(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Phil Nugent checks out one of the top 10 cable shows, Army Wives. Next week, John Teti visits cable's second highest rated show, Pawn Stars.)
Army Wives premiered in the summer of 2007, accompanied by a wave of hype that one did not then associate with the products of the sleepy Lifetime channel. After the show became the biggest hit in the network's history, the president of its entertainment division, Susanne Daniels, was quoted as saying, “My mandate is to bring down the median age of Lifetime,” a remark that inspired The New Yorker's TV critic Nancy Franklin to respond, "You go, girlfriend—-you go on out there and proudly bring mediocre drama to a new generation of women!" At the time, writers looking to use the show as a hook for a trend piece did have a little more to work with than, "This is not your grandmother's Lifetime drama."
Because it's a contemporary dramatic series set among people living on a U.S. military base, whose families are involved in the military, it was assumed that the show would have to at least indirectly address the impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In mid-2007, there was a widespread feeling in the media that the public was eager for entertainment that would "make a statement" about the wars. This feeling had basically turned to ash by Christmas, after a string of serious-minded, or at least solemnly intended, movies on the subject (In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Lions for Lambs) had crashed and burned at the box office. But Army Wives has just kept chugging along, maintaining its ranking as one of the most popular original cable series, even as the trend pieces have dried up and been replaced by YouTube parodies.
The show centers on four women who have earned the right to go by the statistical classification in the title—Claudia Joy (Kim Delaney), Denise (Catherine Bell), Roxy (Sally Pressman), and Pamela (Brigid Brannagh)—as well as a token army husband: Roland (Sterling K. Brown), who is married to a Lieutenant Colonel and works as a psychiatrist, counseling soldiers who've been in the shit and evaluating their readiness to be sent back overseas. They provide a handy cross-section of Americans of different classes and backgrounds, and you're meant to recognize that these people, who are mutually supportive and come to each other's aid in times of crisis, would never be friends and probably have never even met, if not for the shared experience of having a loved one in uniform and waiting, always waiting, for that dreaded knock at the door.
It took until a few weeks ago, during the current, fifth season, for the knock to finally come. When it did, it wasn't to announce the death of a spouse but of Denise's son, Jeremy, who started out on the show as a teenaged pain in the ass and a constant source of friction between himself and Denise's husband, Frank. Over the course of the series, he'd been shaped into a fine, upstanding piece of cannon fodder, with a lot of help from Roland, the wise shrink. With Jeremy killed in Afghanistan, Denise and Roland seemed to be locked in a ferocious competition to see which of them could take it worse. Denise put in a valiant effort, regarding every physical object in sight as a reminder of her tragedy until she packed up her baby daughter and left the base for a lonely beach getaway, made all the more distracting by the fact that she was frequently seen cradling or rocking a blanket that clearly did not contain a baby, to the point that I started wondering if it was going to be revealed that the baby had died, too, and in her grief, she'd gone nuts and everybody was just humoring her while she was staggering around, cooing to the laundry as she held it in her arms. Was there some difficulty getting insurance for the use of an actual baby? Was John Landis doing second-unit work on Army Wives under a pseudonym?
But then, she is the kid's mother. Considering his clinical, professional relationship with the deceased, Roland's steady string of bug-eyed, sleepless nights on the couch and broken-down crying jags went way beyond the call of duty. He couldn't stop blaming himself for having helped Jeremy become emotionally healthy enough to get his brains shot out. His guilt began to affect his work adversely, making him incapable of signing off on anyone's readiness to go to war, angering his wife, who pointed out that, by being so picky about it, he was preventing his charges from doing "what they were trained to do, what they want to do!"
His therapist's empathy, and perhaps an excess of book learnin', seems to have made Roland the exception that proves the rule, if not exactly a traitor to his gender. Army Wives, which is addicted to dialogue scenes in which men and woman resort to all the stereotypical cliches at their disposal in order to miscommunicate, is largely devoted to the idea that men Just Don't Get It. Leading the league in not getting shit is the brusque, close-cropped Frank, who is stunned when it turns out that his grieving wife with the infant to take care of may not be 100-percent on board with him quickly returning to a combat zone in Afghanistan, even though he made a point of asking her if she was okay with it and he's sure he recalls her grunting something in the affirmative. "Don't you think I sometimes wish I could run away?" he asks after tracking her down at the beach house. That's a rich one, she tells him: "You are running away." Going halfway across the world to get a close-up look at the newest developments in improvised explosive devices is "the easy way out. You want to get back there so you can lose yourself in that damn war. That's what men do. You leave, and the women stay behind to bury the dead and bring up the rest."
