“Boy, those idiots sure got a lot of things wrong!”

You don’t often see that sentiment expressed about a new TV show by the star of the show, but in a moment you’ll see Geoff Stults say that about his new military-themed show, Enlisted. We won’t be watching it here, becauase we’re not big TV people, but an interesting thing happened when the trailer for the new Fox TV comedy hit: actual soldiers tore it a new fourth point of contact.

Then an even more interesting thing happened: the producers put their principal actor on screen, admitting that, essentially, “we screwed up,” and offering a show challenge coin to anyone that catches them in a new “goof.” Here’s the mea culpa:

The show tells the story of three brothers who are in the Army, but not at war. The two younger brothers were left behind at the fictional “Fort McGee, FL” on the “rear detachment” when the unit deployed, and the older brother got sent back after losing his cool, and is now the platoon sergeant for one of two Rear Detachment platoons. The one his brothers are in. (This kind of family-all-together thing happens often in the Guard and Reserve, and occasionally on active duty). It has elements of Stripes (which made no pretense of military accuracy) or even, in its more surreal moments, Catch-22 or M.A.S.H. Here’s the original trailer (the one that got savaged in military forums):

We can feel Pete’s pain. Back in 2002, the principal author of this blog was stuck on Rear Detachment (“Rear D!”) of an SF unit after getting rather grimly crossthreaded with the unit commander. After the CO got sent to the showers, it was off to the war, so we’ve had the fictional Pete Hill’s experience, only in reverse.

In any event, vets and serving soldiers appear willing to give it a chance. The videos tell you when it’s coming on if you’d like to, er, join up.

The last time a show fumbled its natural military appeal was almost a decade ago, with the David Mamet-helmed, impressively-cast, and ultimately-crippled drama The Unit. Mamet is a genius (read this rocket he fired at his writers, note: salty language, or see this slobbering New York Times story from the first of four seasons) and it’s clear that the writers and directors worked their hearts out on the show, and the actors delivered. But by the 20-minute point in the first episode, most special operations veterans had clicked the show off, never to look at it again. It was the greatest lost opportunity ever, because you’ll never have a talent like Mamet trying to do a military-themed drama again. Ain’t. Gonna. Happen. But they started from a Hollywood place of disrespect, of unwitting contempt even, for the service, its culture, and the people in it. And they didn’t do what these guys are doing, which is try to fix it. (They thought their military advisor would close the yawning credibility gap for them; instead, the show injured his reputation in the community).

The show is also slightly reminiscent of the many military-themed TV comedies that filled the airwaves in the 1950s and 1960s. Forgotten today, shows like Sergeant Bilko, Gomer Pyle USMC, McHale’s Navy and Hogan’s Heroes gave us the lighter side of life in the Army, the Marines, the Navy (fighting the Japanese in a PT boat, no less) and, we are not making this up, that regular laff riot, a Nazi prison camp. A lot of families, including a lot of veteran dads, had a good laugh because, if the truth is told, life in the military is often well supplied with humor and absurdity.

So, for the cast and crew of Enlisted, an impressive catch, in trying to turn the negative of pissed-off soldiers into the positive of engaged viewers. We have to wish them success.

5 thoughts on ““Boy, those idiots sure got a lot of things wrong!”

  1. GBS

    I thought “The Unit” was largely a decent effort, but that’s from the perspective of someone with virtually no direct knowledge of Army Special Operations. It was a TV drama with some decent actors and stories that (refreshingly) didn’t bash the military, but I’m not surprised that people actually in the SPECOPS business wouldn’t think much of it.

    Heck, there’s little I’ve seen in the way of “drama” about the Navy that I considered even half-way accurate, and that subject isn’t anywhere near the mystery of how a Delta Force unit works. I turned NCIS off after 10 minutes. “Top Gun” was a slick and popular two-hour music video. As it was released just as my adventure through Naval Aviation began, it didn’t hurt me any in social settings, but beyond the fact that F-14s flew from carriers, everything else, and I mean EVERYTHING, was BS. The movie that did the best job on the Navy is “The Bridges at Toko-Ri”, and that was sixty years ago. Aside from William Holden being way too old for the character he portrayed, the operational details were mostly spot-on, and the story pulled from real events, and the “drama” not overdone. Best of all, the senior officers were portrayed accurately as serious (but human) professionals who, between WWII and Korea, had all seen a crap-ton of combat over the previous decade.

    As most of the population, and the virtually all of Hollywood, have no direct experience, the military is a tough subject. I think it’s VERY difficult to do well, particularly on TV. Further, one man’s comedy is another’s insult. As a little kid, I thought Hogan’s Heroes was great, but my parents grew up during WWII. They clearly remembered the body count that makes the GWOT casualty list look very modest by comparison. They knew people who had been held in those POW camps, and didn’t think it was at all funny.

