Who doesn’t love a good underdog sports movie? When done right, it’s one of the most inspiring stories you can put to film: a ragtag collection of misfits, forced to put aside their differences and learn to function as a team. After a series of mishaps, misadventures and some moments of utter lunacy on the field/court/track, they realize how their strengths complement each other and they’re able to function as a team when the moment calls for it. There’s a climatic event wherein the clearly superior enemy is vanquished, the team is showered with glory, and one or more characters get the guy or girl they’ve been chasing. Alternatively, should they fail to win they still achieve an internal victory that in its own way counts for more. (See Cool Runnings for one of the finer executions of this approach.)
Given that Enlisted is at its core a show about a bunch of misfits, it makes sense that a similar vein of underdog success runs through its world. The pilot episode explored the idea with the war games against the Italian platoon, although that was played as less of a serious competition and more a part of Pete coming to terms with his new position. “Homecoming” takes things a step further by making a game the center of the action, and it works even better as a team effort because it forces the entire team to step up and reach a goal. And, in a way that continues to feel effortless on the part of the Enlisted creative team, it finds a way to weave the realities and unique traits of life on an army base into a traditional comedy narrative.
The game in question is the annual flag football game played for charity against the Marines, a game that Cody’s troops have been on the losing side of for the past decade—not having even scored once in the last four. This history means that Cody, after a few episodes of being the hard-nosed yet supportive commanding officer, gets to play more broadly comic beats thanks to his running bet with his Marine equivalent (Geoff Pierson, Captain Matthews from Dexter). Cody normally makes a habit of trying to stay removed from his soliders’ antics, and making him the driving force behind those antics nicely stirs up the status quo. The prospect of having to pose in front of a kitten poster (“In a stupid sweater!”) makes him seem desperate, and while we knew he was insightful it’s nice to see he can be human too.
Cody’s not willing to play dirty but he is willing to use every tool in his arsenal, which includes supplanting Jill with former star high school quarterback Pete. Pete’s buoyed by the idea of reliving his glory days, and it’s a fresh burst of egotism from the character as once again he feels like the alpha dog amidst a crop of rejects. Here, the natural goofiness of Geoff Stults takes over, as what could be asshole behavior is undercut by the silliness of the presentation. There's a half-shirt that shows off his ab muscles which he stubbornly refuses to remove, constant replays of his famous spinning plays that slow down the scene every time, and old game footage with the added chyrons “M V Pete”. (Jill, unimpressed: “Do you want to be alone with these tapes?” Pete: “I wouldn’t hate it.”)
And it’s also helped by the fact that Pete’s taken out of the game way before it even starts—the previously-cited shrapnel in his shoulder making it debilitatingly painful to throw even one pass. This takes him out of the role of star player and into the role of coach, which is a more natural role for the character because he has to deal with far more attendant frustrations. It also moves the increasingly excellent ensemble to the front in a series of disastrous training scenes, from Chubowski’s football labor to a round of quarterback auditions to the blank stares as Pete has to cut all of his core gameplay tactics down from 30 to three. Their varied reactions work well as character development: Chubowski possesses moments of quiet but badly timed insight (“In these troubled times we need laughter”), Dark Park’s fearlessness extends to threatening an entire detachment of Marines, and Dobkiss is a firebug who’ll nonchalantly stand next to a burning target and say it wasn’t him.
The stakes may be high for Cody, but they’re even higher for Derrick, whose relationship with Claymore waitress Erin (Jessy Hodges) is entering its first major test. Erin’s ex-husband is serving overseas in Afghanistan, and all her son Sam wants for his birthday is to see his father again. The Enlisted creative team has stated that this episode was supposed to air later in the show’s run, so there’s obvious context missing to how long Derrick and Erin have been in the relationship, but other than some lack of investment in the stakes of said relationship the beats still work. Derrick’s primarily an antagonistic force, so watching the character squirm when forced to do the right thing is always entertaining—see “Randy Get Your Gun” for a fine example—and his talks with Sam prove Chris Lowell trying to interact with children is a comedic well that should be tapped early and often. (Sam: “I want to see my dad, but he’s at war.” Derrick: “OK, let’s start over.”)
