[20 March 2006]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Mama’s gonna be way over there in the garbage, okay, Spooky? I’ll be back, sometime next year.
—Doublewide (Lizette Carrión), “Pilot”
I love to blow things up when nobody gets hurt.
—Chris Gerolmo, “Tour of Duty: Filming Over There”
I can’t speak for everybody, but my opinion is, these guys seem to get in a firefight every day. Which, you know, you go out on patrols, and you might get potshots at you every time you go out, but these guys are in full-blown firefights every time they go out.
—Sgt Sean Bunch, Commentary, “It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”
“This is a scene,” recalls Chris Gerolmo of the first moments in the first episode of Over There, “in which Steven Bochco wanted to see some flesh if he could, of these good-looking young people. And of course we ran into a problem because our actors were a little reticent about that.” Just so, as Gerolmo and his wife Joan describe their work on the series, the most repeated theme is tension. In this case, it’s jokey, a faux differentiation between the concerns of an old TV hand and a self-confident, sincere newbie. But it’s clear in re-viewing the “Complete Series” DVD set, that the show is shaped throughout by differences large and small, not least being whether it was “unseemly” and “risky” to air a fictional series during the war it depicts.
Other questions have to do with specific characterizations of troops in Iraq and Stateside relatives, measures of realism, efforts to solicit viewers, even the early, pre-deployment sex scene described above, where Pfc. Bo Rider (Josh Henderson) and his wife Terry (Sprague Grayden) try to preserve their sense of one another before he’s gone. But for all the initial controversy and eventual lack of interest in the show, what the DVD set reveals is just how hard Over There tried to do too many things. Ambitious and uneven, its multiple storylines—concerning “a squad of virgins,” as described by Sgt. Scream (Erik Palladino)—are sensational and clichéd, gaudy and simplistic. And yet, even as the series occasionally veered off into soapy excess (Mrs. B.‘s [Nicki Aycox] Hollywood adventure in “Situation Normal,” Scream’s one-night romance in “Orphans”), it also grappled with some of the daily, impossible choices forced by war.
In particular, those choices forced by the war in Iraq, where the mission and strategies are unclear, and where talking about “politics” is both verboten and upfront every day. As the DVD set makes clear, such choices are visible in nearly every episode. Their very visibility raises questions about the show’s vaunted “authenticity.” Both Bochco and Gerolmo claimed its authentic grunts-eye view made it “apolitical,” a quaint notion born of efforts to promote the show widely, in which “political” turned into “offensive to somebody.” Still, as revealed by the technical advisors—former marine Ssgt Sean Bunch and Iraqi advisor Sam Sako, who provide excellent commentary for Episode Six, “It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”—Over There is caught between delivering regular-enough TV drama and glimpses of wartime Iraq, however fictionalized.
Its worldview is incomplete and its politics usually naïve, and yet, the series does explore a range of emotional dilemmas, via topics seemingly “ripped from the headlines,” featuring aggravated locals (“Roadblock Duty”), torture by U.S. representatives (“The Prisoner”), embedded reporters (“Embedded,” with Mark-Paul Gosselaar as the journalist Moffet), or increasingly corrupt U.S. motives (“Follow the Money”). According to Gerolmo, in the informative documentary included in the DVD set, “Tour of Duty: Filming Over There,” “Steven and I agree that storytelling is one way to address complex moral issues.” More to the point, co-executive producer Nelson McCormick frames the storytelling in this way:
In its most basic sense, Over There is a workplace drama about eight coworkers and their families. Like any TV show about cops or doctors or firemen, it essentially boils down to the characters in the show that you tune in to watch. In our case, it just so happens that these eight coworkers are stationed in a place called Iraq.
This “place called Iraq,” of course, should affect the drama profoundly. But formula occasionally wins out. As Bunch remembers it, the professed interest in “authenticity” was regularly compromised. “Realism was paramount,” he says, “but there was a term I learned about while I was working in the show called ‘dramatic license.’ I think we met in between, and got the product they wanted.”
