The Digital Journalist
What is Wrong With This Picture?

by Ron Steinman

Wednesday, July 27, 2005 will be a day to remember in the annals of television, specifically in the world of Steven Bochco. At 10 p.m. that evening FX premiered "Over There," the first-ever series on national television about an ongoing American war. Then on August 3, the day when 14 Marines died in Iraq, making it 24 American dead over a four-day period, episode two of "Over There" went on the air.

The opening was a recap of the first week's last sequence showing the agony of some American troops after their vehicle blew an IED (improvised explosive device), killing and maiming a number of soldiers in their unit. This second hour began in a basement where an Iraqi insurgent was torturing and beating a captive American soldier. When the masked insurrectionist pulled out a hypodermic needle - yes, a hypodermic needle - I knew it was time to change the channel. I wondered where the writers were getting their information. I can tell you it was from no one I knew or respected who had a hint about the war in Iraq or any war.

FX is fast becoming a network for provocative series about how some segments of society live in the United States. But "Over There" is its first foray into how mostly young Americans are trying to survive, soldiers who often die in an increasingly unpopular war far from home. Those other shows, "The Shield," "Nip/Tuck," and "Rescue Me" are dark and moody series that verge on the prurient. They generally work well for FX, despite how they carefully and cleverly manipulate the audience. If not viewed regularly they can be engrossing and they serve as a strong antidote to the warmed-over pap on free television and most of the copycat reality shows seen everywhere on the dial. That does not mean, however, they have any redeeming qualities beyond their brief inflammation of one's emotions.

What is wrong with this picture? Almost everything. I watched the first three hours of "Over There" and you may ask how I can judge the whole series on just that. Easy. I can sense the story. Who cannot? I understand the tone, attitude and feeling. I can smell the accuracy, or rather the inaccuracies. There is nothing in the show that I find fulfilling. For me the series is a failure.

Start with this quote from Steven Bochco, the acclaimed producer of "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue," and you will never have to define hubris again: "...the fundamental drama of this war is no greater or no less that the daily ongoing urban war that's occurring in our own backyards. Nobody told me not to make 'NYPD Blue' because it was about an ongoing urban war." Did you read it as carefully as I did? Read it again. It is an example of Bochco the muckraker, the observant pseudo-journalist, who will make us look hard at the reality around us. I know that life in the big city is sometimes tough, but ongoing urban warfare! Nonsense, Mr. Bochco. There were never IEDs. There were no insurgents with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). There were no suicide bombers. The list can go on forever. You, Mr. Bochco, and your staff need a firsthand tutorial in what life in war is really about, because it is nothing like what you portray in "Over There."

Once upon a time, there was no television. It is something I cannot emphasize too strongly. Popular entertainment was the radio, movies, comic books, newspapers, comic strips and even novels. I will here invoke the past for those of you who may not know it, or do not care to know it. War movies were part of my childhood growing up in Brooklyn in World War II. I have nothing against them. We watched them in small, crowded theaters on Saturday mornings along with cartoons and newsreels. I have memories of "Wake Island," "Bataan," "Sahara," "Guadalcanal Diary," "Action in the North Atlantic," "The Fighting Sullivans," "Destination Tokyo," "Crash Dive," "The Flying Tigers" and many others. I wanted nothing more than to be a Flying Tiger. It seemed so glamorous, especially with a fierce tiger emblazoned on the nose of every fighter plane.

World War II was a "good war," a righteous war, one where everyone contributed what they could, from bacon grease collected in coffee cans to wrapping paper, to string and rubber bands. People cared about the war. America and its allies had to win the war. Our military men were heroes. They were fighting for us. There would be no rest for anyone in America until we defeated the "cunning" Japanese and the "evil" Germans. That was the message we heard at home, in the streets, at school. It guided us through the toughest days of the war.

The Korean War was a non-war for most Americans. To this day, we refer to it as the "forgotten war." There were no memorable movies during the war. Television news occasionally showed footage from the battlefront, but TV news coverage was so small, it hardly had an effect on the audience. Films about Korea came well after the war when we had time to reflect. They were mostly action movies with almost nothing in any of them that spoke to why the war happened. "M*A*S*H" appeared many years later on television. Its greatest asset is its surreal depiction of madness in the face of impending doom, done with a sardonic smile, that still holds up today. Besides, it took more than 20 years after Korea before "M*A*S*H" hit the small screen. As a television project "Over There" does not come close.

