While saddled with an unfortunate name that will inspire sophomoric titters in Beavises and Butt-heads everywhere, CBS’s new military series The Unit is not your typical swinging-dick soldier hour. The men who make up the Army’s clandestine Special Forces group called Delta Force — counterterrorism specialists ready for instant deployment to the world’s most volcanic areas — don’t get to whoop and holler too loudly upon completing a mission, since they trade in obscurity, subterfuge and deflection. And, of course, snuffing out bad guys. The glory is inward: a job well-executed, and coming out in one piece.
In the pilot episode, as he stares at a terrorist-hijacked charter plane with passengers held hostage, Dennis Haysbert’s unit leader Jonas Blane matter-of-factly lays it out for new recruit Bob Brown (Scott Foley) after they’ve just been chastised by an FBI agent for encroaching on his territory and wanting to act swiftly: “We take down the plane, he takes credit. We get everyone killed, he told us so, we get court-martialed.” Pause. “Let’s not get everyone killed.”
The lean, curt dialogue comes courtesy of show creator and masculine-culture icon David Mamet, Pulitzer Prize–winning chronicler of shady salesmen (American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross), unrepentant con artists (House of Games) and aggrieved males (Sexual Perversity in Chicago), but above all, the intersection of camaraderie and negotiation, and the chasm between what people say and what they do. The road to The Unit began during the making of the writer-director’s underrated and overlooked 2004 thriller Spartan, the story of a special-ops soldier, played by Val Kilmer, entrusted with finding the president’s missing daughter, who discovers something far more ambiguous and sinister behind his orders. That film’s technical adviser was retired Command Sergeant Major Eric L. Haney, whose engagingly detailed 2002 memoir, Inside Delta Force — about the intense selection process he went through and his experiences in places like Honduras and Beirut — inspired Mamet to turn the unorthodox, secretive, hair-raising exploits of these undercover operators into a TV series. (Before this, his forays into television included writing a Hill Street Blues installment and directing an episode of The Shield.)
Of course, where Spartan was a dark tale of how governments abuse the notion of a fighting force that doesn’t think for itself, a weekly network show about the military that wants a wide audience — especially on CBS, home to JAG and NCIS — has to be a little more rah-rah. The Unit is, therefore, an action series and a drama about the threat to cohesiveness, with room in its ration pack for derring-do in far-flung parts of the world (with Robert Patrick as the colonel handing out the unit’s mission orders) as well as the home-base concerns of the wives holding down the fort, waiting — hoping — for their husbands’ return from they-know-not-where. Based on the three episodes provided for review, it might be an uneven trek merging Mamet’s iconoclastic take on things with the demands of prime time — there isn’t a full commitment to the writer’s trademark staccato articulateness, for instance, but there’s just enough of it to be off-putting. Yet there are glimmers of something refreshingly different. Mamet’s never been known for his women’s roles, but you can sense that he likes being able to give an actress a line like the one delivered by unit wife Tiffy (Abby Brammell) to the new girl, Bob’s pregnant spouse, Kim (Audrey Marie Anderson), as a warning that she should respect the covert nature of her husband’s gig: “Every person who knows one more piece of information is one more person who could get our husbands killed.” Um, thanks, and did you need to borrow any sugar?
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In fact, the housewife klatch is arguably a more unsettling clique than their kill-trained husbands, since initially the stories seem to be about getting Kim — a nervous, individualistic sort — to conform to their insular domestic world: live on base, have a faith, quit talking to outsiders about hubby, etc. Kim’s got a permanent shadow, it seems, in Regina Taylor’s grim-faced, watchful ringleader, Molly — that’s Jonas’ wife — who tends to pop up at just the right moment to keep Kim in line. It’s to the service of The Unit that this element is as nervous-making as, if not more so than, the parachutes-and-guns stuff, and, thanks to some well-timed shocks in the closing moments of the pilot, it’s clear that Mamet and his collaborator, executive producer Shawn Ryan (The Shield), have some story intrigue planned for the home lives of these fighting men as well. Ideally, though, any Desperate Housewives–style infiltration will be treated like the enemy and swiftly cut off before metastasizing.
That said, the best of the episodes I saw is an upcoming one focused on the guys as they endure a hellish training course centered on being captured by the enemy. Making matters difficult for the unit commanders is a power-hungry Department of Defense representative who takes over the exercise and displays a fondness for meting out physical and mental punishment bordering on torture. It’s a grueling, gripping hour of television that touches on everything from a squadron’s trust mechanism to effective treatment of prisoners to the internecine battles of the military and their civilian overseers, and definitely bears the stamp of Mametian psychological warfare. More episodes like that, and The Unit could evolve into a sharp, nervy show.
Plus, devotees of 24 might be pleased to know that President David Palmer — a guy whose poll numbers, even post-assassination, could easily leave Bush in the dust — is now as handy with a weapon as he is with cell-phone diplomacy. Nothing against Haysbert in invoking Palmer, but his performance as Jonas is like watching everyone’s favorite fictional world leader suddenly materialize in blue jeans and tight T-shirts on another show. That’s because the bassoon-voiced giant with the I-know-more-than-you smile hasn’t exactly altered his take-charge countenance much in moving from one network’s executive branch to another’s armed forces, and frankly, that’s a good thing. He’s smartly figured out that in the world of TV fandom, a well-erected persona — in this case, of graceful, disarming and unquestionable authority — travels more easily than a need to show viewers versatility. In other words, if we can’t have him as commander in chief, we’ll gladly take his commando in chief.
THE UNIT | CBS | Tuesdays, 9 p.m.