The “product” is, for better and worse, earnest. Gerolmo, for one, is fond of pointing out this earnestness, in particular through his choices as a director of the first episode. “We wanted to have the military material look as kind of symmetrical and orderly as possible,” he says, “At least the military in America. It makes it look like an orderly, controlled world, which the military would like to believe it is. Of course, when you get to Iraq and you’re at war, it’s not at all orderly or composed.” This as you’re watching Dim (Luke MacFarlane) leave his home with wife Vanessa (Brigid Brannagh) screaming in the background, or the splendid Smoke (Kirk “Sticky” Jones) draw long on his joint, then lurch into the front of the frame as it freezes on his face, distorted in mid-cough.
But if the ordered shots aren’t quite ordered, the Iraq shots are jarringly chaotic, including a leap into green-hued NVG (night vision goggles) images, to suggest, you know, just how foreign the new environment seems to the U.S. troops. (“These are gangsta,” exults Smoke). While Gerolmo does himself no favors by name-checking “my friend” Steven Soderbergh, while saying he wanted to make the show a “kind of a poor man’s Traffic,” in fact the first episode rather rocks: in Iraq, the imagery is bumpy and challenging, and at least some of the characters are cranky and difficult (“It’s very spooky,” says Gerolmo as the camera pans their alien terrain. ““You really get more of what it’s like to be on the ground. They could be landing on the moon, walking here. It’s just a whole other place”). Co-commentator Joan Gerolmo congratulates her husband for “pushing the envelope,” and indeed, the pilot is among the series’ most effective, less for its storytelling than for what turned out to be its politics, after all.
This politics has to do with the lack of experience, equipment, and leadership provided the troops, their anger and frustration emerging each week in conflicts among themselves, frequent engagements with enemies or perceived enemies, all kinds of good intentions, and numerous errors in judgment at various levels of U.S. command. (“That’s the way it goes, with men,” says Corporal Shaver [Currie Graham] following the death of an Iraqi boy, “They screw everything up.”)
Often the point is unambiguous: war is hell, you know, or, as Dim puts it in a video email, “The tragedy here is, we’re savages. We’re thrilled to kill each other. We’re monsters. And war is what unmasks us. But there’s a kind of honor in it too, a kind of grace. I guess if I’m a monster, it’s my privilege to be one.” And sometimes the politics is fractured, filtered through the show’s narrow perspective. As Sako observes during his commentary, “I really would have liked to see more of the Iraqi families, to show what they think of the Americans being in their country. In this show, most of the Iraqi characters have no names.”
As if to underline this willful ignorance, Over There regularly spends too much time stateside, where families have names and sudsy tribulations. These scenes break the series into distinct parts. This formal strategy addresses the real-life fact of troops’ close communications with relatives via email, but also turns them into Real World-style confessionals. As Joan Gerolmo notes, “The storylines stay very tied to home… It’s very present, it’s not just over there, it’s over here.”
The “over here” material can work (Smoke’s mother’s stroke sets up his expansion as a character, not to mention Jones’ terrific performance), but most often, it makes you wish the show would cut back to Iraq already, away from the slow sudsy stuff: Bo’s redneck dad stealing his money, Sergio’s (Lombardo Boyar) affair with Anna (Ana Ortiz), and of course, Vanessa’s drinking, sexing, and neglecting her son Eddy (Jimmy Pinchak). When Sako says, watching her drive home one dark night: “This is the alcoholic wife and I think she’s gonna get in an accident very soon,” Bunch observes, “A lot of the military wives were upset about this character. It sparked a lot of controversy.” More conventionally melodramatic than “representative,” Vanessa embodies the show’s weakest attempts at “drama.”
In this function, her most apparent and unlikely opposite is Smoke, in that he embodies the show’s efforts to abstract and critique its own “tv-ness.” As Smoke repeatedly identifies himself as a stereotype—the gangsta from Compton, the “bro” to fellow black marine Angel (Keith Robinson)—he delivers to audience expectations. But by series’ end, he comes to understand himself as a function of TV, revealing the complex interrelatedness of media and war, stateside and abroad.