Vietnam was the "bad" war for the world of entertainment, and in many ways still is. Forget the travesty called "The Green Berets," John Wayne's ludicrous hymn to the righteousness of the Vietnam War. Hollywood and television produced nothing memorable about the war until years later. Then we had a cornucopia of films such as "The Deer Hunter," "Apocalypse Now," "The Boys in Company C," "Coming Home," "Full Metal Jacket" and "Platoon." There were lesser films. As the war made its way into the future, Vietnam became a metaphor for much of what some thought wrong with America. In the 1980s, TV was in the ascendancy and we had the good fortune of "China Beach." In this moving series about women nurses, the approach to the war took on a different meaning than simply battles and the resultant destruction.

Now Steven Bochco is taking us to war -his war - as if we know nothing about Iraq from TV, our daily newspapers or the Internet. Bochco is riding his virtual Hummer creating his war on a Hollywood sound stage and in the California desert. Does he believe none of us knows anything about the real war? His mission is to show us its horror on cable television. Do we need that?

To get ready for "Over There," Bochco must have watched many of those same World War II movies I saw as a child to help produce a series about the war in Iraq that apes how soldiers and Marines performed in those old movies. A sociologist rooted in demographics must have conducted the casting for "Over There." There is the standard stock company of young actors, although none is from Brooklyn, and none stuck out except for one named "Sergeant Scream." His role was just, well, bigger and louder. The other actors were stereotypes, men and women of what Bochco must think represents a cross section of 21st-century America. There is one problem: They sound alike, except for minor adjustments of accent. They look alike, except for the color of their skin when you can see them beneath their heavy uniforms. They act alike, and for the life of me, I cannot say why. They act as if they never met before when clearly units usually depart together from their home base to Iraq. I saw no sweat on any of their faces. However, in its favor, the verisimilitude of the men and women in the desert when they had to relieve themselves or have a quick bite of food came close to being real.

The shows also looked too clean. War zones are filthy, especially those where it is hot, like Iraq. There is poor to non-existent sewage, too many people and too much garbage with no place to put it.

When that truck rolled over a small white flag planted in the ground to identify an IED and the truck blew up, I knew Hollywood put the flag there, not the insurgents. Insurgents disguise IEDs anyway they can. They do not pinpoint them as a gardener does when he puts pesticide on a lawn.

A few of the sunsets and the scenic shots of the desert were evocative. Sepia tones aided in making us believe we were with the troops as they struggled to maneuver over the berms and get comfortable on the coarse sand.

Toward the end of the first hour, about 35 minutes in, there were very strong action scenes that made me almost believe I was there. The feeling was fleeting because I did not trust the muzzle flashes, let along the sounds of the weapons firing. It looked and sounded Hollywood.

Do not take my word for what I think about the series. An enterprising reporter who works for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer gathered together eight soldiers, most of whom served in Iraq. They watched the opening hour of "Over There" and then they commented on it. Other than the inaccuracies of the war itself, they criticized the soldiers, how they acted - yes, acted -and their attitude toward the women in the show. That the cameras lingered too long on the death scenes and how the men and women reflected on the war after being in the country just one week only added to its unreality. One soldier said, "Nobody is that reflective after one week in-country. It's more like, 'Ohmigod, we're in Iraq. Hi. What the hell am I doing here?'" Though the panel found some scenes realistic, meaning genuine, my impression from reading the article is that those few positives were not enough to make this show regular viewing for the veterans.

Why would anyone watch this series? If you want to get a kick out of fake war, and you have a need to watch this mess, you should be ashamed of yourself. You have become a pawn of Steven Bochco's.

There is enough horror and tragedy on TV every night in the news. This is not the right time for this series, period. We are at war and increasingly many people believe it is a bad war. Hollywood on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and in the Iraqi desert is in extremely bad taste and poor judgment. No one should be proud to be part of what is an attempt at thrill-seeking at the expense of the war. Yes, Mr. Bochco and company, it is only television. Producing for television does not take great minds. However, occasionally TV should aspire to a higher cause and be more meaningful and less exploitive than series like "Over There."

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.