Test Pilot: File #56, Over There

Test Pilot #56: Over There

Debut date: July 27, 2005

Series legacy: A seemingly forgotten, only barely controversial look at soldiers’ lives in Iraq

Welcome back to Test Pilot, friends and foes. We’re rolling through our latest theme on War on Terror television. Hopefully you enjoyed the piece on Sleeper Cell from last time. If you haven’t read that, please do.

The War on Terror means a lot of different things to a lot of different people (and again, I hope that those different ideas or ideologies come out in these pieces) and for good reason: It’s a somewhat vague and blanket term for an expansive, complicated–and some would say convoluted–and expensive (both in finances and in life) string of events, actions, groups of people, etc. If we move forward with the assumption that the War on Terror began with the attacks on the World Trade Center in September of 2001, this thing, whatever it is, has been going on for more than a decade now and it has certainly had a dramatic impact on all of our lives in both the macro and micro sense.

And yet, despite the War on Terror’s influence on daily life, we haven’t seen much of that translate to the small screen of television. While a number of shows have used bits and pieces of War on Terror stories or headlines to power individual episodes, very few shows have been directly about the War on Terror, its place in our culture or the people wrapped up in it. Throughout this theme, I hope that we can highlight some of the series that actually did engage with the WoT and the rhetoric surrounding it, but also think about or discuss why so few did/do and what that has meant for the medium and even for viewers at home.

We continue our exploration of War on Terror television today with a look at FX’s Over There. Produced by TV power-player Steven Bochco, Over There aimed to examine the more intimate and personal details of the U.S.’s involvement in Iraq. The series hit the airwaves amid mixed reviews, some praising it for its realistic depiction of contemporary wartime experience, while others took it to task for over-dramaticizing said experience. But although FX marketed Over There as “TV’s most controversial series,” audiences didn’t seem to be too bothered by it, or even bothered enough to care. The ratings declined across that first season and the series was axed without much fanfare. Again, it feels like a product of that era in the mid-aughts were all kinds of cable nets were trying different kinds of series, but most of them weren’t particularly great or memorable. Maybe we can think about why today.

Joining me today is Chris Becker. Chris teaches film and television history and analysis at the University of Notre Dame and is currently working on a research project comparing contemporary American and British TV. She also runs the blog News for TV Majors and can be found at nearly any given moment on Twitter as @crsbecker. Chris, your thoughts:

I’m sorry to say that Over There never really stood a chance with me, through no fault of its own. That’s because I’ve spent the last week catching up with the BBC Three documentary series Our War, which presents raw footage shot from helmet-cams worn by British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan interspersed with direct-address statements from those soldiers after their return home–except for the ones who died, of course. Last week’s episode included excerpts from the handwritten diary of Lt. Mark Evison, who, we learn at the end of the episode, died from his battle wounds. Evison wrote (as read by Benedict Cumberbatch, incidentally), “Life is fragile, and out here it feels like it could be removed in an instant. It almost makes life even more valuable, and shows the fragility that many in the West, I believe, do not understand.” This is what I had seared into my brain just 48 hours before watching the Over There pilot.

Over There tried to deliver a scripted drama version of the kind of perspective that Our War offers: a personalized account of the confusion, thrill, and terror of war from the troops on the ground, with the political impetus behind their invasive presence in a foreign land left largely unspoken. But it was hard for me to see past the demands of pilot storytelling convention in the episode and into the potential truth of these characters, especially compared to the stark documentary footage and freer structure of Our War. Ok, enough about Our War (for now). Let’s talk about Over There.

While I first went into this viewing with two separate questions in mind — how does this episode depict the war on terror, and what is its entertainment quality as a pilot? — I quickly realized that these were inextricably intertwined, and more often than not, basic cable pilot requirements ended up dulling the impact of the war depictions. With an ensemble cast of seven primary members of the platoon filling its 42 minutes, Over There’s pilot has to offer instant characterizations. The cold open alone packs the introduction of six characters progressively headed toward deployment into only three-and-a-half minutes: there’s the gung-ho kid leaving behind a young family, the guy with domestic problems, the angry black guy, the dope-smoking angry black guy, the harried mother, and the 18-year-old who is certain she’s going to get killed. They also each get a nickname, and once they arrive in Iraq, one soldier has the expository duty of being curious about how everyone got their nickname.

