"Over There," Steven Bochco's new drama series about Americans fighting in Iraq, has moments that are manipulative, belabored and cliche-ridden. And yet the flaws are consistently overshadowed by grueling virtues: suspense, tension and a palpable sense of deep distress. Though produced for television, the series easily ranks with such landmark war films as "Platoon" and "Saving Private Ryan" in terms of grit and grief.
And, so far at least, Bochco and company do not appear to be preaching, overtly or sneakily, any particular political point of view. War is still hell but, as the stories in "Over There" make painfully clear, this war has a hellishness that is unusually demanding and punishing to those charged with fighting it.
The series premieres tonight at 10 on FX, the Fox-owned network that boasts the sharpest cutting edge in all of basic cable. Most episodes will carry a rating of TV-MA, which essentially means this is not for children. Many an adult will find the occasional bursts of graphic gore too graphic, but there's no reason to think the portrayal of human carnage is inaccurate.
Unfortunately, telltale signs of what might euphemistically be called Bochco's "showmanship"are upsetting in the wrong ways. To grab the audience in the easiest manner possible, tonight's pilot opens with a couple having sex in the kitchen -- the wife sitting on the counter -- and, rapidly, in every other room of the house. The husband is about to ship out, so the passion of the farewells is credible; still, it's strictly from the bag of attention-grabbing cheap tricks.
Some of the dialogue is lamentably overblown. The cross-section, melting-pot Army unit at the center of the series includes a resident soulful intellectual, who waxes poetic: "The tragedy here is we're savages, we're thrilled to kill each other, we're monsters . . . but there's a kind of honor in it, a kind of grace. I guess if I'm a monster, it's my privilege to be one." There's the kind of battlefield speech one doubts would ever really be spoken.
In next week's episode, a young private dutifully recites his autobiography, as all the principal characters do eventually, and says bitterly of his father, "He left when I was 14. Said he was going out for cigarettes." That line gets the "Oh, brother" award; it was already corny when Hollywood was making movies about World Wars I and II.
That episode opens with a nightmarish scene in which an American prisoner of war is brutally tortured by terrorist captors. Suspended in air, he screams in pain when acid is thrown on his legs and feet, boiling his flesh. Oh, but guess what: It's only a dream. This is one case when the explicitness of the violence is not justified, when it's there chiefly to deliver a nasty, spurious jolt.
And yet despite occasional questionable judgment calls and the bald Bochcovian shocks, the program's combination of narrative pull and power makes you want to forgive and forget. Next week's episode, titled "Roadblock," is especially riveting and mercilessly stressful as we wait with members of the unit at a roadblock set up just outside a strategic city. Night falls and a car with no headlights approaches from the horizon. The men fire warning shots into the darkness.
The car keeps coming, relentless. Either the car is a rolling bomb and the men standing guard will be blown to pieces, or it is filled with innocent and confused civilians whose deaths by American gunfire would result in yet more damage to the image of the military and the nation it represents.
Earlier, an officer laments the extreme touchiness of the situation and the difficulty of fighting a war when public-relations men have heavy input into policy -- when every action taken has to be considered in terms of "how it would look." Despite exploitive excesses, the series seems genuinely imbued with the mission of telling those of us over here what life over there is really like.
Iraq appears to redefine the term "war-torn" -- a place where being in harm's way is a day-to-day ordeal and where the goal, as one soldier says, is "to try to stay alive for the next 15 minutes."
The drama is valid and sometimes wrenching, irrespective of how one may feel about the war itself. Some viewers are bound to suspect that the series will deal excessively with the Abu Ghraib incident, in which prisoners were allegedly mistreated by American soldiers, but ignoring such incidents altogether would be as dishonest as wallowing in them, and the series does neither, at least so far. The scripts were done by writers intent on being thoughtful rather than glib, analytical rather than merely accusatory.
Most conspicuous among the members of the unit is Josh Henderson as Bo Rider, a baby-faced believer so gung-ho that he imagines he can return to battle even after a debilitating injury and defiantly yanks the morphine drip out of his arm while recovering at an Army hospital in Germany. Keith Robinson plays Avery "Angel" King and Kirk "Sticky" Jones portrays Maurice "Smoke" Williams (all these nicknames!), two African Americans who have decidedly contrasting views on the war and the motives behind it.
Others in the unit include two female soldiers played by Lizette Carrion and Nicki Aycox -- neither had much to do as of the third episode -- Luke MacFarlane as Frank "Dim" Dumphy, the poetic one, and Erik Palladino, making a strong impression as Sgt. Chris Silas -- "Sergeant Scream" to the men and women beneath him. Omid Abtahi joins the unit in the second episode as an American soldier fighting the stigma of having an Arabic-sounding name, Tariq Nassari.
For executive producer Bochco, this is something of a family affair. His wife, Dayna Kalins Bochco, is one of the producers, and his son, Jesse Bochco, directed the third and sixth episodes.
The show's title seems baldly inappropriate, invoking as it does the very patriotic ditty of the same name by George M. Cohan. That song isn't sung under the opening or closing credits or anywhere else; instead there's a new tune by the same name penned and sung by co-creator Chris Gerolmo. It's simply awful. Cohan's rouser, of course, ended with the promise "and we won't come back 'til it's over, over there," which at least, in this context, would have considerable ironic weight. For one thing, soldiers who thought the war was over for them have prepared for the trip home only to be told their tours of duty have been unceremoniously extended.
For another, it will be hard to know when the war is "over" in the traditional sense. "Over There" reminds us that in this strange new world, the traditional sense may no longer apply.
Over There (one hour) premieres tonight at 10 on FX.