First there was 1998 s Saving Private Ryan, which featured an astonishing 20-minute opening sequence that was as gut-wrenchingly violent and graphic as anything ever seen on a movie screen. So realistic and horrific was the carnage, in fact, that when the film was shown on network television last fall, dozens of stations around the country refused to air it.
Then came HBO s miniseries Band of Brothers in 2001. It, too, generated more than its share of controversy with the painful realism of its battle scenes.
Now we have Over There, a daring dramatic series from cable network FX, which is scheduled to premiere Wednesday night at 10. Like Private Ryan and Brothers, the new television series graphically depicts, in words and images, the excruciating pain and fear of war but there s a big difference, too.
Unlike the earlier fictionalized portraits of warfare, both of which dealt with World War II, Over There focuses on the present-day conflict in Iraq. It s the first time that a scripted dramatic series has been set in a war zone at the same time as the war that it depicts.
Think about it. The last TV drama about war was China Beach, which aired in the 1980s, several years after the Vietnam War that it depicted. Before that, there were Combat and The Rat Patrol, both set in World War II but not made until the 60s.
Even the long-running series M*A*S*H, set during the Korean War in the early 50s, wasn t on television until the 70s.
Over There was co-created and produced by a familiar name that s long been associated with ground-breaking television: Steven Bochco, the man who created L.A. Law and revolutionized cop shows with Hill Street Blues in the 80s and NYPD Blue in the 90s. Bochco s co-creator and the lead writer for Over There is Chris Gerolmo, who wrote the screenplay for the Oscar-nominated film Mississippi Burning.
When Bochco s NYPD Blue was launched in 1993, he took plenty of heat for the show s language and nudity, both unprecedented at the time on network television. In a commentary on Over There that was sent to TV critics along with the first few episodes, Bochco says he expects the same type of reactions to his new series.
There are some real similarities between NYPD Blue in 1993 and Over There in 2005-2006 in terms of the potential for controversy, he says.
When FX president John Landgraf and others from the network approached him about a series set in Iraq, Bochco says his initial reaction was to decline, because he didn t know much about the life of a soldier.
I ve never been in the military, Bochco says, and I think it was John who pointed out that I ve also never been a cop.
An important issue
Gerolmo defends the decision to create the series even as the conflict in Iraq continues.
A writer s responsibility is to write about the most important things he can possibly write about, he says, and for that reason, writing about the ongoing war seems absolutely of paramount importance.
Adds Bochco: There s not much of a template for this kind of show, particularly about a war that s in progress as we speak.
Gerolmo explains that war not just Iraq but any war is a natural and very powerful backdrop for a dramatic series.
It s got all the drama of Law & Order and all the action of 24, he says, and for better or for worse, it s got all the gore of CSI.
Indeed, the combat scenes featuring U.S. troops and Iraqi insurgents in Over There are full of flying body parts and blood, and they appear so realistic that viewers might think they re watching footage shot by news crews embedded with military units on the front lines.
In the series first episode, an Iraqi fighter is literally blown in two by a rocket-propelled grenade, and the lower half of his body continues lurching forward another step or two before toppling into the dirt.
It s grotesque and it s mesmerizing.
To make the battle sequences and even the soldiers everyday activities appear more authentic, the producers brought in as a technical adviser a U.S. Marine sergeant who had two tours in Iraq. The adviser, Sgt. Sean Bunch, put the actors through a five-day boot camp before filming on the series started in February, and he remains on the set to ensure that the fictional soldiers walk right, talk right, gripe right, and handle their weapons in the correct manner.
There s also an Iraqi consultant to make sure the other side of the conflict is depicted accurately.
Beyond the authenticity of the firefights, Over There pays close attention to the little things as well. For instance, when the troops don their night-vision goggles, viewers see the action through a green haze similar to what the soldiers would see through the goggles. And when a unit is pinned down by enemy fire, a soldier asks her comrades where and how they re supposed to go to the bathroom.
Like most good story-telling, Over There brings a sprawling historical event into focus by zeroing in on a small number of personal experiences. In this case, the stories it tells are those of a handful of U.S. Army soldiers on their first tour of duty in Iraq, and the families they left behind.