Familiar tropes continue throughout: there’s the gruff but dedicated sergeant, the bullish and insensitive superior officer, and the faceless and characterization-less Arab enemies that line up to be shot down one by one when the act structure requires a standoff situation to be resolved. There’s also plenty of the shock value and edginess that FX was known for by then, as the episode opens with a couple having sex and features plenty of combat gore, including one instance where the top half a man is blown clear off and his legs take a few steps before collapsing (which apparently can really happen).

While these elements repeatedly drew me out of the depth the episode could potentially offer on the challenge of standing alongside instant compatriots while fighting for your lives against  anonymous (presumed) terrorists, some aspects did grab me. Visually, the episode strikingly evokes the scorching landscape of war-torn Iraq, with multiple long shots of the soldiers dwarfed by stretches of sand, wide-angle images reminiscent of Three Kings, and numerous sun glare and lens flare shots worthy of a J.J. Abrams film.

Plus, one particular segment stuck with me: following a round-up of Iraqi prisoners, including one who angrily references Abu Ghraib, the gung-ho kid, Bo, watches as a Humvee of combat vets pulls up. The scene cuts between a tight, wide-angle close-up of Bo observing those in the Humvee, his face filled with uncertainty, and rather enigmatic individual shots of the troops in the truck. I reveled in this invitation to read into the images: What is Bo thinking as he looks at these men? How did the battle experience we saw affect his attitude? Did he hear the Abu Ghraib mention? How are we to interpret the rather neutral faces of these passing soldiers?

This is followed by a scene of the platoon members recording video emails for their loved ones, with equal parts of sweetness, sadness, and profundity contained in the comments and their reception back home. Not having seen subsequent episodes, I would hope they follow this model of more contemplative storytelling (but assume they don’t), rather than the action-driven scenes that propel the rest of the plot. In that sense, I can imagine a show that follows a Treme template getting closer to the heart of what it means to be soldier fighting in a distant land against some vague notion of terrorism, with intricately detailed depictions of characters who build layers from episode to episode, culminating in intense revelations about their motivations and relationships. But obviously, such a level of insight is almost impossible to capture within the constraints of a conventional pilot.

Over There’s pilot ends predictably in that regard: the gung-ho Bo, who intends to use the GI Bill to supplement a football scholarship, has his leg blown off. (How d’ya like war now, huh kid?) While Bo’s carted off by a helicopter, his buddy writhes in silent anguish as we hear a ballad (written by the show’s co-creator) unspooling lyrical duds like, “There’s mothers crying, and fathers sighing; war is in the air.” Again, I just couldn’t help but watch that with Our War in mind, because the episode mentioned above also ends with a gravely injured man being taken away by helicopter as a comrade reacts. Lt. Evison’s fate is bookended by his quote about the fragility of life and by one of the unit’s members starting directly into the camera and summarizing how the troops reflected on the battle that their leader didn’t survive: “We were all fucking head shot and we all fucking sat ‘round thinking, How the fuck am I alive? How the fuck am I alive? We fucking worked for each other, every man carried on with the battle and kept on fighting til the end, which is what it fucking means to be a soldier.” Like I said: Over There didn’t stand a chance.

–CB  

And my thoughts on the opening episode of Over There:

In the last TP entry, I focused my attention on representation in Sleeper Cell, a series that, at least on the surface, wanted to engage with the complicated portrayal of Muslim’s in a post-9/11 America. While Cell had some moderately intriguing ideas bouncing around its opening two episodes, it ultimately fell victim to conventional plotting and held too tightly to its generic formula. Over There is similarly beholden to its conventions and formula and actually has even less interesting things to say about its subject matter than Sleeper Cell. Yet, it’s also probably a better pilot because it takes such a straight-forward and workmanlike approach to its pilot-ness. Still though, Over There isn’t very good. 

If Sleeper Cell was interested in representation, I would say that Over There is more concerned with documentation. The hook of the pilot (and I assume the series) is that it shows us, somewhat realistically, the lives of soldiers on the first tour of duty in Iraq. The series claims not to have much of a political ideology or agenda and based solely on my viewing of the pilot, I would say that is probably true. There aren’t larger concerns here – the focus is on these people, their initial experiences and what it does to them emotionally, psychologically, etc. Once the characters go out on missions, there isn’t disjointed cross-cutting to the president, congress or whatever else. The pilot’s hope is that we experience the war on the ground just as the characters do and it wants us to get into their head-space.

The biggest problem with Over There then is that it is almost entirely reliant on the quality of the characters and none of them are that engaging or sympathetic. As Chris detailed, the pilot zooms over establishing them and their pre-war lives–apparently sportscast-like introductions, including cheesy introductory name cards is the way to go–so by the time that they get out into the field with their lives on the line, there’s absolutely no reason to care about them. The pilot tries its damndest to compensate for this sloppily rushed beginning by spending a great deal of the middle portion with the characters asking each other somewhat obvious but totally believable personal questions, a tactic that smartly allows for exposition that works well enough. You could argue that the pilot skims over introductions at the beginning as a way to recreate the dizzying experience of the characters themselves, and I buy that argument somewhat. But the pilot doesn’t recreate that experience particularly well.

Perhaps even more importantly, no process of introduction can save Over There‘s characters from their basic forms. Chris humorously described them, but that’s also more or less how the pilot deals with them as well. This goes beyond “not interesting” territory and into “I can’t even tell these characters apart” territory. Part of this might stem from the visual obstructions and shaky camera tricks that occur once the shooting, yelling and dirt-flying gets going around the middle portion of the episode, but most of it stems from poor writing and unimpressive acting. While no one in the cast is actively bad or especially out of their element here, none of the actors stand out either. Josh Henderson is about as out of his element as the lead as his character is on the battlefield. Erik Palladino is burdened with playing the typical hard-ass supervisor role and he does the best he can, there’s just nothing really on the page for him to work with. I’d be lying if I told you I remembered anyone else both those two and Nicki Aycox (and mostly only because she was on Supernatural).

The weightless characters are a big problem for Over There because everything else in the pilot is totally familiar and not that great at being familiar. Once the episode gets to the shooting and the explosions, everything starts to run together and the narrative becomes very task-oriented like a video game. Take out these people. Save this person. Help this other one. So not only does the pilot fail to help you care about these characters trapped in terrible, unthinkable circumstances, it doesn’t really bother itself with coming up with compelling ways to put them in danger. The pilot moves through those tasks with some zip and visually it looks impressive enough. Over There clearly doesn’t have the budget of a HBO production or feature film but it manages to ratchet up the intensity well enough, which helps overcome some of the rote plotting. 

As Chris alluded to, the strongest moment of the pilot is the sequence with the characters sending quick updates back to their families. It’s only in that one scene where it feels like the writing and performances come together in the correct fashion. Even though the soldiers are separated from their families by thousands of miles, there is an emotional connection, or at least poignancy, to each little video. The pilot doesn’t correctly introduce the characters and their families or knock it out of the park building to that moment, but it works anyway. It’s a familiar, yet powerful sequence that honestly gets into the scattered mindset of the characters (I also enjoyed the minutiae like one of the characters saying “welcome hell on earth” or something similar and the video operator chewing him out for giving up location information).  

The biggest complication here is what Over There intends to do versus how that gets expressed in the pilot. It wants to be this fairly realistic documentation of these soldiers’ lives and how they get by (or don’t), and in many ways, it probably accomplishes those goals. I’m no expert, but it’s likely that many soldiers felt like they were simply thrown out there on the war-torn battlefields. Maybe they were ill-prepared, and maybe they thought that enlisting was a necessary evil to get to college, support their family or whatever else. Over There handles that just fine. Nevertheless, Over There isn’t a documentary series. It isn’t unscripted. It still has a fictionalized narrative with fictional characters, both of which are heavily supported with explosions and action sequences that are meant to attract. 

Unfortunately then, Over There is at war (sorry) with itself. It’s not “real” enough to be a documentary (nor is it trying to be) but it also isn’t good enough at working through its fictional narrative that aims to concoct the illusion of the real. It presents itself as an impartial display of daily life out there, but it doesn’t have anything to say about that life other than that it’s pretty tough. When you’re doing anything interesting or saying anything interesting, it’s tough to get by on just documenting things that might be interesting. 

–CB

Conclusions on legacy: Probably rightfully forgotten. 

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