Screen Savors: Off-base on Iraq

Army Wives gets stuck in sentimentality, failing to become the signature series about that conflict and the families behind the soldiers.

At least one group of US voters must be hoping that President-elect Barack Obama doesn't make good on his campaign promise to get American troops out of Iraq: the producers of Army Wives. It's very likely that it wouldn't be as popular were the boys already home. The show focuses on four wives - Roxy, Claudia Joy (Kim Delaney of NYPD Blue and CSI: Miami), Pamela and Denise (Catherine Lisa Bell of JAG) - and one man, all of whose significant others are in the military, in and around a place called Fort Marshall. There, the five share the burdens of having a spouse in the service. Such a challenge could make for a moving TV show. Too bad, then, that the series, based on the book The Unwritten Code of Army Wives by Tanya Biank, is a melodramatic tearjerker that drops A-bombs of emotional angst on viewers. Throw in the on-base intrigue involving infidelity and other peccadilloes and you've got Desperate Housewives meets The Bold and the Beautiful meets Gomer Pyle. Season two of this Lifetime network series begins with a flashback to the end of season one with the bombing of the local bar by a cuckolded soldier. With several regular characters inside, the natural question is, who's alive and who's dead? (See under: Who Killed J.R.?) Setting the reflective tone, Pamela, who works at a local radio station, spends the entire episode offering on-air homilies about life, friends, love and death as the victim's identity slowly become clear. "I just found out that someone very near to me died," she says, as her sympathetic radio engineer nods. Fans of the series must have been nuts in anticipation. Reminding us that this show is about real wartime stuff, the wives leave their TVs on a lot, inevitably tuned to reports on the fighting. Not a good idea. So when Roxanne's husband Trevor fails to get in touch as promised after being deployed, she loses it. "I guess people are in our lives, but at the same time, they're not," says Pamela on the radio, spouting corny homespun philosophy designed to mirror what's going on with the other characters. Subtle it isn't. As the bombing is replayed, Roxy is visited by Denise, a nurse who's been working on the blast victims. She raises her glass and toasts, "the people we love, may they always be safe." A Toastmaster she isn't. Meanwhile, base commander Joan has learned that she's pregnant while struggling to deal with her husband Roland, who's been having an affair. He was also in the blast, though survived. After bringing him home to their apartment he asks her, "So where are you in all this, Joan? What do you want?" She answers, "You; I want you." Groan. Later, we see Claudia Joy taking her daughter Amanda to Harvard, both bearing burn marks from the bombing. Mom's so proud, and the two share the ultimate mother-daughter bonding experience. But, this turns out to be a dream she's having in the hospital. Gotcha! Yup, Amanda's the one who's dead, walking off into the light of a dream sequence to annoying bad music, something that's overused throughout the show. "At some point," Pam says on the air, "words fail us, and we're left with silence…silence and time." Too bad the writers of this well-acted series didn't listen to their own advice and ease up on the soapy suds. True, a season-opener is meant to be a big affair, but this one went way too far. However, those who love a good cry will probably like it as much as the throngs who allowed Lifetime to renew for a second season. As for the soldiers in Iraq, they deserve better. NYPD's Steven Bochco tried Over There, but that failed. With Obama set to take office soon, Hollywood owes it to that war to come up with the equivalent to Vietnam's China Beach or the Korean War's M*A*S*H. David Simon's Generation Kill, despite being a miniseries, is testament to the successful representation of ongoing conflict on the small screen. Army Wives gets stuck in sentimentality, failing to become the signature series about that conflict and the families behind the soldiers. Army Wives airs on YES Stars Drama, Sunday nights at 10 p.m.