In exploring the dilemmas posed by advances in technology (new weapons, new gear, new surveillance, new targeting devices, new body armor, new means to communicate with the folks back home), the series just about keeps pace with the war it’s depicting, even as storylines are bogged down in ancient-seeming mythologies and ideals. The result is part romance and part interrogation, a repetitive turmoil that approximates the troops’ experience but also reframes it as consumable bits.
Plagued by lack of organization and clear objectives, a morale-sucking threat of violence at every moment, the troops wait for decisions to be made, for promised rest or support. As Sergeant Scream puts it during one unbearably long wait outside a mosque,
Instead of being able to go in and bless the shit out of the bastards, we’re dug in, awaiting orders. You know why? Cause they got a goddamn Arab TV journalist in there with ‘em. Al-Jazeera’s got us on the goddamn TV news right now. Understand? Do you have any idea what that means? It means we’re gonna wait here, taking fire for some general 75 miles away, to make a decision about goddamn public relations, about how it would look, or how it would look, if we did that. That sound like war to you?
In fact, it does. This is war today, the inextricable entanglement of image and effect. Smoke, of all characters, becomes the series’ most effective embodiment of this entanglement. At first, it’s clear that his bravado and cruelty are inspired by technology and TV, the bookend effects and influences of the Iraq war. For one thing, he’s open about his own media-inspired prejudices (he greets Iraqi-American new guy Tariq [Omid Abtahi] as instantly suspect, an “A-rab”). For another, he’s as angry a young black man as you’re likely to meet, involved in a battle that makes no sense, alone even surrounded by troops in the same material hell.
More importantly, Smoke’s primary storyline, developed in “Embedded” and “It’s All Right, Ma,” has to do with TV. At the beginning of “Embedded,” he performs for Moffet, the embedded reporter whose footage of Smoke will eventually lead to tragedy (his mother’s stroke, as well as a price on Smoke’s head among Iraqis who believe the recut footage, suggesting he has killed a young boy). Smoke’s cocky act is cut short when he calls himself a “nigger with a trigger,” when Moffet suggests the network can’t air such language (the day’s carnage/violence, on the other, only slightly ironic, hand, is more likely to be visible).
In this moment, the screen grainy to show he’s being taped, Smoke is TV, and he gets it, disparaging the network censorship as part of the same system that keeps him in “his place,” whether in Iraq and in L.A. Gerolmo initially argued that his series would not add to viewers’ desensitization (“What people are desensitized to is news coverage of the war. And on the news, they can tell you that war is heartbreaking, that war is devastating, but in Over There, you’ll feel it. You’ll have a sense of it for yourself. You’ll have a powerful, gut-wrenching, visceral experience that the news can’t give you.” In this episode and the one that follows, “It’s All Right, Ma,” Smoke’s repeated framing as TV image intelligently undermines this argument, and makes a smarter one: through TV, you come to comprehend the world, you respond to it by way of cues, and you read authenticity in a particular way. “Authenticity” is constructed, in the news and in Over There.
The uses and misuses of TV are visible repeatedly throughout “Embedded,” as Doublewide (Lizette Carrión) sees the Smoke “story” on TV (her eye injured, she watches with a huge white gauze patch limiting her vision—again the show is not subtle when it comes to such point-making), as his mother watches and gasps back home. The image upsets everyone, and initiates a mediated scandal, though the sequence is inaccurate, the damage done by some unseen stateside cut-and-paster (Moffet, it turns out, just sent in the tape, so embeds are good, ratings-seeking producers and editors are bad).
While Smoke pays one sort of price for the bad TV, Moffet pays another, as he’s kidnapped by bad Iraqis and then taped for the internet, a beheading about to happen. Smoke makes it his personal mission to get Moffet back, and Scream lets him, because Scream understands his men’s needs. The fact that Smoke and the rest of the squad are too late, and Moffet is beheaded even as they storm the hideout where he’s being held and taped, is one thing. But the more appalling and pointed thing is that their entrance, their mowing down of a room full of masked villains, and Moffet’s death, are captured on yet another layer of tape, the red “record” signal in the upper right corner underscoring the violence, the violation, and the “history” being documented. At moments like these, you get the feeling that Over There had more to say than even it knew.