In the series opening episode, viewers are briefly introduced to some of the soldiers and their loved ones while they re still at home, preparing to ship out for Iraq. Among them are Bo (Josh Henderson, The Girl Next Door), a Texas high school football star who has a partial scholarship to college and hopes to make up the rest of his expenses through the GI Bill after his tour is ended; Frank Dim Dumphy (Luke MacFarlane, Kinsey), an Ivy League graduate who enlisted for reasons even he can t explain; Maurice Smoke Williams (Kirk Jones, Flight of the Phoenix), a black soldier who has little use for his white comrades, and Esmerelda Doublewide Del Rio, (Lizette Carrion, NYPD Blue), a mother who leaves her husband and young son behind to go off to war.
Lots of nicknames
Upon arrival in Iraq, they re assigned to a unit under the command of combat veteran Chris Sgt. Scream Silas (Erik Palladino, ER), who was due to leave the war zone but whose tour was extended 90 days when he was assigned the group of raw recruits, or virgins.
(If it seems like there is an inordinate number of nicknames on this show, you can thank Every Dogface Should Have a Cool Nickname Gerolmo, who apparently got a little carried away while writing the script.)
With a not-entirely-convincing Sgt. Scream (Palladino just doesn t have the look of a grizzled combat veteran) barking orders at them, it s not long before the inexperienced soldiers are dug into the sand and engaged in a firefight with Iraqi militants who are holed up in a mosque. They re ordered by a clueless, behind-the-lines officer to advance to an unprotected position outside the mosque, and later are chastised by him for returning fire without permission when the enemy opens up on them.
Even before the show has aired, it s been criticized by some who feel that it s inappropriate and in bad taste for a TV series to be dramatizing a war while many Americans have loved ones facing injury and death in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Others maintain that the series is a blatant anti-war political statement from Bochco and Gerolmo, a charge they deny.
It occurred to me pretty quickly that there was a way to do this show that had nothing to do with politics, counters Bochco. We don t take a political position. You re there to survive; you re there to serve your country. You do what you re told to do.
We re not writing a political show, adds Gerolmo. We re writing a show about six or seven young people and their sergeant, and their goal in life is to get through today.
To those who claim that Americans shouldn t be subjected to stories from a war that they see plenty of in the headlines and on TV news, Gerolmo explains that Over There gives viewers a perspective that the news can t.
What people are desensitized to is news coverage of the war, he says. On the news, they can tell you that war is heartbreaking, war is devastating. But in Over There, you ll feel it you ll have a sense of that for yourself. We can give you a powerful, visceral, gut-wrenching experience that the news can t give you.
Before the premiere episode ends, one of the unit s young members is suddenly and horribly injured, and must confront a different kind of challenge in a military hospital in Germany. Subsequent episodes have the soldiers manning a checkpoint outside an Iraqi town, where they have to make split-second, life-and-death decisions on whether fast-approaching vehicles contain enemy combatants or innocent civilians, and standing by as a high-ranking American officer uses questionable interrogation techniques to force a prisoner to reveal the location of a stolen shipment of Stinger missiles.
Gerolmo says he s proud of the way that U.S. troops are depicted in the series, and he thinks real-life soldiers and their families will approve, too.
I hope men and women in the military feel about Over There the way New York City cops felt about NYPD Blue, he says. I think they were proud to be portrayed with sympathy and respect.
And most criticism of the series should dissipate after viewers have seen a few episodes, according to Bochco.
My guess would be that if there s controversy attached to this show, it s going to reveal more about the agendas of the people who are stirring that pot than about our agenda, which is simply and fundamentally to create very compelling entertainment, he says.
An impressive lineup
With its premiere this week, Over There becomes the latest in an impressive stable of edgy original programming created in recent years by the basic cable channel FX. The lineup, which rivals or even surpasses the offerings from premium channels such as Showtime, Cinemax, and even HBO, includes such highly rated and critically acclaimed adult-oriented series as The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and Rescue Me.
Over There carries the television rating TV-MA (mature audiences), meaning it s intended for adult viewing and may be unsuitable for those under age 17.
The new series, like war itself, is not for the squeamish. But for those who can stomach its graphic scenes and occasionally rough language, it provides an unflinching look at war and its effects on those who are most intimately involved in it, both on the battlefield and at home.
Contact Mike Kelly at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6131.