Photo by David Hume KennerlyAlthough the ubiquitous billboards for FX’s new series Over There
might remind you of superinspirational Army recruitment ads, the show itself probably
won’t solve the Army’s current recruitment slump, despite making the highest-rated
debut in the network’s history last week. Focusing on an eight-person unit of
combat “virgins” dropped into Iraq, the ambitious wartime series manages to convey
the waning enthusiasm of a war effort that has lost one motivation after another.
When Bo Rider, the sweet-faced, corn-fed quarterback from Texas (played by 24-year-old
Josh Henderson) gushes to his new colleagues that he “loves the Army,” he’s met
with a wall of tired faces. “No shit,” a hardened soldier replies.
The other privates rounding out the squad hail from a melting pot of ethnic and religious backgrounds and seem to have landed in Iraq reluctantly during times of personal crisis. There’s a mother leaving behind a newborn and husband, a failed choir singer signing up in a moment of weakness, and an Ivy League graduate who calls himself “Dim” for ending up in the military. Saddled with the thankless task of leading this band of tenderfoots is Sergeant Chris “Scream” Silas, played by ER veteran Erik Palladino.Silas resents the rampant mismanagement that has extended his stay another 90 days and saddled him with a dangerously inexperienced squad. Nostalgic for the glory days of real combat, he’s almost crippled by the changing tactics of a war fought increasingly with images rather than bullets, with technology rather than risk. He bemoans the elitism allowing a general 75 miles away to give whimsical orders, while he spends sleepless nights in a relentless crossfire. Eventually, the frustration comes out in the form of internecine conflict. The sergeant fights with his own lieutenant, and the recruits turn on one another as often as they help each other out.
Over There performs the singular balancing act of managing to always say
two things at once, politically or otherwise. The show’s violence is exaggerated,
almost digital, when the troops gun down Arab insurgents (which immediately reminded
me of the shoot-’em-up Sega arcade game House of the Dead), but turns visceral
and horrific when a popular character suffers a life-altering injury. During a
charge on enemy positions, Silas asks the honey-voiced Avery “Angel” King to improvise
a “killing song.” In the aftermath, however, the soldiers individually grapple
with the death strewn about the battlefield. The Ivy Leaguer, Frank “Dim” Dumphy,
somberly reflects with sound bites from his conscience (“we’re thrilled to kill
each other… we’re savages… and war is what unmasks us”). “Doublewide” seems
to flutter her lips in prayer over one of the slain, while the Lynndie England–like
Brenda “Mrs. B” Mitchell curiously crushes the splayed hand of a dead aggressor
under her boot. Over There’s directors make sure to show what the polished
media haven’t: the eyes, tears and limbs of maimed Iraqis, some strategically
fair-skinned and blue-eyed to make American sympathy easier (or at least quicker).
“We can give you a powerful, gut-wrenching experience that the news can’t,” says Chris Gerolmo, the show’s co-creator and writer. “What people are desensitized to is news coverage of the war, but in Over There you’ll feel it.”
Proclaiming an apolitical agenda, the brains behind the show nevertheless
explore (without much apprehension) the internal politics of Army life, exposing
the sometimes-ugly underpinnings of gender and race. Female more so than male
blunders endanger the unit, and the women in the battle arena are often referred
to as burdens on the performance of the group. On the issue of race, the show
editorializes with even greater urgency. When the educated “Dim” and the inner-city
Maurice “Smoke” Williams have an altercation about civilization and manners, it’s
really Cornell versus Compton. With special irony, a prominent militant sheltered
by the Iraqis is bound and roughed up by Compton’s “Smoke,” relishing his moment
in the cop’s shoes for once. Depersonalized and then humanized in a bewildering
back-and-forth, the show’s Arab characters gain our trust only to break it again.
That is, except for Tariq Nassiri (subtly played by Iranian actor Omid Abtahi, who learned Iraqi dialect for the role), an Arab-American soldier who defies his colleagues’ suspicions but inflames those of other Arabs he meets. Abtahi, who played a less Arab-sympathetic role on Fox’s 24 last season, says he jumped at the chance when he got wind of a positive Arab-American role being cast for Over There. That his older brother served a six-year stint in the military made him “want the role more than any other [he’d] auditioned for.” One of the show’s most heated dynamics develops between an Arab prisoner played by Egyptian actor Rami Malek and Abtahi, who translates for a ruthless interrogator. Though the Arabs from East and West end up coming to blows, Abtahi remarks that the show does a “good job humanizing some of the Iraqi characters,” adding that “you get to know the prisoner’s emotional side, and you even start to love him.” Nassiri nevertheless exhibits some character traits that will surprise anyone with a sense of the Arab world, saying the region is 500 years behind the West (when 500 years ago, the positions were reversed, something even a street beggar in Damascus would brag about). And he harbors a curious view of jihad in Iraq (announcing in one of the show’s more incredible moments that it means to Muslims what Woodstock meant to the hippies). Private “Dim” sardonically concludes that Nassiri doesn’t seem to have “a substantial cultural affinity with [his] Arab brethren.”The Armenian-Italian Palladino plays another man whose nuances captivate. He describes Sergeant Scream — the ambiguously ethnic ringleader of the sometimes-discordant squad — as “the guy driving the car with the kids in the back bickering.”“Whether it’s racial tension or religion, all that stuff for him just gets in the way. If it puts chinks in the armor, then it becomes a problem,” says Palladino. “I don’t think [my character] is the kind of guy whose brain works in a political way. That’s a very different thing for him. His objective is to fight.” In one sense a terrifying disciplinarian, the parental Silas is also, as Palladino puts it, “filled with an overwhelming sense of responsibility for his men.” Though he believes in the “rigid structure in which they were taught,” experience tells him “there are choices you have to make that don’t go along with a direct order.” While Palladino’s character may be beyond politics, and Over There may claim no blue or red allegiance, the show is inevitably political just by context. Try as it may to tiptoe through the minefields of whether or not the Iraqi adventure is justified, Over There reminds us in ways the bloodless news often doesn’t that what’s going on over there is hell — regardless. Palladino recalls that at a recent screening for members of the Marines and the Army, one soldier said, “If it takes a TV show to enlighten people, then so be it.” Then, the actor pauses for a moment to consider the implications of working on a show that may be more real than the news. “What a rare opportunity,” he says. OVER THERE | FX | Wednesdays, 10 p.m.

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