Monday, August 08, 2005

Going Over There

Last night the series finale of Queer As Folk aired, and I was all prepared to blog about it. However, out of respect for any Canadian QAF fans who might wander this way and who haven't seen this last episode, I'll save that entry for tomorrow. Besides, I'm still all mixed up inside about what I think, so maybe another 24 hours of gel-time is in order.

Instead, I want to ask if anyone out there has tuned in to Fox network's new show, Over There? And to my friends out there with husbands (or even they themselves) in the military, please comment on this as I'm very curious for your take.

Over There is a show that focuses on a platoon of Army soldiers handling their first tour of duty on the Iraqi War front lines. It stars Eric Palladino, of ER fame, who does a better job playing a war-weary seargent forced to stay for three months beyond his schedule departure than he did playing an obnoxious ER resident. Other characters include; Bo Rider, a Texas boy with stars in his eyes as far as having a career in the military; Frank "Dim" Dumphy, a Cornell graduate who is getting a baptism by fire on the lengths of cruelty mankind can inflict upon itself and what the true horrors of war really means; and even Tariq Nassiri, an American of Arabic ancestry who faces animosity from both sides of the fighting. Two women are added to show how the military now relies on the opposite sex in ways it hasn't before, more in-the-battle than the nurses on M.A.S.H. ever were.

What makes this show unique is 1) that it is telling the story about a war currently being fought and 2) it is very graphic and 3) the writers/creators have vowed to keep the program a-political. As such, much of the feedback I've read on various on-line forums has been severely divided between those who love the show and those who absolute hate it.

The weird thing, for me anyway, is the fact that those who hate it with such ferocity are those same people I would have expected to love it. These are military people who have served a tour or two over in Iraq or Afghanistan and their families. Nearly every negative or even scathing review I've read has been from a military person complaining that the show is getting it all wrong.

Specifically, all wrong in regards to facts. Such as in depicting huge breaches in procedures, like when the transport Dim and Bo are on pulls off to the side of a road and directly on to an IED (which, I've learned, stands for improvised explosive device) which, as you would expect, explodes. I guess you never, EVER EVER stop your transport on the side of the road. You always stay in the middle. So, yes, a big error as far as accuracy goes.

This is just one example of the things military folks are crying foul over. They feel that the lack of accuracy is insulting because it makes the soldiers on the show look stupid and incompetent. They think having such a show that gets things wrong is disrespecting the hardworking folks who are really over there, risking their lives every single minute of every single day.

My response to this upset is one of complete bewilderment. I cannot for the life of me understand why they are reacting this way.

First of all, the majority of Americans would have absolutely no idea if the incidents we see on the show would ever happen or not in a particular way. We have no way of knowing that an officer would never refer to his rank while communicating via radio or that Bo Rider would never be wearing a tee shirt with the slogan "Be All That You Can Be" before he leaves the base. The details that we do see are more than sufficient to give us a clear picture of what things look like, what things sound like, and what kinds of things happen. Knowing that something isn't accurately portrayed doesn't detract from our ability to get it.

Not to mention the need to simplify things strictly for the sake of storytelling to an ignorant audience. Sure, real life officers would never state their rank when communicating via radio, but doing so on the show helps us non-military viewers understand the communication better. And in the end, what's more important?

In the first example, about the military transport pulling over when it shouldn't have, I ask the question, so what? Would the story have been okay if instead of on the side of the road, someone had tossed that IED in the center of the road and the transport drove over it before it was able to stop? Same end result. Same explosion. Same tragic injury of one of the soldiers. The means weren't the objective here, the end was. How it happened wasn't as important as the fact that it happened at all.

The other complaint by military personal and their families is that the show neglected to show what a real send-off is actually like. Rather than show us any tearful goodbyes, the show chose to show each character leaving his or her home with a cut to some time later when the platoon is already on the air transport, skipping over those tearful good-byes. I have no doubt that they happen and that they are very emotional. Kids saying good-bye to daddy and mommy, spouses stealing one last kiss. Tearjerker stuff. But it isn't necessary to the story. The story isn't about those good-byes. The story is about what happens Over There. And the show is only an hour long per episode.

But mostly what I don't get about the response of the military people is how they feel the soldiers depicted on the show are making real soldiers look stupid. This simply could not be farther from the truth. Perhaps it's because I don't know proper procedure and when things are being done all wrong, but pretty much nothing these guys and girls have done on the show has made me view them as stupid. Well, there was that incident when Smoke was supposed to check the trunk of a car passing through a roadblock, and he doesn't but then lies and says he did. That was stupid. Not because of a factual error, but because what he did was wrong.

And no one can tell me that sometimes, people Over There don't make stupid mistakes. If the soldiers fighting in Iraq are human, they will make natural human mistakes. I expect it, and to see those mistakes portrayed on the show makes the characters believable. This has nothing to do with the creators putting the characters in unrealistic situations. I don't know if what's happening would never happen, but I assume it could. And as such, what the characters do is what I focus on.

