I’ve said a lot in these reviews about how the reason Enlisted is so good at being a military comedy is because it’s a show that has a healthy respect for the real-life soldiers it draws inspiration from. And it’s not only a respect for the troops who are currently serving, it’s respect for the past generations of soldiers who have put their lives on the line. After every episode, the last screens of the studio production credits are paired with a different photo of someone in uniform, a close friend or family member of an Enlisted crew member who’s served in the armed forces they want to memorialize.
For the most part, Enlisted’s respect for veterans has been a subtle part of the show—little gestures like a tip of the beer bottle to a bar memorial for fallen soldiers or pride in obtaining the coveted veteran “slow-mo” salute in a town parade. “Vets” brings this respect to the center of an episode, though that’s only the tip of what that episode wants to do. It explores Pete’s suppressed baggage from service, Derrick’s reluctance to put forth any kind of effort, and Randy’s concern about whether or not he can wear hats, all tied up in a madcap caper affair. This episode balances the heart and the hilarity of Enlisted perfectly, and in that delivery serves up the freshman sitcom’s best episode yet.
Right away it’s clear that “Vets” is going to be something different, largely because the action shifts away from the unit proper and centers on the Hill brothers. It’s a welcome reorientation, as while they’ve been caught up in unit antics both of the elder Hills are carrying ongoing narratives on their backs and starting to feel the weight. Pete has yet to address the unspoken issues of PTSD first mentioned in “Pete’s Airstream,” avoiding the support group Cody pointed him in the direction of. And Derrick, despite obtaining the phone number of cute bartender Erin in “Brothers And Sister,” still hasn’t called her because he’s convinced talking to her will only wreck things. While Enlisted has shone as an ensemble comedy in recent weeks, the Hills are the center of the show, and despite continuity issues on Fox’s part it’s done a fine job laying the groundwork for these character journeys.
They’re brought to a point where they can’t get away from said journeys, as Cody revokes their Soldier Appreciation Day leave to serve as the hospitality division to three Korean War veterans in town for a fellow soldier’s funeral. Patrick (Stacy Keach, in his second Fox sitcom appearance this season after Brookyn Nine-Nine’s excellent “Old School”) is a hard-bitten vet who balances his memories of driving Jeeps with memories of decking smart-asses like Derrick. Russell (Barry Bostwick) is a delightfully befuddled old man who marvels at how tires have moved around the base, to Pete’s befuddlement. And Dan (Dean Stockwell) is a taciturn sort who assumes Randy could only be the way he is due to sniffing glue. All three veterans are wonderfully cast and subvert expectations immediately when their motor pool tour turns into a carjacking, their seemingly innocent questions to the Hills part of a scheme to get a Humvee out the door to parts unknown.
Or at least to parts familiar, as the vehicle is seen pulled up to the Claymore to share one last drink with the memory of their old platoon mate Sully. And that’s not all they have in mind: 60 years ago a Marine stole Sully’s unit coin from the bar, defiled it by placing it between his butt cheeks (A confused Randy: “Did they not have pockets back then?”) and took it to the town’s Marine bar as a trophy, and they’ve got it in their heads to get it back. Here’s where things really heat up for the episode as rather than play killjoy, Pete pulls out Hill Sr.’s unit coin, shares their family story, and says they’re all in on this mission. It’d be rote to have the brothers become unwilling participants, but previous Enlisted installments proves that the more committed everyone is to the base’s mischief, the better it is for everyone else involved.
This also lets the Hills form strong bonds with the veterans. The idea that these three vets are parallels to the brothers is an obvious connection to make, but Enlisted delivers it hilariously by having them pause for a minute and make those connections themselves in a musical chairs scenario. All three pairings of the old and young are fantastic, be it Dan and Randy excitedly singing together on the ride, Pete and Patrick trading stories about what they did to overly musical members of their overseas units (“You ever hear a man pass a harmonica into a camp toilet? That’s playing the blues”) and Derrick empathizing with Russell’s wish for death. Keach, Bostwick and Stockwell make the best kind of guest stars, ones who breathe life into the rest of the cast rather than sucking up all the oxygen.
