The Best Defense

Too soon or too lowbrow? Why Fox's new Army comedy 'Enlisted' bombed -- and why it's actually significant that it did

By Jim Gourley
Best Defense chief of military cultural affairs

For those who missed it (and if you couldn't tell by the headline, pretty much everyone did), Fox recently debuted a new military-themed comedy, Enlisted, that is based on the antics of three brothers in a Rear-D unit filled with misfits.

I'm not a good judge of comedy, so when I initially saw the trailer use a prosthetic leg in a prop gag and call Rear Detachment a dumping ground for rejects, I asked friends both in the veteran and active-duty communities if the show had doomed itself with an insensitive approach. The responses surprised me. A few with severe physical injuries and PTSD who have struggled with suicidal thoughts actually thought the writing was helpful. They believed that this kind of comedy would facilitate conversations about their challenges and make their condition seem more approachable. For them, humor is the best medicine. Others took offense owing to the belief that such jokes are only funny when servicemembers who've actually lived through the experience are telling them, not actors "who's worst day has been when Starbucks ran out of soy milk." Overall, though, the general consensus appeared to be, as another respondent wrote me, that "this would have been too soon five years ago, but it seems okay now."

While this might have been a good year for uniformed yucks, indications are that the show's casualties are a result of being deployed to a hostile time slot. It went up against 9 p.m. heavyweight Shark Tank and lost miserably. Fox has ordered 13 episodes to be made, but unless things turn around that may be the end of it. Some reports claim that Fox never anticipated it doing well to begin with. That's the odd part. If Enlisted gets an "OTHC" stamp on its discharge, it will join a very small band of military comedies that didn't work out.

On the whole, military-themed comedies have a pretty successful track record. Of course, the king of them all is M*A*S*H, which dominated the Nielsen ratings and collected Emmys like bottle caps during its 11-year run. But there are in fact several military-themed shows that did outstandingly well. Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. regularly drew more than a quarter of all television viewers during its time slot in the course of its run from 1964-1965. And while The Phil Silvers Show (a.k.a., "Sergeant Bilko") and Hogan's Heroes only went four and six seasons, respectively, they both managed to crack into the top-25 shows in the Nielsens in the early days and embed themselves into the consciousness of pop culture long afterward. Even less successful entries like McHale's Navy and Major Dad made it through four seasons. Within that historical lineup there's also a blueprint for success. With the exception of M*A*S*H (which broke many of the rules), the shows went to great lengths to avoid actual combat activities or to discuss the fighting or politics of the wars they were set in. The improbability of Gomer Pyle's success during the height of the Vietnam War is matched only by the audacity of its concept as a military show affording people an escape from their everyday problems. Yet that's the underlying formula to all of them.

History may also show a well-worn path to failure. When you compare the crusty exterior of Enlisted's protagonist and his abrasive interactions with his caricatured subordinates to failed shows like C.P.O. Sharkey and Private Benjamin, maybe it's more than just a time slot sending Enlisted to the same fate.

What's even more curious is that, if the show fails, it will add to a pretty dismal streak for military-themed shows in recent years. ABC's drama Last Resort tanked after just 13 episodes last year, as did FX Network's 2005 attempt, Over There. NBC's E-Ring only made 22 showings in 2005, despite Jerry Bruckheimer's best efforts. The services haven't even been able to gain traction in that most banal refuge, known as reality television. Stars Earn Stripes had more problems at launch than the F-35, Survivor cast alum and Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch couldn't make USA's Combat Missions mission-capable, and G4's Bomb Patrol Afghanistan made it only a single season.

The two standouts are JAG and NCIS. JAG ended an impressive 10-year run in 2005. NCIS is still one of the most popular shows in America 11 years after it spun off from JAG. Both shows owe their success to creator Donald P. Bellisario, who has said explicitly that he doesn't do comedy, so there's probably little hope for Enlisted on that front.

