Sunday, January 26, 2014

"Yes, We're Soldiers": BBC's Bluestone 42 and FOX's Enlisted

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on January 26, 2014. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

War is never funny. But, on-screen at least, life in the army is another story. The culture, bureaucracy, and general absurdity of life in uniform has been mined for comedy and satire for centuries, and for good reason. Military service in times of war and especially during eras of conscription has become an (often involuntary) rite of passage for men. And as Catch-22 and M*A*S*H (both the novels and the films) demonstrate, the most fertile ground for comedy often comes from putting men into the army that simply shouldn't be there. But WWII, Korea, and Vietnam are long past, and our collective memory of the draft has faded considerably in the last few decades. Even as the US, Canada, and NATO forces are in their second decade of continual war in Afghanistan, military service remains the choice of the relatively few men and women who take that professional route as the choice of a few, it is difficult to mine for experience that can be shared with larger television audiences. In short, the time of Sgt. Bilko, F Troop, and McHale's Navy are over. War hasn't gone away, but the politics of warfare especially since 2001 have grown far more contested. In short, to apply a too-on-the-nose metaphor, the army sitcom has become a minefield.

All which of makes the fact that there are currently two army-centred comedies on television all the more notable. And they are set in our present era. (Stories set during a contemporary war have long been the purview of propaganda mills see the short-term industry of WWII-era Hollywood films.) Of the two series, one will begin its second season in April and another is just beginning the first is British and the other is American. It is perhaps not surprising that the BBC 3 series, Bluestone 42, is the raunchier, more biting, and as a result more consistently hilarious series, but Enlisted, which premiered on FOX two weeks ago, while still taking its first steps, already has charm to spare and has demonstrated a lot of potential.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Intelligence and Helix: New Science Fiction TV for 2014

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on January 12, 2014. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

A scene from Helix, now airing on the SyFy Channel

For the television audience, January sometimes brings some belated Christmas presents. TV's mid-season is no longer the place where networks dump the shows not quite good enough for September, and cable networks never really much cared about the old schedules anyway. This past week, two new science fiction dramas premiered: Intelligence (CBS/CTV) and Helix (Syfy). Both shows boast some familiar faces in front of and behind the camera, but whereas the former feels uninspired and derivative, the latter shows some real promise in its early episodes.