Drama brings war to our living rooms

`Over There' on FX gritty and unsettling


July 27, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Seven U.S. soldiers in desert combat gear are dug in on the near side of a dusty ridge trying to avoid enemy fire. It is coming from a bombed-out mosque on a hill.

"What do you want us to do?" one of the young soldiers yells with panic in his voice as the gun and mortar fire suddenly intensify.

"Shut up and stay alive," his sergeant shouts back, as the ground around them starts to explode. "That's the job today - stay alive. OK? Nothing else," he screams, pressing his face into the dirt.

That's the grunts'-eye view that dominates Over There, the highly publicized new drama about the war in Iraq from executive producers Steven Bochco and Chris Gerolmo. Gritty might be an apt adjective to describe the kind of urban cop dramas for which Bochco is known, but it barely starts to describe the roiling brew of gunpowder, heat, dust, confusion and fear that parboils the pilot for this daring series debuting tonight at 10 on cable channel FX.

As much as the lines between news and entertainment have been blurred in recent years, there is nevertheless something profoundly unsettling about watching a drama in which the characters look and act like American GIs one has been seeing in life-and-death firefights the past two years on all-news cable channels.

And, rather than just showing the Marines and soldiers as one-dimensional characters, Over There ultimately manages to take viewers inside some of the feelings and thoughts of battlefield recruits.

Be warned: Going inside the skin of these soldiers is an intense experience that comes with an MA rating. From the bare-behind sex in an opening that features a soldier and his wife trying to make love in every room of their house before he ships out, to the graphic violence of a combatant's legs trying to run on their own after the rest of the soldier's body had been blown away, this is a not a TV drama for those seeking escape at the end of a long day.

As much as the series has rightfully been characterized as groundbreaking by nature of its being television's first prime-time drama to deal with an ongoing war, Over There is surprisingly derivative. The basic formula is that of the World War II movie featuring a squad, which serves as microcosm for the diversity of the United States. There is some updating for gender and race, of course, to reflect societal change.

The six soldiers getting their first taste of battle in tonight's pilot include two women (a skilled Latina mechanic and a frightened white teenager), two African-American men (one who defines himself primarily in terms of race, and one who sees himself as a soldier first), a former high school football star from the South and an Ivy League graduate who somehow wound up as a private in Iraq.

One of them loses a leg near the end of tonight's episode and is replaced next week by an Arab-American soldier from Detroit. Their squad leader, Sgt. Chris Silas (Erik Palladino), is know as Sgt. Scream for the decibel level at which he speaks - and the general sense of rage behind his words.

Palladino, who played a medical doctor for three seasons on ER, is the most experienced member of the young cast, and his character is the one that stands out initially. But as it is supposed to happen in the pilot of a skillfully crafted ensemble drama, other characters start to come into focus by the end of the hour. Pvts. Frank Dumphy (Luke McFarlane), the Cornell University grad, and Avery King (Keith Robinson), a highly skilled sniper who dreams of singing in a world-class choir, are the first to emerge.

Back on the ridge, King calls again to his sergeant, telling him that the two female members of the squad, Pvts. Esmerelda Del Rio (Lizette Carrion) and Brenda Mitchell (Nicki Aycox), have been cut off from the rest of the group.

"What should we do now?" he shouts.

"Nothing. We were told to dig in, and we dug in. Don't contradict me, fool. I'm your [expletive] squad leader. I'm here to keep you alive. Shut up and keep your [expletive] head down."

The grunt's-eye view amid the chaos of battle also calls to mind Vietnam, though overt antiwar sentiments are muted with the focus so tight on the soldiers in Iraq rather than politics in Washington.

Still, the final image of a helicopter lifting off into a shimmering red-orange sunset carrying the sad cargo of a wounded soldier sounds echoes of M*A*S*H and Apocalypse Now - as it transports viewers to war in a way that prime-time entertainment television has never dared.

Over There

When: Tonight at 10

Where: FX

In brief: A graphic new drama about life on the ground with GIs in Iraq.

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