One military spouse posting on an Over There forum complained bitterly about the scene in which Dim's wife is shown having sex with another man a few days after they had a huge fight as Dim was walking out the door. This military spouse said that military wives don't cheat on their husbands. To which I say, not one? Ever? In all of human history, no military wife has ever cheated on her husband while he was overseas? Come on.

I've watched the first two episodes of this show and plan to watch all of the rest. It's very good storytelling, IMO. Sure, there are problems with it. For example, when one of the soldiers is injured on a Tuesday and his wife is not notified by the military higher ups until Saturday, there is no explanation offered why the soldier himself had not asked to speak to her or questionned why she wasn't immediately there by his side, especially after his estranged father had been contacted and brought to see him. You don't have to be a veteran to think this can't be normal procedure. In fact, you don't have to be a writer to see that having the father come first was a klutzy attempt to introduce backstory that, honestly, had no relevancy to the situation at hand. But nothing is perfect straight out of the gate.

I hope this show gets a fair chance. Because what I see that it's doing is putting a face on the soldiers who are Over There, risking their lives. These people deserve our respect and our gratitude, and the more closely we can understand what it is they are truly going through the more completely we can give them what they deserve. I can hear on the nightly news about a car bomb killing marines who were manning a roadblock, and it horrifies and saddens me deeply. But watching it happen - albeit in a work of fiction to fictitious people with probably a good deal of inaccuracies as far as procedure - I'm even more determined that this situation is unacceptable. I'm getting a picture, which to be cliche is indeed worth more than a thousand words spoken by a newscaster.

Over There's creators have given me characters that I like and can relate to. I'm interested in their stories and want to know what happens to them. Everything else - the inaccuracies depicted - is fluff. So how can this be a bad thing?


Anonymous said...

I haven't seen it, Lynn, so I'm not qualified to comment on content. I am a military spouse. As such, I'm tossing in my flimsy, take or leave 'em two cents.

I remember a Billy Joel song I loved as a kid. It was moving and haunting and about the Vietnam war- which was ancient history to me.

One day I tried to get my mom to listen to it. I told her it was sad but beautiful. And she said, "Nothing beautiful could have come from that war." End of subject. She just wouldn't consider giving it a listen.

Hers was the generation that lost friends straight out of high school. Boys she grew up with gone forever.

Until this television show came along, I didn't really understand what my mom was telling me. What I don't know that I can articulate myself now. There isn't anything in this war that should be entertaining. There are no scripts. The blood isn't fake. There is no soundtrack. The special effects are too real. It's hard to think of it being fictionalized for audiences to enjoy.

That isn't to say it can't be well done. Or respectfully done, etc. M*A*S*H is a great example. The timing is the difference. That conflict was over. Life had returned to 'normal.' For those inside Iraq- civilians and soliders alike- and their families, 'normal' seems impossible. Like it will never get here. And for so many countless thousands, it won't. That's why a show about what's happening right now is very hard to watch.

I'm not sure any of that made a bit of sense. But thank you for providing a place for me to muddle through it!

Larissa said...

I haven't seen the show--didn't know it was on. :( I'll have to watch for it. But this one comment nearly made me spit out my coffee:

"This military spouse said that military wives don't cheat on their husbands. To which I say, not one? Ever? In all of human history, no military wife has ever cheated on her husband while he was overseas? Come on."

OMG. Military wives cheat as much, if not more, than wives whose husbands aren't in the military. I've lived in military housing, and in my little cul-de-sac, two wives were cheating.

When my husband's boat shares marinas with Navy ships, the stories are amazing. Navy wives see their husbands' ships off, and as soon as the ship pulls out, they come to the Coast Guard boat and proposition the guys. It's disgusting.

Military wives don't cheat? Please. That woman needs to pull her head out of her ass.

Lynn Raye Harris said...

I have to second Larissa's comments about military wives cheating. Been going on since I was a kid and old enough to know about that kind of stuff, and much longer than that of course. Not all do, naturally, but these days, with deployments being what they are, etc, it's hard on the family. Something like 80% of military officers are getting divorces these days (it was an NYT article not too long ago). Enlisted runs around 50%.

As for the show, I haven't seen it. I don't watch TV at all, so it's not that I wouldn't watch it because of the subject. If I could remember when it came on, etc, I might turn on the TV to see it. And, jeez, I don't know what to say about the inaccuracies and the military folks. On the one hand, I'm in agreement. I want it accurate, and I hate when silly stuff happens like they wear their insignia wrong or their hair is too long (I'm thinking older programs). I guess the officer thing on the radio I might just chalk up to story telling, but I'd probably get incensed about the implied stupidity of pulling the vehicle over. Not done, just not done. If someone wants to make a show about the military, they really have very little excuse to get it wrong. Why? Because each branch of the service has a public liasion office that is available to make sure that the military is ACCURATELY portrayed. Heck, the Pentagon instituted an office to liase with Hollywood for this very reason.

