Steven Bochco’s new drama about an Army unit on its first tour in Iraq is jammed with gripping, ominous shots. Phone booths display their occupants like a row of Old West coffins, curtains flutter wholesomely over terrorist missiles, a pair of enemy legs ghost-walks toward the soldiers, unmindful that its torso has been blown off.
But as visually compelling as Over There is, it’s also curiously devoid of tension, despite dropping its characters into plenty of ugly situations. There’s gunfire, explosions, amputations, even a child sacrificed for the terrorist cause. Yet all this action feels the opposite of urgent — you could grab a drink of water, fold some laundry, check e-mail, and dip back in to further appreciate the clean lines of photography and the nicely honed dialogue. Over There feels like a worthy creation, made by sensible people, armed with diligent consultants. It feels like a drama made by Spock.
The ingredients for something more interesting are all there — which, unfortunately, just reminds you what’s missing. Bochco hasn’t bothered to hang any real flesh on his platoon of predictable types. Among the primary players are ”Dim,” the articulate, college-educated idealist who’s learning about the real world (Luke Macfarlane); ”Sgt. Scream,” the wrathful combat vet (ER‘s Erik Palladino); Bo, the darling, amiable martyr-to-be (Josh Henderson); and ”Smoke,” the trigger-fingered hothead (rapper Kirk ”Sticky” Jones, who also had a great villainous turn on FX’s The Shield).
In a more original, shades-of-Lynndie-England twist, we also have ”Mrs. B” (Nicki Aycox), a soldier who crunches the fingers of a dead Iraqi and mocks a prisoner with the chilly innocence of a deranged child. Her moments of quiet, tiny violence are more disturbing than an entire episode built around a besieged nighttime checkpoint. That’s because Over There has a major pacing problem: Scenes in Iraq are repeatedly intercut with the lives of the families left back home. The result is war-as-flipbook: Here’s a scene of devastation…fear…now despair…here’s some grief… horror…lonelinessheroismpragmatismangerregret.
In the second episode, Bochco and his cocreator, Chris Gerolmo, introduce Tariq (Omid Abtahi), an Arab-American soldier whose presence reminds us dopes at home that not all Arabs are our enemies, and many in fact are bright, patriotic, and easy on the eyes. Certainly this is (again) a worthy goal, but it’s indicative of the show’s primary flaw. The producers, keenly aware that they are dealing with a current war, tread too carefully. Certainly, there can be jabs at military bureaucracy: In one clever scene, a soldier filming a message back home is reprimanded after joking that he’s calling from downtown S—sville. ”Sorry, soldier, you can’t say where you are.”
But the series stops short of anything downright maddening. Or partisan — an odd choice, since M*A*S*H and even The West Wing have proved that dramas dealing with war and politics work best with some factious teeth. Over There is, in fact, quite fair. Sane, sensible, and evenhanded. If hell is the absence of reason, Over There‘s war is certainly not hell.