Thursday, August 18, 2005

What Happens 'Over There'? Plus the Sudsy Side of Procedurals

Okay, how many of you are watching FX's Iraqi War drama Over There? Hopefully, many of you. I know what you're thinking, why would I want to watch a television show for entertainment that focuses on a real-life conflict that is ongoing? The answer is because this show is gripping, informative, beautifully shot, well written, and not at all what you're thinking. I had my hesitations before I tuned in to the premiere a few weeks ago, but they were quickly cast aside. The amazing thing about this show is that the pilot was the weakest outing so far because it was too war-focused. Since then, the show has shifted to the day-to-day (or in this case hour-to-hour) work that these men and women do over in Iraq while also giving us interesting characters that continue to develop. Sure, there are the conflicts that arise, but they are dealt with in an even and well-balanced manner. These soldiers strategize and they deal with the guilt and pain that comes with each loss of life on both sides. The show manages to paint the soldiers and the Iraqis as human beings, something that seems to be lacking in the constant media coverage. A recent episode focused on an Iraqi prisoner who seemed ready to risk everything (including causing the death of an older couple) just to carry out his cause, but when the Americans brought in his sister, he quickly changed and told them the whereabouts of the missing missiles. In last night's episode "I Want My Toilets," one of the soldiers wrestled with the idea that he was ordered to assassinate a man who they believed was guilty of signaling the mortar attacks that prevented supplies from reaching the camp. After he took the man out, he was shown with a tear rolling down his cheek. In the end, the man was guilty and the soldier's action allowed the tracker-trailer trucks to bring the necessary supplies through the town and into the camp.

But Over There is not just about what happens over there. Take the story of soldier Bo Ryder, a high school football stand-out that was headed to college on an athletic scholarship. In the pilot, he was wounded when the vehicle he was riding in rode over a land mind. He lost the lower part of his leg, his chance at football, and most likely the chance to finish what he started in Iraq. The last realization seems to have hit him the hardest, as he struggles with his wife and the base doctors in Germany over whether he'll return to combat or not. Bo insists that he will some day, while his wife and doctors assure him he will not. Back in the U.S., there are the family members left behind. One wife is cheating on her husband nightly while drinking and neglecting her son, another is readying her base housing for her husband's new handicap status by installing ramps and hoping he returns soon, and there's the husband who joins the base support group only to learn that he is the only husband in the group. It seems that everyone has their battles, whether on the front in Iraq or back at home. Over There has its flaws, but for the most part it's a well executed drama that, at its core, is about the characters and not the political sides of the current conflict, a feat in itself.

Shifting gears a bit to the soapy storylines that seem to be invading your favorite procedural. Without A Trace spent most of its third season tied down with these storylines. Sam (Poppy Montgomery) and Martin (Eric Close) were in a secret relationship together that became complicated by Jack's (Anthony LaPaglia) divorce, which in itself was triggered by Jack's affair with Sam. Once Jack was a free man, he went back to Sam, but she was with Martin. Then, there was the saga of Jack's divorce. An entire episode ("Malone Vs. Malone") was devoted to the legal meetings between Jack and his now ex-wife. Sounds like you're reading about a night time soap, right? But instead, it's a procedural crime drama, which begs the question, do soapy storylines belong on procedurals? Without A Trace has always been a more character driven procedural that the Law & Order franchise or CSI, but I'm not a fan of personal storylines getting in the way of solving the crimes. For me, season three of Trace was its weakest. Back in the first season (pre-soap), the missing persons cases were fascinating and the sense of urgency of racing the clock kept me at the edge of my seat, but lately the show has been slow and the cases underdeveloped. Perhaps pushing the personal relationship stories overtook the cases.

I like it better when shows hint at attractions ala CSI and Law & Order: SVU. It's a case of what you don't say, says more than what you do. Now, I like my procedural with a little personal thrown in. We need to learn about the characters in order to understand them better. I need to know why Lilly Rush seems colder than the cases she solves or why Olivia Benson sympathizes with rape victims so well, but I don't need interoffice affairs. I understand the need for conflict, and clearly it's not hurting Trace's numbers as the show had its most watched season so far and finally overtook perennial timeslot winner ER, but I'm not so sure about the soapy edge that some shows have taken. Well, with a new season brings new possibilities, so I'm hopeful that Without A Trace and others can shift their focus back onto their core - the excellent and moving cases they're there to solve.


*NBC has confirmed that Joey's getting a new friend. Miguel A. Nunez Jr is joining the cast of the Thursday night comedy. He'll play a fellow actor and friend to Joey (Matt LeBlanc) who has a knack for getting them both into trouble. Joey premieres on September 22nd.

*Bravo kicks off the sixth tournament of their popular Celebrity Poker Showdown tonight. Players this time around include Rosie O'Donnell, Michael Vartan, Kathryn Morris, Penny Marshall, Amber Tamblyn, and Caroline Rhea. The first round airs tonight at 8 p.m. eastern with a reality star theme.

*If you're looking for an early look at CBS's new line-up, here's your chance. The Eye Network is airing a thirty minute special with clips from their new shows. Charlie Sheen, Jon Cryer, and Angus T. Jones, all from Two and A Half Men, will host the September 14th special.

*UPN released information on the contestants competing to be America's Next Top Model. They include a delivery driver from Arizona, a Dairy Queen manager from Michigan, and a criminal defense investigator from Florida. The new season starts September 28th.

*And finally, NBC released information on the poor souls (I mean, contestants) competing on Martha Stewart Apprentice. The ten woman and six men include an internet company owner from Missouri, a television newscaster from Michigan, and a natural foods chef from New York. You can see all sixteen contestants when the show premieres September 21st.

That's all for today. Be sure to tune in tomorrow for a look at the network comedy. Is it a dying breed? Plus, all the day's latest entertainment news. And, I'll be announcing a special theme for next week.


Tati said...

This show "Over There" seems really interesting. I hope it comes to one of my cable channels here.
I couldn't agree more with the soapyness of Without a Trace. I didn't see the 1st season, but the 2nd had just the right amount of personal stuff. Cold Case almost crossed the line on the personal stuff this season, but I don't feel they overdid yet (on the other hand you know I'm biased when it comes to CC, LOL). SVU, in my opinion, is the show that deals with personal stuff in the best way - there's just ocasional insights into the characters but it's not as dry as CSI. (Gosh, I talk so much! I'll shut up now).
Keep up the good work, your blog is great!! :)

Ranty said...

I agree with your WaT comment, too. In fact, its soapiness annoyed me to the point I stopped following it, and only tuned in for the last episodes of the season, mostly 'cause I wanted to find out about Viv. I don't know what it is about all this lovey-dovey soapiness bringing in viewers. I'm more irked by it than anything. I don't feel CC crossed the personal stuff line this season, either, but a little more might've been too much. I think you have to draw a line at personal-driven episodes. Procedurals have to procedural. Doesn't mean we don't need to get to know the characters...
BTW: Thanx for the job comment on my OD. I have more exciting news now!!! But I haven't had time to write a new entry.