In early 2012, viewers tuned in for an entertaining history lesson with "Bomb Girls." The fictional miniseries followed several Canadian women who selflessly contributed to the war effort by building bombs in a Victory Munitions Factory. The compelling, often-morose drama captivated audiences and will continue to draw people in when season 2 premieres on January 2, 2013 on Global.
Today on the Etobicoke set, the atmosphere isn't so grim. Betty McRae (Ali Liebert) and friends are tearing up the floor with a fast-paced Jitterbug at a local club, The Jewel Box.
"In this scene, Betty taught herself how to dance," says Liebert. "Gladys (Jodi Balfour) has probably helped her and she's done a little practicing in the rooming house. She's testing out her dance moves and she has a new dancing partner, but I can't tell you who Betty is dancing with. During that time in the war, the men were pretty scarce, so it was normal for women to dance with each other. Just maybe not as close as Betty likes to dance."
With a musical theatre background, the dancing is second nature to Liebert, but new cast member Michael Seater ("Life With Derek") is off to the side rehearsing his steps. It's a jam-packed day, but actors Liebert, Seater, Balfour, as well as executive producers Michael MacLennan and Adrienne Mitchell, took time to speak about love, life and loss in the second season of "Bomb Girls."
Why are period series like "Mad Men," "Copper," "The Borgias" and now "Bomb Girls" all the rage these days?
MacLennan: There's a pendulum shift. When we were pitching "Bomb Girls," it was very different. Basically, nobody was interested in period. It's to Global's credit that they went with it. But there was a sense period was old-fashioned. I think storytellers are drawn to period settings because the stakes can be higher. If you were trying to tell a character-driven drama today, we're basically OK. We have a measure of equality and safety nets around us. Of course, there's still racism and sexism, but it's not as large as the way it was when you go back in time. When you are mining a situation for conflict, for story, it's that much more available to you.
Were you surprised by the positive reaction to Betty's lesbian arc?
MacLennan: It was really important for me to tell the story of Betty. I promised people that it would be the love story of the first season, and I was right. Betty and Kate (Charlotte Hegele) were this great love story and there's a very special chemistry there. But it's a network show, it's an 8 p.m. show, so we're not pushing buttons. That's a good example of where period serves you. At that time, there wasn't language to talk about being gay or lesbian. What I wasn't prepared for was the loyal and passionate female fan base there is in young women who are excited to see stories about women on their own terms, solving their own problems and talking about things other than men. Of course, we have women who are in conflict and sabotaging each other, but by and large, these women are building each other up.
What does doubling your episode count from six to 12 this year allow you to do story-wise?
MacLennan: I liken it to getting a 747 off the ground. It takes an enormous amount of energy to get that plane up. It's heavy lifting. Once you're up and soaring, you're able to explore a lot more before you are ready to touch down again. When you're doing six episodes and it's basically two to get up and two to get down ... what it now allows us to do is increase the breadth of the stories. The show is more racially diverse now. We're able to touch on smaller characters and do storylines that allow them to take the spotlight for a while. And we are able to allow the machinery of life to grind a little slower. Also, it allows us to touch on a greater array of historical experiences.
Where does season 2 pick up, then?
MacLennan: The season starts a couple of months later. We see surprising new choices that some characters have made, probably most remarkably with Beth and Lorna (Meg Tilly), whereas other people have already dug themselves out of whatever problems they're in and are on a path that's working. So you have some people who are clawing their way out of their history and some people are hit with a big curveball at the beginning. Vera (Anastasia Phillips) is a bigger character in the series, so we're seeing more of her and how she's making a lot of sense of a promotion and dealing long-term with the effects of her injury, which leads her to some surprising places. We are telling fewer stories per episode and we're digging in more.
One of the things that we're able to do with the show is excavate fascinating elements of World War II that aren't usually talked about on screen because most of the narrative is American. The fact that we had German U-boats in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence sinking both military and civilian watercraft is little-known. We're very interested in the ways the war came to the home front.
After laying all the groundwork, are you being more ambitious this year?
