Enlisted: “Prank War”
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A prank-stricken Rear D (Fox)
A prank-stricken Rear D (Fox)

Enlisted: “Prank War”

The summer burnoff gets off to a slow start

It’s been over two months since Enlisted was last on the air, and the news since then has not been good. Fox rolled out its schedule for 2014-15 a few weeks ago, and Enlisted was nowhere to be seen, shipped off to the farm upstate with Dads, Surviving Jack, Rake, and all the other shows that just couldn’t find a good home with an acceptable rating in the key demo. It’s a depressing realization, albeit one where it’s hard to argue a counterpoint, given its abysmally low ratings haven’t magically shot up a few points since the show went off the air. It looks like, barring a last-minute save from another network, Enlisted will finish out its run beloved but barely watched, and earn a consolation prize in becoming eligible for TV Club’s One-Season Wonders, Weirdos, And Wannabes series.

However, Fox is honoring Kevin Reilly’s promise that all of the episodes ordered will air. (One of Reilly’s last acts as Fox network chief, as he’ll be departing the network around the same time Enlisted does.) As such, there’s four more weeks of adventures with the Hill brothers and the troops of Fort McGee, to be burned off in the warm summer evenings. While the news of cancellation still stings, a sense of closure is a welcome thing for any television show, particularly one that earned so much affection in such a short time.

Unfortunately, enthusiasm for the return is tempered with the first round of the burnoff, which is an underwhelming episode by the standards of Enlisted. A large part of that comes because this episode has been on the shelf for a while: “Prank War” was one of the first four episodes sent to critics, and it was also the weakest of that batch, presented alongside such competition as “Randy Get Your Gun” and “Pete’s Airstream.” It hasn’t aged well since, continually pushed back in favor of episodes that have been funnier or more emotionally resonant. These details are likely irrelevant to the majority of Enlisted fans, given how long it’s been since the show aired, and it’s certainly not a terrible episode by any means, but even revisiting it after all this time, it fails to click the way the show does at its best.

The episode’s setup is a fairly traditional one, in keeping with the show’s underdog comedy veins. It’s prank season at Fort McGee, an unofficial holiday where the various platoons are given free rein to humiliate each other in the name of team solidarity, and Jill’s fired the first salvo by stealing Randy’s beloved platoon flag. She proudly proclaims her superiority over the Hills—“Pranks are my bullets, and my rifle’s always loaded! Pranks are my food, and I never go hungry!”—and once again goads Pete’s competitive spirit to the front. Unfortunately for him, his brawn and leadership skills make him utterly unequipped for something as anarchic and improvisational as this. (Case in point, he cites Wile E. Coyote as the greatest prankster of all time. Chubowski: “Good lord, he’s gonna get us all killed!”)

Derrick and Randy take over his education in pranks, and the ensuing training montage is Enlisted doing what it does best. The best part about the relationships between the Hill brothers is the way the balance of power shifts depending on the situation, which is both true of real siblings and also lets the actors cycle through multiple comedic beats. Derrick sews chaos amongst the troops with toothpaste Oreos and frozen urine saucers, Randy excitedly drills Pete with the cardinal rules of pranking—emphasizing his points with the occasional slap to the balls—and Pete emerges from the training a far more ruthless and assured prankster.

Unfortunately, where the episode falls down is in the implementation of these lessons. Despite a well-conceived prank involving a locked portable toilet and a trip to the middle of nowhere, Jill’s able to get in front of Pete again and mark up his entire unit with some horrifying makeup, complete with a pubic-hair pornstache on Derrick and JaMort duct-taped to the common area wall. The sight gag of the unit is hilarious, as are their individual reactions (Park: “They gave me Home Alone face.” Chubowski: “I look like Grimace!” Dobkiss: “I look like a child’s worst nightmare.”) However, the fact that Hills are so outmatched by Jill means the prank war loses the back-and-forth feeling that’s the most effective way to tell a story like this, and the pranks start to feel like bullying rather than an entertaining contest. And for all Cody’s early talk about how prank season is a crucible that builds bonds between sergeants and their platoons, that element of connection is entirely abandoned as an enraged Derrick forces Pete out and shoots down any idea of surrender.