At moments like that, and a later scene when Denise and Frank are gong through their son's effects and she's enraged at him for casually throwing away Junior's last used-up tube of toothpaste, Army Wives seems on the verge of diving head-first into the gory details of a marriage from hell, between two people who can never understand and barely tolerate each other but are incapable of just going their separate ways. Then someone will say the right thing and everything will turn on a dime: Denise and Frank find the letter their son wrote for them in case he didn't make it back home, and the next thing you know, they're fully healed and beaming as they witness the christening of their newest addition, the hole blown in their lives by their loss of their son neatly filled by the gift of new life. Frank also says something to Roland about how he never would have connected with his boy if they hadn't had that year in the service together and presto-chango: Roland, who hadn't thought to look at it that way before, feels all better and informs his wife that he can't wait to once again start giving young people the all-clear to light out for the Middle East and come back in a Hefty bag.
I've heard Army Wives described as a soap opera, probably by people who haven't seen any daytime soap operas lately and don't know how completely off the hook they've gotten in the post-Passions era. Army Wives is melodramatic, all right, but it's also consistently, stupefyingly boring, with the actors underplaying their roles in a way that doesn't make them any more credible but does guarantee that a subplot in which the spicy white-trash Roxy, who works at a bar called the Hump, goes in halfsies on a scheme to open a super-deluxe truck stop with a fellow called Shady can't generate even unintentional laughs. Kim Delaney is even less lucky. Her character lost her own teenage daughter, Amanda, in the first season (though not in combat), and when she follows Denise to the beach, something about her friend's pileup of tragedies seems to infect her brain, and it isn't long before she's gone from staring a little too long at girls who resemble her daughter to actually going up to strangers and saying, "Amanda?" in a hopeful tone of voice.
One of the most unrelentingly pissed-off movie reviews I've ever read appeared in The New Yorker back in 1972. Writing about Limbo, a Vietnam-era movie about the wives of American MIAs and prisoners of war, Pauline Kael wrote that it "take[s] up a 'dangerous'—that is, war-related—subject in absolute safety. The look of the movie tells us it's not about the effects of the Vietnam war on the wives and children of those absent men; it's not even set in the America that the war has torn apart. It's about the perennial plight of women trying to cope, and it's set in a calibrated, canned dreamworld in which we know exactly how to read each nuance of feeling, how to interpret every inflection."
I've never seen Limbo—it isn't available on DVD, and I don't remember ever seeing it on a video store rack or a TV schedule, as if some executive with a capacity for shame read that review 39 years ago and said, "Tell you what, let's round up all the prints we can find and take them out to the desert and just dig a hole, okay?"—so I don't know how it compares to Army Wives. But Army Wives does seem to be set in an "America" much blander and more chilled-out than our own. It has the quality of something utterly vacuous and unfelt that's extending its pinkie to make the slightest possible contact with something that's really going on in the world today, not because the show's creators care anything about the world today but because it gives their flavorless glop the illusion of having a point. The show is all cliches, in a way that some people may find comforting, and it's decorated with a light sprinkling of topical references, which may make them feel that they're paying attention to life outside their cubicles. (Claudia Joy--everyone always addresses her by both names, as if someone once just called her "Claudia," and instead of answering, she stared off into space and wandered into traffic--has one of those clueless, helplessly straight-talking husbands who's always shooting his mouth off and then being denied some promotion he richly deserves because of "politics". In a recent episode, his latest act of candor was used to justify a reference to General McChrystal, even though the guy never says anything you wouldn't be likely to hear in a junior high debate class.) The show may well trivialize the situation in Afghanistan and the families of those who may lose their lives to it; for that matter, the show probably trivializes the plight of those trying to get a bank loan so they can fulfill their life's dream of opening a really classy truck stop. Still, the total effect of watching the show is less enraging than narcoleptic. That might be reason enough to just be thankful for small favors.