Under deafening fire, a U.S. Army squad takes cover behind the crumbling mud walls of a shack in an Iraqi village. ”Let’s move!” barks the leader, Sgt. Chris Silas, nicknamed Sgt. Scream, over the noise.
Smoke and dust swirl in the 100-degree desert heat as the team plans its retreat. ”Take a position behind that berm and cover our withdrawal!” Sgt. Scream orders, indicating a mound 30 yards away. Dodging AK-47 gunfire, the troops make their move. Muzzle flashes from their M4 rifles light the midday air as spent ammo casings litter the ground. Darting behind the bullet-riddled shell of a sedan, the squad runs down the hill to temporary safety.
There will be no casualties on this scorching afternoon, because this conflict is being fought in California’s San Fernando Valley, on the set of FX’s new drama Over There (premiering July 27 at 10 p.m.). ”Initially, it was a little strange to get off the freeway and then drive up five minutes and see an old Iraqi village and all these Hummers,” says Omid Abtahi, who plays Tariq, an Arab-American member of the squad. ”But once you’re in the middle of it you tend to forget that you’re in Los Angeles.”
Twenty-five miles from the set — and thousands more from Iraq itself — exec producer Steven Bochco sits in the quiet comfort of his office on the Twentieth Century Fox lot discussing his latest controversy-baiting TV series. Even for a man who broke ground in the 1980s with the densely plotted Hill Street Blues and taunted censors in the ’90s with the raw realism of NYPD Blue, Over There is something entirely new. The show follows soldiers as they navigate the pain and loss that constitute armed combat, and as the first TV drama about a war that’s currently being waged, Over There could draw fire — perhaps more for its appropriation of a contemporary conflict as entertainment than for its graphic language and violence.
But Bochco is prepared for the attacks. ”If you don’t attempt things that are provocative and challenging, then you’re not in the business of art,” he says. ”Dick Wolf has made a career of ‘ripped from the headlines.’ Would you say to Dick Wolf, ‘You can’t do Law & Order because this stuff is too current’? I don’t think so.” Head writer and cocreator Chris Gerolmo (Mississippi Burning) agrees. ”I think war is a natural subject for television, with all due respect,” he says. ”It’s got the drama of Law & Order, the action of 24, and the blood, for better or for worse, of CSI. And it’s real. Why not write about it, as long as you treat the people as respectfully as you can?”
While all of the show’s staff concede that a series about the Iraq war is sure to rouse strong sentiments, they hope to sidestep politics by focusing on the troops. ”When Bochco and Gerolmo started to dig into the lives of these soldiers, all questions about whether or not we should be there — all those issues just went away,” says FX Networks president John Landgraf. ”[Over There] is not for people on the ultra left or right.” Says ER vet Erik Palladino (Sgt. Scream): ”It’s important for us to keep it about these guys. Because you can’t argue ‘I’m against the soldier.”’