Unwilling to be the bad guy and taking his brothers’ advice that a grand gesture is necessary, he reluctantly suggests he might be able to bring Sam’s dad home on leave, a suggestion to which Cody delivers a belly laugh that’s outright infectious. That is, until Randy pops his head in to inject some thoughts on one of his favorite subjects—the image of a solider coming home to greet his family—and paints a picture of a game day reunion so moving Cody’s willing to make the calls. (And staying in character, as he’s less moved by Derrick’s pleas than by the idea of getting an emotional victory over the Marines.) Pairing Derrick and Randy up continues to be a good choice for Enlisted, as Derrick’s lazy yet practical approach to things clashes with Randy’s often irrational enthusiasm.
Both stories come to a head on game day, as Sam’s dad is nowhere to be seen and Pete’s team proves to be about as well-equipped to face the Marines as you’d expect (“Seven points is nothing! … 28 points is nothing. ... 56 points isn’t nothing”). Refreshingly, the latter story finds a resolution that manages to find triumph without straining credulity. The reveal that Cody altered the bet to win if the team could simply score switches the terms of victory back to a reasonable one, and one that allows Pete to go back into the game to make the big “game-winning” play. And even better, it doesn’t try to miraculously cure Pete’s injury but turns it into a tactical move, as he distracts all the Marines with his screams of pain so Chubowski can catch the ball and run in for the touchdown. It’s the underdog sports story triumph: There’s cheering, hugs and fists raised triumphantly into the air, while the announcer (real-world Fox Sports sideline reporter Pam Oliver) seems utterly baffled by the reaction: “It’s an inconsequential touchdown, and they’re celebrating for no reason!”
Next to that, the eventual reveal of Sam’s dad comes across as a bit anticlimactic. Partially that’s because of the aforementioned limited investment we have in the characters to date, and partially because it’s a foregone conclusion at this point—there’s no way a show as positive as Enlisted is going to have Randy’s plan not succeed and the mascot switch not work out. It still works on an emotional wavelength, the Rear D team unable to stop sobbing at the sight and Derrick showing off conflicted emotions about the lengths he went to get his girlfriend’s ex-husband back, it just lands lighter than it could have. Though given that Erin gives him a grateful kiss at the end, it’s a good sign for that relationship going forward—given Derrick’s lack of military commitment, a personal commitment is a good way to generate stronger stakes for his stories.
And that’s not even the best part of the episode’s emotional coffee, as the closing scene finds a way to pay off why Randy’s so invested in the idea of troops coming home: he never got to experience it himself. Pete and Derrick are able to make that come true for him, thanks to a video recording of one of Hill Sr.’s last homecomings when their mother was still pregnant with Randy. After so much heartfelt crying at reunions, all three brothers are left blinking back tears at this simple interaction, and it’s that moment of unity that lets “Homecoming” close solid.
- PSA time: Operation Gratitude, the charity mentioned on the banner hanging at the game, is a real charity that sends care packages to soldiers serving overseas. Thumbs up to the creative team for finding a subtle way to draw attention to a worthy cause.
- More good news in the ratings, as the decision to slot Enlisted after Bones proved to be the right one. Last week, it rose to 3.2 million viewers and a 1.0 in the key demo. Definitely an encouraging development, if one that makes Fox’s decision to flip Bones back to Monday all the more baffling.
- The eagle-eyed among you will notice that Erin’s ex-husband is played by Brandon Routh of Superman Returns (and Partners, for the six people who remember Partners was a thing that existed). I assume we’ll be seeing more of him in future episodes, since even a lesser Superman doesn’t just stop by for a two-minute scene.
- Pam Oliver has some relatively good comedic timing in the episode, mostly because her fictional version seems confused about why she’s even there. “Coming to you on Fox Sports Southeast Daytime, not HD, limited-view! ... Anyone watching this?”
- Best sequence of the episode: the headslaps between the Hill brothers at the bar, kicking off with a slap on Randy (“That’s for never understanding anything!”) and ending on a double-slap on Pete after he calls himself a hero for the umpteenth time. It really speaks to the easy chemistry the three actors playing the brothers have formed in such a short time.
- Great to see Mel Rodriguez’s Chubowski return after being absent the first two episodes. Hopeful he’ll a more regular presence in the unit going forward.
- Cody’s lack of interest in dealing with everyday issues is delightful. Randy: “I’ve got some thoughts about this.” Cody: “Could this be put in a letter that I won’t read?”
- “Oh, how quickly I remember why this rivalry steams my trousers!”
- “That movie would’ve been better than Jaws and The Little Mermaid combined!”
- “Thank you Mom’s boyfriend!” “You’re welcome... Mom’s kid!”
- “Where I come from, Plan B is where you leave your baby daughter in the woods during bear season.”