'Over There': A Real-Time Iraq War Drama

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Day to Day television critic Andrew Wallenstein reviews Over There, a war drama premiering tonight on the FX channel that follows the lives of GIs fighting in Iraq.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

War on television is nothing new. We all remember series like "M*A*S*H" and "China Beach." But when the series "Over There" begins tonight on the FX cable network, it'll be the first time a TV drama has depicted a war still in progress. TV critic Andrew Wallenstein has this review.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN reporting:

"Over There" is a production from Steven Bochco, perhaps one of the best creative minds ever to work in television. So the prospect of the man who created "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue" tackling the war in Iraq seemed like a match made in TV heaven. And yet, his fictional account of an Army squad is surprisingly disappointing.

At first glance, "Over There" seems to have the makings of a powerhouse. No war drama is worth a damn without great battle scenes, and in that regard, this show delivers authentically and often, which isn't to say the show devolves into a violent video game. "Over There" actually displays a keen eye for the rhythms of modern warfare.

(Soundbite of "Over There")

Unidentified Man #1: What do you want us to do?

Unidentified Man #2: Nothing. You were told to dig in; we dug in.

Unidentified Man #1: What do we do about the women, the driver and the mechanic?

Unidentified Man #2: Nothing, I said.

Unidentified Man #1: Well, shouldn't we get them back to...

Unidentified Man #2: Don't contradict me, fool. I'm the (censored) squad leader. I'm here to keep you alive.

WALLENSTEIN: But after watching three episodes of "Over There," I can honestly say the first episode is by far the weakest, and that's never a good sign. Bochco barely introduces the characters in the unit before he throws them into one firefight after another. What little we do learn renders them kind of stock, from the ramrod sergeant to the plucky rookie. The actors are all pretty average as well. I never thought I would say this about Bochco, the man who created some of TV's most memorable characters, like Detective Andy Sipowicz, but he must have left his magic touch in the precinct house.

And yet here's the big problem: You expect a show about war to declare itself either for or against, but "Over There" dodges that bullet, and that's a cop-out. People watch a show like this to confirm their own thinking on the war in Iraq or to help them make up their minds. Taking the middle ground shouldn't be an option. Think of the 1970s hit "M*A*S*H," which worked on a dramatic level because it made its anti-war bias blatant.

I'm not going to give up on "Over There" just yet. FX has proved itself too well with quality dramas like "The Shield" and "Rescue Me" to turn my back on the channel now. Plus there is one character, Private Frank Dumphy, whose eloquence and conscience has the potential to break the series out of its shell. Here's Dumphy talking about war in a video he sends his wife.

(Soundbite of "Over There")

Unidentified Man #3: (As Private Frank Dumphy) Someone said tragedy was the inevitable working out of things and the tragedy here is we're savages, we're monsters, and war is what unmasks us.

WALLENSTEIN: Now that's great writing, the kind this show needs to display more consistently. Bochco has done better. FX has done better. The war in Iraq certainly deserves better.

BRAND: TV critic Andrew Wallenstein is an editor for the Hollywood Reporter.

More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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