The highest-rated new drama of last season, CBS’ “The Unit” is the story of two cohesive teams: a covert ops Army branch deployed to the world’s hotspots, and the wives back home who must deal with the erratic, unsteady nature of their husbands’ jobs.
The ball started rolling when Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet sparked to the memoir “Inside Delta Force” by retired soldier Eric L. Haney, and believed the lives of such operatives held series potential. Mamet recruited “The Shield” creator-exec producer Shawn Ryan, who was hooked, especially by the notion of splitting dramatic duties between far-flung action and base politics. No one wanted a by-the-numbers military show.
“Since we’ve been fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, I’ve felt there’s been a disconnect between the public and the people who are doing the fighting,” says Ryan. “It struck me as a big difference from World War II days, when everything stopped and everyone contributed to the war effort. So I was really interested in delving into who these military families were.”
Having come from the more taboo-friendly FX, Ryan was expecting a behemoth such as CBS to be more hands-on, but he’s been pleasantly surprised.
“People warned me, ‘Wait till Les Moonves gets his claws into you,’ but they really know what they’re doing. And they’ve been proud of the work. This is a very different show for them, with a very ethnic cast, which you don’t see often.”
Because of Mamet and Ryan’s participation, actors were clamoring to get involved.
“We really had our pick,” says Ryan, who likes the mix of familiar faces such as Robert Patrick and Scott Foley, with unfamiliar ones such as Audrey Marie Anderson, who plays Foley’s wife. But it all starts with series lead Dennis Haysbert, who “carries such gravitas and trust with him,” says Ryan. “And we’ve been able to showcase his humor in a way that ’24’ didn’t have a chance to do.”
Mission stories, inspired by producer and technical consultant Haney’s exploits, have ranged from Panama to Europe to the Middle East, with L.A. County’s hills, deserts and waterfronts standing in every time. “Our production team has pulled it off so brilliantly, I began to take it for granted,” Ryan laughs. With decades of honed storytelling acumen from plays (“Glengarry Glen Ross”) and movies (“The Spanish Prisoner”), Mamet has encouraged the writers to reduce exposition to a minimum and maintain focus when breaking stories.
“He’s a big believer in giving your audience a lot of credit for figuring things out,” says Ryan.
One day, Mamet deemed the one-line call sheet descriptions that explain a scene — usually written by an assistant director — to be brilliant enough distillations that the writers should start coming up with them during the script process.
“He said, ‘When you do that, all you have to do is stay true to that line for the rest of the scene,’ ” Ryan recalls. “He found a tool from the call sheets to help the writers, the directors and actors as well. He just challenges the notions of how things are done.”
Best episode: “SERE,” in which the unit is unknowingly thrown into the roles of POWs for a simulation exercise, which leads to a grueling, sharp exploration of psychological and physical torture..
Most complex character: Undoubtedly all the wives, since Molly (Regina Taylor) fell for a con artist, Tiffy (Abby Brammell) has been cheating on her husband, and Kim (Audrey Marie Anderson) has been testing the boundaries of wifely groupthink.
What should happen next season: After obviously dealing with the security breach that led to the violent finale, the show should continue mining the temptation of higher-paying private security firm jobs for unit members, a potent subject in today’s outsourced military