The increasing demand for cable-television content means the rise of more and more specialized networks to fill that vast, ever-expanding bandwidth. Interested in watching only programming that caters to your interest in professional horseracing, lawn-and-garden maintenance, or the specific sensibilities of Oprah Winfrey? There are now entire channels devoted to nothing but—all self-contained ecosystems existing far beyond the perimeter of mainstream TV, all populated by foreign civilizations of personalities harboring their own unique languages, value systems, and ideas of what constitutes entertainment. Most of these go completely undiscovered, happened upon only by an accidental slip of the remote and quickly fled after an exclamation of “What the hell am I watching?” TV Outland cuts a machete-swath through the TV thickets, and explores the strange indigenous tribes living just out of sight on your cable package.
The channel: The hawk in the Discovery Channel army of networks, Military Channel dedicates itself to all things soldierly through a nonstop bombardment of shows about warfare. It began life as Discovery Wings (a brand extension of the long-running educational series about the history of aircraft), and was rebranded in 2005 as a catchall home to the network’s growing backlog of war documentaries. But unlike some of its similarly themed competitors—in particular, A&E’s Military History channel, which delves into famous battles from ancient Rome, medieval times, etc.—Military Channel mostly narrows its focus to warfare since World War I, and concerns itself primarily with American troops.
And also with “America, fuck yeah”: Much as Discovery proper swapped out its “Explore Your World” tagline in favor of the far less demanding “Entertain Your Brain,” Military Channel balanced out its archival history by increasingly focusing on the totally awesome side of armed combat. That means developing more and more programs that examine, or even celebrate, weapons themselves, rather than the people they kill. Basically, if it blew and/or blows up real good, you’ll find it on Military Channel.
Target audience: The USO sponsorship and frequent veterans’-group ads confirm that Military Channel appeals strongly to current and former service members and their families, whose lifelong devotion to the cause makes them a built-in audience. Not to mention they’re among the few, the proud, the able to understand some of the more arcane jargon that gets tossed around. And given how many commercials there are for trucks, power tools, and “enhancement” pills, the programmers apparently assume that the majority of their viewers are male. (Among the rare female products: a Trojan vibrator, just the thing to keep her busy while you’re checking out some guns.) This is mirrored in programming so dominated by masculine voices that when the rare female officer or strategist appears onscreen, it’s actually sort of jarring. Of course, you don’t have to have a penis or a military pension to enjoy the network, but it helps.
What’s on: Like ragtag allies pulling together in service of a greater cause, Military Channel’s lineup is a dirty two dozen hours indeed. The eager young recruits of its original programming mix in the trenches with salty old vets, plus a handful of British recruits who are always bringing up World War II. As befitting its origins, many of these more experienced shows hail from the Discovery Channel: Future Weapons, Weapon Masters, Nazis: The Occult Conspiracy, Clash Of Wings, Unsolved History, and Surviving The Cut are entering their third or fourth rotations, unsure when their tour of duty will end.
Meanwhile, Britain does its part by sending older documentaries like The World At War, World War II In Color, and Secrets Of World War II—a series that currently accounts for so much of Military Channel’s time, it deserves some sort of special commendation. And during the night-watch shift, random volunteers fill in, like chapters of Discovery’s Moments In Time series on Jamestown, or the Irish potato famine. In those darkest hours, after all, it just needs some sentry out on the line.
Perhaps as a nod to the unpredictability of war, the schedule is seemingly always on the move, its shows rarely in the same place twice during an average week—because that’s just what they’d expect us to do. But while the network is given to bunkering down and focusing for hours upon hours on a specific conflict (World War I, World War II, World War II, did we mention World War II?), overall, it aims for an even split between history and present—the chronology of how yesterday’s battles shaped our current landscape, and the science of how today’s weapons are blowing it to shit.
The viewing week: One of Military Channel’s few guarantees is that the weekends are set aside for R&R with An Officer And A Movie, a program where actor Lou Diamond Phillips presents a war film from the archives—everything from classics like Kelly’s Heroes and PT 109 to the more modern Windtalkers and Hart’s War. Phillips then interviews active and retired officers about the specific conflicts depicted in the films, as well as their larger themes.
At first, Phillips seems like an odd choice for the show, apart from the fact that he was probably reasonably priced. After all, his own combat experience is limited to starring in stuff like Courage Under Fire, or to a lesser extent, Stargate Universe. But Phillips is also the son of a naval officer and an outspoken advocate for veterans’ rights for Filipinos, and he obviously has deep respect for the service, evidenced in the way he’s sure to address all of his guests as “sir.” He also makes a surprisingly adept interviewer (thanks, no doubt, to a great research team). He likely got the gig because of his celebrity name, but he’s admirably far less interested in himself than he is in his subjects.
