioned pub. However, Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle) is the standout of the series premiere in my book, an air sick navigator whose quick thinking causes the fleet to complete their mission successfully. Callum Turner and Barry Keoghan get more moments in the spotlight throughout both episodes, but I find myself wanting to spend more time with Boyle and hoping we get to know more about him as the show develops.

If there’s one thematic throughline to the series premiere, it’s in how the success of the airmen is due to the efforts of everyone – not just the pilots, who’ve historically received the bulk of the glory. If Masters of the Air can continue exploring this idea, beyond the shared circumstance of men at war, we could be in for a great series of episodes. 

But I can’t shake the worry that the show will “wash, rinse, repeat” with a number of air missions followed by a number of scenes on the base showing some mixture of merriment and seriousness, with little variety between them. Also not helping matters is that the main trio never really feels like wholly original creations and more like standard-issue “young soldier” archetypes, regardless of the capable performances behind them. Thankfully, it feels like Masters of the Air has only scratched the surface of what it can potentially explore. Neither part of the series premiere has truly wowed me in a way that I had hoped, but given the talent involved, I’m not pulling the ripcord yet.

Watch on Apple TV

The series premiere (episodes 1 and 2) of Masters of the Air is now available to watch on AppleTV+. Read our review of episode 3 of Masters of the Air!

Masters of the Air: Episode 3 Review – Loud And Clear Reviews
A battle-heavy Masters of the Air episode 3 provides exciting action and great visual effects but a frustrating lack of characterization.
Thank you for reading us! If you’d like to help us continue to bring you our coverage of films and TV and keep the site completely free for everyone, please consider a donation.