FX tried its damnedest to avoid what it knew were the pitfalls facing “Over There,” one of the riskiest TV series ever set in motion.
Because “Over There” was dealing directly with the Iraq War — the first time a TV series had ever tackled an American war while it was still exploding in daily headlines — FX made sure that the show played it down the middle, coming off as neither belligerently pro-war nor militantly anti-war.
FX commissioned one of the most respected TV producers in Hollywood, Steven Bochco (“NYPD Blue”), to create and produce it with Chris Gerolmo, a blue-chip screenwriter (“Mississippi Burning”) and director.
Twentieth Century Fox TV, the production company, drew up a generous budget of $1.8 million an episode, making it one of the most expensive basic-cable series ever mounted.
Laying out multiple millions of dollars to promote the season premiere on July 27, FX harvested one of the biggest ratings for a new-show debut in the history of cable, a gaudy 4.06 million total viewers. Most of the reviewers recommended it. The show is “smart and engrossing,” wrote Alessandra Stanley, TV critic of the New York Times, its battle scenes “expertly filmed.”
Three months later, “Over There” has staggered to the end of a 13-week run, its total-viewer count having shrunk to an unacceptable 1.6 million. The last episode aired Oct. 26.
The show hoped to draw more than a million young women every week by setting many of the scenes in Homefront, USA, where the soldiers’ families lived out their melodramatic lives. But after checking out the first episode, women deserted the show in vast numbers, presumably turned off by the graphic violence that made the combat scenes eye-popping but hard to watch.
Most observers echo John Barker, president of DZP Marketing, who says: “The odds were stacked against the show. It called up all sorts of turbulent feelings and made viewers uncomfortable, particularly if they had relatives in Iraq. For them, it was feel-bad TV.”
Joe Turow, communications professor at the U. of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, says he had a problem with what he calls “the lack of political context.” Turow compares “Over There” unfavorably with HBO’s “Rome,” which can shift from the personal drama of two soldiers in Caesar’s army to the skullduggery of senators in the Roman Forum hatching schemes to keep themselves in power.
By steering clear of the political big picture in the U.S., Turow says “Over There” dramatized only a portion of the complexity of the Iraq War.
Not taking sides also hurt “Over There.” A series like “MASH” (CBS, 1972-83) could get away with criticizing the ongoing Vietnam War because it removed itself to the safe distance of the decades-old Korean conflict.
And “MASH” was a comedy, putting it at a further remove from the murderous violence of Vietnam, says Bob Thompson, director of Syracuse U.’s Center for the Study of Popular TV. He adds that TV sitcoms with a military setting — like “Hogan’s Heroes,” “Gomer Pyle” and “McHale’s Navy” — tended to chalk up more viewers, and stay on the air longer, than the war-themed series like “Combat,” “Rat Patrol” and “China Beach.”
But Thompson liked “Over There” and dreaded FX’s cancellation notice. “Unfortunately,” he says, “creativity in TV usually means picking another city for the latest ‘CSI’ spinoff.”