But while those interviews often help place the specific events of a film in a larger context, they’re just as often like watching a movie while your irascible grandpa points out everything those Hollywood know-nothings got wrong. But given that many war films, particularly older ones, were little more than rah-rah jingoism, credit is due to Military Channel for finding a way to examine them honestly with the people who actually know what they’re talking about. Plus Lou Diamond Phillips.
Gary Sinise is another actor who’s never set a non-costume-designed combat boot on the ground. Yet, as he’s done in army recruiting ads and various other documentaries, the erstwhile Lt. Dan once more lends the grizzled, thousand-yard-stare of his voice to Missions That Changed The War, a miniseries examining a handful of pivotal operations that shaped the outcome of World War II. Missions debuted last year, but it remains a stalwart on the Military Channel, each of its three chapters broken up into four-episode blocks that typically air in succession. Each one centers around interviews with the men who survived those missions: members of the celebrated Flying Tigers who defended Chinese airspace from Japan; the co-pilot and navigator who flew “The Doolittle Raid,” America’s morale-boosting retaliatory attack after Pearl Harbor; and in its most fascinating first chapter, the highly decorated Luftwaffe pilot Günther Rall, whose skills earned the admiration of the many American and British adversaries he tried to kill.
The late Rall in particular was such a constant presence on both Discovery and Military Channel documentaries, there are few revelations left to anyone familiar with his story. And spreading each subject’s story out over several chapters leads to frequent redundancy and filler material. But with all its geeking out over firsthand specifics on the fit and feel of cockpits, for example, Missions is a show tailor-made for WWII buffs whose interest tends toward the technical.
For those fascinated by the more human side, Military Channel offers two shows that examine WWII from rarely explored angles—which is no mean feat. The first, Nazi Collaborators, looks at the many people who had a hand in Adolf Hitler’s reign, but whom no one ever really speaks about, like the Jews who willingly fought in his armies, or the Irish Republican Army, who colluded with Hitler’s forces against Great Britain. While few episodes qualify as revelatory—most people already know, for example, that Vichy Prime Minister Pierre Laval was a craven slimeball—Nazi Collaborators has a pleasingly sensationalistic, ominous tone that titillates the “conspiracy theory” pleasure center. (Alas, you won’t hear anything about Hitler’s secret collaborations with space aliens. This isn’t the History Channel.)
The network’s other look at the wind beneath Hitler’s wings, the British import Hitler’s Bodyguard, examines how a man so fiercely hated, even by his own subordinates, managed to go 25 years without being assassinated. The obvious answer is that he surrounded himself with human shields, starting small with a handful of thugs, then working his way up to an army of thousands he never left the bunker without. But the fun of Hitler’s Bodyguard—and with the way it makes Hitler out to be the rascally Bugs Bunny of horrible dictators, it is sort of morbid fun—is in the recounting of all the times Hitler came so close to getting whacked. Parade routes are reconstructed via CGI, photographs and rare archival footage are highlighted to reveal potential assassins, and classified documents and eyewitness survivors detail all the failed plots with a “that darn Hitler” shake of the head. There’s a strange undercurrent of respect there, as Hitler’s Bodyguard demonstrates, time and again, that Hitler escaped mostly thanks to dumb luck and his own erratic behavior.
While its programs focusing on the past mostly tend toward the personal, Military Channel’s look at modern warfare is far more detached and scientific—or more often, simply awed. This is evidenced in shows like Modern Sniper, a four-part series examining the role of the sharpshooter in each branch of the military, and Toughest Military Jobs, which takes a whoa-dude approach to gawking at everything from giant combat planes to the badasses in Marine RECON units, all set to a perpetual loop of kickin’ hard-rock guitar-squeals. Both shows essentially function as recruiting ads, never venturing far beyond the training camps, or showing anything but footage of awesome things being awesome.
That excitement reaches a fever pitch in Military Channel’s Top Ten, which devotes each episode to ranking the greatest-ever machine guns, bombers, tanks, etc. in a gushing Casey Kasem-style countdown. Arguments that presumably have raged on for years in places where such things are argued over are settled here by various historians, military tacticians, and random folks like “Tom Clancy’s personal researcher,” all of them weighing in on their personal favorites, and sometimes even testing them in the field, shredding innocent watermelons and not-so-innocent cinder blocks. Should you and your buddy be in a stalemate over your refusal to accept the M2 Browning as the best machine gun ever, Top Tens will put it through a five-point matrix assessing such things as effective range and rounds-per-minute, thus proving scientifically that you’re crazy, man.
