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.

Oliver Chris and Jamie Quinn in Bluestone 42
Airing its 8-episosde first season last year (and with a Christmas episode in November), Bluestone 42 follows the exploits of a British bomb disposal unit, part of the NATO mission in Afghanistan that has been ongoing on that region since 2002. On one level, Bluestone 42 (pronounced four-two) is essentially an obscenity-laden workplace comedy, albeit with Apache helicopters and bomb-sniffing robots. And purely on those terms alone, it is difficult not to enjoy. It has its dark comedic elements a buffoonish American Marine (with a weighty CIA past and an even weightier sense of himself) takes a bullet to the head in the first episode but for the most part the comedy is character-based (there is even a fairly straightforward will-they-or-won't-they romantic comedy plotline). And yet for all that, there is something so simple, and yet still so surprising, about a war comedy set in a current conflict. Whether it's (on the US side) Hogan's Heroes or M*A*S*H, or on the British side Blackadder Goes Forth or 'Allo 'Allo!, it is no coincidence that television's few forays into war comedy choose to set the action in the past. While it is certainly easier to frame plots within an historical narrative that has a clear beginning, middle, and end, I expect the reason for this is far more visceral: it is hard for an audience to adopt the distance required for comedy when men and women are still dying, often on a daily basis. (Canadian, British, and US forces are, for the time being at least, still fighting on the ground in Afghanistan.) A show which wants us to laugh with, and at, those men and women is therefore taking a considerable risk right off the bat. And so, if the comedy of Bluestone 42 is often broad, it's easy to forgive all things considered.

Filmed in South Africa, Bluestone 42 looks and sounds authentic. The sand and heat feels right, as do the language and class attitudes. True to its British television roots, it keeps its universe narrow and its cast relatively small. Bluestone 42 is the story of these 8 or 9 men and women, and isn't particularly interested in mapping their activities within the larger war effort, and certainly not within any particular politics, domestic or international.  And while this may sometimes leave a viewer wondering exactly what all the other units on this base are up to while our guys have Christmas dinner or play soccer with defused explosive devices, this uncluttered stage gives ample room for each of the characters to have their day. The focus of the series is the characters, and their comfortably barbed interaction, but Bluestone 42 successfully paints its background throughout. (There's a scene when the team sits down to watch The Thin Red Line, and then promptly turns it off out of sheer boredom, which reveals a lot about where the characters and the series itself is coming from.)  

Kelly Adams, Jamie Quinn, Scott Hoatson, & Oliver Chris
We've got a couple of young, foul-mouthed Scots, a by-the-book Corporeal as second in command, a female corporal who tries (sometimes too hard) to just be one of the boys, and an almost too-all-knowing base commander who somehow remains above the fray. The anchor of the show is Oliver Chris (Green Wing) as the team leader and ATO (Ammunition Technical Officer, for those whose memory of The Hurt Locker has begun to fade), with his combination of dickishness, ironic bravado, and man-child vulnerability. In the first episode, as his unit tries and fails to shoot a sniper, Nick picks up a shoulder-launched missile and, with a sigh and a kind of impatient self-assuredness that would have made Sledge Hammer proud, takes out a whole building. Later, when he attempts to parlay the day's firefight to seduce the base's new (female) padre "Sister" Mary (Kelly Adams, Hustle), he confesses, with equal parts truth and pick-up line, "When Col Carter died, I felt nothing just some mild irritation at the paperwork. And that wasn’t even that bad in the end."  With his proficiency with profanity that would make Armando Iannucci blush (he dismisses his underlings with a good-natured old boy "Now, off you fuck"), Nick is simply never-ending fun to watch.

The more normal the people are, the more extraordinary the situation becomes. Nick does take his life in his own hands every day, walking out alone to disable that afternoon's IED, but when he uses the experience just an hour later in his ongoing attempts to woo Mary, he might as well just be some schmuck in a bar making it all up. His team regularly complains about the rations, the heat, and the distance from home but without even having to say it aloud, you know not a single one among them isn't proud to be there. Without ever having to spell it out directly, Bluestone 42 gives us a tiny glimpse into a world of real people, that would otherwise be lost amongst an increasingly politicized conflict. People may have good reasons for either hating and opposing the war in Afghanistan, or believing it is necessary but the soliders of Bluestone 42 cannot be hated or idealized. This ambiguous, human story may be a much-needed antidote to our increasingly ideological and hyperbolic conversation about post-9/11 conflicts.

