THE SHOW “Harley and the Davidsons”
WHEN | WHERE 9 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, Discovery
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Much like everywhere else, in 1903-era Milwaukee there are still only two primary forms of transport — the horse and bicycle. Brothers Walter (Michiel Huisman) and Arthur Davidson (Bug Hall) team up with childhood neighbor and friend Bill Harley (Robert Aramayo) to create something both new and familiar: a motorized bicycle. Harley, the would-be engineer, figures out both the design and motor of a durable one that will set it apart from the flimsy contraptions beginning to arrive on the market. To get sales, they have to race it in particularly treacherous “motordromes” with banked tracks where wrecked bikes (and bodies) are commonplace.
In part two (“Race to the Top”), the young company, Harley-Davidson, is threatened; in the third part (“Legacy”), the industry is devastated during the Great Depression, but Harley-Davidson rides on, with a new ambitious design.
MY SAY Discovery Channel has placed a bet — a six-hour one — on the assumption that nothing really does come between a Harley owner and his (or her) “hog.” The bet is that the bond is so intimate, the devotion so complete, that those devotees will set aside all that time to learn about the early Harley-Davidson setbacks, the deadly “Motordrome” races, the creation of the first superbike (“the Knucklehead”) and even Harley-Davidson’s strike for social justice, by assigning the nation’s first African-American-owned motorcycle dealership. Maybe they will.
It’s everyone else Discovery might want to worry about. Harley-Davidson may be an iconic brand, and a best-seller in the United States, but icons and sales don’t necessarily translate to story, or at least one capable of filling a canvas of this magnitude. Much like those treacherous proto-bikes, “Harley and the Davidsons” chugs and sputters along — it occasionally stalls, then roars back to life during the intermittent racing scenes, which a Harley-designed bike usually wins.
The series does a competent job of setting mood and character — notably that anything is possible, the sky’s the limit drive of the early 20th century that animated great inventions, and consequently great fortunes. Huisman’s Davidson is the daredevil on two wheels who risks life and limb in pursuit of glory. Aramayo’s Harley is the cautious, scrupulous inventor who finds the innovations that will ultimately catapult Harley-Davidson past archrival Indian Motorcycles.
They seek investors and the magic formula, dodge setbacks and unscrupulous competitors. And finally . . . triumph! Variations on both this familiar story and theme have been told before, or served elsewhere; they’re the very wellspring of an American can-do spirit that shaped countless other inventions, and the basis of countless movies, too. But most of those movies didn’t need six hours in the telling, and two would have done just fine here.
BOTTOM LINE Competent, well-acted miniseries on the founding of an iconic brand that’s overlong by more than half. Padding is inevitable, viewer patience tested.