    1. Hognose Post author

      I’m told that the young actors from The Unit mostly got a big career boost out of it. One of them has been playing a lot of latin bad guys in the movies; another is doing more directing. Most of the cast male and female is working steadily in TV. Robert Patrick is still a sought-after character actor, and Dennis Haysbert is the insurance guy in the commercials, which probably doesn’t advance his career much but one hopes makes him very rich.

      The thing that clicked 10,000 remotes was the idea that the unit CO was sneaking around banging an NCOs wife. Later (a season or two on, IIRC), the cuckolded operator learns of it, and the men discuss that the usual(!) way for this to be handled in the unit was for the guy to shoot the CO who put the horns on him, and for everyone else to support him in that.

      Would you care to guess the number of group-level officers in ARSOF who have been killed by their men in love triangles in the last, oh, seventy years? The USN equivalent would be the admiral sending the ship out so he could boff some QMC’s wife, and the whole ship deciding to support the chief in his revenge. (Then again, with all the Navy scandals lately, maybe that does happen?)

      Stuff like that had the very few actual ARSOF guys out there badmouthing the show, and their extended families (a natural audience) stopped watching it, too.

      By Season 4, the bad guys were always senior officers and the CIA. Their big plan for Season 5 was to have a character come out as gay. The show had low ratings and bad demos by the time it was just another how-evil-is-everyone-who-is-not-a-lawyer-or-reporter show. It didn’t need a gay character, it was already as gay as Top Gun. And the carrier on Top Gun might as well have been USS Provincetown, homeported at Fire Island.

      Toko-Ri is a great movie, and it was a fantastic book — a time capsule from when Michener could edit himself! ISTR he got the Pulitzer Prize for that book, and the Admiral’s closing line is one I’ve often heard expressed by humble senior officers. They do not appreciate if I respond, “beats me with a stick, too, sir.”

      Please God don’t let any of the current crop of Hollywood inmates redo Toko-Ri.

      1. GBS

        Yeah…I did forget about the adultery plot arc, but similar things have happened in the non-SOF side of the service. In the late 90s, one General Hale was nailed for nailing the wives of FOUR subordinates. Taking it to the fragging level is probably something only TV could think of. I can certainly say that the Navy has its share of morally bankrupt senior officers. Even Admiral King, the CNO during WWII, had a reputation for going after the wives of his staff officers.

        I guess a TV series can only show so many anti-terrorist ops before things start to go a bit stale, and internal “drama” must be generated. The addition of the female also “jumped the shark” a bit, and it’s probably good that the season five gheyness never happened.

  2. Aesop

    Waitwaitwait…they’re making a comedy fictional military drama, and people who think House and The A-Team are real some ASVAB geniuses have their panties twisted too tight?!?

    The guys from the 1950s were right: It’s impossioble to underestimate the intelligence of the TV viewing audience, because even with Dr. Robert Ballard and the Trieste on standby, those depths cannot be accurately measured with existing instrumentation.

    Next, you’ll be telling us that Roman teenagers and Danish royalty don’t speak in iambic pentameter, that horses don’t talk, that Frankenstein and the vampires don’t live in suburbia and keep a fire-breathing dragon under the stairs, and that there aren’t seven stranded castaways on a tiny island 200 miles northwest of Hawaii. Pull the other one, it has bells on it.

    And as a point of order, you forgot to mention the patron saint of military sitcoms (not chronologically, but by merit): F-Troop.
    There was likely more Army reality in any 26 minutes of that show than there’s been in the sum total of fictional military movies since D.W. Griffith filmed Birth Of A Nation — present, inclusive.
    (I’ll go farther: anyone who never found themselves, for some period of time, serving in F-Troop, was probably never in the actual military.)
    Notably, it and most of the others had their TV heyday when one could get all the military reality they wanted on the 6 o’clock news nightly, piped in direct from the Southeast Asian Wargames.
    I don’t know whether the delay this time is due to overwhelming primal media disgust over the military in general, or simply a more vast basic appreciation for our troops in the midst of a war by audience, or whatever combination of the two.

    But as the meatgrinder winds down this time, a little levity is not out of line.
    Speaking from some wee experience, it’s one of the healthier human coping mechanisms for seeing body parts not attached to bodies, and the associated screaming and shrieking.
    And finding anything mockable about military service is about as difficult as pointing a camera at it. The script is entirely optional.

    A drama, esp. “based on a true event”, is another ballgame. This is a sitcom.
    People, esp. those formerly or currently serving, should STFU and have a laugh. The only standard this show needs to meet is whether or not it’s funny.

  3. Colin

    Hey Hognose, it is next to impossible to snag your contact information, so I’m doing this publicly. The creator of ENLISTED saw your blog (and this post) and wanted to get in touch with you. Would you mind sending me an email or calling me? (310) XXX-XXXX

    Thank you!!!
    -c

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