Things get doubly uncomfortable once Derrick goes on the warpath and decides to use an ex-boyfriend of Jill’s, complete with an “I’m Bear-y Sorry” stuffed animal to twist the knife. It’s a bad idea to begin with, and it only gets worse once Jill reveals that this ex-boyfriend is dead, leading to a domino effect of awkwardness of each of the Hills tries to rub the prank in her face. (Plus, it ends with one more proof of her prank mastery, as the unit left their beers uncovered and exposed themselves to “intestinal distress.”) Whereas an episode like “Homecoming” had a feeling of team effort and cohesion, this plot trails off because there’s no win—symbolic or otherwise—for the Hills to take refuge in.

However, while the main plot has its share of bumps, the B plot manages to be a tour de force for Keith David. While Cody would deeply love to be part of the festivities and fish for rednecks alongside the Hills, he’s trapped in a series of mediocre office tasks thanks to the insertion of 2nd Lt. Schneeberger, who’s half Cody’s age but still outranks him. (Proving that continuity issues will never not dog this show, “Prank War” is clearly intended to be our first sighting of Schneeberger, whereas “Paint Cart 5000 vs. The Mondo Spider” drops the character into the world with minimal introduction.) Cody’s rarely in a position where he’s not in control, and being faced with Schneeberger’s unintentional arrogance about his rank draws a wonderfully simmering rage out of him with every teeth-grinding utterance of “Sir.”

Cody does eventually find a way to become involved in prank season, though not in the way he was expecting—Pete’s trap snares him and sends him out to the port-a-potty refurbishment center in the middle of nowhere. From here, the episode goes from military comedy to gritty war film as Cody finally gets to use his soldier skills, pulling out his knife and drinking from flowers to survive. David makes the most of this opportunity, delivering his lines with all the gravitas he infuses in his Ken Burns documentary narration, even with lines as silly as “A thousand portable toilets cooking in the sun. It’s like Satan’s easy-bake oven.” He also gets the best moment of the episode when his sighting of “sustenance” turns out to be a 24-hour restaurant, and he cheerfully decides to have breakfast for dinner. It’s almost enough to make one wish the entire episode had been about Cody surviving in the wilderness, especially when he returns to base to triumphantly win the prank war on Schneeberger.

Again, I suspect that most of you are so happy to have Enlisted back that structural problems don’t matter next to the comedic rapport and sharp writing, and “Prank War” has enough of both of those that it doesn’t raise any serious concerns about the show ending well. However, it still doesn’t manage to hit the highs that the show has proven it’s capable of, and with so little time left in this world, every moment needs to count.

Stray observations:

  • Hello again everyone! I’m thrilled to be back to see our Enlisted coverage to completion.
  • Speaking of the passion of Enlisted fans, a shoutout to My Vogon Poetry, who’s taken some of the show’s best quotes and made pretty terrific posters for each of them.
  • The most maddening part of Reilly’s ouster at Fox, courtesy of Vulture’s Joe Adalian: apparently he was this close to renewing Enlisted and was vetoed by his boss, Fox Networks Group CEO Peter Rice. You now know where to direct your angry letters.
  • Randy’s platoon flag: Pete’s a mighty hawk, Randy’s an eagle, and Derrick’s a raven “because ravens have trouble sharing their feelings.” JaMort’s the flamingo (“Ouch, pretty hurtful!”),  and Robinson is Robinson because she refused to participate (“A bird cannot capture my curves”).
  • Cardinal rules of pranking: Never sleep, never drink from an unsealed container, and always cover your junk.
  • Derrick is master of the long con. “I was taking in your pants one inch at a time. I learned to sew just to mess with you.” Pete: “I went to a fat camp in Arizona!” Derrick: “What can I say, I have a gift.”
  • “Gumble! We’re trying to figure out which is the best season of Breaking Bad!” “Glad you asked!” I suspect JaMort is a lively A.V. Club commenter in between violin practice and sand art. (And I’ll be sorely disappointed if the comments don’t turn into a discussion of this important topic. For the record, season three is the correct answer.)
  • Randy does not turn well on a dime. “Steve’s alive! I bet he loves fishing! … Ah, that hurt even more the second time!”
  • “I’m feeling hot and itchy. Is this what it feels like to be bad at something?”

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