There’s a fine line between tribute and exploitation, between mining contemporary territory for drama and using the troops shipped off to Iraq as emotional packaging for a primetime soap. FX tiptoed along that edge without toppling over in the laudable if too-close-to-the-bone “Over There,” and now Lifetime seizes on the war with considerably less ambition in “Army Wives” — a stereotypical sudser that wants to be “From Here to Eternity” but feels like “All My Children: Military Edition.” One suspects the show, inherited by new Lifetime chief Andrea Wong, will need to prove itself quickly or face redeployment.
Adapted by Katherine Fugate from Tanya Biank’s book, the series follows the wives (and as in “Over There,” one husband) who live with the constant dread of knowing their spouses can be called up to serve abroad, with all the minidramas that engenders.
The characters, however, appear derived from a lineup of war movie cliches: the saintly Claudia Joy (Kim Delaney); abused Denise (Catherine Bell); fun-lovin’, wrong-side-of-the-tracks Roxy (Sally Pressman); struggling Pamela (Brigid Brannagh); and patient Roland (Sterling K. Brown), whose wife Joan (Wendy Davis) is experiencing signs of post-traumatic stress and hitting the bottle.
Bringing these women together is Pamela’s pregnancy, which, in the show’s one novel twist, is actually a surrogate birth, because she and her husband (Jeremy Davidson) desperately need the money. Like Roxy — who shows up to a courtly tea in a bare midriff and extremely short skirt — Pamela’s condition sets gossipy tongues wagging, forging bonds between the newcomers as well as Claudia Joy, who takes them under her wing.
Clearly, there’s fertile material in the toll military life can exact on relationships, but as constructed, “Army Wives” too often feels like a hollow dramatic device — burdened with been-there, heard-that dialogue like “How long before everything feels normal again?,” which elicits the answer “It never does.”
The not-quite-saving grace comes from the earnest performances, with series pros Delaney and Bell supported by the vivacious Pressman and angst-ridden Brannagh. That said, there are still some wince-inducing moments, including a third-episode sequence in which the women sip wine and discuss nicknames for their vaginas. (If that’s standard out-with-the-gals chatter, I’d rather not know.)
Lifetime has made some inroads with primetime series, extending its brand beyond a long-held niche in female-oriented movies; still, a show tackling an area as thorny as the war in such benign, once-over-lightly fashion reflects one of those instances where there’s more courage in the decision than the execution.
At a certain point, the soapy qualities could kick in and bring these characters to life, but as it stands, “Army Wives” feels as empty as expressing “Support the troops” sentiments on a bumper sticker.