Argument

Losing the Ratings War

Losing the Ratings War

Death had come to visit Kevin Biegel. He was a healthy 32-year-old on his honeymoon in Italy, and his heart suddenly stopped.

Perhaps it was a freak occurrence or a byproduct of the daily stresses he dealt with as a Hollywood writer and producer. It wasn’t cocaine, as some might have guessed. Doctors plugged stents into his heart but couldn’t install anything to keep Biegel from obsessing about his own mortality. Thought about death crept into his children’s playtime, on the highway, and most significantly, into his creative universe.

An alum of the South Park writing room, Biegel, now 37, created the TBS series Cougar Town and wrote for Scrubs. The setting for Cougar Town looks much like his Florida hometown, but an important element from his life was missing: the military. His dad joined the Army just before the Vietnam War draft ended, and his grandfather served in World War II. While on the set of Cougar Town, he kept returning to an idea to swap out surgeons for soldiers: a workplace comedy in fatigues. A nagging insistence on authenticity drove him to write what he knew, which was how to be the oldest of three brothers who grew up in a military household — and how trauma can suddenly have its own gravitational pull on our lives.

The result is Fox’s Enlisted, one of the only military TV comedies since M*A*S*H and one that runs in a post-Vietnam age when veterans are lazily written into television and film as unstable psychopaths with weapons training. Goofy yet soulful, the show’s view of life in and around a fictional military garrison is unique when compared with sensationalist portrayals of veterans in other programs. With the war in Afghanistan quietly humming in the background, Enlisted is a show about normal men and women in a workplace not many Americans know or understand.

It also confronts the duality of an American society that applauds 30-second beer commercial bromides of returning soldiers while admitting that fears of having PTSD-addled veterans in the workplace prevents some hiring managers from bringing on veterans and contributes to a relatively high unemployment rate for returning troops. Tragedies like the recent Fort Hood shooting also offer a reminder of the deep, ugly partitions between civilians and the military personnel, the latter recast from heroes to pitiable, damaged victims. American society tends to view its military through those binary lenses, and neither view easily lends itself to an acceptance of military slapstick.

Indeed, most portrayals of veterans on TV and in film are decidedly negative. In House of Cards, one war veteran is an opportunistic sadist, one discharges his weapon on a residential street, and another botches a suicide bombing. In Justified, maniacal Gulf War veteran Boyd Crowder menaces Harlan County, Kentucky, with a war buddy in a green Army surplus jacket, his service literally worn on his sleeve as a reminder. And in NCIS, Iraq and Afghanistan serve as backdrops to countless PTSD-fueled crimes.

Yet it took a comedy to quickly produce the most nuanced portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder in modern popular culture. Geoff Stults plays the swaggering but mentally struggling soldier Pete Hill, who brings a load of survivor’s guilt home when soldiers in his unit are killed in Afghanistan. Enlisted is an ensemble comedy, but it is really Hill’s show. The characters around Hill help soften the landing of their leader back home; these include his two subordinate brothers, Derrick and Randy (Chris Lowell and Parker Young, respectively).

Flip the channel to any other show, and war veterans are transformed into goons and monsters. On Enlisted, Hill is traumatized but capable, afflicted yet undoubtedly competent. A running gag pits Hill against Jill Perez (Angelique Cabral) to determine who is the most squared-away soldier in their unit. Hill leads the rear-detachment unit in drill and ceremony exercises for an upcoming parade in a recent episode, and in "Paint Cart 5000 vs. The Mondo Spider," his soldiers rely on his combat experience to win a training exercise.

Hill’s soldiers know he deals with PTSD, but their conception of him as a leader is not affected by it. It’s a groundbreaking way to illustrate the coexistence of professionalism and mental health challenges in order to erode the long-standing stigma of seeking help within the military.

"Post-traumatic stress doesn’t mean you’re a crazy guy with a gun," Biegel told me in an interview, alluding to the stereotypical depiction. "It’s a natural response to trauma that can happen to anyone."

With that guiding principle, Hill’s character was created to reflect the hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans combating the symptoms of PTSD, which is linked to the military’s ongoing suicide problem. Enlisted has done that better than any other show on television. But disappointing ratings paired with a public burned out on war could kill the show before it moves the needle on damaging cultural stereotypes.

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To even survive the pilot, Biegel knew he needed the military community behind him from the start. There was just one problem: Vocal members of the military and veteran community hated the first glimpse of the show.

It certainly wasn’t the first project out of Hollywood to draw fire from the community. As The Hurt Locker became the critical darling of the 2009 festival circuit and earned Academy Awards for best picture and director, the reception among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans was far from glowing. Many veterans chastised anachronistic uniforms and nearly impossible decisions, like sneaking off base to roam Baghdad alone and splitting up on a night mission, because it further distorted what many civilians think troops do "over there."

So when the trailers for Enlisted made the rounds on military-themed Facebook pages last summer, the same sharp criticisms were launched. Veterans assailed images of goofball soldiers outside of weight and grooming standards and sporting poorly kept uniforms. Almost every moment carried a glaring technical error that proved once again that Hollywood was tone-deaf in the twilight of the longest conflict in American history.

It was a disaster unfolding over social media for Biegel. "The one community we needed on board was raking us over the coals online," he says. "A part of my heart broke."

