If you believe the opinion polls, then more and more people are feeling less and less confident about our military action in Iraq: 66 percent think we’re losing ground in preventing a civil war; 54 percent believe that Iraq will never become a stable democracy; only 34 percent still think Bush is doing a good job, etc., etc. As a nation, we’re doubtful and questioning across the board—everywhere, that is, except on TV. On TV, we’ve got a sense of purpose, we’re confident, and we’re winning. On TV, we are kicking major ass.
Here’s another figure to consider: 18 million viewers per week. That’s the audience being drawn by The Unit, which, as CBS happily trumpets on promo after promo, makes it the new season’s No. 1 show. The Unit, which follows an elite team of Special Forces soldiers, doesn’t deal directly with Iraq—Steven Bochco’s Over There tried that tack and quickly sank. And The Unit’s quintet of soldiers, played by Dennis Haysbert, Scott Foley, Max Martini, Demore Barnes, and Michael Irby (they’re all sergeants, because in The Unit everyone’s equal), aren’t hapless grunts or skinny saplings, shivering with their heads newly shaved. This is a bravo team of expert killers who never sweat, falter, or blink. They drop in, pop the bad guys, and then disappear—problem solved. And their faithful (and hot!) wives hold down the fort back at the Army-base version of Wisteria Lane. (Okay, one wife’s not faithful. But she is hot.)
Given the current national mood, you’d think pop culture would be producing a new TV M*A*S*H* (as it has at the cinemas: See Jarhead) rather than a pimped-up version of The A-Team. But instead, we have The Unit and that other machismo-heavy knuckle-duster, 24, which is enjoying its highest ratings ever, up 33 percent from its average for the past four years. And this is while Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is acting loonier than ever, continuing his satisfying reign of coercive, altruistically motivated, and ethically questionable brutality. He nearly speared out the eye of a presidential aide with a knife blade (for good reason! He was a traitor!) and later shot a bad guy’s innocent wife in the leg (to get him to crack—no dice). And The Unit’s lead-in show, the ultrapatriotic NCIS, provides a perfect amuse-bouche for the red-meat main course, turning Tuesday night on CBS into an all-you-can-eat buffet of military hoorah.
It’s worth noting, however, that The Unit is not some flag-waving, Montana-pandering, right-wing breast-beater. One storyline involved Haysbert’s bailing out, then dressing down, a group of naïve American Evangelical missionaries. It is also worth noting that The Unit (like 24) is ceaselessly, almost cravenly, entertaining—especially if you’re the kind of action-movie-raised person who feels a slight tingle at the phrase “kill-shot.” It’s like war porn run through an Xbox: all night-vision goggles and blunt-force one-liners, as though Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell had been punched up by David Mamet (who’s the creator of the show). In a recent episode, Foley, the pup, says of a tricky hostage extraction (“hostage extraction” —another tingler), “How’s this going to play out?” To which Haysbert, ex of 24, stout of voice, and slow of smile, says, “I don’t see this turning subtle.” Then he addresses another soldier: “We’re going to need a five-ton flatbed truck.” Why a five-ton? Why not!
Upon closer inspection, maybe these shows aren’t at odds with our national yearnings or our simmering doubts. In fact, maybe they’re a natural, and understandable, by-product of those anxieties: ribald fantasies of extreme military competence. And, in that way, maybe they’re not as different from M*A*S*H* as you might think.
The surgeons of the 4077th certainly hated the higher-ups, but they were crackerjack experts when it came to stitching up people. Likewise, The Unit is a paean to expertise—and its soldiers, while patriotic, are just as wary as of the brass as Hawkeye ever was. The difference is that Hawkeye rejected the whole enterprise, while The Unit’s troops just want to be left alone to get their mission done.
In this context, the show’s popularity is less mysterious. In the middle of a muddled, bungled conflict, it’s thrilling to watch gung-ho experts who actually know what they’re doing, and do it. The same is true of 24. Both shows are about shadowy secret organizations (on 24, the fictional Counter-Terrorist Unit; on The Unit, well, the unit) staffed with terse-talking heroes and fast-acting pros with boundless skills and no patience for the rules. In The Unit’s premiere, Haysbert and his team defied a direct order and brushed aside a sputtering band of FBI boobs and local bumblers to free a plane full of shrieking hostages (sighting and dropping the bad guys in slo-mo, with no collateral damage). On 24, Jack Bauer’s like a superpatriot with ADD. He’s blowing up refineries, twisting limbs, and applying choke holds, then hopping on to his ever-hovering chopper to zip off to the next hot spot, only taking time to remind his CTU superiors, “I don’t work for you!”
Of course, the lone, rule-breaking rogue is an action-genre stalwart, but these aren’t standard-issue rogues. On The A-Team, Hannibal and his band were being chased by the Army, and Hawkeye brewed hooch in his still. On these new shows, though, the essential clash isn’t between war and peace, or conformity and rebellion, but between waffling and results. And the real bad guys aren’t the terrorists—who appear like paper targets and get aerated with a few controlled bursts—but the apparatchiks, the hemmers and hawers, the gosh-darn poll takers. (This might explain why NBC’s E-Ring hasn’t caught fire: It’s about determined, upstanding bureaucrats, not currently a popular, or plausible, hybrid.) The latest wrinkle on 24 is that CTU is—gasp!—being absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security. Imagine the paperwork.
The war in Iraq has murky origins, vague goals, and no apparent end. So why not sink back and enjoy an hour of clear objectives and crisp execution? On TV, it’s all action, all kill-shots, all results. Pop, pop, pop—problem solved.
Though they were also a bunch of elite army commandos, the A-Team was a lot less lethal than the Unit: In five seasons, Hannibal, B.A., Faceman, and Murdock killed exactly one person, despite causing innumerable explosions and spectacular car-flippings. (The team accomplished their goals through gentler means, such as the “cabbage cannon.”) The show’s creator, Stephen Cannell, is hoping to (ahem) make a killing of his own, having spent the last decade trying to set up an A-Team movie. Under his current deal with Fox, he hopes to get a film out by the end of this year. It seems unlikely, though he’d no doubt love it if this plan came together.
CBS. Tuesdays, 9 P.M.
Fox. Mondays, 9 P.M.