Mitchell: In season 2, because we're setting it in February 1942 and moving towards October/November chronologically, the Allies weren't doing very well. There were a lot of losses with the fall of Singapore. Of course, previous to that, there was Pearl Harbor. There was a real fear things may not turn out the way they thought. That just increases the stakes this season. We're dealing with more storylines on how this impacts the families, how this impacts the gals who're working to make sure they are getting the bombs out there to the Allies, who are their brothers, husbands and sons? We're dealing more with moral and ethical issues.
This may be "Bomb Girls," but how are you balancing the female and male perspective of the war?
Mitchell: We're incorporating a lot more men and developing their storylines. There are men who have not enlisted or are not able to enlist, like Marco (Antonio Cupo), who wants to enlist. Because of his Italian heritage, there's suspicion cast around him. He's having a much more difficult time because he really wants to enlist and is trying to proactively do so. That's created a very complicated storyline for him. Canada is his country, but he feels like an alien in it. How does he connect to his Italian heritage given there's such horrible stereotyping going on? He forges really great relationships with the girls and they're sussing out how they can help him.
We have Tahmoh Penikett ("Battlestar Galactica"), who plays the role of Clifford. He's connected to what's happening around the higher security at the bomb plant. What's happening is in these factories is they were developing things in secret that none of the workers really knew about. Everybody was separated in different lines. A lot of people didn't know what the other lines were doing. He comes in the latter half of the season and his role is largely around the security of the bomb plant.
What did Betty learn from previous experiences that have helped shape her now?
Liebert: At the end of last season, Betty really laid her heart on the line and it didn't really work out very well for her. At the beginning of season 2, she's pulled her emotional vulnerability back in and focused on the job at hand. Betty has always taken her job very seriously. She really looks up to Lorna and her place in the factory. Without Kate, Betty is just more focused on her career and helping the war effort.
She's definitely continuing to explore her sexuality and trying to find a way to fit in and be normal and be happy and authentic. That is a struggle for her. I think a lot of people identify with being true to yourself.
Michael, can you introduce us to Ivan and where he comes in to the "Bomb Girls" world?
Seater: Ivan is not able to participate in the war as most young men do. He's making the most of what he can do both working at the factory and supporting the war, but also personally taking advantage of the male-to-female ratio which is very in his favour. Like everybody else, he's trying to figure out how to still have a life and make a life for himself in a world that has been turned upside down.
I am more part of the series in a social sense. I work at the factory, but I haven't had a ton to do factory-wise. It was more learning about the social edict of the period and how men and women interacted. I'm lucky enough to date a few ladies on the show, so it's figuring out how a man approaches a woman and how dating starts and the power positions. Typically, a man was in control and led the way in romantic situations. Part of what is great about the series is examining when that was all changing.
What did you enjoy about Gladys' arc and where she is heading?
Balfour: I love that just when you think you have the hang of who she is, she surprises you. They're not afraid to write Gladys as a flawed human being. Archetypically, she's the girl everybody wants to be, but really when it comes down to it, she makes the same mistakes and has the same insecurities as everybody else. They were incredibly good about bringing her down to basic human instincts, which I'm getting to explore more this season.
This season is really about finding her own identity. That's not to say attaching to the bomb factory and it's not to say detaching from her parents, but it's really "Who am I, Gladys, on my own?" Especially from last year with a little bit of infidelity, a lot of rebellion from her social structure ... there's a sense of the dust settling and trying to understand her morals and principles. You get to see this person who it would be easy to assume has a very strict moral code, but really she's quite open-minded, ahead of her time in the way she thinks about relationships.
There's such a fun, growing friendship between Vera and Gladys, which is really lovely, especially because they are both getting into trouble with men a lot, but in very different ways. There's a camaraderie around that. As always, the Betty/Gladys relationship keeps growing. There are a lot of newcomers Gladys spends probably too much time with.
Lastly, do you imagine "Bomb Girls" continuing past this season?
Mitchell: Absolutely. We want to take this series to when the war ends and the boys come home, and all of a sudden, the girls have to give up their jobs. What happens with the social dynamics at that point? A lot of real "Bomb Girls" have told us it was like their arm was cut off when they had to leave their jobs and go back to their domestic world.
The second season of "Bomb Girls" premieres on Global at 8 p.m. EST on January 2.