Enlisted creator Kevin Biegel likes to surprise viewers by flipping the script on what they might expect from his comedies. He came up on Scrubs, a show that famously mixed liberal doses of weird comedy and genuine pathos, and he brought a variation of that mixture to Cougar Town, the first series he had a creator credit on. That show’s ultimate premise—a bunch of middle-aged people hang out and drink together—didn’t suggest much in the way of heartfelt moments, but at its best, Cougar Town was able to take a long, hard look at the way people keep growing up even as they’re growing old and at how friendship can be as important as family.
Enlisted has a tougher row to hoe. As a comedy set in the armed forces, the series has to contend with two fairly famous predecessors: the Bill Murray film Stripes—an agreeably wacky comedy—and M*A*S*H, the film and TV versions of which featured anarchy as their central comedic conceit before confronting the genuine tragedy and horrors of war. Adaptations of Stripes or M*A*S*H would be a no-go at just about any network right now, particularly with characters stationed overseas. The American military machine has become too much of a political hot potato to even affectionately mock, and Biegel doesn’t have a lot of established sitcom templates to upend here. Enlisted has both broad comedy and pathos; it’s a show that largely strikes out for its own territory. That it works as well as it does after only four episodes is genuinely surprising.
Biegel and co-showrunner Mike Royce (of Everybody Loves Raymond and Men Of A Certain Age fame) have chosen to make a show not about the military as a monolithic presence in American life, but about the kinds of people who are drawn to military careers, the guys whose fathers and grandfathers served and the people who have limited options otherwise. It’s a show that’s at times skeptical of what the military can do to people—one episode hinges on the question of whether it would be right to turn a sweet, empathetic kid into a stone-cold killer—while also understanding the value people get out of the camaraderie and brotherhood found there.
Enlisted rather pointedly isn’t set overseas. Its main character, Pete Hill (Geoff Stults), begins the pilot on tour in Afghanistan, but he’s quickly washed out for questioning a superior and sent to “Rear-D” duty at the fictional Fort McGee in Florida. Super soldier Pete doesn’t think much of having to deal with the mundane, everyday problems of the families other Army members leave behind at the base, nor does he seem too impressed with the ragtag band of misfits that serves under him. But he’s an Army man through and through, and he’s going to do his best to do his job, because that’s what he was trained to do.
Not being set overseas robs the series of some of its most incisive chances for satire or genuine tragedy, but it also allows the show to juxtapose the idea of the military being a brotherhood with the idea that it’s a group of people trained to be highly efficient killing machines. (There’s even a good joke about drone warfare.) The show doesn’t want to score political points, which will be a downside for both sides of the debate about global U.S. military presence. But in trying to be something of a workplace comedy about serving in the military—even on these shores—it manages to get at some of these issues in a sidelong way.
The show’s weakness in its first four episodes is its plotting. There are only so many stories to be mined in the sitcom format, but Enlisted doesn’t have as much fun as possible with its setting. (One episode even revolves around a prank war, a conceit that’s rapidly becoming tired as a source of single-camera comedy jollity.) The plots are fairly rote, and outside of one surprisingly effective emotional gut punch in episode three, they keep the show from truly reaching what it’s capable of.
However, that’s no matter, because almost everything else about the series is clicking on all cylinders even this early. For one thing, the show is remarkably, refreshingly funny, particularly when it gets a large number of its ensemble cast members together to bounce their odd personalities off one another. It’s weirdly reminiscent of NBC’s short-lived Go On, in that it pulls together an effortlessly diverse cast in service of some weird humor, before digging in for moments that at least attempt to be moving. (Enlisted is already much better on the latter count than Go On ever was.)
And the series also has a stealth weapon in its leading man and his most important supporting players. Stults reveals an unexpected gift for comedy as Pete, and both Keith David and Angelique Cabral work well as figures made of sterner stuff for him to but heads with. But it’s Chris Lowell and Parker Young as Pete’s brothers who make the show. Lowell’s sarcastic, “doesn’t want to be in the Army anyway” Derrick has a fun energy all his own, but it’s Young who’s already marking out spots on “best characters of 2014” lists as the naïve, sweet Randy. He’s an easily bruised piece of fruit the characters keep inadvertently taking swings at, and Young takes every punchline he’s handed and delivers it to perfection. Enlisted hasn’t realized all of its potential, but that it already has its characters in such good shape suggests much to anticipate for its future.
Created by: Kevin Biegel
Starring: Geoff Stults, Chris Lowell, Parker Young, Angelique Cabral, Keith David
Debuts: Friday at 9:30 p.m. Eastern on Fox
Format: Half-hour single-camera sitcom
Four episodes watched for review