Remember those scenes on “The West Wing” when the Joint Chiefs assemble in the “situation room” to tackle some faraway threat? Reprise the tension with none of the intelligence, inject flag-waving machismo and high-tech imagery, and what’s left is this Jerry Bruckheimer drama. Given its mindset, there’s frankly too much jawing and not enough cracking heads in the first two episodes, at least if the show is going to appeal to an action audience as well as those who simply enjoy seeing Benjamin Bratt in a snug uniform.
Bratt plays Major J.T. Tinewski (there’s a joke about the Polish surname in episode two), a just-returned-from-Afghanistan Special Forces officer assigned to “the outer and most important ring” of the Pentagon. Since there are five rings, here’s a guess they’re arranged alphabetically.
Even before his scheduled first day, a sudden crisis (and one suspects there will be a lot of those) summons J.T. to meet tough-as-nails boss Colonel McNulty (Dennis Hopper), a can-do guy who wants stuff done “ASAFP.” McNulty is the kind of red-blooded officer who dismisses environmentalists as wanting to save “gay whales” and listens to “Free Bird” in his office.
In the premiere, a Chinese spy attempts to escape Shanghai, possibly with secret documents, while top brass debate whether it’s worth risking an incident to extract her. Episode two involves a covert operation in Uzbekistan to “snatch and grab” an arms dealer.
Writer David McKenna co-created the show with military veteran-turned-CNN security analyst Ken Robinson, and they delight in tough-sounding jargon. Too bad most of it’s so stiff, from Tinewski saying, “Nine minutes is an eternity,” to a higher-up barking, “The road to hell is paved with initiative, Colonel!”
Although the series characterizes the vast bureaucracy of the Pentagon as multiple tribes “competing against each other for the Sec-Def’s love,” the tone is so deferential there’s never a sense that the commanders won’t come around and do the right thing.
On a more basic level, “E-Ring” proves rather static. Bratt’s character has become a desk jockey, meaning he watches a monitor and tries to look pensive — while somehow still keeping his biceps flexed — as others execute the orders.
Hopper, meanwhile, almost cartoonishly channels a cross between Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” and George C. Scott in “Dr. Strangelove.” Aunjanue Ellis fares a bit better as his starched aide, and Kelly Rutherford jets in as a former conquest of Bratt’s — who now happens to outrank him at the Dept. of Defense — in the second hour.
As with “West Wing,” there’s an aspirational quality here, especially for red-state America — the idea that dedicated U.S. military personnel “Don’t leave anyone behind,” as Tinewski says, and have their act together, politics aside. The series is then garnished with the requisite Bruckheimer flourishes, from the ticking clock and whooshing satellite-eye view to pumped-up music and editing.
Beyond “Lost” and, come January, “American Idol” as looming threats to “E-Ring’s” commercial mission, the irony is that NBC’s plan to heat up “Wing’s” former slot with a meat-and-potatoes dish might be arriving late. After all, news out of Iraq and images from New Orleans hardly convey the sense of government clicking on all cylinders.
Then again, as Woody Allen once said, “Boy, if life were only like this.”