Friday, January 27, 2017

Over There

"There's no time for talk.
What you think you believe in.
What you think you live for.
It's time to put that shit aside.
It's killing time.
Somebody is going to die today and that is a fact.
The only question is who.
So don't be thinking about anything else."

Over There (2005) rolls out of the base awkwardly as it first establishes its characters. But by Pilot's end viewers quickly find accessibility within the cast's very human strengths and weaknesses that act as a mirror to our own hopes and fears. The rough going is strictly in the series getting its legs, but that occurs very quickly, and like a strong, well-oiled infantry unit, Over There begins to click on all cylinders before you know it.

Over There reminded me of the early struggle of one military science fiction with an equally large ensemble cast in Glen Morgan and James Wong's Space Above And Beyond (1995-1996) that also failed after just one twenty-three (23) episode single season. Like that aforementioned space series that chronicled a military groups war with aliens, Over There was given just thirteen (13) episodes to make its case for America's entrenchment in the Middle East.

There is certainly a genuine feeling of authenticity lent to Over There as the series progresses. In fact actual military advisors accompany audio commentary. Sgt. Sean Bunch and Iraqi advisor Sam Sako both analyze the presentation outside of TV critics like the San Francisco Chronicle.

A list of virtual unknown actors doesn't hurt the series' efforts to ring true. It lends the series an everyman feel. You will barely recognize an early start from Mr. Robot's Rami Malek (The Pacific), Michael Cudlitz of The Walking Dead, Sprague Grayden of Sons Of Anarchy and a few others. But by and large there is an anonymous feeling about the series. "Virgin" Soldiers absorb horrific scenes following intense acts of violence and we witness men and women intimately assimilate and process the psychological effects of war on the front lines. The mental damage and toll on the psyche may not reveal itself immediately either, but Over There is where those seeds take root and germinate leading to films like Brothers (2009), The Messenger (2009) or The Railway Man (2013) as just a few examples of coming home altered.

Over There is also about perspective too. Over There refers to spouses, husbands and wives stateside as much as the men and women in the fields of Iraq. The vantage point of American soldiers, the enemy over there or every day civilians caught in the crossfire, there and at home ring mostly genuine.

Character exchanges are natural and the pacing of television allows for those relationships to unfold gradually. Roadblock Duty (Ep2) is a fine example. But Over There is certainly not without its Black Hawk Down (2001)-like firefights even if the TV series never reaches the epic heights of the aforementioned film by Ridley Scott. Nevertheless action sequences are still awfully impressive like those found in The Prisoner (Ep3).

The use of world music also gives the series an Eastern vibe alternating between pop standards and native world music. The gritty camera work and location shots give a real sense of place and a lived in there look for Over There. The application of current events keeps the series honest.

Does Over There reach the production level quality of HBO's Band Of Brothers (2001) or Showtime's Homeland (2011-2019)? No, but it aspires to that level and be in that league. It's more in step and line with the Canadian production Hyena Road (2015), and there's no shame in it. It's a kind of scripted version of Black Hawk Down with a focus on modern warfare. As scripted television goes Over There is extremely good like a lot of product made for FX. Sadly the series was cut short but as an FX (Sons Of Anarchy, The Shield) production, it delivers a quality war drama on every front.

Steven Bochco of L.A. Law (1986-1994) and Hill Street Blues (1981-1987) fame co-created the series with Chris Gerolmo. Bochco is the big name here for most and certainly brought a bit more grit to law enforcement television with NYPD Blue (1993-2005) with David Milch. Gerolmo is no slouch having penned the film Mississippi Burning (1988) starring Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman and worked on FX series The Bridge (2013-2014). Additionally there are some directing heavyweights on the series with impressive credentials from the likes of Kim Manners, Greg Yaitanes and D.J. Caruso.

Having mentioned all of the positives, character development is slow. Something a bit deeper might be anticipated. With this in mind, this component of concern is alleviated to a good degree as it progresses particularly with the episode It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding (Ep6). Additionally, the feeling of being embedded with the United States Army Third Infantry Division amidst military action and the enjoyment of the team's banter throughout, again within the likes of It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding, may make it worth your while and especially those interested in the war genre. By series' end the characters genuinely grow on you. Underneath those tough facades are real people and there is enough there to break down those walls beginning with actor Erik Palladino.

I'm not sure Over There ever gets the balance quite right. It is hard to watch at times given the subject matter. It is difficult viewing and sometimes awkward or uncomfortable to watch mostly for the substance and on occasion the wobbly execution. Or perhaps witnessing our young American men and women so exposed and vulnerable hits just too close to home leaving little room for escape. Maybe that's the point and maybe Over There succeeds in our discomfort. But Over There is largely an effective and valiant attempt at covering the topical issues (physical and emotional trauma, internal and external trust, family) surrounding modern warfare and operations in Iraq.

There are some obvious loose ends to Over There with the series concluding prematurely. There's no sense of closure for the series, but like life for a soldier in war it doesn't always come to a satisfying end and closure can seem a long way off.

It's clear the filmmakers were indeed paying tribute to America's soldiers out of a love and respect for them as much as the inspiration of war films and television that have preceded Over There. There is a real appreciation here to get things right and paint the portrait of soldiers accurately over there. Well done on that front.

The War: Iraq (2003-present).

What Critics Had To Say: noted "If you're willing to stick through the show's iffier first few hours, Over There pays off with first-rate drama." wrote "The timely ground-breaking series is the first time that a drama about a war is going on while the U.S. is still waging the war."

The War Film Blog recommends Over There as a solid, entertaining presentation of war time at home and abroad covering the men and women of the United States Third Infantry Division.

Notable Dialogue:

"He died because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time just like anybody else who dies in a war."

"The lucky ones live to feel guilty."

What Drew Me To The Series:

This writer had always been a fan of Bochco's work in television. The DVD set for Over There was inexpensive. It was purchased and sat on the shelf for a long time before finally giving it a chance, experiencing the series and writing about it here now. I wasn't sure Bochco would translate the war to television convincingly not that there was any evidence the creator was incapable of such a feat.

In the end, Over There was solid enough and worth the time. It may not rank alongside the likes of HBO's The Pacific, but Over There is not a series to avoid. Quite to the contrary fans of the genre will find a lot to like about the show.

There are no big names here but the production is solid and each episode serves to tell more intimate stories in the larger context of the series. Ultimately it was the war genre that drew me to the series. While perhaps a second tier production Over There is a still a solidly entertaining look at war time at home and abroad.