You may wonder why this pilot season virtually every network has a pilot about military in the running. To understand, you have to go back to 2015 when Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper crushed expectations at the box -office with more than $340 000 000. It took time to reflect on TV as always -development is what it is- and it’s USA Network which was the first to go last winter with Shooter starring Ryan Phillippe doing solid business for them, then Six on History. If you add Trump’s presidency to the mix and an urgent need to reflect blue-collar, everyday Americans better, here’s why networks are all about America’s heroes in the military. With For God and Country at NBC already on the verge of getting picked-up to series according to Deadline -and it’s arguably the best of the crowd- there’s little chance every one of them gets a greenlight in two weeks. While Valor at The CW looks like a dark horse to me, ABC wisely chose to make a military comedy, not a drama (Charlie Foxtrot) to stand out from the crowd. But this one’s not very good. There are two choices left: Behind Enemy Lines at FOX & the Untitled Navy SEALS drama at CBS. Both are serious options but only one looks like a winner on paper.
Of course, Behind Enemy Lines had an advantage from the get go: it’s based on a 2001 movie, loosely based on a true story. But one which received generally negative reviews from critics when it was released. I haven’t seen it but it seems like the team behind the TV show did a good job at keeping what was working on the movie and leaving what didn’t. And it took time apparently. FOX has been high on mounting the project for awhile. They first commissioned a script from a different writer last season with a put pilot commitment. While that one didn’t go to pilot, they kept the concept for redevelopment and they were happy with the second script. I’m happy too and I’m not interested AT ALL with military dramas in general. You know what I like the most about it? It’s a soap. An action-packed one, yes. But it’s the characters and their complicated, troubled relationships, all the conflicts within the three groups we’re introduced to, that keep you interested. There are thrilling moments, for sure, but they wouldn’t work without the rest. It’s heavily serialized. At the end of the pilot, you just realize the mission has just begun and you want to watch more.
While For God and Country is a bit edgy sometimes and really political, Behind Enemy Lines plays it safer, very network-y and clearly doesn’t want to hurt anyone. But my intelligence felt offended from time to time. It lacks subtlety, especially when it comes to the subject of race. Our appealing hero, Ziggy, is latino. By his side during the mission in Ukraine are Jacob, an islamophobic african-american, Reggie, a blue-collar ass with a tender heart and Shia, the first woman accepted into the SEAL Training program who’s muslim, of course. They are all clichés. Their group seems forced, unnatural. Coincidentally, For God and Country has more or less the same set of characters but it works better. The one character I’m in love with is the one played by Marg Helgenberger named Admiral Bobbie Decker. She’s the most powerful woman in the military but she doesn’t act as she owns the place. She’s fierce but fair. She’s a mentor to Ziggy. And she has her own set of personal problems since her boyfriend is the undersecretary of State…
If Behind Enemy Lines feels too easy and on the nose sometimes but could be quite fun to watch, CBS’s Navy SEALs project on the contrary feels a bit foggy and murky, even irritating. David Boreanaz, who replaced Jim Caviezel who left the project over creative differences -not a good omen unless it just means Caviezel is hard to work with- plays Jason, the respected, committed leader of his assault team who’s been through over a dozen deployments, with scars inside and out. I’m sorry but I don’t like him and I think I will never be able to. He’s just very unfriendly and he’s not even funny. It starts -and ends- with him “talking” to a psychologist, or more precisely refusing to talk to a psychologist. This therapy thing feels outdated. We got a lot of those in the 2000s, starting with The Sopranos. Been there, done that. And the other characters are not very attractive either. And in this one, women are mostly comprehensive wives. It’s so CBS of them… But there’s Mandy, a whip-smart CIA analyst driven to rid the world of evil and get the bad guys. No Carrie Mathison vibes, sadly.
There are a lot of flashback scenes that refer to a difficult mission in the Iranian coast that left Jason and his team traumatized. It broke longtime friendships, tore families apart. It’s quite overwhelming. We don’t get much of what is happening quite frankly. But little by little, as we get more informations and as we meet more characters, the picture’s getting clearer and you can see a potential in the show. It’s like a mix between The Unit and Army Wives. A lot of action, a bit of family stuff, a dark tone, not many moments to breathe and smile a little though, and an attempt to offer something more profound than the usual CBS series. It’s not strong enough to be a cable show but maybe a little too heavy for a network. It should have worked with the NCIS franchise but I fear it doesn’t.
Behind Enemy Lines is a well-crafted, probably expensive project, that may not be an easy fit with FOX line-up but could please the audience, both male and female, and offer a distinctive option… But what could doom it is the existence of For God and Country at NBC. Would they take the risk to launch a similar but not as good show in the same period of time? It doesn’t seem to be a real problem for CBS and their Navy SEALs project. This one could have been a no-brainer if it were more crowd-pleasing. And the network may want to choose between this and S.W.A.T., also about a team of super strong men. What if none of them go further? That’s my bet.