War too real for primetime
By Joanne Ostrow
Denver Post TV Critic
Denver Post
Article Last Updated:

The walking wounded live among the beautiful hard-bodies, flirty doctors, clever detectives and lustful lawyers in primetime television.

Reminders of a distant war, they insinuate themselves into primetime entertainments only rarely. Evidence of the carnage in Iraq is there, in the midst of popular diversions, but you have to look for it.

On the fourth anniversary of the launch of the war in Iraq, that war is curiously absent in most scripted television drama. When Iraq is invoked at all, it's usually tangentially, as a sort of topical scene-setter. Headlines flash by on cable news pictured in the background of a heroic fantasy like "24," or in the subtext of the apocalyptic comic-book drama "Heroes," resonant with war themes, just enough to heighten dramatic tension.

But you have to be attuned. "CSI: Miami" dabbled in the case of a murdered Marine recruiter; "Law & Order" featured a war profiteer who made faulty armored vests; and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" focused on an American soldier killed at home for something that happened in Iraq. Those were single episode themes.

Television's only prolonged and pointed study of troops in Iraq, Steven Bochco's series "Over There," was an ambitious dramatization on FX leavened with moral ambiguity. It was canceled after 13 weeks in 2005 when it failed to lure a sizable audience.

Touchy topic

These days, primetime asks viewers to read between the lines to glimpse Iraq. Documentaries, film, music, poetry and comic books have done a better job of addressing the war head-on. (The recent death of Captain America may be seen as another allegorical reference.) HBO has announced "Generation Kill," an upcoming miniseries about Marines in Iraq, but commercial television has approached the topic more warily.

"Brothers & Sisters" is one of the rare instances of TV tackling the subject directly. Creator Jon Robin Baitz, a playwright new to television, said, "it is inconceivable to me to do a drama right now, about a family in America today, that doesn't somehow reflect a post-9/11 reality. ... The effect of this war on all of us is incalculable but must be addressed daily. We have an opportunity in that one of the characters is involved in the war literally (youngest sibling Justin is set for a second tour in Iraq) and another is involved in policy (Kitty, a political consultant played by Calista Flockhart), to explore the state of consciousness in the country about it now."

The network has not been squeamish, Baitz said.

"I would venture to say our show was the first place in a drama on network television to utter the line, 'This war is wrong,"' Baitz said. "'We shouldn't be in this war,' Kitty said. Out of the mouth of a Republican, no less." (Flockhart's character is a Republican and a former talk-show host.)

"It's frustrating as an American right now to watch the levels of disconnection that are possible when it comes to shutting out the war," Baitz said.

Having Justin re-enlist despite the family's wealth and connections, "felt like an opportunity to cut like an acid into the Anna Nicole Smith-ness of our time. Every day feels like the Gary Condit summer of 2001."

On "The Unit," a series more obviously about the military, Iraq isn't mentioned, but a focus on the homefront allows the writers to touch indirectly on the reality of a nation at war.

"I'm surprised there aren't more things (in pop culture) tackling this," said Shawn Ryan ("The Unit," "The Shield"). "The Unit" has referenced weapons of mass destruction in Iran and terrorists in Pakistan, but "we felt it's cheap to throw in Iraq while our men are there. We're looking for the right time."

Ryan acknowledges the fear at the network level.

"You're seeing plenty in the news. There's a worry it will be depressing." By focusing on the military wives at home, "The Unit" aims to "get over that hurdle."

Between the lines, it's all about Iraq, he notes.

Pattern in history

The lag time in turning actual events into scripted drama seems to be running on par with past international conflicts. Historically, TV drama has taken years to process military conflicts. "China Beach," about an American base during the Vietnam war, arrived in 1988, some 13 years after the war ended. "Tour of Duty," the next network series about the Vietnam war, didn't debut until 1990. "American Dreams," an insightful view of the Vietnam years set against race relations and cultural changes at home, began in 2002. While "M*A*S*H," launched in 1972, was a hit comedy full of allusions to Vietnam, it was ostensibly set in Korea.

"Obviously, television executives and producers want to maximize profits," according to Leslie Wilson, executive director of Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture, an academic nonprofit think tank and publisher. "People get enough of the war on the real reality TV, the news. They watch television shows to be entertained. To replicate the stressors on the news wouldn't make any sense. People would just change the channel."

Historian M. Paul Holsinger, editor of "War and American Popular Culture: An Historical Encyclopedia," observed that, "During World War II there were not only dozens of new comic book series with heroes who fought in the war against the evils of Nazism or Japanese totalitarianism, but also a rush for every super-hero from Superman to Captain Marvel to Captain America to 'enlist' as well. It is hard to imagine Superman today rushing off to crush Saddam Hussein or al-Qaeda."

With the assassination of Marvel Comics' Captain America in the latest issue, after 66 years of patriotic service, the wait may be a bit longer.

Holsinger cites the all-volunteer military as contributing to the public's lack of awareness.

"When I was growing up during World War II, everyone knew a family whose relatives were fighting," he said. "Today, most of us know none of the young men and women who are putting their lives on the line."

"What we've had most often are TV shows that, if they use the war at all as a theme, use it more as a backdrop for who's bedding down whom," Holsinger said. He suggests changes in technology may explain why a long-running war drama like "Combat" (about WWII) wouldn't work today: We can go online and read blogs and see video from Iraq without a fictional filter.

State of denial

Playwright Baitz is convinced the mainstream culture has been conditioned to tune out the war.

"The body count hasn't reached a point that saturates the imaginations of Americans who are numbed by the pornography of violence and Attention Deficit Disorder."

Recent hearings on the treatment of veterans at Walter Reed Hospital were carried live "only on CSPAN," Baitz noted. "When you have a culture that won't even show the body bags coming back, when you have an administration that lies with impunity ... it's the obligation of a television show that has 12 million people watching on a Sunday, that purports to be about America, to address that."

The rest of television, he suggests, is preoccupied with singing and dancing contests and celebrity faux-news.

"We will benumb ourselves into imbecility," he said. "My worry is that the nation becomes Los Angeles where the weather never changes and you don't know your life has happened."

TV critic Joanne Ostrow can be reached at 303-954-1830 or jostrow@denverpost.com.

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"The Unit:" The series is obviously about the military, but Iraq isn't mentioned. A focus on the homefront allows the writers to touch on it indirectly. | 8 P.M. TUESDAYS ON CBS.


"Battlestar Galactica:" The show continues its allegorical critique of the war, with suicide bombers, an insurgency and torture along the way. Pictured are Kandyse McClure as Dualla and Aleks Paunovic as Sgt. Fischer. | SUNDAYS AND TUESDAYS ON SCI-FI (various times).


"Brothers and Sisters:" On this drama, youngest sibling, Justin Walker (Dave Annable), is due to leave home to serve in Iraq for the second time. Already fighting addiction problems, he will return "compromised," according to creator-producer Jon Robin Baitz. | 9 P.M. SUNDAYS ON ABC.