TV Previews: Hank Stuever on 'Return to Duty' and 'Secrets of the Dead'
As a mop-haired, 23-year-old layabout on "The Real World: Brooklyn," taped in 2008 and seen this year, Ryan Conklin didn't leave much of an impression. (He plays guitar! He has a crush on a roommate! They're all drunk again!) But occasionally, he would remind his castmates and viewers that they couldn't possibly understand his inner darkness:
He signed up for the Army at age 17 in a wave of post-9/11 patriotism, and returned from Iraq duty with a recurring case of post-traumatic heebie-jeebies. A critic of the Bush administration's handling of the war, Conklin was seen on "Real World" rooting for an Obama victory and dreading the possibility (remote, he then believed) that he'd get called back to duty.
Sure enough, as the season concluded, he got called back to duty.
When it wants to, MTV shows some of the finest documentary journalism about young American life that you can find on television. (It also shows some of the worst, usually at spring break.) Admirably, the network chose to closely follow the epilogue to Conklin's story in "Return to Duty," a special that airs Wednesday night, with noble (if depressing) results.
The cameras reconnect with Conklin in Gettysburg, Pa., where he eats helpings of farewell casserole at his parents' kitchen table, then follow him to the plywood barracks of a "joint security station" in Iraq last summer, and goes along on his daily trips patrolling the streets of Baghdad as a gunner in a Humvee named after Jessica Simpson. ("She's small, high maintenance and hot," Conklin explains.)
"Return to Duty" picks up where the reality of "The Real World" -- a moribund franchise for many seasons now -- fails to go anymore, and it takes on the serious style usually reserved for MTV's excellent "True Life" documentaries. Conklin forlornly accepts his fate, driving around Gettysburg one last time and confiding to the camera: "I don't consider [PTSD] a problem. I consider it reality."
In Iraq, Conklin sees up close the problems of transferring military responsibility from the United States back to the Iraqi government. He is likable and honest and exhausted, like so many in America's all-volunteer military.
In this way, "Return to Duty" skillfully underlines once again just how distant many of us are from the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet also how close: Conklin's downtime revolves around constant e-mails and phone calls to his family and to Baya Voce, a social activist who also lived in the Brooklyn house on "Real World." The two haven't defined their relationship, other than with this motto: "It is what it is, and it's kind of ridiculous." Their unproductive e-flirting seems to fill him with sadness.
Later he is summoned to have his picture taken, a standard mug shot the soldiers all know will be sent to media if they are killed.
"Hey, I'm dead," Conklin jests with a dopey grin, as the picture is snapped.
He's not -- but he is still over there, with 125,000 comrades in arms, and the war is still on.
* * *