July 27, 2005 will be a day to remember in the annals of television,
specifically in the world of Steven Bochco. At 10 p.m. that evening FX
premiered "Over There," the first-ever series on national television
about an ongoing American war. Then on August 3, the day when 14
Marines died in Iraq, making it 24 American dead over a four-day
period, episode two of "Over There" went on the air.
The opening was a recap of the first week's last sequence showing the
agony of some American troops after their vehicle blew an IED
(improvised explosive device), killing and maiming a number of
soldiers in their unit. This second hour began in a basement where an
Iraqi insurgent was torturing and beating a captive American soldier.
When the masked insurrectionist pulled out a hypodermic needle - yes,
a hypodermic needle - I knew it was time to change the channel. I
wondered where the writers were getting their information. I can tell
you it was from no one I knew or respected who had a hint about the
war in Iraq or any war.
FX is fast becoming a network for provocative series about how some
segments of society live in the United States. But "Over There" is its
first foray into how mostly young Americans are trying to survive,
soldiers who often die in an increasingly unpopular war far from home.
Those other shows, "The Shield," "Nip/Tuck," and "Rescue Me" are dark
and moody series that verge on the prurient. They generally work well
for FX, despite how they carefully and cleverly manipulate the
audience. If not viewed regularly they can be engrossing and they
serve as a strong antidote to the warmed-over pap on free television
and most of the copycat reality shows seen everywhere on the dial.
That does not mean, however, they have any redeeming qualities beyond
their brief inflammation of one's emotions.
What is wrong with this picture? Almost everything. I watched the
first three hours of "Over There" and you may ask how I can judge the
whole series on just that. Easy. I can sense the story. Who cannot? I
understand the tone, attitude and feeling. I can smell the accuracy,
or rather the inaccuracies. There is nothing in the show that I find
fulfilling. For me the series is a failure.
Start with this quote from Steven Bochco, the acclaimed producer of
"Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue," and you will never have to define
hubris again: "...the fundamental drama of this war is no greater or
no less that the daily ongoing urban war that's occurring in our own
backyards. Nobody told me not to make 'NYPD Blue' because it was about
an ongoing urban war." Did you read it as carefully as I did? Read it
again. It is an example of Bochco the muckraker, the observant
pseudo-journalist, who will make us look hard at the reality around
us. I know that life in the big city is sometimes tough, but ongoing
urban warfare! Nonsense, Mr. Bochco. There were never IEDs. There were
no insurgents with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). There were no
suicide bombers. The list can go on forever. You, Mr. Bochco, and your
staff need a firsthand tutorial in what life in war is really about,
because it is nothing like what you portray in "Over There."
Once upon a time, there was no television. It is something I cannot
emphasize too strongly. Popular entertainment was the radio, movies,
comic books, newspapers, comic strips and even novels. I will here
invoke the past for those of you who may not know it, or do not care
to know it. War movies were part of my childhood growing up in
Brooklyn in World War II. I have nothing against them. We watched them
in small, crowded theaters on Saturday mornings along with cartoons
and newsreels. I have memories of "Wake Island," "Bataan," "Sahara,"
"Guadalcanal Diary," "Action in the North Atlantic," "The Fighting
Sullivans," "Destination Tokyo," "Crash Dive," "The Flying Tigers" and
many others. I wanted nothing more than to be a Flying Tiger. It
seemed so glamorous, especially with a fierce tiger emblazoned on the
nose of every fighter plane.
World War II was a "good war," a righteous war, one where everyone
contributed what they could, from bacon grease collected in coffee
cans to wrapping paper, to string and rubber bands. People cared about
the war. America and its allies had to win the war. Our military men
were heroes. They were fighting for us. There would be no rest for
anyone in America until we defeated the "cunning" Japanese and the
"evil" Germans. That was the message we heard at home, in the streets,
at school. It guided us through the toughest days of the war.
The Korean War was a non-war for most Americans. To this day, we refer
to it as the "forgotten war." There were no memorable movies during
the war. Television news occasionally showed footage from the
battlefront, but TV news coverage was so small, it hardly had an
effect on the audience. Films about Korea came well after the war when
we had time to reflect. They were mostly action movies with almost
nothing in any of them that spoke to why the war happened. "M*A*S*H"
appeared many years later on television. Its greatest asset is its
surreal depiction of madness in the face of impending doom, done with
a sardonic smile, that still holds up today. Besides, it took more
than 20 years after Korea before "M*A*S*H" hit the small screen. As a
television project "Over There" does not come close.
