A correction was made to this review on July 18, 2005.
Attention-seeking FX has already won a victory by greenlighting this provocatively current drama, which, in daring to explore the war in Iraq, is destined to transcend arts sections and graduate to newspaper front and op-ed pages. Consider it a bonus that the program itself proves taut, intelligent and mostly evenhanded, exhibiting great sympathy for soldiers in the field if not military bureaucracy. Although the concept represents its own kind of political minefield, “Over There” paints an image of war in many ways more compelling, nuanced and honest than what’s seen on FX’s sister cable news net.
The sheer audacity of dramatizing war in its midst has the feel of a stunt, and there’s no way to escape political overtones in even the smallest plot points and dialogue. Flashing soldiers’ ages, for example, not so subtly reminds viewers who is waging this campaign, as numbers like “19,” “20” and “22” freeze onscreen.
After briefly introducing Bo (Josh Henderson), a high school football star with dreams of college ball, the narrative leaps to an extended firefight in Iraq, as the newly arrived Bo’s unit squares off against a group of faceless insurgents. In what can only be an homage to “Catch-22,” one particularly grisly moment has an enemy combatant vaporized from the waist up, though his legs proceed a couple of steps before realizing it.
Between rounds of gunfire, the series goes about presenting the rest of the nicknamed unit, from the caring but gruff “Sgt. Scream” (Erik Palladino) to “Dim” (Luke Macfarlane), a college-educated soldier with a floozy of a wife (Brigid Brannagh) back home.
In that respect, this is less “Combat” (though there’s plenty of that) than a large-scale soap, oscillating between the soldiers and families they have left behind, all the while capturing the hardships they face, from public-relations concerns to, in the second hour, the uncertainty of darkened cars racing toward military checkpoints.
Chris Gerolmo, whose credits include the brilliant HBO movie “Citizen X,” wrote and directed the pilot, whose foremost accomplishment lies in its authenticity. That ranges from the ethnically mixed unit (including an Arab-American, played by Omid Abtahi, who arrives in the second episode) to the overall look, from the green night-vision images we’ve become acclimated to on CNN to capturing daytime through a gauzy yellow haze, conveying an environment of oppressive heat and blowing sand despite shooting in Southern California.
A similar sense of realism lies in the soldiers’ disparate attitudes, and the youthful, well-cast ensemble is strong in conveying them. Allowed to videophone home, “Smoke” (Kirk “Sticky” Jones) complains about being in “the middle of downtown Shitville,” while Dim speaks of the war’s tragedy but “a kind of honor in it, too. A kind of grace.”
Inevitably, some Bush administration guard dogs will dub the series a liberal broadside, but there are too many shades of gray here for such labels to stick easily. Take the third hour, where an intelligence officer harshly interrogates a prisoner, and the unit can’t decide if the tactics qualify as excessive. “All I’m sure of is I don’t know,” Dim says.
That hour features a muscular guest perf by Michael Cudlitz, who last donned an Army helmet in HBO’s “Band of Brothers.” Comparing the clarity of that World War II mini to the gradations of “Over There,” producers Gerolmo (who also composed the strangely hypnotic title song) and Steven Bochco have risen to the challenge, crafting an hour that generally avoids preaching or picking off easy targets.
Much like the war in Iraq, it’s debatable whether “Over There” was a battle worth fighting, given the criticism it will surely engender. Once committed to the adventure, however, those responsible have, indeed, acquitted themselves with honor.