Baghdad Blues

Photo: David Hume Kennerly/Courtesy of FX Network

Steven Bochco ought to have been the perfect executive producer for a dramatic series about something as problematic—something as post–Light Brigade—as the American war in Iraq. Bochco’s Hill Street Blues, after all, was the first post-liberal, post-social-worker, wised-up eighties cop show. Frank Furillo and Henry Goldblume were alert to the wounds of race and class, conscience-stricken about children and the elderly, and injured in their idealism by the brute face of a mindless evil that went beyond lust and greed into the depraved indifference of drug cartels and gangbangers. On Hill Street, not even our favorite characters were immune to sexual assault nor exempt from sudden death.

So, too, do the rookie American soldiers on their first tour of duty in occupied Iraq, Over There, discover a border land between moralities, a landscape of ambush and jitters, where every civilian might also be a fuse. When they put on their night-vision goggles, they see ghosts. Bullets have the whiny, tin-can sound of TV news, instead of the silver-whistle whump of Hollywood. Cars explode in fireball blossoms for handheld cameras, and so do bodies. On the highway, a land mine shatters the legs of the high-school quarterback. At a roadblock, a little girl in the backseat dies while the jargon-spouting insurgent hiding in the trunk of a nearby car will live—at least until interrogation. Stinger missiles are missing, so is Jesus, and so is Muhammad, although we do see a snapshot of Saddam. All of this feels right, or at least embedded. Besides which, Bochco and his co–executive producer, Chris Gerolmo, have assembled the usual strong cast of semi-known actors who then disappear, under their helmets and into their roles. Between expletives and explosions, we spend the first two hours sorting out their rainbow coalition—“Angel” King (Keith Robinson), the choirboy sniper; “Dim” Dumphy (Luke Macfarlane), who must be an intellectual because he wears Bolshevik granny glasses—even as they are deciding who among them they can trust.

But the torture of a prisoner in the third hour of Over There is finessed to the extent of fudge, since our boys need to know, at whatever cost, whatever the prisoner can tell them about those Stingers. Bochco and Gerolmo seem to have decided that their series will be about survival, nothing else. Combat! and Rat Patrol similarly decided to simplify themselves, trying to make palatable TV out of a problematic war, Vietnam, by pretending it was World War II, and nobody watched. So Over There falls short, unlike M*A*S*H, which pretended to be about Korea, and China Beach, which offered the rock-and-roll alternatives of McMurphy, the Irish nurse, or Beckett, the dark prince of body bags. Those shows went deep into conflicted meanings and got us where we dream.

It is officially time to worry about Gary Cole, who had the makings of a TV star in 1984, in the Fatal Vision mini-series, after which he was engrossing every week as the ex-cop turned radio-talk-show scourge on Midnight Caller, followed by his persuasive showboat turn as Gen. George Custer in Son of the Morning Star, and then … well, several big-screen roles that were genuinely embarrassing, two seasons as the doltish veep on The West Wing, and now he sneaks up on us in midsummer as yet another tough cop, running an elite team of crime fighters (from ATF, DEA, FBI, Naval Intelligence, etc.) who use their special skills on the worst baddies in Los Angeles (Korean gang lords, Serbian war criminals). Despite an occasional zinger (“Divorce, the gift that keeps on giving”), Wanted is a routine mixed grill of the dismembered parts of every other cop show that creator–writer–executive producer Jorge Zamacona has ever worked on, including Witchblade.

I’ve also worried about Julia Ormond ever since she was miscast as a glacial morphologist in Bille August’s film version of Smilla’s Sense of Snow. In the mini-series Beach Girls, based on a best-selling book by Luanne Rice, Ormond is asked simultaneously to be sexy (as the girl Rob Lowe should have married back in the eighties), motherly (to the daughter Lowe propagated upon the wrong woman), and artistic (writing books, painting pictures). But she is not allowed to be any of these things for more than three minutes before the camera zooms off to lick the tenderloins of nearby teenage girls in skimpy bikinis. These Gwyneth Paltrow and Drew Barrymore wannabes giggle and mope in a way that makes them of absolutely no interest to any grown-up, not even Rob Lowe.

You might think there’s actually two Steven Bochcos: The one who created nuanced, genre-reshaping shows like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue—and the one behind misguided police-musical Cop Rock and the breezy guilty pleasure L.A. Law. Post-NYPD Blue, he created the wobbly Blind Justice and the sci-fi NYPD 2069, since shelved. Too bad: We were hoping for Dennis Franz in a silver jumpsuit.

Over There
FX. Wednesdays at 10 P.M.
Premieres July 27.

Baghdad Blues