Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Support Our Troops - watch Bochco's "Over There"

Television has a long and proud history with the 'war movie" genre. Combat, starring Vic Morrow ran from 1962 to 1967 (152 episodes) and dramatized events in Europe during World War II. In the late 1980s, Tour of Duty aired for close to sixty episodes (three seasons), starred Terence Knox, and centered on an American platoon trying to stay alive during the Vietnam War. Now, executive producer Steven Bochco - maestro of the exposed butt-crack on TV series such as NYPD Blue - has brought us the latest war epic for the boob tube, FX's Over There - an Iraq War drama. The only substantive difference between Over There and the other war shows is timing. Combat aired roughly twenty years after the end of World War II; Tour of Duty, a dozen or so beyond Vietnam. But Over There reaches our airwaves as the Iraq War continues to wage.

And that's what most of the controversy concerning Over There will likely focus on: the idea that an ongoing war has been reduced to a weekly entertainment while our troops are still fighting and dying in the sand. When I first saw the previews for the new FX series, I was deeply disturbed that any producer would be so craven as to produce a series about soldiers during a continuing war. It felt crude; it felt manipulative. I didn't like it one bit. That was my knee-jerk patriotic reaction, and hey, I'm a very patriotic guy.

But then I got to thinking...this is the first American war in which - by and large - our citizenry has basically been asked to do nothing to support the effort. No Victory Gardens. No gas rationing. No draft. Not even a tax hike. Nothing.

Which means that we're basically dependent on Administration spinmeisters and corporate-owned media whores to remind us of the War and how it's going. Everything we know about the war comes either from Donald Rumsfeld (ahem...how many Iraqi troops are trained and ready to serve, sir? What's that number again, Mr. Secretary of Defense?) or media talking heads, who were gung-ho embedded cheerleaders at the beginning, but who are now having second thoughts, burned by the Bush Administration claims about WMD. In Bush's words, "Fool me once, shame on you...fool me twice...uh...erh...won't get fooled again."

Anyway, this is a long-winded way of stating the obvious: at least Over There remembers that our nation is actually at War (even if it's the wrong war...) and focuses on the conflict for 45 searing minutes a week. While you're viewing the show, you'll remember the war too. It's like a slap in the face, or cold water poured down your pants. And so I've come to believe that the program is actually a service to the country, and to the men and women fighting.

Over There's pilot episode was written and directed by Chris Gerolmo (who also wrote the theme song), and it's an interesting evolution of the "war movie" subgenre. All the story cliches that we've come to know and love are present: the short-timer, the characters with cute nicknames like "Doublewide," the desperate but inevitably futile call-in for air-support, the hard-as-nails lieutenant, the green recruit who "believes" in the war, the teary letters home to families, yada yada. But, these ideas have evolved with the times, and TV has matured too. "Doublewide" is actually a woman, and the role of women in this show is important, since this is the first war drama produced in a time wherein females serve in a volunteer army. Sure, Tour of Duty had Kim Delaney in its second season, but she was a journalist, not a soldier. More importantly, those letters home have morphed into video diaries; monologues which - delivered by young, attractive and solid actors - carry real emotional punch.

The Bochco-Gerolmo series also keys up the visual style of the genre, looking more like Ridley Scott's apocalyptic Black Hawk Down than thefull-screen successor to Combat or Tour of Duty. In the first episode, a tense night raid occurs under the hue of green night vision. Later, there's a sand-storm that looks like something straight from David Lynch's Dune. The by-now-standard hand-held shaky cam (thanks, Oliver Stone!) remains a potent tool in the war-drama vocabulary, and I was relieved to see it used sparingly and effectively, at least in the first episode. These touches make the action seem more immediate, and I confess to finding the first episode spell-binding.

What originality the show adds to the history of war drama on TV comes in one form, primarily: a total and utter lack of decorum. One character is attacked while pulling down her pants to take a shit. That's precisely the sort of thing programming of an earlier age would have forbidden. People will complain, of course, but such moments are there for an important reason in Over There. War isn't just hell; it's damn unpredictable and random. Over There captures this feeling of constant danger and cruel fate all too well. It may offend the sensibilities, but again, our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers are facing this kind of life every day that our presence in Iraq continues. It would be wrong, and worse - dishonest - to present the war in any light that didn't reflect this reality.

I'm usually reluctant to review a series after just one episode, but Over There earns the right to air now because it is thoughtful, illuminating, and because it slams the truth back in our faces and not just on a quickly passing CNN ticker. American men and women are dying in Iraq right now (we're at 1,800 dead, I believe...). The least we can do about it - besides go shopping, as President Bush suggested after 9/11 - is watch Over There. The more people who remember the horrors our brave troops face on a daily basis, the sooner we'll get the hell out of there and get back to doing something about our real enemy. You remember him, right? Osama Bin Forgotten...

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