The caper benefits from this energy as well, and the best parts of it are driven by the group’s most energetic member. Once Derrick storms into the Marine bar yelling taunts to make himself a target, Randy gets to be on the front lines where he’s always wanted to be, maybe not living out his original plan of undercover stylist (“They’ll call me Pepe! I’ll be the best barber ever, trading haircuts for secrets”) but still getting to play the hero. He leads the triumphant charge to take the coin from the bar wall, takes a punch on his helmet like a champ, and even recovers from an undignified bar flip to ensure the mission is completed with zero casualties. True, Randy’s hat-based motivations in the mission are less serious in comparison to his brothers, but it works because Parker Young is so damn good at making the most trivial things epic.
If Randy sees the sort of man he could be in Dan, his brothers see the men they may not want to turn into. That’s the remarkable part of “Vets”: you would expect that the old soldiers would impart wisdom on their younger counterparts and they’d learn from that, but Pete and Derrick realize that maybe those old soldiers aren’t sterling examples. Dan’s committed so heavily to avoiding risk that all he’s got in his life is imagined flirtation with a waitress, and Patrick can’t bring himself to go to Sully’s funeral for risk of dredging up painful memories. It’s an unexpected subversion of trope, and hits all the harder by how taken aback both Derrick and Pete are. (The latter in particular is a gut-punch, as the look on Geoff Stults’s face makes Pete look the youngest and least assured he’s looked all season.)
Sully’s funeral does indeed dredge some stuff up for its attendees, but it’s less about regrets they have than avoiding those regrets down the road. Randy decides that maybe he’s got it in him to be a hat guy and tries on a whole bunch of chapeaus (even a fez because fezzes are cool), and picks one that fits his head just right. Derrick realizes that he’d rather not wait until Erin’s son is in his fifties to give this relationship a shot, and extends his hand to the boy as Erin looks on hopefully. And Pete takes one look at Patrick’s empty chair and goes to fill one himself at the soldier support group, introducing himself with one simple sentence: “I have some stuff I don’t just want to live with.”
It’s gutsy and goofy at the same time, heartfelt without being a downer, and from a technical and comedic standpoint terrific in every way. This is Enlisted doing what it’s good at and what it feels it needs to do, and it’s the purest execution of both to date.
Speaking of the closing photos, this week’s honorees were Kevin Biegel’s grandfather (who was also depicted in Sully’s memorial portrait) and Mike Royce’s great-uncle Danny, both veterans of World War II. A slow-mo salute to both men.
I could have talked a lot more about Pete’s journey in this episode but I’ll leave that to Biegel, who wrote a tremendous essay in the Hollywood Reporter this week about his thoughts on death, PTSD, and getting help. Go read it—there’s no better evidence of the beating heart behind Enlisted.
As the unofficial arbiter of hats on television characters, I endorse Randy’s new working cap. It suits his energetic, good-natured personality.
Not a lot from the rest of the platoon this episode, but some good moments at the party captured thanks to Randy’s phone: They perfect the art of the “infinity beer” and JaMort wins the hot dog eating contest. “I’m America’s favorite wiener boy!” You sure are, JaMort.
Speaking of wieners, Cody’s misinterpretation of what a “sausage fest” means is an flawless source of comedy, culminating in an excellent Keith David punchline: “At least I didn’t let a bunch of old men trick me into giving them a Hummer.” To quote Derrick from the pilot, I’m not normally a fan of double entendres, but this has been a fun exchange.
This week in Enlisted spinoffs I’d watch: a show about Cody as motivational counselor, with his terrifying nice guy impression and the antics of “Footy” the fake foot puppet. “Don’t be a heel, tell me how you feel!” (Pete: “I’m gonna have to go talk to a counselor about this.”)
“Aaaaah, the light from Pete’s truth beams is so very bright!”
“Permission to think a disrespectful word!” “You have three seconds. After that you’ve gotta shake it off.” (Three seconds later) “Thank you Sergeant Major. Full disclosure, the word was ‘balls.’”
“Do it Pete, don’t make him skeleton spank you!”
“My best friend was six years old... when I was six. He was also black.”
“Marines, more Maronts! That one was weak but I’m terrified.”