Stay Tuned: A personal view of history on ‘We’ll Meet Again’
“We’ll Meet Again,” a new six-part series on PBS, understands the appeal of personalizing historical events and offers an interesting and often moving exploration of what happens when history meets everyday life. Each episode highlights the friendships made between people during important historical moments and then reunites those people, giving them a chance to meet again. It’s less a history lesson and more a celebration of the bonds forged between people who have deeply impacted each other’s lives.
The series, hosted by NBC news anchor Ann Curry, is a combination of personal interview, archival footage and mystery, as the subjects of each episode seek help from specialists in order to discover clues that will lead them to long lost friends. The well-paced format is somewhat suspenseful and has many of the characteristics of shows that assist people in discovering their ancestry. In an age where television commercial testimonials praise the benefit of mail order DNA tests that reveal family trees, seeking connections to the past have become part of popular culture. The show takes this idea and adds a historical context.
The subjects of the first episode are Reiko Naguma, a Japanese-American who was 6-years-old when she was sent to an internment camp and Peter Engler, a German Jewish boy who fled the Nazis with his parents in 1938. Reiko, now 83, wants to find her childhood friend Mary Frances, to thank her for the kindness she showed her when anti-Japanese sentiment was at an all-time high. Peter wants to find Margaret, the daughter of Fritz and Stella Adler, a couple who were surrogate parents to him after he arrived in the Shanghai Ghetto, the last refuge for German Jews escaping Hitler.
The episode moves between Los Angeles and New York City, as Reiko and Peter tell their stories and start their searches. Historical footage and photographs supplement their memories and Curry, who has a tendency to come across as somewhat melodramatic in her interview approach, is nonetheless sincere as she gently guides Reiko and Peter to revisit their painful past.
One of the episode’s more compelling moments is when Reiko retraces her journey from Los Angeles to the former site of her internment camp in Wyoming. She remembers that it was “isolated and isolating” and as a 6-year-old, she couldn’t understand why she had to be there. A similar emotional moment occurs when Peter talks about the hardships of family life in the Shanghai Ghetto and notes that “it never occurred to us that this would someday end.”
Watching Reiko and Peter uncover clues and track down their lost connections is interesting, but the show’s big emotional moment is their reunions. Margaret tells Peter that “he was part of the family story.”
Both Reiko and Peter’s stories are about big events, but the takeaway is the small acts of kindness that made a lasting difference in their lives. It’s a lesson as relevant to the past as it is to the present.
“We’ll Meet Again” is on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. EDT on PBS.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.