'OVER THERE' Veteran TV producer takes on Iraq war
The show will focus on the lives of a fictitious group of soldiers and those they left behind.
By JOHN MAYNARD
What's Steven Bochco getting himself into?
The veteran television producer -- who's earned himself a library of Emmys (and a whole lot of money) for his cop and lawyer shows such as "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue" -- now is tackling a far more grim and politically volatile subject: war.
"Over There," debuting this week on the FX cable network, chronicles the day-to-day lives of a fictitious Army unit serving an initial tour of duty in Iraq. It's Bochco's first try at a military show and TV's first scripted series set in a current war involving the United States.
Bochco, no stranger to controversy on television, knows the risks of depicting a war that is viewed skeptically overseas and is becoming increasingly unpopular at home.
"To do a drama series about an ongoing war is to jump hip-deep into an environment which is so politically charged," he said. "I don't know that it's possible to do a show like that without having a political point of view that sort of permeates the thing.
"I don't want to do that. I never, at least consciously, informed my projects with a political point of view."
In need of convincing
So why do it?
Bochco said he was approached last year by John Landgraf, who has wanted to produce a series for FX about the war since joining the network in January 2004 as its head of entertainment.
"It struck me like a freight train," said Landgraf, who is now FX's president and general manager. "Scripted television has completely ignored what is happening with the U.S. in terms of our military."
But Landgraf knew his challenge in landing Bochco. "I think that Bochco was leery to begin with," Landgraf said. "He has a distinguished 25-year career. He didn't want to get pulled into a partisan mud-throwing contest."
Not that Bochco shies away from a fight. Twelve years ago, numerous ABC affiliates refused to air the debut episode of his "NYPD Blue" series, objecting to the program's coarse language and partial nudity. The show obviously survived the firestorm and lasted 12 seasons, making it one of the longest running dramas in the history of television.
But a war drama brings its own set of political concerns.
Landgraf convinced Bochco that this series would not be about the politics of the war -- no scenes from the Pentagon or the White House or Capitol Hill debating its merits -- but would rather present a story about the soldiers who are facing varying degrees of ethical, moral and physical dilemmas every day.
As Bochco thought about it more, he decided to take on the project. "I mean, after all, it's a drama," he said. "And a drama is about compelling storytelling and strong themes and rich characterizations.
"That's not politics, that's storytelling."
Bochco said he also had reservations about "Over There" because he's never served in the military. Landgraf's retort: "You never were a cop, either."
The first episode introduces an array of characters, including an aspiring football star who appears to be the unit's natural leader and a brainy Cornell graduate nicknamed "Dim" because, he says, he was too stupid to get out of serving in the Army.
Viewers see the soldiers struggle on the front lines, while also getting a glimpse of the lives the military people left behind.
True to life
The series is character-driven but does not shy away from the realities of war. In the pilot episode, the soldiers are caught in a violent standoff with an enemy holed up in a well-guarded bunker. When it appears a truce might be reached, an ill-advised bathroom break by one U.S. soldier turns the event into a brutal shootout. The scene also includes an incredibly graphic image of an Iraqi soldier literally being blown into bits.
"Over There" is Bochco's first show to air on cable television, known to give programs and their producers more creative freedom.
"There's more risk-taking in terms of language and sexuality," Bochco said, "and with those issues you have significantly greater leeway."
"You can be a lot more honest about [the war in Iraq] in terms of having your participants sound like real soldiers in the heat of the battle," Bochco said. "You can show things that are the unfortunate and inevitable results of combat."
Bochco declined to discuss his own views of the war, but he said the war scenes do not make the show an anti-war drama.
"I imagine if you were making a pro-war film, you'd still be seeing bloody stuff," he said. "I don't know how you do a show about war without seeing the inevitable consequences of war.
"War, by definition, is an awful, violent, bloody business in which the scoreboard has to do with death."
Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX