If you know anything about Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan, you know that it’s a “ground-breaking new series” and presents “war like you’ve never seen it before,” unless you saw Restrepo, but you probably didn’t, so shut up already. I’m not sure what exactly is so innovative about the camera apparatus shooting this show, but there’s an obvious tension between its big, loud, state-of-the-art Avatar style and its topical, low-key, personal Hurt Locker storytelling, as we follow the five-month tour of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. The producers obviously think the draw is the spectacle, this war zone reporting that not even CNN can deliver crossed with this aggressive, Spike TV release of manxiety. And true, the traditional war stuff is exciting as far as it goes, which in the premiere comes to exactly two explosions, each replayed from multiple angles because we’re competing with Michael Bay here. The thing is, that is war like we’ve seen it before, not just in film but in television and video games. It’s Minesweeper, if you wanna get structuralist about it. What’s new and interesting is the anthropological angle, just seeing what life is like for US soldiers on the frontlines the same way other reality shows give us glimpses of what life is like for hoarders, Bret Michaels, and “real” “housewives.”
Most importantly, our soldiers supply a lot of levity even though they’re surrounded by apocalypse, ahem, Walking Dead and every other drama on television. In spite of our very grave narrator, who says things like, “On an Afghan street, the enemy easily blends in with the local population,” these guys aren’t constantly thinking about how impossible their situation is. They’re drawing monkeys on the walls and fake-snoring as their buddy explains something and shouting, “Drive it like you stole it” over the comm. as they charge across/through a river. The only officer in the team, the telegenic Lt. Brad Penley, gives us a Cribs-style tour of their bunk, and above an American flag, a buddy wants to write, “America, fuck yeah.” Before their first excursion, Brad has this wonderfully human talking head: “If I get hurt or die, just, Mom, please don’t be mad.” That’s what’s compelling about this series, and if the producers don’t hype up the weird, funny, relatable stuff these guys do and say, at least they’re smart enough to keep it in the final cut.
Like so many politics-adjacent shows nowadays, Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan begins with George W. Bush, ten years ago to the month as he authorizes a strike in Afghanistan, and then speeds past Brian Williams through the many years over shots of, presumably, what’s to come in the episode or season like the Battlestar Galactica credits. Eventually, we find ourselves in the middle of some nocturnal mission. Night-vision gives us a video-game view of some trucks spotting unidentified figures moving in on “our guys” in some village. Tension mounts. Everyone’s getting nervous. And then shots are fired, first toward us, then from us, and a whole bunch of stationary shots are intercut like someone just completed the Griffith unit in film school, and then the let-down: “6 months earlier…” In media res has a function, but we literally just saw what’s to come. This is just desperate.
So now we’re at sunny, peaceful Coronado, California, as our six soldiers are preparing to leave. Brad’s wife just got back from her own deployment that morning, which they’re both weirdly happy about (spending a day out of a year together, I mean). Meanwhile 22 year-old Chase Holzhauer says he switched from the SEALs to the EOD program because he “thought it’d be fun to play with explosives and blow some stuff up.” Chief John Groat is the oldest at 44, and he echoes the sentiments of the youngest: “My expectations over there are to take care of things and to hurt people.” Then he remembers he’s on camera and adds, “And to get everybody back safely in one piece.”
Which brings me to the two inescapable themes of the show, politics and video games. When The Hurt Locker came out, everyone was falling over themselves to compliment its apolitical angle, as if not having an opinion on the controversial, life-costing, multinational expenditure of capital that is your subject (or at least your setting) were a good thing. Well, Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan is similarly apolitical on the surface, sticking with a comfortable Support Our Troopsism, but it has many of the same unsettling undercurrents. The upfront desire to get that adrenaline kick through violent spectacle, for one. It’s hardly chilling, at least not as it’s transmitted into our living rooms, but as the whole point of this “ground-breaking” show, it’s disconcerting. Then there’s the way the narrator and only the narrator calls the Taliban, “The Enemy.” I mean, nobody’s going to Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan Fuck Yeah to learn about foreign policy—the title makes it very clear what its intentions are—but it’s possible to present the situation without jingoism while treating the men and women there with humanity. Just look at Restrepo.
Even more interestingly, because this is one subject that isn’t a—wait for it—minefield, is how the show treats war like a video game. Actually, it doesn’t treat war like a video game. War literally is a video game. This week offers up two excursions that split the team in half, and all the action in the last half takes place from within their heavy trucks. Three find themselves in a Cops episode, getting reports of a disturbance, showing up to investigate, and finding a bunch of locals who each have an opinion on the matter. Apparently one of the Afghans told the Taliban not to plant the IED near a civilian house, to which the Taliban totally adhered (burying the bomb on a road right next to a building), so the civilian helped our protagonists locate the bomb, and they subdued it with a controlled explosion. Nice little subplot, but it was like James Cameron hijacked Kathryn Bigelow’s story, playing up every little thing as a game-changer.
The real meat occurs with the other team, as our young friend Chase operates the robot. Actually he blows it up in an uncontrolled detonation, correctly locating the IED trigger while accidentally pulling it anyway. The guys got their thrill. Brad: “Fuck!” Chase: nervous smile. Chief: “Whoops.” Chase sends Number Two out, but interference from the downed but not dead Number One renders its would-be rescuer dead in its tracks. So they send out a baby robot whose purpose is to remove the power supply from the first one. Which means Chase is watching a monitor as he controls the first-person view of his robot with a handheld Playstation controller, and this is his experience on the frontlines. It’s a good thing this airs on G4 or so many concerned parents would be organizing tomorrow.
The unsung success of Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan isn’t the imminent danger or the quiet way it reveals a pretty yellow-green Afghanistan unlike the Texas-looking scrub of Restrepo. It’s how it physicalizes the War on Terror ™. The way whole nations have declared war on geographically indefinite networks of organizations, this show whittles down into individual soldiers versus unmanned traps with unseen enemies, like stormtroopers vs. the Ewoks, unless that harmless pop culture analogy is too loyalty-testing, in which case, USA Number One! We open with Bush, and we close with a title card callback to his philosophy of open-endedness: “Two IEDs destroyed. Thousands remain.” It's no Samuel Fuller, but we get the drift. Best video game ever!