A manly show about super-secret Special Forces officers and the women who love them, this muscular hour is neither the recruiting film it initially appears to be nor the gruff look at soldiering that might have been anticipated given its production auspices. Foremost, “The Unit” plays like “Mission: Impossible” for the war-on-terror age, with the humanizing twist of simultaneously focusing on military wives who sweat out each mission at home, relying on each other for emotional support. Well scheduled behind “NCIS,” series has a good shot at storming its Tuesday timeslot and holding that position.
Despite teaming David Mamet, who wrote the premiere, with “The Shield’s” Shawn Ryan, the series isn’t all about testosterone, making a concerted effort to appeal to women. Indeed, the first hour is largely filtered through the eyes of Kim (Audrey Marie Anderson), whose husband (Scott Foley) has just joined this highly covert team.
Safeguarding their husbands’ lives, she is told in no uncertain terms, requires virtually severing herself from the outside world, residing within the base community and fraternizing with other women grappling with the same scenario.
While the girls put on a brave front, the boys are off stamping out threats, in operations so secret their fingerprints never show. Leading them in the field is Jonas (an appropriately imposing Dennis Haysbert), whose assignment in the first hour involves a hijacked plane. In a subsequent episode, he must rescue missionaries from a war-torn hellhole.
Back home, Jonas’ wife, Molly (Regina Taylor), occupies an equally authoritative role, setting the tone for how these soldiers’ wives are to stoically behave and bringing the hammer down hard when Kim chafes against those restrictions.
Although there are a few Mametian flourishes (an apologetic soldier who messes up a drill is told, ” ‘Sorry’s’ what you tell your girlfriend when you finish too quick”), “The Unit” stays rooted on these parallel tracks — the underlying theme being the sacrifice endured by men in the armed forces and their families.
Yet if that sounds like the Fox News Channel with less bombastic music, the series is more textured than that — including a soapy twist in the premiere and a future installment devoted to testing whether Jonas will break under torture. That latter hour manages to incorporate the specter of Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison with sympathy for the military grunts, offering the best example of how the producers tap into shades of gray in a show that could easily lapse into black-and-white pandering.
“The Unit” is also elevated by its personnel, who are impressively cast from top to bottom — beginning with Haysbert, nicely handling his demotion from commander in chief on “24” to field commander here; and a steely Robert Patrick as his office-bound boss.
Based on a book by retired Command Sgt. Maj. Eric L. Haney, the series doesn’t break new ground, but it’s a notch above CBS’ procedural crime formula — if only because these dedicated cops have an entire world to police, one impossible mission at a time.