Vietnam was the "bad" war for the world of entertainment, and in many
ways still is. Forget the travesty called "The Green Berets," John
Wayne's ludicrous hymn to the righteousness of the Vietnam War.
Hollywood and television produced nothing memorable about the war
until years later. Then we had a cornucopia of films such as "The Deer
Hunter," "Apocalypse Now," "The Boys in Company C," "Coming Home,"
"Full Metal Jacket" and "Platoon." There were lesser films. As the war
made its way into the future, Vietnam became a metaphor for much of
what some thought wrong with America. In the 1980s, TV was in the
ascendancy and we had the good fortune of "China Beach." In this
moving series about women nurses, the approach to the war took on a
different meaning than simply battles and the resultant destruction.
Now Steven Bochco is taking us to war -his war - as if we know nothing
about Iraq from TV, our daily newspapers or the Internet. Bochco is
riding his virtual Hummer creating his war on a Hollywood sound stage
and in the California desert. Does he believe none of us knows
anything about the real war? His mission is to show us its horror on
cable television. Do we need that?
To get ready for "Over There," Bochco must have watched many of those
same World War II movies I saw as a child to help produce a series
about the war in Iraq that apes how soldiers and Marines performed in
those old movies. A sociologist rooted in demographics must have
conducted the casting for "Over There." There is the standard stock
company of young actors, although none is from Brooklyn, and none
stuck out except for one named "Sergeant Scream." His role was just,
well, bigger and louder. The other actors were stereotypes, men and
women of what Bochco must think represents a cross section of
21st-century America. There is one problem: They sound alike, except
for minor adjustments of accent. They look alike, except for the color
of their skin when you can see them beneath their heavy uniforms. They
act alike, and for the life of me, I cannot say why. They act as if
they never met before when clearly units usually depart together from
their home base to Iraq. I saw no sweat on any of their faces.
However, in its favor, the verisimilitude of the men and women in the
desert when they had to relieve themselves or have a quick bite of
food came close to being real.
The shows also looked too clean. War zones are filthy, especially
those where it is hot, like Iraq. There is poor to non-existent
sewage, too many people and too much garbage with no place to put it.
When that truck rolled over a small white flag planted in the ground
to identify an IED and the truck blew up, I knew Hollywood put the
flag there, not the insurgents. Insurgents disguise IEDs anyway they
can. They do not pinpoint them as a gardener does when he puts
pesticide on a lawn.
A few of the sunsets and the scenic shots of the desert were
evocative. Sepia tones aided in making us believe we were with the
troops as they struggled to maneuver over the berms and get
comfortable on the coarse sand.
Toward the end of the first hour, about 35 minutes in, there were very
strong action scenes that made me almost believe I was there. The
feeling was fleeting because I did not trust the muzzle flashes, let
along the sounds of the weapons firing. It looked and sounded
Do not take my word for what I think about the series. An enterprising
reporter who works for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer gathered
together eight soldiers, most of whom served in Iraq. They watched the
opening hour of "Over There" and then they commented on it. Other than
the inaccuracies of the war itself, they criticized the soldiers, how
they acted - yes, acted -and their attitude toward the women in the
show. That the cameras lingered too long on the death scenes and how
the men and women reflected on the war after being in the country just
one week only added to its unreality. One soldier said, "Nobody is
that reflective after one week in-country. It's more like, 'Ohmigod,
we're in Iraq. Hi. What the hell am I doing here?'" Though the panel
found some scenes realistic, meaning genuine, my impression from
reading the article is that those few positives were not enough to
make this show regular viewing for the veterans.
Why would anyone watch this series? If you want to get a kick out of
fake war, and you have a need to watch this mess, you should be
ashamed of yourself. You have become a pawn of Steven Bochco's.
There is enough horror and tragedy on TV every night in the news. This
is not the right time for this series, period. We are at war and
increasingly many people believe it is a bad war. Hollywood on the
Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and in the Iraqi desert is in extremely
bad taste and poor judgment. No one should be proud to be part of what
is an attempt at thrill-seeking at the expense of the war. Yes, Mr.
Bochco and company, it is only television. Producing for television
does not take great minds. However, occasionally TV should aspire to a
higher cause and be more meaningful and less exploitive than series
like "Over There."
At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief
in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on Today and wrote
and produced for Sunday Today. At ABC News Productions, he produced
and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the
History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner award, a
National Press Club award, a International Documentary Festival Gold
Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television awards and
has been nominated for five Emmy's. He is a partner in
Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My
Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in
Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of, "The Soldiers 'Story",
"Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First
War: A Saigon Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.