Melding these dueling sensibilities of past and present, empathetic and detached is Greatest Tank Battles, a show that restages some of history’s most notable tank-driven conflicts using CGI animation. That lends the proceedings a Call Of Duty vibe that mostly removes the human element, but this is slightly ameliorated by bringing in some of the people who actually drove those tanks to put things in context. And while it’s difficult to convey the gravity of war when you’re being interrupted by exploding cartoon tanks, the show’s balance between gee-whiz recreations and testimony to the human drama is a good example of Military Channel’s overall M.O.
Signature show: But the current paragon of what Military Channel has to offer would have to be Commanders At War. Focusing on a single skirmish between two famed military leaders, the series offers a detailed deconstruction that combines elements from the whole of the network’s playbook. Two modern-day military leaders are brought in to “get inside the heads” of their historic counterparts, while actors stand in for them, providing re-enactments of the faces they imagine they made while making decisions. Those decisions, meanwhile, are represented mostly through illustrations, such as cardboard cutout soldiers and planes sweeping across maps, their battles represented by tiny cartoon fires.
And while that all sounds a bit goofy, Commanders’ real strength is in its cutaways to practical analysis. Various experts enter the field for enlightening demonstrations of equipment and endurance—for example, loading up test subjects with the precise gear a 1942-era British soldier would have carried, then marching them on treadmills for an hour to explain how stamina played a role, or hiring a rugby team to recreate Japanese soldiers building a makeshift bridge during the Battle Of Singapore to demonstrate how much real time and energy it would expend. It’s a Mythbusters approach that does a well-rounded—and entertaining—job of explaining how wars are won. And it’s a balanced formula that Military Channel would do well to apply to more shows in the future.
Defining personality: Though his name-making show, Special Ops Mission, hasn’t been on the air for a while, former Army Ranger and Air Force Pararescueman Wil Willis returns to Military Channel with Triggers: Weapons That Changed The World, examining the many guns that have shaped warfare over the years. And pretty much by default, Willis is the most representative face of the network: He’s a dyed-in-the-wool military man who, for all his appreciation of the seriousness of combat, also seems to believe that war is kinda fun. Unfortunately, viewers haven’t had much of a chance to get to know him. Special Ops found Willis engaging in strategic exercises—games, really—against other elite members of the armed forces, huffing and sweating his way through terrorism simulations where there was no time to talk. But Triggers promises to get Willis away from scenarios where he can only communicate through whispers into his gun-mounted camera, and into a more traditional hosting role.
In the meantime, there’s really only one true, awfully familiar “face” of Military Channel: Adolf Hitler, a man whose life is pored over hourly with alternating rancor and grudging admiration. Hitler’s influence is so strong that even shows that aren’t ostensibly about him often tumble down the Hitler-hole, as he lurks in the background of seemingly everyone’s story. (And whenever he isn’t onscreen, all the other characters should be asking, “Where’s Hitler?”)
Signing off: In many ways, you can’t fault Military Channel for, like so many of its documentary-driven brethren, giving itself over to Hitler obsession. For one thing, such networks often attract an older audience who find nostalgic comfort in WWII—the last time America knew what the hell it was doing—and for whom the sounds of exploding Panzers are like the gentle whispers of the rain forest, shushing them into afternoon naps. Thornier conflicts like Vietnam, on the other hand, only angry up the blood, which is why it’s barely mentioned, only touched on tangentially in documentaries like Fallen: Gone But Not Forgotten, where the messy mechanics of the war are glossed over in favor of paying tribute to the soldiers we lost there.
But Military Channel is perhaps doing itself a disservice by focusing so squarely on the safe, distant past, particularly on an era that’s already being covered on half a dozen other channels. And while obviously it would be difficult (and controversial) to attempt to put the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East into the same historical or political context, it would still be interesting to see more thorough examinations of the tactics of modern warfare, rather than the current approach of just hanging back at the training camps, drooling over the weapons. That’s a niche no other network is filling right now, and done correctly, it could help make those overseas conflicts more real to an American audience so often accused of simply tuning them out. As shows like Commanders demonstrate, Military Channel already has well-rounded analytic weapons in its own arsenal. It would do well to take them out occasionally and pull the trigger.
Up next: In honor of Baby Jesus’ birthday, we look at the Christian kids’ network Smile Of A Child.