Despite the fact that cable networks have become increasingly prominent in the world of scripted programming, Discovery Channel is probably among the last place viewers would think to turn for an ambitious new miniseries. After all, the channel has developed a strong following due to its focus on documentary and reality television series that aim to inform and entertain in equal measure (e.g., shows like Mythbusters and its annual Shark Week event). Yet, Discovery has recently announced a new commitment to scripted content for the 2016-2017 season, one that largely begins with Harley and the Davidsons.
The three-part miniseries tracks the origin of Harley-Davidson Inc. from an upstart motorcycle manufacturer in the early 1900s through to the development of the company’s signature “Knucklehead” engine in the 1930s, a design that is still integral to today’s models. Robert Aramayo and Bug Hall – who thirty-somethings may remember as Alfalfa in the 1994 version of The Little Rascals – star as Bill Harley and Arthur Davidson, the two men with whom the company’s inception begins, while Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones) rounds out the series’ three leads as Arthur’s impetuous brother Walter.
All three men offer strong performances, but Aramayo’s more reserved character and Huisman’s brasher one are both neatly balanced by Hall’s Arthur. Just as his character’s steady mind and business acumen keep Harley-Davidson afloat during tough times, Hall winds up becoming the glue that holds the entire production together, bringing enough energy and aplomb to the role to help smooth over many of the rougher patches in the series’ storytelling. It’s the kind of performance that makes you wish the 31-year-old star received more high-profile roles in this vein, since he delivers perhaps the most range of anyone featured in Harley and the Davidsons.
In trying to be both grand and intimate, the series suffers on the pacing front, forcing many of its supporting players into one-dimensional villainous or supportive roles. Dougray Scott (Taken 3) is particularly underused as one of Harley-Davidson’s chief business rivals, and the family lives of the company’s founders are relegated to sporadic glimpses at burgeoning relationships and internal strife for much of its runtime.
Had Harley and the Davidsons instead focused solely on the company’s history, it likely would have been able to flesh out the history-shaping aspects of the company and the inspirational spirit of entrepreneurship behind its founding. As it stands, the personal drama, business struggles and oh-so-many race sequences offer little nuance and come off as a sort of Cliff’s Notes version of Harley-Davidson history caught between character-based drama and more conventional based-on-a-true-story narrative earmarks.
Even with this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to the company’s story, the end of its second episode could have marked a bittersweet conclusion for Harley-Davidson, offering mere hints at the greatness that would await in the decades to come. Rather than using this opportunity to pay tribute to the tenacious spirit behind the brand, the tight focus on the three main characters begins to slip by the time part three rolls around. Following a significant time jump, the show tries to incorporate a subplot for Walter’s son and features even more disjointed pacing, one which frequently emphasizes new developments and then immediately undercuts them in the very next scene.
Even though Harley and the Davidsons doesn’t offer a wholly successful take on the company’s early history, the fact remains that this is a story that is very much worth telling, and certain elements of the series capture the renegade reputation that ultimately led Harley-Davidson to become one of the most widely recognized brands worldwide. The more questionable production decisions aside, Harley and the Davidsons still marks a decisive step forward for Discovery, and we can only imagine that the network will be able to shed light on similarly untold stories in the years to come.
Strong performances and an ambitious scope are underserved by disjointed pacing and a scattered focus in Discovery Channel's new miniseries Harley and the Davidsons.