26 February 2014
The military can often be a funny thing. Like that drunken toga party the rest of Kilo Battery’s staff and I had on Okinawa. Or when Major General John Sedgwick shouted to his men “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance!” moments before he was shot in the face at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Wacky stuff can happen when you throw a lot of different people from all over America together and mix them with intermittent high-stress and boredom, government bureaucracy, frequent drinking, and stupid haircuts.
Such chicanery is the basis of Fox’s relatively new comedy Enlisted. Staff Sergeant Pete Hill, a so-called “supersoldier,” gets demoted and sent home from Afghanistan early to the rear echelon unit in Florida where his two less-than-competent younger brothers, Randy and Derrick, are stationed. It’s been well reviewed, but the ratings started low and, as of the most recent episode to air (on Feb 7th), have taken a steep dive. But (dramatic pause) why?
Kelly, being the old chum and swell gal she is, asked me for my take on the matter. Because she knows I am an Afghanistan veteran who loves TV and has nothing better to do. So I cozied up on my couch in my underpants with a Port Arthur (green tea and vodka) and watched the first two episodes to give it a fair shake. It’s not bad. Frankly, I expected it to be kind of awful but was pleasantly surprised to find myself emitting more than a few solid chuckles.
Overall, it’s a likeable and well-made piece of entertainment. After my years in the Marines, it would be easy to nitpick the little technical details they get wrong but there are surprisingly few (Though it was disconcerting that none of the soldiers in Hill’s platoon seem to wear their caps when in uniform. Ever. What gives?). Most of the minor characters are likeable goofballs that are close enough to realistic to be believable. Of the main characters, Keith David’s Sergeant Major Cody is hilarious and exactly like half the sergeants major I ever met. The scene introducing his mismatched prosthetic foot was easily my favorite.
The dynamic between the three brothers is the heart of the show and is done decently enough. Little brother Randy (Parker Young), the energetic dullard, is the strongest character of the trio. His wacky optimism and earnest desire to be a good soldier and make his hero brother proud give the show some of its best moments. And his “Bradley…Cooper!” method of bayonet practice had me laughing out loud remembering the ridiculous ways we train to fight (To my fellow vets: budda budda jam! Amirite?) Disgruntled middle brother Derrick (Chris Lowell) is tolerable, though his “douchebag with a heart” persona is a tad hackneyed. Pete (Geoff Stults) so far seems the flimsiest of them, with little to offer beyond being awesome at everything he does and occasionally shaking his head with a chuckle at his brothers’ antics.
The show’s biggest weakness is its tendency to fall back on familiar sitcom stereotypes and just throw a uniform on them. The dynamic between Pete and rival platoon sergeant Jill Perez (Angelique Cabral trying way too hard) is particularly eye-roll worthy. Their whole will they/won’t they, antagonizing flirtation is tired by the start of the second episode (even SgtMaj Cody hilariously calls them out on it, further evidence that Keith David is awesome). The dialogue also has more than its share of on-the-nose moments, which always grates with me. People say “I’m angry” or “I’m scared” and one character even yells out “I’m going through a divorce!” when acting a bit crazy. Yes, those are fine plot points, but let them happen. Don’t shout them at me.
One of my biggest concerns before watching was how the show would approach some of the more emotional and sensitive issues that anything centering on the military will inevitably touch on. There isn’t a lot of heavy stuff in the first two episodes, but when issues like the families of the deployed and those who don’t come home are addressed, it’s done with respect, which I deeply appreciated. All in all, Enlisted successfully highlights and magnifies the absurdities of military life without mocking it, walking a narrow line passably well. It’s not going to become one of my regular shows (looks like it might get cancelled anyhow), but it’s better than most of the crap on TV.
So why the hell is nobody watching? It certainly doesn’t help that it’s been planted squarely within the infamous Friday Night Death Slot, but I think there’s more to it than that. America has always had a love/hate relationship with a lot of things (alcohol, religion, France, game shows, etc.) and its own military is one of them. While support for those who serve is high today, the two wars that are winding down have certainly not been popular. And even though they’re almost over, it’s probably still not an easy thing to laugh at for some.
It’s no coincidence that the last successful military comedy show (Major Dad) was on the same time the Soviet Union began its fall and continued through the “woo-hoo, we kicked ass!” attitude of the Persian Gulf War. While M*A*S*H was a hit during Vietnam, it was a satire of war itself and frequently took on a maudlin tone. And it took twenty years before Hogan’s Heroes made us laugh at those nutty Nazis. America may not be ready for a positive, funny show about the last days of the War in Afghanistan for a while.
Who knows, ten years from now Enlisted could have been a hit. But right now, it looks like it will just be an amusing footnote.