“Six,” History’s scripted drama about special-forces soldiers, has a lot in common with its characters, who often have a clarity of purpose in the field that they struggle to find in other arenas. The show’s directors are adept at shooting action, and when the men of SEAL Team Six are on missions and in other high-risk situations, their motivations and actions are usually rendered with taut energy and fluid economy.
It’s when the narrative returns to the home front, or laboriously stitches together its overarching terrorism plot, that the show feels most predictable. Just as several of the soldiers excel in the field even as they flounder in their personal lives, “Six” works best as a portrait of military camaraderie and the cohesiveness of a unit under pressure. When it’s observing the rituals and training processes that turn these men into the warrior elite, or depicting the fraying of the tight-knit team’s internal loyalties, it achieves a sense of moderate momentum. But it’s less successful, at least in its first four episodes, when it comes home.
The drama’s signal achievement — and it’s not a small one — is that it depicts the day-to-day work of these men without being either hagiographic or overly harsh about what they do and why they do it. It’s not within this show’s mission to question the overall architecture of the United States’ war on terror. But like the sturdy Cinemax action series “Strike Back,” which explored similar turf, it does engage in some considered critiques of how the military machine uses — and overuses — the skills of some of its best fighters without necessarily being willing to deal with the mental and physical consequences the men and their families endure as a result of all those deployments.
In its depiction of one-dimensional villains, who are invariably African or Middle Eastern, “Six” falls into the kind of predictable (and lamentable) patterns that “24” did, especially in its later seasons. That said, the History series goes to some effort to give the women at the core of its key plots personality and some agency, despite the fact that the majority of the early episodes revolve around Boko Haram fighters kidnapping a teacher and some students from a Nigerian school.
SEAL Team Six — the show’s fictionalized version of the much-publicized military unit — gets involved in the situation in part because one of its former team members is taken hostage along with the teacher and students. Walton Goggins plays Richard “Rip” Taggart, who was a core member of the team but left under murky circumstances that the show takes its time to reveal.
It’s clear that there is still discord within the unit over actions Rip took in the field, and by the time of the Boko Haram attack, he’s a burned-out vet who has left the military. Hard-drinking and hollow-eyed, he’s working as a mercenary in Nigeria, protecting oil company employees he doesn’t respect as a way to pay the bills after his life disintegrated.
Goggins has a laconic and reserved charisma that “Six” uses well, and the actor does a fine job of depicting this mentally exhausted man’s moral calculations as he assesses the odds of surviving a very fraught situation. Though the SEAL team remains committed to its “no man left behind” philosophy, it becomes clear, via flashbacks, that Rip’s name is apt: He has left behind a tear in the psychological fabric of the team that refuses to heal.
The personal lives of a number of SEAL team members are depicted, but there’s not enough real estate to give the majority of the supporting characters the kind of depth or nuance they need to be memorable. There are two different bratty teen daughters on the scene, and though there are attempts to give two or three of the marriages some heft and texture, those are rarely the show’s most convincing moments.
Despite its rudimentary and superficial elements, there is something engaging about the earnestness of “Six,” which respects these soldiers enough to make them imperfect (even so, the use of racial slurs, while realistic, is jarring). Ultimately, however, the show’s only successful in a few of its chosen theaters of conflict, and it’s difficult not to long for the kind of hard-edged insights and the spontaneous energy of Goggins’ previous shows, “Justified” and “The Shield.”