Prime Time Goes To War

As the real-life drama unfolds, the American experience in Iraq plays out on makeover shows, commercials and even series.

February 08, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

It is far from entertaining for the people living it, but the Iraq war is becoming a staple of prime-time entertainment television.

During Sunday's Super Bowl, the Iraq conflict was the unstated theme of a wordless Anheuser-Busch spot featuring American troops in desert gear walking through an airport - and receiving a standing ovation from civilians.

In recent weeks, prime-time TV has featured wounded veterans getting home makeovers (A&E's At Home With the Brave), professional wrestlers taking their show to Iraq (UPN's WWE Smackdown!), and poignant letters written home by soldiers killed in the war (HBO's Last Letters Home). Even Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy offered advice to a soldier who was about to leave for combat.

Now cable channel FX, home to edgy dramas such as The Shield and Nip/Tuck, plans to launch Over There, a weekly series about a group of soldiers in Iraq - and their loved ones at home. The show, produced by Steven Bochco and scheduled to air in the summer, will be the first prime-time series produced while the war in which it is set is still being waged.

The Fox network, too, is developing an Iraq war series. As yet untitled, the sitcom, created by veteran comedy writer Mort Nathan (The Golden Girls), is planned for next fall. Set at a U.S. government-sponsored television station in Iraq, it has overtones of WKRP in Cincinnati meets M*A*S*H in Baghdad.

"It's incredible that we've had no regular prime-time network or cable series that deals with modern war," said John Landgraf, the president of FX.

"Television pumps out thousands of hours of scripted drama a year, and war is one of the most dramatic, compelling, complicated experiences a human being can go through. So why is no one doing a scripted drama about a war? Frankly, I still don't know why - other than maybe it's controversial and difficult. But that's not going to stop us."

The current and coming array of war-related programming represents a sweeping change from that seen by Americans during the height of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. Prime time - or the hours between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., when the greatest number of Americans watch TV - then offered strictly escapist fare.

Vietnam era

Though known as "the living room war" because newscasts brought it into American homes each evening, the Vietnam War rarely got mentioned on contemporary sitcoms or dramas. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, for example, was canceled by CBS in large part because Tom and Dick Smothers occasionally tried to mention the conflict during their variety show.

In 1968, the year of some of the fiercest fighting in Southeast Asia, the highest-rated sitcom was Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. Set on a Marine base, the CBS spinoff of the idyllic Andy Griffith Show starred Jim Nabors as a bumbling recruit during peacetime. The worst thing that Gomer ever endured was getting lambasted by Sarg.

Another hit, the NBC sitcom Julia, starred Diahann Carroll as a nurse and single mom whose husband was killed in the Vietnam War. After her husband's death was explained by a fleeting reference in the pilot, the war never came up again during the series' three seasons (1968-1971).

As far as the networks were concerned, the only programmable war was an old war. Both CBS' Hogan's Heroes (1965-1971), a sitcom depicting the adventures of American World War II prisoners, and M*A*S*H (1972-1983), a satire about a Korean War medical unit, aired nearly two decades after their respective conflicts ended. ABC's China Beach (1988-1991) and CBS' Tour of Duty (1987-1991) didn't arrive onscreen until a dozen years after the fall of Saigon.

Now, from reality shows to dramas such as CBS' JAG or NCIS, story lines that incorporate the war in Iraq have become an integral part of programming. "I'm not at all surprised that the war is now finding its way into prime-time entertainment programs, because it has become such a big part of the American consciousness," said Tom Bettag, executive producer of ABC News' Nightline, which in April generated controversy and won big ratings when it devoted a program to the photographs and names of men and women killed in Iraq. PBS' Frontline/World has also found success reporting on the war in Iraq.

"We found that there was an enormous awareness of this war out there, and I'm sure that's what the entertainment people are sensing, too," Bettag said. "But there are enough divisions in this country that you know you're going to get controversy when you deal with Iraq, and you have to be willing to accept that, too."

Competition

Increased competition also has changed how networks view prime-time fare. Before the 1980s, when hundreds of cable channels sprang into existence, network television, which is regulated by the federal government, shied away from anything that smacked of controversy.

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