In the Sept. 7 episode of “You’re the Worst,” Edgar, played by Desmin Borges, has some words of wisdom for a fellow military veteran who’s also a homeless panhandler. “Between you and me,” he says, “civvies feel super guilty around us veterans, so they’ve trained themselves to ignore us.” It’s one of many ways in which the FXX series, which started its third season on Aug. 31, is bucking a small and surprising truth: In a television era that is more diverse and inclusive than ever, the veteran struggles to be seen onscreen.
It’s a bit puzzling. Uniformed public servants are all over television, as are professionals that deal with cases of life and death. But while military personnel — a politically significant and quintessentially American constituency — are fixtures of the random fight sequence, when it comes to digging deeper into the personal experience and the aftershocks of combat, television is often silent.
Showrunner Stephen Falk has hinted that the new season of “You’re the Worst” will pay closer attention to Edgar’s difficult post-combat journey, examining how the stress of war led him to a heroin addiction and near-homelessness. At this point in the story, Edgar’s been clean for a few years, but the trauma is still lurking at the edges of his consciousness.
To be fair, it’s understandable that such stories are not seen on TV with regularity. War is not only a terrible, difficult thing to portray, it’s also a highly political topic. Saving lives and solving crimes — the subjects of so many other TV shows — can be controversial; military exercises, by nature, are always controversial. And veterans are reminders of a political reality that many find unsavory — engaging with them means engaging with ugly truths about war and its consequences for individual people. Today, the story of a soldier can touch upon class, rape culture, and psychology — difficult territory, to be sure, but important.
There are exceptions, of course. “Homeland” is probably the closest analogue the War on Terror has to “MASH,” the iconic Korean War show that tackled Americans’ misgivings about Vietnam. Although the Showtime show continues to play with questions of global relevance, none of its more recent storytelling has been as brilliant or as vital as the first season’s dissection of marine Nick Brody, the archetypal American hero who returns home after years in captivity.
|“Veterans are reminders of a political reality that many find unsavory.”|
“CSI: NY” and “NCIS” have done one-off storylines about veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. “The Good Wife,” also on CBS, did a few episodes about the bureaucratic entanglement around military operators of unmanned drones. But these are limited stories in both scope and character. Chris Marvin, who founded the veterans’ organization Got Your 6, told The New York Times he preferred the portrayal of a veteran in “The Mindy Project” (played by Seth Rogen) to the PTSD narrative in “CSI: NY” — he said Rogen’s character wasn’t a “broken hero” who is defined by his experience of war. Shondaland, too, has waded into these waters, with the combat PTSD storyline of Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd), the trauma
surgeon who had an on-again, off-again love affair with Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) over five seasons of “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Though they aren’t about current wars, some of TV’s most complex narratives about soldiers are in period pieces like “Peaky Blinders” and “Outlander,” which take more creative interest in the interiority of their characters than the average procedural. “Game of Thrones,” a fantasy that merely looks like the past, is far more invested in the aftermath and well-being of its battle-scarred heroes than are most modern-day depictions of the military.
More recently, the 2014 one-season wonder “Enlisted” took a comedic perspective on the difficulties returning soldiers have with reintegration, astutely observing that many of them are in line to be redeployed. In the episode “Vets,” Pete, played by Geoff Stults, chooses to attend a soldiers’ support group after meeting a trio of Korean War veterans who are still carrying around their damage. The implication is both that he doesn’t want to be like those older veterans, and that he’s probably going to have more to talk about as his military career goes on.
“You’re the Worst” is a very different kind of comedy. Unlike “Enlisted,” its humor is dark as night, and sometimes more painful than funny. The show’s great strength is that it is unafraid of messiness and complication — quite at odds with the cut-and-dry structure of procedurals and the pretty period fantasies that have featured combat trauma.
Unlike “Homeland,” “You’re the Worst” is primarily invested in telling the human story, not the global story. Its characters would probably be the first to tell you that they do not give a [expletive] about the wars overseas. It will be fascinating to see how Edgar’s story evolves this season, as it prepares to join the slim collection of veterans’ stories on television.