After a string of recent flops including the much-maligned Blind Justice, television producer Steven Bochco is again garnering high praise, this time for a series focusing on soldiers in the current Iraqi conflict. Over There, which debuts tonight on F/X, marks a milestone in television as the first series to fictionalize an ongoing war.
Firsts are nothing new to Bochco, who became famous for creating groundbreaking dramas like L.A. Law and NYPD Blue (not to mention being the first to feature a naked derriere on broadcast television). And though Over There is his first foray into cable, Bochco’s betting his edgy take on the subject will draw viewers away from big networks, just as Nip/Tuck and The Shield have in the last few years. The question is, just what edge will Bochco be pushing?
Both F/X and Bochco have gone to great lengths to publicize the notion that the series takes no political point of view. But, as is often the case with Hollywood, producers sometimes reveal impartiality without meaning to, as though their liberalism is so ingrained they assume that unless they have characters screaming “I hate George Bush” the project must be non-partisan.
Take, for example, Bochco’s comment to Reuters about the show, “Ultimately, a young man being shot at in a firefight has absolutely no interest in politics.” This statement does a disservice to the men and women serving in Iraq, implying that they are unwilling (or worse, unable) to weigh the wages of war — loss and violence on the one hand, freedom and security on the other — and decide that their sacrifice is worth our greater good.
Instead, Bochco characterizes the soldiers in typical postmodern fashion, as in this clip from the first episode where a young soldier reflects on his role in the war: “Someone said tragedy was the inevitable working out of things. And the tragedy here is we’re savages. We’re thrilled to kill each other. We’re monsters. And war is what unmasks us. But there’s a kind of honor in it too. I guess if I’m a monster, it’s my privilege to be one.”
It seems hard to believe that “honorable monster” is how most of those deployed in Iraq would prefer to describe themselves. I certainly can’t recall any interview in which an American soldier espoused similar amoral feelings. If Bochco’s Iraqi conflict is populated with young recruits that “are not fighting for an ideal,” as he told the New York Times, then his is indeed a fictional war.
BUT IF ANYTHING BETRAYS the potential spirit of the series, it is the fact that the mainstream media is already rallying to uphold Bochco’s claims of objectivity. After praising the series for “the potent way it destroys and debunks the myths that glorify war,” the Hollywood Reporter predicted, “It is possible, maybe even inevitable, that supporters of President Bush and the war will misinterpret this series as a statement against a U.S. presence there. Clearer minds, however, will recognize this for its nonpartisan and successful effort…”
Before that, the Los Angeles Times reported that “none of the soldiers in ‘Over There’ is particularly gung-ho,” as though depicting soldiers who have little enthusiasm for their jobs is evidence that show is balanced. And the Rocky Mountain News touted the program’s authenticity by observing that, in it, “heroism is secondary to survival.” In fact, the paper reported that each soldier is “frantic” to merely be “a survivor.” Not a fighter. Not a liberator. Not even a conqueror. Just something as ambiguous as a survivor.
Of course, Bochco’s pioneering work on series like Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue demands that we reserve final judgment until the show has run for a few episodes. Nonetheless, it’s not hard for Hollywood to stand on the side of gritty (read highly sexualized) cops and lawyers.
Standing on the side of our soldiers in Iraq — the majority of whom do believe in their cause — would be far more difficult for Bochco to defend during all those award show after-parties. Still, who knows? Maybe Over There could turn out to be that most mythical of all Hollywood’s mythical creatures — an insightful, honest look at American war and warriors. But based on the commentary surrounding it so far, I wouldn’t count on it.
Megan Basham is a Phillips fellow and a reporter for NBC 9 in El Paso.