Maybe in the end it's not too soon for a comedy. Maybe a sergeant who can laugh about his misfortune to hit an IED -- and make us laugh with him -- is exactly what we need right now. But maybe what those veterans and servicemembers who wanted a comedy so much need is a show that is daring enough to contextualize that humor with the reality of our military's disposition.

Again, I'm not a comedy writer. But I did spend a couple of nights at the Holiday Inn Express in Tikrit, and I know that the underlying basis of all things funny about the military is the surreal level of absurdity bred of its seriousness. An appreciation of that is what made M*A*S*H and Gomer Pyle a few good shows, and a lack of it is perhaps what keeps Enlisted from being all it could be.

Mr. Gourley can write about anything he wants, because he is the chief cultural correspondent for the Best Defense. And yes, I asked him to include F Troop in this commentary.

U.S. Army/Flickr

The Best Defense

To boldly read what no service chief has recommended before: Thoughts on sci-fi

By Michael Clauser
Best Defense guest literary critic

Want to think about the future? Try science fiction. The scientists, engineers, and mathematicians only come after to solve the inevitable technological challenges posed first by the writers.

After all, it was Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) that envisioned the submarine and his From the Earth to the Moon (1865) that articulated a coherent vision for space travel. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) suggested the interoperability and regeneration of body parts (BTW: Are you an organ donor?). What are the iPhone or Android smartphones other than early attempts at the "tricorder" from Gene Rodenberry's Star Trek (1966)? Speaking of androids, Karel Capuk's R.U.R. (1920) introduced the very word "robot" into the English lexicon -- though today we call the type that flies over certain countries "drones" and the type that sweeps your floors Roombas. H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (1897) featured a "heat ray" weapon, well before Boeing's YAL-1 Airborne Laser or Raytheon's Active Denial System. The recent controversy over the NSA's bulk collection of telephone metadata has engendered comparisons to George Orwell's dystopian 1984 (1949). Big data makes the Nest thermostat self-learning, though not self-aware -- yet -- but when the glowing red circle does, it might rename itself "HAL" from Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

If science fiction literature is so vital to pushing the envelope on "what could be" in future technological advances, why does the genre feature so dismally in the myriad military reading lists published by Pentagon brass? In fact, the number of science-fiction books -- if they appear -- barely number more than the number of Harlequin romances. Look for yourself:

When science fiction does appear on service chiefs' reading lists, it's usually Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959) or Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (1985), two volumes that present stark, stylized, and idealized notions of leadership, statesmanship, strategy, or virtue useful for leadership development. Both are stellar works -- as are Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) and Isaac Asimov's Foundation (1942) -- two of my favorites. But the technological speculation in these books, like their futuristic settings, is secondary to their narratives on leadership and strategy.

This leaves the question: Which works of contemporary science fiction should young military officers read for a glimpse into the future of military technology? If drones, cyber, biotech, nukes, lasers, subs, and commercial space travel are all now -- then what's next? Invisibility? Nanite warfare? Cyborgs? Teleportation? Telekinetics? Time travel? Cryogenics? What science-fiction predictions of today would make even DARPA giggle?

One colleague suggested titles like Jon Scalzi's Old Man's War (2007), Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (2012), Charles Stross's Accelerando (2005), Ian MacDonald's The Dervish House (2010), and Mark Jacobsen's Lords of Harambee (2012). Another suggested Alas, Babylon (2013) by Pat Frank, Nevil Shute's On the Beach (2010), A Canticle for Liebowitz (1984) by Walter M. Miller, and The Sten Series (2010) by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch.

Unable to vouch for many of these myself, I leave it up to readers of the Best Defense to suggest today's science fiction titles for tomorrow's military technology. What do you think?

Michael Clauser works in tech, but sure didn't major in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics at Penn State. He served in the administration of George W. Bush in the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill, and is an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He thanks his Dad for introducing him to science fiction at a young age. The views and opinions of the author expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Government, or Starfleet Command.

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