Enlisted takes place in present-day Florida, but it begins in the past. Fox’s new comedy opens on a poignant scene, as three young boys say goodbye to their father, who is being deployed. Before he leaves, he tells his sons to put “hands on heads” while the woman we can only presume is their mother snaps a quick photo of the moment. That photo segues to others of the boys throughout their childhood in the same pose. This quick sequence of shots leads us to Afghanistan, where we meet a soldier holed up in a building under enemy fire.
This soldier is Sergeant Pete Hill (Geoff Stults), the oldest of the three brothers. Acting as the leader of his unit, Pete calls in for backup that isn’t sent. When he raises questions about this apparent lapse, he’s unable to control his anger and punches a superior officer when he’s displeased with his response. It’s this infraction that gets Pete sent to Fort McGee in the fictional Sea Cord, where he’s in charge of a platoon of soldiers in a Rear Detachment (Rear D) unit.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing authentic about these opening war scenes. Enlisted is a comedy, but it does itself—and those it purports to represent—a disservice when it glosses over combat to lighten the mood. It’s not the absence of artillery and special effects that makes these scenes so disappointing, but the lack of any emotional investment by the actors. Interactions between individuals lack emotional weight, not indicating the troops’ sense of fear or rage, courage or intelligence.
This is a problem that runs throughout the show, after Pete returns Stateside, as the comedy seems mistimed and conversations. It may be that his experiences overseas or on the battlefield have affected his social skills, but the viewer is offered little indication of how his recent past has affected him at all. His exchanges with his brothers, Derrick (Chris Lowell) and Randy (Parker Young), are awkward, though those with Command Sergeant Major Donald Cody (Keith David) are more convincing, particularly when they bond over the military code to “leave no man behind.” But the show can’t sustain this relationship either, as a tender moment they share during a discussion of Pete’s father is interrupted by a joke about Cody’s fake leg.
Cody serves as a mentor of sorts, warning Pete that the Rear D platoon he’s assigned to command is a group of misfits in need of a good leader. As Pete struggles with the job, he’s confronted by another model of leadership, Sergeant Jill Perez (Angelique Cabral), commander of the other Rear D platoon at Fort McGee. She’s hostile the first time she sits down and talks with Pete, telling him, “I worked hard to get a position that was handed to you as a consolation prize.” Perez’s comment raises the possibility for exploring the role of women in the military, but their conversation shifts to the more comical topic of Pete’s platoon drinking too much the night before a major training exercise.
Such inconsistency of focus and tone characterizes the show: when Pete makes another effort to connect with his unit, telling them that he’s not a winner among losers, it appears the writers have already run out of ideas. Pete calls a cadence, asking his unit what sort of “bears” they are. One soldier responds, “Panda bears!” while another asks, “Can it be a kitty instead?”
The awkward laughs drag on as Pete and his platoon enter war games with a squad of Italian soldiers. Here again the viewer sees the two central flaws of the show meet. Like the battle scenes, these training scenes are unfunny as well as unrealistic. When one of the soldiers is shot and “dies” during the training exercises, he looks at the flashing light indicating he’s been hit, shrugs his shoulders and says, “I died.” No kidding.
The soldiers’ incompetence remains Enlisted‘s go-to gag, even as it gestures toward the complexities of family dynamics, whether blood-related or more broadly, in the military as family. Silly soldiers are certainly familiar on TV, in sitcoms from Sgt. Bilko and Gomer Pyle, USMC to F Troop or M*A*S*H*. The last was particularly admired for its poignant depictions of overlapping comedy and tragedy in a war zone, its evocations of human resilience in crisis. Lacking both comedy and tragedy, Enlisted earns no such commendations.