TELEVISION 'Over There' puts Iraq in your home
The show aims to depict the war in all of its brutality without politics.
DALLAS MORNING NEWS
CHATSWORTH, Calif. -- "Over There" isn't taking much heat yet, save for the daily 100-plus temperatures in this barren replica of Iraq surrounded by the Santa Clarita mountains.
The FX cable network's groundbreaking war series so far has been under limited fire, mostly from the wife of a Kentucky soldier who in April launched a letter-writing campaign to keep it off the air.
Wednesday's premiere of the one-hour drama series, from "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue" creator Steven Bochco, will be the real test of whether America is ready for TV's first fictional depiction of an ongoing war.
"We're about to put it out into the world, and we're going to find out how the audience reacts to it," says FX president John Landgraf, whose network has been specializing in heavy-duty adult dramas such as "The Shield," "Nip/Tuck" and "Rescue Me." "I just decided if we're going to be taking risks and we're going to try to find the cutting edge of where television is, let's try to take on this subject material."
The Discovery Times Channel has been documenting real-life military drama in "Off to War," which resumes in October with the continuing story of an Arkansas National Guard brigade deployed to Iraq.
Portraying the experience
"Over There" initially telescopes the experiences of seven fictional American soldiers experiencing combat for the first time. Wednesday's inaugural episode is graphic in both its language and its carnage. One of the U.S. soldiers loses part of his leg and an Iraqi insurgent is blown in two.
"I believe that war is a natural subject for television," says Chris Gerolmo, who co-created "Over There" with Bochco and also wrote and performs the series' title song. "It has all the drama of 'Law & amp; Order' and all the action of '24' and all the blood, for better and for worse, of 'CSI.' And that's what we want to write about -- these experiences and these kids."
Filming has ceased fire on this day, leaving reporters to tour a set that's under constant construction and deconstruction. A mock Iraqi town looks like a nondescript garbage dump, with corrugated sheet metal strewn on the hot sand while workers hammer, saw and sweat.
"They give me a blueprint, I build it," says foreman/prop maker David Smith, who wears a "Shoot-Out at High Noon" tank top. "Last week, we had a bomb blow up right here."
Capturing the reality
Technical adviser Sean Thomas Bunch participated in the invasion of Iraq near the end of his 10-year tour with the U.S. Marines. He's been working in the entertainment industry since 1997, even while still on active duty as a staff sergeant. Thus the nickname "Hollywood."
"When I heard about this series, my initial reaction was I definitely wanted to work on it," he says. "But if I was over in Iraq right now, my first instinct would be that there's no way they're going to get it right. I'm glad I'm here to help them as much as I can."
Bunch says he hopes that "Over There" can accurately depict both the combat in Iraq and the overwhelming "numbness" that most soldiers experience while in the line of fire. What would he tell those who think it's too much, too soon?
"Don't watch it. That's all. I know what Hollywood is, and I can separate it. I'm not getting flashbacks from working on this thing. Reality is what I went through, and this is Hollywood. Just know that it's a TV show."
Freedom of cable
Bochco, who constantly fought with broadcast network censors during the long runs of "Hill Street" and "NYPD Blue," says he's reveling in the freedom of basic cable.
"It's wonderful, particularly in the context of doing a show like this," he says. "You're able to access a certain kind of language and you're able to depict the violence of war somewhat more realistically. ... On broadcast television, it would probably be a much paler version of what we're doing."
Neither Bochco nor Gerolmo will disclose their personal views on the war in Iraq. As Bochco puts it, "The moment you take a political position, you're not doing what art is supposed to do, which is to ask provocative questions."
At age 61, Bochco says he couldn't afford to wait until the war in Iraq had ended. TV's first prime-time dramatizations of the Vietnam War, "Tour of Duty" and "China Beach," premiered in the late 1980s, more than a decade after most U.S. troops returned home.
"I'm not a kid," he says. "When an opportunity arises to do something this powerful, why on Earth would I want to wait 10 years? ... Any good cop show is about an urban war that's ongoing. And every day there are thousands of victims of terrible crimes all across the nation. And yet nobody says, 'Gee, you shouldn't be doing that show because it's going to be really emotionally disturbing.'"
"The good news," he adds, "is this is not a wolf in sheep's clothing. Everybody knows what the show is; everybody knows what it's going to be. And I wouldn't take anybody to task for making the choice to avoid it."