Strange as it might seem, conflict is a comfort

Lorraine Ali - Los Angeles Times

Television is gearing up for battle this fall, and it’s not between network stars.

Navy SEALs, elite air squadrons and camo-clad foot soldiers combat a variety of enemies in several new military-themed series that include NBC’s “The Brave,” NatGeo’s “The Long Road Home,” the CW’s “Valor” and CBS’ “SEAL Team.”

The invasion of military programming stands out among the other offerings of TV-as-comfort-food that arrive this season. The escape-from-the-headlines entertainment includes the reboots, revivals and spinoffs such as “Dynasty,” “Star Trek,” “Will & Grace,” “SWAT,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” “American Idol” and “Young Sheldon.”

So why all the warmongering now, when poll after poll finds the majority of Americans are focused on domestic issues and weary of any new military intervention?

In unpredictable times, the familiar is a cozy place to be … even if it happens to be in a war zone.

From TV’s earliest days in the ’50s, shows that celebrated America fighting the good fight (“Navy Log”) and military camaraderie (“The Phil Silvers Show”) have been perennials, a panacea for the chaos and rancor of politics, social upheaval and real warfare where decisive victories are hard to come by.

In the 1960s, “McHale’s Navy,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” “Gomer Pyle, USMC” and “F Troop” made light of war and military life, most looking at earlier times both at home and abroad as the U.S. waded deeper into Vietnam. What could be funnier than a zany sitcom about a Nazi POW camp?

The 1970s brought “MASH,” a comedy-drama adaptation of the Robert Altman film, set in the Korean War. It addressed the fatigue and cynicism of the country at the tail end of Vietnam. “Baa Baa Black Sheep” (also known as “Black Sheep Squadron”) looked toward WWII to spin a more patriotic and winning narrative.

A spectrum of tales — from the gritty, acclaimed “China Beach” to the lighter “Major Dad” — emerged in the ’80s.

After the first Gulf War, 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, “JAG,” “NCIS,” “24” and “Homeland” played on themes ripped from the headlines, and that meant episode after episode devoted to terrorism.

America’s global concerns have been focused more on terror networks than state-run armies, a reality this fall’s new group of shows reflect. This time next year we’ll see if there’s a rash of shows about threats making today’s news, i.e. North Korean nuclear thrillers or Russian cyber-espionage dramas.

The lion’s share of previous military series used looking back at earlier conflicts either for laughs or as a prism/allegory for modern conflict, while most of the new shows are set in the here and now.

Just as the enemy has evolved — or perhaps devolved into a billion Al Qaeda splinter groups like ISIS — so have these series’ understanding of who the enemy is: It’s not all Muslims, it’s just the bad ones.

In “The Brave,” “Valor,” “The Long Road Home” and “SEAL Team,” protagonists track and fight Al Nusra terrorists outside Damascus, engage with Muqtada Sadr (or “Mookie”) insurgents in Baghdad, and Al Shabaab fighters in Somalia.

“The Long Road Home” is the best of the bunch. Based on Martha Raddatz’s bestseller of the same name, it follows the 1st Cavalry Division from Ft. Hood to Sadr City in April 2004. There appeared to be little if no action on the ground in that poor part of Baghdad, but the platoon soon learns otherwise when it’s ambushed in an attack that is now known as “Black Sunday.” The eight-episode limited series, which debuts Nov. 7, moves between the squad’s ordeal in Iraq and the toll it takes on their families back in the U.S. It highlights how little the military knew about Iraqi culture and even the topography of the city when it arrived, and how that knowledge gap cost many soldiers their lives. Troops initially believed they were there to help rebuild a country crippled by war and a cruel dictatorship but stepped into a complex conflict brought on by decades of sectarianism, colonialism and corrupt leadership.

The series stars Michael Kelly, Jason Ritter, Kate Bosworth and Jeremy Sisto as well as actors such as E.J. Bonilla and Peter Malik whose central roles paint a more complete depiction of those who risked and lost their lives — Latino, black and Asian soldiers alongside white troops and Arab interpreters.

“The Brave” is more in the vein of “Homeland,” which makes sense given that it shares producer Avi Nir with the long-running series. The one-hour drama, which premieres Sept. 25, follows elite undercover military agents as they use advanced surveillance technology to execute missions in some of the world’s most treacherous war zones. They work in tandem with D.C.-based Defense Intelligence Agency agents.

Their success in freeing a kidnapped American in the show’s pilot relies on precision timing, gadgetry that would make James Bond jealous and nerves of steel. The result is a thrilling and suspenseful show, rife with nail-biting intensity. In a refreshing twist, there are at least two main Muslim characters (played by Natacha Karam and Hadi Tabbal) who are operatives rather than enemies, and they arrive with depth and back stories. Their presence helps balance the usual cadre of shifty Omars, Samirs and Abu-Somethings who appear to proliferate in souks and hookah bars.

The less engaging but still entertaining “Valor,” premiering Oct. 9, and “SEAL Team,” bowing Sept. 27, play with themes similar to “The Brave.” In “Valor,” ace helicopter pilots lose some of their team on a failed mission to capture a terror leader in Somalia. They vow to go back and find their comrades, even if it is against orders. “SEAL Team” follows an elite unit of special ops Navy agents as “they embark on high-stakes missions!” Like “Valor,” they must also battle their own PTSD from the previous horrors they’ve witnessed.

On one level or another, all the shows question the U.S. government’s competence and motives in running military operations. Sometimes Uncle Sam’s intentions can be just as shady and dangerous as those of the enemy.

The question is, will these shows be victorious or suffer defeat? The battle has only just begun.

Lorraine Ali

Los Angeles Times