One thing and another, and probably a few others besides, have made the times safe again for military dramas that do not wave antiwar banners. The success of "An Officer and a Gentleman" last year was one of those things and it must have been part of the inspiration for "For Love and Honor," the new NBC drama series about men and women of the 88th Airborne Division, combat paratroopers who probably will not be seeing any actual combat.
The program premieres as a two-hour "movie" tonight at 9 on Channel 4, then becomes a one-hour series, Fridays at 10 p.m., starting next week. The premiere was originally 90 minutes but NBC asked the producer to pad it out a bit. Network executives like to force other people to bite off more than can be chewed.
Nevertheless, as these things go, "Love and Honor" is spit-polished to a fine sheen; it is honorable, and sometimes it is even lovely--expertly acted by a bright, fresh cast. On the premiere, various stories and subplots bob and weave, in an admirably intelligent script by Leon and Diana Tokatyan, and director Gary Nelson's only problem is getting one of those stories and one set of characters to center stage. A wise advertising executive recently said the problem with "St. Elsewhere" is that "there's no Furillo," referring to the central and centrifugal character of "Hill Street Blues."
"For Love and Honor" needs a Furillo, too, and Cliff Potts does not suffice. He plays First Sgt. Eugene Allard, who is having a clandestine, Furillo-Davenport sort of affair with nurse Carolyn Engel, played willowy as a summer day in Possum Creek by Shelley Smith. The two lack dynamism, and their whimsical overnighter on the first show, with lovemaking interrupted by explosive military maneuvers, seems grievously precious and contrived.
One of the most likable characters is killed off. Redhead David Caruso as Rusty Berger is obviously not to be a regular. But Pete Kowanko, as his pal Chris, who rents the other guys fake Purple Hearts to impress girls during weekend leave, has that certain volatile spark that can make a young actor instantly impressive, and he apparently will develop a relationship of sorts with the equally high-impact Rachel Ticotin as dark-eyed Grace Pavlik, the platoon's first female paratrooper, whose presence in the same barracks with the men causes considerable friction on the first program.
Ticotin makes Pavlik formidable and poignant, whether pulling the towel off a soldier ridiculing her, or suffering guilt from the possibility she may have packed the parachute that caused a paratrooper's death. The script is shrewd enough, in most cases, to tell us just a little less than we want to know about the characters, to keep certain things about their pasts, and their reasons for joining the old 88th, provocatively sketchy. This helps keeps them from turning pat or trite. It also helps encourage viewers to tune in next week to learn more.
At the end of the show, after the accidental death of the paratrooper (and a matter-of-fact cover-up by conspiring officers, by the way), and numerous other crises and conflicts on the base, Pavlik sits in her room playing a bluesy guitar, and director Nelson cuts to the various faces we have come to know, and the effect is refreshingly enigmatic and lyrical for a television program. That should have been the last scene, but a few superfluous words are added, and of course every TV show on Earth has to end up with once-troubled folk smiling relievedly, as if they just discovered Phillip's Milk of Magnesia in a constipation commercial.
Among the regulars, no one registers more forcefully than Yaphet Kotto, the often underestimated, often underutilized actor who was so spellbindingly world-weary in this summer's theatrical film "The Star Chamber." Here he plays a tough but troubled platoon sergeant named China Bell, a Vietnam veteran. In one scene he's alone, and contemplative, in his isolated trailer, and the camera zooms in on a framed picture behind him--a pretty Vietnamese woman and little girl. The story behind that picture almost doesn't need to be explained, though dialogue later makes it explicit.
The haunted quality Kotto gives Bell is one of the key distinctions of this program. Others on the base include the towering Keenen Ivory Wayans as Duke Johnson, who wants to be a boxer but gets turned down (a reverse of the Montgomery Clift role in "From Here to Eternity"), and Gary Grubbs as Capt. Wiecek, who is a sexist, a sadist and maybe even a racist; he's a bit overdrawn, especially in essentially sophisticated surroundings, but then it's perfectly plausible such a dolt could exist and be in command besides.
Essentially, the program is an aggregate of vignettes, a team drama in the increasingly popular television style. Some elements work, some don't, but the impression left is of a solid, serious, adult piece of work (NBC's on-air promotions, which may be becoming one of NBC's worst enemies, prefer to pass the show off as just one more soapy sleaze). In its quality and ambitiousness, it is basically typical of the television output of the executive producer, David Gerber.
A character named Andy is introduced as a recruit who previously chickened out on a night jump. He is played with knowing sensitivity by Tony Becker; when he says, "Most folks call me Utah 'cause that's where I'm from," you're immediately on his side. We see him chug his first beer, and we see him listening nervously to plans for a night jump to come, and we see in that nervously naked face the very essence of fear. The image sticks and strikes painful chords, and that's what the best of series drama on television can do. "For Love and Honor" can hold its head high among the cream of the crop.