Now, to totally contradict myself, I love Suzanne Brockmann's books and you can't get much more inaccurate than she was in the beginning. Her mistakes weren't huge (okay, maybe one or two were), but they were the sort of mistakes a non-military associated person would make. But she is such a great storyteller that I just didn't care. I would get a twinge of annoyance over something, but I wouldn't put the book down. I'd just mentally correct it and move on. In fact, I sometimes think having a close association with the military makes it more difficult to write about than not. It's harder for me to think outside the box because I am so familiar with the box, if that makes sense. Suz does something little like give her hero a pass and send him on an Air Force transport from DC to Boston. If I'd written it, I'd have put him on a commercial airliner because I know how damn difficult and time consuming it is to fly space available on a military aircraft. But, her way works much better, and it's not inaccurate. My point is that I would have had trouble seeing outside that box of my own experience to choose the better option (hopefully I am becoming more aware of these things and trying harder to see what might be possible).

I'm just using this as an example of how hard it can be to think outside those rigid lines of what is and is not likely in the military (the transport issue is one of probability, not impossibility). This really does circle back to the people who are upset with the show. They are upset because they know how rigid those lines are and how clearly ridiculous it is to stray outside them. When the producers/writers go with what is just not possible in the military, it takes the credibility away from the story. Because we come at it from a military viewpoint, we can't see how non-military viewers blur the lines and don't think that identifying an officer on a radio is stupid or that pulling over to the side of the road for a break is the height of idiocy. But would you pull over when you're clearly heading down a road where people have been blown up before? And even if someone wanted to pull over, they've got orders not to do it. You don't go against orders for something so non-meaningful. If a character is going to go against orders, it better be for something BIG.

And, I'm just blabbing along based on what you wrote, Lynn, and not on a viewing of the show so maybe I've got the wrong end of the stick. But, military discipline is such a key issue to these military people who are upset, I'll bet you. Military people could make a dumb mistake, sure, because they are tired or whatever. But they won't go against orders or SOP without a whole lot of reasons to do so. So, no, I don't think it serves the wider public just to see the story without also seeing how ingrained military procedure is in even the rawest recruit. There's a reason they go to basic training and get their butts kicked. It's a breaking down of the individual and turning him or her into a functioning part of a unit. Anyone who is incapable of that change doesn't make it through basic training.

All just my opinion, and that's from a military spouse viewpoint. I imagine I'd be even more strident if I were a veteran who'd been in Iraq and knew what really happens there. There are enough people who have been there and in those situations that the show really doesn't have much excuse to get it wrong. There are plenty of vets to talk with. The show doesn't need to be slavishly accurate, especially when the demands of storytelling require compression, but if they get the details right, then they might find that military viewers would become their greatest champions. Just my opinion, and maybe not worth a hill of beans, especially since I've never been to Iraq. :)

Lynn M said...

Oh, Wow. Thanks you guys, for such wonderful, in depth responses.

Anon, I think you might actually have made me understand the problem. I'm horrified at the prospect that people - military personnel and their families - feel almost exploited knowing that what they are going through right now is being used as entertainment for others. While they are off risking their lives, those of us at home are safe on our couches watching the sanitized horror as a form of entertainment. That is, indeed, awful.

I don't have any defense for this, either. At first I tried to rationalize this as education. I'm learning a lot more about what's going on over there, so isn't it a good thing? I do believe this to be the case to a certain degree, but it still feels slightly voyeuristic.

I guess my response might be a reassurance that the topic is not being treated lightly. I know M.A.S.H. is the quintessential military show, and I watched an episode of it yesterday as a form of research. It's been years since I've seen it, and I was struck how pithy everything was - the situations, the dialogue, the humor. It was entertainment, pure and simple. So far, Over There is far more serious, and everything they've shown has been with a great deal of levity. Those tuning in to be entertained will have to take a huge dose of reality with it.

Larissa and Lynn - thanks for confirming what I was pretty sure to be correct. I know that upset military spouse was only angry that any of her kind were being shown in a bad light, especially given what is going on right now, but her blanket remark really grated on me. I think it has to do with the normal problem of people not being able to separate reality from fiction or assuming that a representative character on a tv show does not serve as the role model for everyone of their kind. Not all African American teenage boys are gangbangers. Not all cops are hardened tough guys. Not all military wives are skanky hos. It's just a story.

Again, thanks for this insight. Amazing!!

Lynn M said...

Oops - just reread.

I meant to say that what has been depicted on Over There so far has been treated very seriously (without a great deal of levity, I should have typed).

Sorry for the slip up!