Geoff Stults, Parker Young and Chris Lowell star in Enlisted, on FOX

The soldiers of Enlisted (which aired its third episode on FOX this past Friday) have a somewhat less dangerous mission than the men and women of Bluestone 42. The brainchild of Kevin Biegel, who cut his teeth as a writer in the later seasons of Scrubs before co-creating Cougar Town with Bill Lawrence, Enlisted takes us stateside to Fort McGee, a fictional Florida army base, and follows the antics of a Rear Detachment unit made up of a ragtag group of non-combat-ready men and women who probably shouldn't be in the army to begin with. (Rear D units are made up of army personnel who remain behind when the rest of the base is deployed to the field, and who are tasked with keeping the base running, and providing support for the families of the deployed soldiers.)

Most obviously reminiscent of Stripes, where Enlisted leaves that Bill Murray comedy behind is in its sincerity. (In that way, as a story of outcasts becoming a team, it might be more of the Bad News Bears variety, than the Stripes or Police Academy variety.) Essentially an ensemble comedy, at the core of our team are three brothers career soldier Sgt. Pete Hill (Geoff Stults, The Finder) fresh off the Afghan battlefield (and paying the price for a single, probably justified, moment of insubordination), and his younger brothers of lesser stuff: the smart-ass, apathetic Derrick (Chris Lowell, VeronicaMars) and the big-hearted, Army-loving but seemingly simple Randy (Parker Young, Suburgatory). Keith David as Sergeant Major Cody, the gruff but fatherly base commander, and Angelique Cabral as the extremely competent and highly competitive leader of another unit and Pete's rom-com foil, round out the main cast.

Geoff Stults and Angelique Cabral on Enlisted
The show has a lot of heart and though it has far less bite than you might expect for an army series, that is part of its freshness. Without an enemy to fight, bureaucracy to survive, and bullets to dodge, we get to meet the soldiers themselves. The storylines tug unapologetically at the heartstrings, with the interactions between the grown brothers bearing most of the pathos of the early episodes. The longer story will clearly involve Pete finding out just who he is off the battlefield, and re-connecting with the brothers who have grown up in his absence.  

With the third episode, the series has begun to feel life a truly satisfying ensemble (for the first two installments, Enlisted's secondary characters seemed mainly distinguished by ethnicity, body size and differing funny glasses), with Randy and Commander Cody being the source of its best comic moments.

The challenge of Enlisted is to be more than just another workplace comedy the fact that they are wearing uniforms and have marksmanship tests isn't enough to keep a show interesting. (Since Bluestone 42 is actually set in the middle of Afghanistan, this challenge is less pressing.) Obviously, the story centres around the three brothers, and if the show is going to succeed it will have to combine the comedy with some real investigation into what role the Army plays in the sort of multi-generational military family that the three brothers represent. Additionally, Enlisted has the challenge of dealing with a number of significant changes that have recently taken place within the U.S. Army. Angelique Cabral's Sergeant Perez is highly competitive, highly competent, and shows no sign of the kind of insubordination that got Pete sent home from Afghanistan: in a U.S. Army that now allows women to take part in active combat, the show is going have to explain just why it is that she has not been deployed.

Enlisted is not Army Wives, and it is all the better for it. The glimpses that we get of the families of the deployed servicemen are all the more touching for the fact that they are not the focus of the show. Enlisted will earn its medals when it discovers how to balance the humanity and absurdity of its characters with the genuine darkness of war that floats, ever-present, around the corners of the comedic revelry. That would make it a great show, and one that is very much needed on US television. I have high hopes.

The first season of Bluestone 42 is available on DVD and it returns to BBC 3 in the UK for its second season on February 27. Enlisted airs its fourth episode on Friday January 31 at 9pm ET.