Biegel gathered his cast and crew, fired his military consultants, and brought in a new team of former soldiers to work out the problems in the pilot. He gave them a mission: "Kick our ass on this." The main characters received a crash course at boot camp while Biegel buried his writers with contemporary war novels and memoirs. He even fired off tweets and emails to critical viewers and sent future episodes to influential military and veteran commentators to ask for another shot. Maximilian Uriarte, the creator of the comic strip dropped by the set and commended their genuine effort.

As a sign of good faith, Stults appeared in a video asking the military community to tune into the pilot and spot all the mistakes in order to receive a challenge coin, which commanders typically give to troops who excel at their jobs. The video was front-loaded with military lingo as an explicit signal that Biegel and company were listening.

"We know it’s wrong," Biegel recalls telling the loudest critics. "We’re going to try to make it better."

The effort paid off, says Rob Ulrey, a former Army infantryman who served in Bosnia from 1996 to 1997. Ulrey launched critical barbs as the editor of Rhino Den, a widely read military and veteran blog housed by the Ranger Up clothing line. Biegel contacted him and shared rough cuts of future episodes to prove how far the show had come. Ulrey was suddenly a fan.

"If you look at what’s on TV, nothing is remotely close to depicting military life," he says. "The military and veteran community is drawn to this show because it’s a reflection of us."

Ulrey sees himself in Hill. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following an explosion in Bosnia but has never felt constrained by it. "The media has skewed PTSD into a monster that it’s not," he says. "And that’s why Enlisted is a major shift in popular culture."

There is no singular moment or dramatic spark to signal the beginning of Hill’s mental troubles. Rather, it’s an unraveling that begins early in the season as Hill realizes his destructive isolation. That’s by design. "You can’t have someone go through tough times and then it’s over," Biegel says, describing "Pete’s Airstream," an episode in which Hill sequesters himself in a trailer. He knows he’s struggling but refuses to let his fellow soldiers (and his younger brothers) see his vulnerability. In a landmark moment of the series, they ask to remain at his side until he’s ready for help, knowing well enough he may not ask at all.

Later in the season, Hill’s platoon is tasked with escorting Korean War veterans around base as they gather for a buddy’s funeral. An older veteran (Stacy Keach) skips out on the service. "You see things in war," Keach wistfully tells Hill. "Funerals just dredge up all those memories. Some things you just learn to live with." Keach is Hill’s glimpse into the future if he continues to bottle his feelings up, a future in which he’s destined to be alone and unable to cope when the war’s unquiet moments return.

In the closing scene, Hill steps into a counseling center. "I have stuff I just don’t want to live with," he tells the group, a rebuke to an earlier generation’s idea of stoicism as a solution to mental health problems.

"He’s not going to cure it; he’s not going to get over it. He’s just trying to figure out what’s going on," Biegel says, describing the season-long arc. Serialized television shows usually bat around a PTSD narrative in between commercials and wrap it up at the end, but Enlisted provides a glimpse into a condition that may require management for months or even years.

The careful and authentic portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder brought Army veteran Kate Hoit into the fold. Hoit served in Iraq as a photojournalist and was among the legion of veterans who dismissed the show after its initial trailer.

"It went from a corny pilot to one of the best representations of Army life," Hoit says. "The show gets to the heart of issues like PTSD that dozens of journalists and TV writers have failed to reach. And it’s really bizarre that is took a comedy to put a face on those who serve."

But that face might soon fade from view. Enlisted‘s ratings are modest even for a purgatorial Friday night airing, and Fox has pulled the show from the rotation, with four episodes left to air, as the network searches for a new time slot. Biegel points to one potential reason: Regulations restrict Nielsen rating boxes on military posts, which could undercount committed viewers.

They also don’t get much help from Fox’s marketing department, which appears clueless about how to promote the show. Its few dramatic moments define the series, but that doesn’t shine through the zany jokes packed into prime-time commercials.

Comedies often struggle to define themselves in their first season, and Enlisted occasionally seems too reluctant to explore some of the absurdities of military bureaucracy. Strangely, the dramatic portions are fully realized; it’s the comedy that needs refining. Many jokes come from character interactions that could take place on a used-car lot as easily as a military base.

Hill’s emotional moments are a product of his military environment, and once Biegel fully taps that place for comedy, he could have a live-action Duffel Blog on his hands — if Fox realizes Enlisted is a lot more than a serialized version of In the Army Now.

It may be too late — the hiatus has sparked rumors of Fox’s plans to cancel the show — and that would be a shame. Americans have put the wars behind them, but Enlisted tells us one thing soldiers know that the rest of society must understand: War is like a boomerang you forgot you threw, and as Pete Hill knows, it will always return, in some form or another.

***

Even if it goes off the air, Biegel is happy Enlisted will exist on DVD and other formats, and it could help alter the perception of veterans for some time. In one think-tank survey, representatives of more than half of 69 companies were hesitant to hire veterans due to portrayals of PTSD in news and entertainment. Art can damage, but in Enlisted’s case, it can also repair.

Sometime in the future, a hiring manger sitting across from a veteran might recall an old episode of Enlisted, one where Pete Hill struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder but remains a professional and capable leader. And maybe he’ll tell her that she’s hired because he thought of that show and not some other one. All because of a honeymoon heart attack and a guy who stood up to death to make a joke.